An IDC Analysis by Eric Koo Peng Kuan*


New Delhi, 06 March 2005

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is playing psychological games again. Just a week ago, North Korea made the unprecedented announcement of possessing nuclear weapons, simultaneously also withdrawing suddenly from the six party nuclear talks.

The situation is ironic and almost comic. The disarmament talks are aimed at making North Korea abandon its nuclear program. Yet it is precisely the possibility of possession of a nuclear weapon that has allowed North Korea, a small and impoverished country, to bargain with military giants like USA, Russia and China, holding at bay also its traditional enemies, South Korea and Japan. Instead, all these players are forced to adopt relatively accommodative tones at the negotiating table. The USA, especially, with its prior record of having forced the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction on Iraq, is particularly embarrassed that North Korea is not exactly abiding by its wishes nor playing according to the rules. 

Without the nuclear bargaining chip, North Korea is merely another third world country. Even in demographics, it does not even measure up to its neighbour and rival, South Korea. The latter has more than twice North Korea’s population, 29 times its GDP, and 13.7 times individual purchasing power parity.

Added to which is the old historical problem of the ceasefire after the technically unresolved Korean War –– there was no formal peace treaty signed at the war’s end. Lacking a thriving modern economy, North Korea runs the risk of state collapse and regime change, if it ever loses its control on nuclear arms.

The North Korean regime presided over by Kim Jong Il is very similar to a warlord fief run by the junfa of Republican China in the 1910s to 1920s. The illusion of a strong military dictatorial rule, when stripped of its allure, reveals an under-developed and neglected nation run on lines akin to martial law. North Korea’s lack of international credibility also makes non-state investors hesitant to invest in the isolated nation.

North Korea will not be disarming simply because there is no rational reason for it to do so. The risk of not having a nuclear arm is even higher than having one. The six party national talks had solved nothing at all, because each nation had its own national interests and agenda. Russia and China were anxious to maintain a stable regime in Pyongyang and the status quo. Japan was concerned and alarmed with the nuclear threat. The USA wanted to withdraw its military commitments to South Korea on justifiable grounds of the non-existence of a security threat. As for South Korea, is it willing to unify peacefully with North Korea through the inevitability of history, like the collapse of the Berlin Wall that led to the re-unification of East and West Germany?

Such a scenario of peaceful re-unification may sound touching and ideal, but the great economic disparities would mean economic chaos and a sudden drop in the standard of living in South Korea. Widespread unemployment will without doubt, increase.

Equally, the fictional scenario painted by novelist Larry Bond in his book Red Phoenix, in which Pyongyang took advantage of student rioting and a failed military coup in Seoul to stage a second Korean war, is a bit far fetched in reality. For one thing, China and Russia will not stand by and do nothing, as these countries also have economic and political interests to protect.

Negotiating with North Korea will not work, as this sudden withdrawal from Pyongyang has proven, nor will ceding concessions to it at the negotiating table. It is simply a waste of time. Short of a violent war, which is unthinkable, the only other way is for North Korea to adopt reforms from internal process. The other five parties, if they sincerely wish to break this diplomatic stalemate, must engage heavily in foreign direct investments into North Korea, thereby helping to initiate and spur social changes that will bring the inevitable progress of history on the isolated Stalinist state.

* The writer holds a Masters degree in ‘Science in Strategic Studies’ from the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies (IDSS). He currently writes commentaries and analytical articles on international affairs, security issues and terrorism for newspapers.

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