Although most eyes are focused on Iran and Syria as the highest-risk areas for military conflict in the near term, North Korea remains worryingly close to the center of war planners’ desks. While the possession (and feared proliferation) of nuclear weapons and the “unpredictability” of the North Korean government are the issues typically raised by media reporting, a January briefing published by the East Asia Institute in Seoul offers, in its long-term, pragmatic, and ultimately hopeful tone, a needed corrective to such unrelentingly dour perspectives. Its authors, a panel chaired by Young-Sun Ha of Seoul National University, argue that the new regime of Kim Jong-un will face short-term constraints on its ability to make significant policy changes, but that over the next ten years it has an opportunity to stabilize and secure its regime by moving away from its present “military first” policy, ending its international isolation, and, eventually, turning itself into a “model country”. Such change is possible through the development of a “North Korean way” of reform, and through a sustained engagement with its southern neighbour. For its part, South Korea has an essential role to play in championing this process amid the broader agendas of the great powers:
U.S.-China relations will be the most critical variable that determines the future of the Korean Peninsula for at least the next 10 years. North Korea, and more broadly the Korean Peninsula, is a stage of competition and conflict between the two countries: a rising China trying to make East Asia as its base for peaceful development and a relatively declining United States which seeks to restore its regional hegemonic influence. The conflict between Washington and Beijing in 2010 settled down following the U.S.-China summit meeting in January 2011. The United States agreed to respect China’s “core interests” and China acknowledged the U.S. policy to reengage the region…
When there is conflict between the United States and China over the North Korean issue, South Korea should not take an opportunistic approach which would certainly end in failure. Rather, Seoul should be able to persuade both Washington and Beijing by using the North Korea issue to highlight that if both sides insist upon their own blueprint for East Asian architecture, all the countries in the region including them will suffer. South Korea, as a middle power at the heart of the architecture of the great powers, should find its own way to establish a new vision that benefits all stakeholders in the region.
Read the full briefing here.