How do you solve a problem like North Korea?

SEOUL —

The U.N. Security Council has been here before… several times: debating how to punish North Korea for—as Pyongyang would have it—reacting to the last time it got punished.

North Korea flagged its Feb 12 nuclear test three weeks in advance in an official statement released by the National Defence Commission, the country’s top military body.

But the countdown really began two months ago when the North launched a long-range rocket and set in motion a now-familiar chain of events that was always going to end in an underground chamber at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

The international community condemned the launch and the U.N. imposed sanctions, which North Korea then used as justification for conducting an atomic test.

An almost identical pattern was followed for the North’s two previous nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

The U.N. Security Council is certain to impose fresh or tightened sanctions on Pyongyang after the latest test, but most experts agree that the sanctions route—until now—has been largely ineffective.

“Getting unanimous Security Council consensus on another resolution doesn’t even send a signal anymore if we are designating North Korean entities or individuals that cannot be effectively sanctioned,” said U.S. academic and researcher Stephan Haggard.

“Indeed, it is worse: ritualised U.N. action is corrosive of our credibility because it continually paints red lines that we are forced to repaint,” Haggard said.

The option of significantly upping the sanctions ante with wider and more punitive measures—especially on financial institutions dealing with North Korea—is restricted by China.

As Pyongyang’s sole major ally and economic benefactor, China has always sheltered the North from the tough measures the United States would like to see the UN impose.

While Beijing’s patience with its recalcitrant neighbor is clearly wearing very thin, it is not about to support any action that might put the North in danger of collapse.

Most analysts, therefore, argue for a strategic re-think that throws out the old North Korea playbook and looks for a realistic long-term solution.

For some, like Andrei Lankov, a North Korean expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, this means accepting the unpalatable truth that North Korea cannot be prevented from becoming a fully-fledged nuclear weapons state.

“The pipe dream of denuclearisation should be discarded; arms control is the only attainable goal,” said Lankov.

“The aim should be to reach an arms control agreement which implicitly accepts North Korea’s claim to being a nuclear power, while also limiting the size of its nuclear arsenal,” Lankov said.

But North Korea has a long record of reneging on agreements, as Lankov himself admits, and such an approach would be vulnerable to accusations of appeasement, especially in U.S. and South Korean domestic political circles.

One of the main challenges of North Korea’s historical use of brinkmanship to earn concessions, is that it makes engagement with Pyongyang seem less like realpolitik and more like reward for provocation.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, believes a “new formulation” is necessary to break the provocation-engagement cycle.

“A strategy of engagement that does not reward the test but seeks to moderate the regime’s behavior through sustained dialogue may be most productive going forward,” Albright said.

Before the North’s rocket launch in December, 2013 had looked like a year full of opportunity for such a dialogue and resurrecting the six-party talks with the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

South Korea, China and Japan were undergoing leadership transitions, while U.S. President Barack Obama was about to start his second term.

Many felt this offered the chance of a fresh start with Pyongyang, working off a blank slate, with new faces and renewed energy.

But the rocket launch and then the nuclear test have made resuming any sort of meaningful dialogue all but impossible—at least in the short term.

For South Korean president-elect Park Geun-Hye, who takes office in a week, campaign promises of greater engagement with Pyongyang will now have to be shelved for fear of inciting the hawks in her conservative party.

In the meantime, some analysts suggest the best way forward is to ignore Pyongyang completely for a while, and focus instead on building a consensus between the main outside players.

“There are signs that China is listening more to US concerns about North Korea’s nuclear provocation,” said Albright.

“The goal must be the United States developing common positions with China, along with South Korea and Japan, making it harder for North Korea to play China against the United States,” he added.

© 2013 AFP

Author Infomation

Giles Hewitt
Giles Hewitt
  • -14

    FPSRussia

    How do you solve a problem like North Korea?

    The answer is you don't.

    First you solve the problem in yourself. You stop seeing them as a problem and begin to recognize them as human beings.

    Ask the right question, how can we improve our relationship with a group of human beings that we disagree with?

  • -7

    kurisupisu

    I agree-the more (artificial) divisions we set up the more that people suffer.

    North Korea is the result of superpower division that was used to fund massive investments in armaments.

    We should remember that North Korea was bombed in the name of capitalism

  • 2

    mrmalice

    umh, it does sound demeaning to refer to a whole nation as 'a problem'. I also don't think forcing someone with very little to lose is the way to go here. On the other hand, having someone terrorize you is ofcourse not an option either. People in positions of power who are capable and willing to keep it real and dont have their heads up their , uh, pants and too many people licking their feet around them might be required. An apology might be a good start towards those, and i'm sure there are some, who see this mostly as an attempt by the united states to not lose their already overstretched grasp on staying the number one military power in the world. My guess is China isnt really willing to intervene on behalf of either since keeping the u.s. from gaining absolute military intrest is ofcourse also in their own intrest. On the other hand, the nuclear threat of a nation in trouble is very real and any escalation will , due to fallout and what not exceed the borders of where it happened. I think they're in for a long painful process where one step forward is followed by 1.5 or two back so perseverance will be needed as well as very cautious diplomacy so as to not push the ones who are back to the wall while in the mean time not giving too much opportunity to abuse. I don't think this 'situation', like any other major problem has a simple presentable solution. The past would need to let go of the present first, that's for sure.

  • 1

    m6bob

    The only way to handle the problem with NKorea is via China. If the latter puts it's own interest above everything else, there is no moving forward. China will not listen to anybody, so in other words, there is no solution to the problem. What can nudge China from this 'comatose state' is when Japan announces to the world that it has decided build it's own nuclear weapons. The rest of the world can then only sit back and watch the beginning of a nuclear Cold War scenario in East Asia.

  • 3

    AKBfan

    2 options: 1. The rational way would be to leave them to their own devices and stop obsessing over their policies. They are surely no real danger to the US and any attempt to invade S Korea would be easily rebuffed. 2. The gung ho way is to bomb them back to the Stone Age (although that is not much further back than where they are now).

    The current middle way of loud voices and sanctions is clearly not working.

  • 3

    Frungy

    The answer is simple, you make North Korea officially part of China. China is already a nuclear power, so the nuclear issue disappears. China would be officially responsible for North Korea's actions.

    ... and before anyone yowls about giving China more territory, well, North Korea is already China's puppet state, but with deniability. As a result China uses North Korea as a proxy agitator whenever they want something. All this would do is remove the veil and reveal the puppeteer.

  • 2

    Jimizo

    China is clearly losing patience with The DPRK and according to leaks wouldn't in principle be against a united Korea as long as there are no US forces on the Korean/Chinese border. Whether the South wants a united Korea is a very different matter...China clearly fears huge numbers of North Koreans flooding across the border in the event of a regime change and this seems to be its main concern. To call China North Korea's 'puppeteer' is not supportable. A mindset which sees China as the enemy, although many criticisms are valid, will only distance ourselves from the only power capable of influencing Pyonyang.

  • 2

    Ichiro20

    I think we should not be hypocrite by looking at the real situation. The only way to rescue the people of north korea is to find a way to put down their leaders. But NK leaders has a very tough backbone, it's China. Probably, their leaders would use their own people to protect their own lives, so definitely, this is gonna be a bloody war.

    It would be lucky if they surrender, but that is just not happening anytime soon.

  • -2

    Peter Payne

    Nice Sound of Music reference in this article title!

  • 2

    Frungy

    JimizoFeb. 18, 2013 - 12:51PM JST To call China North Korea's 'puppeteer' is not supportable

    North Korea is reliant on China for power, food, weapons, technology... the list is endless. Are you honestly so naive that you think that China gives this aid for free and with no strings attached? Or do you just think that it is a mysterious coincidence that North Korea's actions so often benefit China's political agenda, and that China so often volunteers as "neutral" ground for meetings between North Korea and Japan... and that talks there inevitably go nowhere?

    North Korea is so much China's puppet that if you put an X-ray of Kermit and North Korea's leader side-by-side it would be hard to tell the difference.

  • 1

    Elbuda Mexicano

    CHINA gives NOTHING for FREE, as Frungy so eloquently points out. The Chinese used "human waves" of poor Chinese "soldiers" more like peasants with sticks in the shape of rifles, to fight against the USA, that was forced into supporting South Korea, to "Unite the Chinese against one common enemy" and hey, if they could make hundreds of thousands of Chinese peasants feel "heroic" by fighting against the USA, and help REDUCE their population of starving millions, little North Korea is just a tiny "pawn" for the games of big brother CHINA, so this whole problem is really about CHINA, not too much about the DPRK, that at the end of the day, only do what CHINA lets them do.

  • 1

    JeffLee

    Isolation. It worked against South Africa, Cuba, and Red China (during the Cultural Revolution).

    Cut all assistance and ties and then just leave them to fester.

  • -7

    FPSRussia

    Why not try Love and Respect? Or have you forgotten these ideas are to the human condition?

    Leave them to fester? You look down on these people just as much as their leaders might. 90% of your debate is based on speculative rhetoric that suits your national interests.

    I say lift ALL sanctions and treat them as a nation. It was Japan after all that divided them in the first place.

  • -5

    FPSRussia

    *edit Or have you forgotten how important these ideas are to the human condition?

  • 0

    sidesmile

    "Get rid of" all the undesirable elements..all in one go if possible..open up the DMZ and lets get in there and help folks up off the floor.

  • 0

    Jimizo

    @Frungy You must have a different understanding of 'puppet' to me. So was the nuclear test carried out on the orders of Beijing? North Korea must be a very naughty puppet. I said in my post that China is the only power which has the influence to see a change of direction in North Korea. It clearly didn't approve of the nuclear tests and patience is wearing thin. I'm under no illusion or being 'naive' about NK's reliance on China, but your puppet image is a bit bizarre given recent events.

  • 0

    C Harald Hansen

    Well... I'm betting China would rather NK become part of the South. North Korea? what's that to them? Something they have to waste money on to prop up, because they don't want 100s of thousands of refugees knocking at their door.

  • 2

    Nessie

    Why not try Love and Respect? Or have you forgotten these ideas are to the human condition?

    Spoken like an abused wife in denial.

  • 1

    Frungy

    JimizoFeb. 18, 2013 - 04:45PM JST @Frungy You must have a different understanding of 'puppet' to me. So was the nuclear test carried out on the orders of Beijing? North Korea must be a very naughty puppet. I said in my post that China is the only power which has the influence to see a change of direction in North Korea. It clearly didn't approve of the nuclear tests and patience is wearing thin. I'm under no illusion or being 'naive' about NK's reliance on China, but your puppet image is a bit bizarre given recent events.

    I'm not really sure how to respond to this post, except to point out that diplomacy is the art of lying, which I had presumed everyone knew. China howls... but keeps up its food shipments to North Korea and reaps the benefits of increased tensions in Asia.

    Following this incident Japan and the U.S. will be forced to turn to China again to "intercede" with North Korea if they want to have any more diplomatic talks, since North Korea won't talk directly to these countries.This will lead to China demanding concessions in return for their intercession, such as the U.S. adopting a softer stance on the Senkakus or a concession somewhere else that is in China's interests.

    If you cannot see that China complains most loudly when things are going their way then perhaps you should pay a little more attention. While China is silent then that means that they REALLY lost a round in the game and are too proud to admit it or draw attention to it by protesting. When they complain it just means they're estabilishing plausible deniability.

  • 1

    Jimizo

    @Frungy That's exactly what I was saying. I was pointing out that the only route to change in NK is through China. However, you seemed to be intimating that NK's behaviour is orchestrated in Beijing as a means to further Chinese interests. Do you believe that?

  • 1

    Frungy

    JimizoFeb. 18, 2013 - 08:50PM JST @Frungy That's exactly what I was saying. I was pointing out that the only route to change in NK is through China. However, you seemed to be intimating that NK's behaviour is orchestrated in Beijing as a means to further Chinese interests. Do you believe that?

    I do. Think about it yourself, who ultimately benefits from most of North Korea's actions? Not North Korea. Their "sattelite launches" are inevitably failures, their "nuclear programme" has been going on for decades with very little in the way of results, and their attacks across the border are nothing more than skirmishes with not even a short-term strategic gain. However, China benefits tremendously from these actions, and the timing is suspiciously beneficial for China each time. China gives North Korea a great deal of aid. Now the Chinese are not known for giving something for nothing.

    What else could a logical person conclude? That China is helping North Korea out of the goodness of their hearts in return for nothing? Perhaps, but it is far more likely that China is calling the shots and rewarding North Korea.

  • 1

    gonemad

    I have to disagree with most of the posters here and with "common wisdom" in the western world. The key party to solve the conflict is not China, it is the US. You have to understand why NK is behaving the way it does, the deep-rooted fears which have their origin in the Korean war and which are vigorously kept alive by a regime which with the exception of the victory in war has virtually no other success to show. Practically all major cities had been extinguished in the war and the country only escaped a nuclear carpet bombing by a hair. As a result, the NK military has always sought to attain deterring capabilities against the US as their primary strategic objective and even more so since the opening of China to the West. From the NK perspective, China is an increasingly unreliable partner, which has lost it's interests from the cold war and could even go as far as to sacrifice the communist regime in favor of a better standing with the US. The more the pressure from China increases, the more the North will try to speed up it's programs to achieve the capability to send long-range nuclear missiles to the US.

    China, on the other hand, might quietly enjoy when NK barks up the big boy, but effectively has it's hands tied. There is not only the fears of the consequences of an uncontrolled collapse of the regime in NK or getting US troops next to it's borders. China for sure has never had any interest to have a country with nukes in it's backyard.These nukes could ultimately be directed against China as well.

    What can be done? On the one hand the US can continue to raise the pressure. As in the past, it won't be effective without China. Getting China into the boat would increase the danger of panic reactions. Furthermore, it's a race against time. From my point of view, a dangerous conception.

    The alternative is to build up trust. Given the tainted public opinion in both countries, this is best started through secret diplomacy. In the end, the US has to make some real concessions like a peace treaty in exchange for nuclear disarmament. Lifting sanctions at some point on the way will not only help to establish trust. It will also provide a means for Kim Jong-Un to open up the country economically, which is almost impossible under the current circumstances. A political opening without any economic perspective simply will not happen.

  • -3

    FPSRussia

    @gonemad. You are talking as if the U.S is NK's neighbor. We are not. Japan lives next door. It's time Japan solve its own problems.

    I can't believe that Japanese, Chinese and Koreans can't come to terms given how much you look alike and the common culture that you share. You wanted Cain and Abel, man you got it and you got it bad.

    You may deny the physical resemblance that fact is its true. NK is behind in everything. You need to trade with them. You need to share the technology we have today with them. You need to set up Little Tokyo and Chinatown there. Send your best Ambassadors who respect others.

    It's the only way. Don't try to interfere in how their government operates. Start at the grassroots level.

    The problem is very evident by all the negative clicks on my post. I'm talking about love and respect and your are downing it. I'm Fix-It Felix Jr. and most of you want to wreck it. Hell bent on destruction, are we?

    Open Japan's doors to North Koreans. Invite them over. Let them see a better side of you as Japanese and I guarantee the healing will begin.

  • 1

    gonemad

    @FPSRussia, I've not been talking about Japan at all. First and foremost this conflict is and has always been a conflict between the US and NK. Japan must try to come to terms with NK, of course, but until there is some tangible progress, Japan should simply step back and wait. Wait quietly, without additional provocations. If Japan wants to do something, they can start with fighting the discrimination and harassment of the Zainichi.

  • 2

    cierzo98

    @FPSRussia

    Japan lives next door. It's time Japan solve its own problems.

    I can't believe that Japanese, Chinese and Koreans can't come to terms given how much you look alike and the common culture that you share. You wanted Cain and Abel, man you got it and you got it bad.

    You may deny the physical resemblance that fact is its true. NK is behind in everything. You need to trade with them. You need to share the technology we have today with them. You need to set up Little Tokyo and Chinatown there. Send your best Ambassadors who respect others.

    • is that a serious post? What on earth are you talking about? This situation has nothing to do with Japan as a neighbour (not exactly 'next door' either - check your school atlas if your school had one).. ..There is so much in your comments that is ridiculous that it's hard to know where to start. So Japan should share technology (which technology would be shared?) and have even more copywrite infringments than have been carried out by China? Sharing technology usually is a two way thing - maybe NK can help Japan with failed subsistence farming, steam trains technology, launching botched satellites into the sea or even precision mass dancing in funny coloured high waisted dresses. As for saying 'how much YOU look alike', who are the YOU that you talking to? Has it ocurred to you that this forum (in the English language) is really here for foreigners living in or related to Japan -except for a small few, you're not really talking to Japanese people here, and the majority ofreaders here niether physically resemble nor share the culture of North Koreans. In any case, you as an American perhaps look like a Frenchman, African or Mexican - does that mean you share common culture and can automatically trade with them by virtue of appearance? You've got to be joking. But I suppose you think everything not-American is just more of the same - it's all 'unamerican' therefore they can sort out their petty differences by having a drink and sharing their inferior tech. If you represent the USA maybe NK and China do have something to fear. But I think most Americans are a lot smarter than that.
  • 0

    AkariYoshida

    I would just stop all trading and associations with them then urge all other countries to do the same. they cant do anything without china supplying the technology anyways. but then again it would also effect the businesses and economy, but then again if north Korea wages a war that wont even matter

  • 1

    electric2004

    Send the A-team!

  • 0

    bokuwamo

    Any country has the right to have things their own way in their country. North Korea has shown that they want to be stupid with their shelling a couple of years ago, crazy stuff. Their launching of missiles and nuclear testing carelessly done. Than it become a world problem that should start with very strong moves to limit their financial resources and trading abilities. To have them realize they are effecting the rest of the world, not just their country.

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