by Markus Bell & Geoffrey Fattig
Following the news today that North Korea has successfully tested another nuclear device, the international community is currently working to implement measures to ensure it is Pyongyang’s last.
Under the aegis of the UN, the international community is preparing to voice its condemnation while imposing fresh sanctions on Kim Jung Un’s regime – but this is where the truth ends and unfounded optimism begins. As with the previous two nuclear tests and the ineffective – yet rhetorically pleasing – response on the part of the international community, this round of “sanctions and tightening of existing measures,” to quote American UN ambassador, Susan Rice, will have led to a great deal of ink being spilt while doing precious little to alter North Korea’s present course of action.
The 2006 nuclear test brought near unanimous condemnation from the global community. The economic effects were instantly seen, as a ripple of instability coursed its way through the Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese stock exchanges. Statements expressing ‘deep concern’ were issued from the most unexpected corners of the globe, including China, North Korea’s closest ally. Nevertheless, condemnation stopped short of calling for military intervention and, after a brief period of finger wagging, things returned to the status quo of unceasing missile and nuclear weapons development by the DPRK, and half-hearted engagement efforts on the part of the United States through the Six Party Talks.
In 2009 a similar sequence of events played out; following the nuclear test, the international community roundly condemned the actions of North Korea, condemnation was concomitant with further sanctions. Meanwhile, stock exchanges took a tumble, weapons were sold in larger quantities to South Korea, and Japan started investing in some hardware of its own in the form of a satellite early warning system.
In a game of swings and roundabouts, what factors could mark the aftermath of this test and its fallout (excuse the pun) as any different from what has come before? Two important questions need to be examined: first, will the Chinese finally decide to take the kind of tough steps that will get the attention of leaders in Pyongyang? Secondly, will the election of Park Geun-hye lead to any significant change in the inter-Korean relationship?
There are hopeful signs that China may be nearing the limit of its patience with its recalcitrant dependent. A recent editorial in the state-run Global Times called for reductions in aid should the North press ahead with its nuclear test. Given that China supplies roughly 90% of the DPRK’s fuel and energy, it is the sole player in the game that has real leverage over the North.While the present warnings suggest that times may be changing, if fears of regime collapse continue to trump worries over a nuclear North Korea, counting on the Chinese government to maximize its influence is a risky proposition at best.
The real catalyst for change could come from south of the DMZ. On February 25th, Park Geun-hye officially enters the Blue House; while campaigning, the President elect was reported as offering “hopeful generalities” in regards to relations with the North. “I plan to break with this black-or-white, appeasement-or-antagonism approach and advance a more balanced North Korea policy,” Park is reported as promising. The operative word here, of course, is “hopeful.” Until the latest back-and-forth invective following the missile test and UN sanctions, there were actually some positive signs coming from Pyongyang about re-engaging with its brethren in the South, including a prompt announcement of Park’s victory in North Korean media and Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech calling for “reconciliation” between the two sides.
The third nuclear test will be the first of many challenges for Park’s administration and could, for better or for worse, dictate South Korean policy towards the North for the next five years. Almost from the day he took office, outgoing President Lee Myung-bak painted himself into a corner in regards to North Korea, pursuing the misconceived idea that squeezing North Korea would force the regime to choose between weapons development and survival. Increased economic engagement with China on the part of the North rendered this strategy completely ineffective and ensured that many of the positive achievements of the ‘Sunshine Policy’ era were rolled back. The worst thing possible would be for President-elect Park to make the same mistake as her predecessor. In terms of inter-Korean dialogue and a possibility of seeing some concrete action towards the much idealised idea of reunification, an idea which persists despite the turmoil of the past 60 years, now is the time for engagement rather than stonewalling.
Given there is so much at stake in terms of peace and co-operation in Northeast Asia, let us hope the variable in how events play out this time will be the ‘balanced approach’ of Park. Let us hope the new South Korean leadership can break five years of stalemate with positive engagement, rather than empty saber-rattling. Let us hope “hopeful generalities” are more than they appear at first sight.