North Korea

Understanding the origins of war can pave a path to peace for North Korea

Andrew Leung proposes a long-term solution to satisfy all parties in the nuclear stand-off

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 May, 2013, 2:55am

As North Korea maintains its belligerence, the world is caught in a dilemma. Ignoring it as just another round of empty threats would run the risk of North Korea test-firing missiles with longer range and greater precision. It would also strengthen the regime's rhetoric for testing more deadly nuclear devices. Having another round of six-party talks without a game-changing solution is unlikely to end this farcical merry-go-round.

There is very little American appetite for a military option. What is more, any direct military intervention poses the risk of uncontrollable escalation and collateral damage to the North's neighbours. Understandably, this option is strongly opposed by South Korea, as much as by Russia and China.

Meanwhile, all eyes continue to be on China as the regime's closest ally and provider of its life-support system. China, however, is getting more and more nonplussed by the increasingly recalcitrant regime.

Admittedly, both Russia and China don't want a nuclear North Korea as this would trigger the positioning of nuclear weapons by Western allies near their borders. What is more, this would spread nuclear armament in the region and beyond. For China, the added fear is a nuclear Japan.

However, if China turns off North Korea's life support and the regime collapses, there will be millions of hungry refugees invading China's borders, a humanitarian disaster.

For China, North Korea may act as a buffer and a useful bargaining chip against the West. But a North Korean regime collapse is not necessarily all bad for China. If it should come to pass, it is likely that China, rather than America, would become more influential in deciding whether a collapsed North Korea is going to be united with South Korea and, if so, on what terms. These could include a demand by China that the US should withdraw all its forces from the peninsula after unification.

All these explain China's ambivalence. Nevertheless, it begs the question whether a negotiated long-term settlement is possible. Could North Korea be persuaded to give up nuclear weapons once and for all in a credible, verifiable way, in return for an iron-clad, long-term guarantee for its sovereignty and security?

In The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote in 431BC that wars generally originated from fear, honour and profit, the three basic needs of peoples and nations - put another way, security, identity and prosperity. A multilateral treaty providing North Korea with both security guarantees and economic assistance is likely to satisfy the regime on these three counts.

First, nuclear weapons is only a means to an end. North Korea hangs on to its atomic bomb out of fear of national security. So Pyongyang is unlikely to give up the bomb if that fear is not adequately addressed.

A formal multilateral treaty, with all the key players guaranteeing North Korea's security, abolishing all sanctions, providing funds and investment to spur economic development, and opening up prospects for its eventual entry into the World Trade Organisation, would seem a sufficiently attractive proposition to all sides.

Second, if North Korea manages to secure the above deal, it would be a great boost to its national dignity and pride - honour for the North Korean leadership and the people.

Third, as regards profit, a key component of the suggested deal is the provision of funds and investment, to build much needed infrastructure. Together with the prospects of admission to the WTO, this would translate into huge profit for the North Korean nation. The examples of Vietnam and Myanmar come to mind.

The proposed settlement should be attractive to the US if North Korea accepts verifiable and total nuclear disarmament. It would remove at a stroke a major security threat to America's regional allies and a possible nuclear threat, however remote, to the US homeland. Moreover, it promises to lock North Korea into a path of benign economic development embracing WTO norms.

It should be welcomed by China and Russia as it would remove the perennial worry of a regional spread of nuclear weapons and the consequential likelihood of deployment of US tactical weapons near their borders. Additionally, a peaceful and economically active North Korea would open up more opportunities for China to extend its economic clout.

Similarly, the idea should be attractive to Japan, as another potential trading partner would be vastly better than a nuclear menace. It would be ideal for South Korea as it would pave the way for peaceful unification.

There is no guarantee that the North Korean regime would immediately agree to this settlement. However, with so much at stake for all sides, the idea may at least be worth a try. If the dangerous game of chicken is not to be repeated until the rogue regime actually possesses long-range nuclear-armed missile delivery capabilities, a long-term solution seems both doable and timely.

Andrew K. P. Leung is an international and independent China specialist based in Hong Kong