North Korea: What is to be done?

An attorney of my experience was involved in a case throughout which the opposing party treated him, his team, and client with remarkable discourtesy in every interaction. At the final meeting settling the case, the arbitrating authority referred directly to my acquaintance’s continued fortitude and courtesy, saying:

“I believe you to be real ladies and gentlemen; you have paid for that, and you will continue to pay it for the rest of your lives.”

This interaction comes strongly to mind as North Korea plays the recalcitrant opponent to South Korea and the broader international establishment, expressing its scorn in the form of artillery shells and dead South Korean soldiers, while the regional establishment in general, and South Korea in particular, must simply weather the outrage.

The reasons why this appalling skirmish is unlikely to escalate into a full-scale war have been well-articulated, and are sound; the North Korean military command is certainly belligerent but its colonels are not so mad that they would start a full-scale war that could end with their deaths, or at least a reduction of their material wealth and power, out of sheer bloody-mindedness.


It seems likely that the relevant officers are simply poking the South Koreans (and, by extension, the United States and the regional establishment of Japan, China, and Russia) in the eye.

North Korea is the Land of Bad Options for the international community. The regional powers (and the United States) have almost no coercive leverage on the North Koreans, as the Korean People’s Army is over 1.2 million men strong (South Korea’s, by contrast, is just over 600,000), with a reserve force of almost 8.5 million, and has been improving its defensive position since the end of the Korean War.

Further, while the old saw that North Korean artillery could flatten Seoul in half an hour might not be strictly true, it could certainly wreak terrible devastation on South Korea’s capital in short order in the event of serious hostilities. This means that the international community can undertake no military escalation short of total war that the North Koreans cannot match.

It is possible for the international community to threaten to cut off food aid to North Korea (indeed, one of the motivating factors behind the North Korean attack might be a South Korean refusal to send food aid as a condition of reuniting families separated by the war), but the North Korean authorities have never balked at allowing their citizens to suffer before, and, in any case, it is not clear that starving North Korean civilians is an appropriate response to their government’s aggression.

Instead, there are two courses open to the South Koreans and the international community at large – ignore the North Koreans, or try to motivate good behavior (in this case, ‘good’ = ‘not bad’) by offering the North Korean government something it needs, namely money and food, of which the country is in horrifyingly short supply.

The first option is appealing but impractical in the long run; as the last week has seen, the North Korean government will get attention one way or the other. The second option might be more practical; a resumption of the Six Party Talks (which could lead to an agreement whereby the North Koreans are effectively paid, in money and aid, not to develop nuclear weapons) and escalation of food (and financial) aid on the condition that the regime behave itself could settle things down.

This option seems to fly in the face of moral justice, as it would amount to paying the North Koreans not to do things they should not do anyway, and would have the appearance of rewarding the North Koreans for killing South Koreans (as it would almost certainly be billed in Pyongyang). It would, however, deepen the regime’s dependence on the international community for the elite’s wealth and the basic survival of its people, a condition that strengthens the hand of South Korea, America, Japan, et al., in the long run.

In some respects, managing the North Korean regime is rather like the British government negotiating with Irish republican separatists in the days leading up to and following the Downing Street Declaration and the Good Friday Agreement; talks continued, in one way or another, in spite of attempts to by various elements of the Irish separatists to derail them, in large part because the British government would not be baited into breaking them off, weathering outrage after outrage to keep the process alive.

While the parallel is hardly exact, it is useful to the think of the North Koreans not as a monolithic actor (in spite of their authoritarian regime), but as a rather opaque jumble of actors with their own priorities. Sometimes, dealmakers will be in the ascendant, sometimes troublemakers, with their attendant outrages.

Through it all, the South Koreans and the international community must exercise almost superhuman grace and patience while keeping the negotiation process alive. They have no other real choice.

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  • Dan McCurry

    The comparison with Northern Ireland doesn’t offer much illumination. “Appeal to the moderates and sideline the agitators” is a policy you refer to and it is as old as the British Empire.
    However, in this case we don’t seem to know who are the moderates and who are the agitators or how to appeal to one set and sideline the other.
    So although you’re right in saying that we have something they want, food and money, you’re failing to recognise that there is a further position to achieve. NAmely; to figure out how we can discover who these various parties are.
    If we could make that connection, then the comparision with NI would be more appropriate.

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  • Frank

    Fair point, Dan, in that the parallel between Northern Ireland and North Korea is very far from exact. My point here is that we tend to have different expectations in dealing with recalcitrant state actors than we have when dealing with non-state actors, and that the international establishment would be wise to adjust its expectations in this case – essentially, South Korea, US, et al. should have a higher threshold for outrageous behavior, and be more willing to accept that simply having a process is sometimes an end unto itself with North Korea.
    On your point about seeking better intelligence about who the players are in the North Korean regime and how they interact – spot on.

  • J.J

    Two father and son are running their fial destiny – destroy.
    North korean people want “war” than “starving”..