North Korean nuclear tests

On North Korea, persuasion must be the tactic of choice

Lee Byong-chul revisits debate on regime change after latest nuclear test

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 1:29am

Sometimes North Korea resembles the last gulag in an era of globalisation. Other times, it's like the latest battleground of a post-cold war era. Despite warnings from the US and China, North Korea audaciously conducted its third nuclear test on Tuesday, as it had promised it would.

The totalitarian state, which carried out nuclear weapons tests in 2006 and 2009, pushed the 15-nation UN Security Council to convene an emergency meeting. With the possibility of "significant action" looming over the latest nuclear test, fundamental debates over whether North Korea is ripe for regime change have come to the fore again.

Indeed, for a few decades now, regime change has been a staple of much conservative thinking, with analysts claiming that the Kim dynasty is on the brink of collapse.

Yet, there is a strong possibility that these conservative voices are wrong. First, there is the resilience of the unique North Korean political system, demonstrated by the history of the past 60 years.

By the late 1990s, its economy was on the brink of collapse. During the darkest days, North Korea suffered from natural and man-made disasters, mass starvation caused by food shortages and a series of economic policy failures, as well as tension over the nuclear stand-off with the United States and neighbouring countries, including South Korea. Famine threatened to engulf the nation. And yet, the Korean Workers' Party and the military, the main pillars supporting the rickety regime, continue to exist in a mutually beneficial symbiosis.

It is generally felt that young Kim Jong-un has been consolidating his leadership in the months since his father Kim Jong-il's sudden death in December 2011. Kim Jong-un appears more moderate and pragmatic than his father or grandfather, Kim Il-sung, although his whim is still the law.

The big question is whether North Korea is currently facing the worst time in its history. If so, then the demise of the regime may not be far off. On a micro level, the situation may seem pre-apocalyptic, recalling the flood of refugees in the war-torn 1950s. But, in reality, things are not so gloomy. On a macro level, Pyongyang seems most concerned with how the lead time of its advanced nuclear weapons programme can be shortened.

From North Korea's perspective, going nuclear is the only path towards establishing a peace treaty with the US after hammering out the unfinished Korean war. The sad truth is that North Korea doesn't yet see the UN Security Council resolutions (1718, 1874, and 2087) as a red line. Surviving on a diet of anti-American belligerence, Pyongyang has long been willing to risk having its nuclear dossier referred to the council. At the same time, North Korea relies on nuclear blackmail in its struggles to deal with the US directly on political and national security affairs, while limiting the role of South Korea to a mere provider of economic assistance.

Kim Jong-un is a Gatsby-like dreamer, a street-smart man whose strategic hopes are to build a world-class nuclear nation. But he's not suicidal; he knows for certain what a deadline is, and he understands about regime change.

If history is any guide, his big ambitions have no chance of becoming reality. In the end, the international community, including South Korea, the US and China, should make it easier for the untested political novice to talk about the denuclearisation of North Korea without constraints.

Instead of humiliating or coercing North Korea in public, a dramatic breakthrough-like engagement should be both the beginning and the end of diplomacy.

Lee Byong-chul, a senior fellow with the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul, was formerly on the foreign and national security policy planning staff at the Presidential Office of South Korea from 1993 to 1999