As international relations scholar Kenneth Waltz said, states seek survival above all else. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is no exception.
The DPRK conducted two nuclear tests, one in 2006 and the other in 2009, and despite the huge international pressure it exchanged fire with the Republic of Korea (ROK) over Yeonpyeong Island in late 2010. These incidents worsened the DPRK’s ties with the United States, Japan and the ROK. But these seemingly “irrational” actions by the DPRK were decided by its security concerns, for it lacks a sense of security.
On the international front, former US president George W. Bush labeled the DPRK as part of the “axis of evil” and even threatened preemptive strikes against it. Through sanctions and various other means, the US has tried to topple the DPRK government.
Japan and the ROK have just followed the US’ policy toward the DPRK. Lee Myung-bak, president of the ROK, abandoned the “sunshine policy” of his predecessor and adopted a hard line toward the DPRK. Japan, too, has played an important role in imposing sanctions on the DPRK. And US-Japan and US-ROK joint military drills targeting the DPRK have become routine affairs.
Domestically, economic hardship of the past two decades and its widening gap with the ROK are the two biggest concerns of the DPRK. And after Kim Jong-il’s sudden death, many Western observers doubt whether Kim Jong-un can lead the DPRK out of its difficulties. So any provocative action from outside will deepen the DPRK’s sense of insecurity.
The DPRK has been developing its military forces in an effort to gain security guarantee from major powers, but its weapons are still no match for that of the US and the ROK. The asymmetry of nuclear weapons’ deterrence made the DPRK develop its nuclear program, which it sees essential for its survival.
But the more resolute the DPRK is in developing its nuclear weapons, the bigger a threat it becomes for the US, the ROK and Japan, which take more measures to contain it. So it’s high time the DPRK and its rivals came out of this vicious circle.
The DPRK doesn’t turn to Russia or China for military support to safeguard its national security. Also, the DPRK feels that the US alone has the intention and capacity both to change its government. It knows full well, too, that Japan and the ROK just follow the US on Northeast Asian issues. Kim Jong-un, as well as the DPRK government and army, will believe that outside threat has eased only if he gets a security guarantee from the US.
After the end of the Cold War era, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il tried to normalize diplomatic relations with and get a “no-attack” guarantee from the US. For all we know, the tenure of Kim Jong-un could turn out to be the same.
Perhaps the DPRK wants security guarantee and nuclear weapons both. And if it does not get any one of them, the DPRK will continue to feel threatened. So it is up to the countries that the DPRK considers a threat, including the US, to give it a security guarantee and defuse the situation. Otherwise, it will be impossible to resolve the DPRK nuclear issue no matter how many rounds of Six-Party Talks are held.
But can the DPRK nuclear issue be resolved in steps?
Kim Jong-un’s priority in the near future would be to maintain domestic stability. The new leader will accord little attention to foreign affairs in the initial phases, and he needs time to gain more experience in dealing with such issues.
The Barack Obama administration is hostile toward the DPRK, and the US media still sees the DPRK as “evil”. And it is difficult for the Obama administration to change its anti-DPRK policy overnight, especially because the US presidential election is likely to make the DPRK a more complicated problem for the US.
As the only superpower, the US is involved in many issues in different regions. But for the US, the DPRK nuclear issue is less urgent than the Middle East and the war against terrorism. Hence, Washington is likely to adopt a “wait-and-see” policy toward Pyongyang. It wants to observe the developments in the DPRK for some more time after the Kim Jong-il’s death. Besides, Washington knows that controllable uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula can push Tokyo and Seoul closer to it.
But since public opinion against the DPRK is strong in Japan and the ROK, and given the two countries’ nature of relationships with the US, Tokyo and Seoul have to continue following Washington in dealing with Pyongyang.
China, for its part, is endeavoring to resolve the DPRK nuclear issue once and for all to build a peaceful neighborhood for its economic development. But since the Northeast Asia region is very complicated, it is impossible for China alone to resolve the issue, because Beijing’s influence over Pyongyang is limited. So without knowing the true intentions of the US, it is extremely difficult for China to cooperate with it.
China has made great efforts to maintain the status quo on the Korea Peninsula, if not for anything else then to at least prevent tensions from escalating. But the US’ attitude and policy remain crucial to resolving the DPRK issue.
From the geopolitical point of view, tensions – even war – on the Korean Peninsula cannot threaten the US or its core national interests, considering the limited capacity of the DPRK. But the DPRK can pose a threat to the ROK and Japan. So it is more important for the ROK and Japan to resolve the DPRK nuclear issue urgently. That’s why instead of blindly following Washington’s policy on the issue, Japan and the ROK should urge the US to realize the DPRK’s security concerns.
And the most suitable strategy for Japan and the ROK to resolve the DPRK nuclear issue is to cooperate with China, for without China’s help there can be no resolution.
The author Wang Junsheng is a research scholar at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
(China Daily 01/05/2012 page9)