What North Korea Tells Us About the International System
By Mark Beeson

What North Korea Tells Us About the International System

Mar. 01, 2016  |     |  0 comments

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is remarkable in many ways. Not only is it the last Stalinist regime on the planet, but it is also seemingly immune to either threats or persuasion. Neither China the closest thing the dynastic Kim regime has to a friend or ally nor the United States, have been able to change the way the DPRK actually behaves. It is in short, the quintessential “rogue state”, but one that the so-called “international community” has proved incapable of influencing.

In part, of course, this is because there is actually no such thing as the international community to act in the first place. The very fact that the world’s two most important states China and the US have such different views about how to deal with North Korea means that there is little possibility of genuine agreement about how to influence the DPRK’s behavior. These kinds of divisions have made multilateral forums like the United Nations notoriously incapable of addressing key security problems, except when there are rare moments of unanimity on the Security Council.

In East Asia itself there are a number of initiatives and organizations that ought to be well placed to deal with issues like the divided Korean peninsula. The 6 Party Talks, which occasionally burst back into life, involve all of the key players the two Koreas, China, the US, Japan and Russia in a seemingly interminable quest to try and manage or even end North Korea’s destabilizing nuclear weapons program. The fact these talks have dragged on for more than a decade and are currently in abeyance illustrates the difficulty of dealing with a state that sees the possession of nuclear weapons as fundamental source of regime security and a potential bargaining chip.

The 6 Party Talks are not the only potential vehicle with which to manage potential security flashpoints like North Korea, however. On the contrary, the broader Asia-Pacific region has its own longstanding multilateral forum that ought to be well placed to deal with this issue. After all, the ASEAN Regional Forum includes all of the major players with a stake in bringing stability to the Korean peninsula, including the DPRK itself. The reality, however, is that the ARF has proved powerless and ineffective.

This is no surprise. The ARF subscribes to the so-called “ASEAN Way” of diplomacy and is consequently based on consensus, voluntarism and non-binding agreements. Face saving is more important than problem solving; dealing with issues like North Korea or the numerous regional territorial disputes for that matter might make members feel uncomfortable and are consequently best avoided. The all too predictable result is that the ARF’s record of achievement and conflict resolution is modest at best.

China and the US have such different views about how to deal with North Korea means that there is little possibility of genuine agreement.

Asian multilateralism has its merits, but it requires especially propitious circumstances to actually have an effect. Those observers who argue that the principal impact of ASEAN-inspired forms of multilateralism is to “socialize” its membership, build confidence and change behavior for the better, clearly have a point. The members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have been largely at peace with one another since ASEAN was inaugurated and the organization deserves some of the credit for this.

However, ASEAN’s modus operandi rather assumes the good will of its members and the possibility that they are actually responsive to having their collective mind changed about the merits of cooperation. This is plainly not the case with the DPRK. Successive members of the Kim dynasty have proved remarkably impervious to threats, incentives, or advice. Anything that threatens their despotic grip on power is stoutly resisted. The possession of nuclear weapons provides a formidable geopolitical backstop for a regime that lacks other forms of security and legitimacy.

This is not simply a problem on the Korean peninsula. Saddam Hussein’s big mistake in retrospect was not acquiring nuclear weapons before embarking on an aggressive expansion in such a geopolitically significant and sensitive region. Aspiring despots around the world have undoubtedly taken that lesson on board. You can quite literally get away with murder especially of your own people if you’ve got nuclear weapons, it seems.

And yet conventional strategic theory suggests that the Kim regime ought to be somewhat intimidated by the fact that its weapons systems are thankfully untested, possibly unreliable and, one would think, highly vulnerable to a first strike on the part of the US. Given the enormous military superiority of the US, it’s not unreasonable to ask why it doesn’t simply use its might to deal with a relatively puny, but highly irritating and potentially dangerous to its neighbors, at least state which has become a byword for despotism and human rights abuses.

Let me be clear, I am not advocating such a policy, merely considering what the failure to utilize these expensively developed weapons systems tells us about the way the strategic world works in the 21st century.

It is widely acknowledged that there is an effective stalemate between the world’s great powers who know that if they consider using them against each other, they are potentially committing suicide. This is especially true of anyone mad enough to think of attacking the US, of course. And yet, paradoxically enough, even minor despots from third-rate countries can hold the great powers to ransom, it seems.

But if the US wanted to, surely it could quite literally wipe North Korea off the map tomorrow and nobody most especially the North Koreans could or would do much about it. Would China want to risk starting World War 3 to avenge its increasingly unreliable and problematic ally? Would Russia? While there would be much justified international outrage about the actions of any American government undertaking such actions, my guess is that it would not translate into actual conflict between the major powers. The logic of deterrence would likely prevail.

To be rather cold-blooded about this, it’s probably not even necessary to kill everyone in North Korea to render this particular flashpoint inert. After all, the US has invested countless billions in developing highly accurate “smart bombs” that presumably could eliminate North Korea’s leadership pretty efficiently. No doubt there is some latter day Dr Strangelove advocating precisely such a policy somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon.

The US has invested countless billions in developing highly accurate "smart bombs" that presumably could eliminate North Korea's leadership pretty efficiently.

So why doesn’t America rid itself of this troublesome despot? One reason is that we’re fortunate enough to have Barack Obama in the White House. For all the criticism he currently receives as a consequence of his supposed procrastination, he’s clearly the sort of man who thinks carefully before he acts. Better Hamlet than Macbeth any day. We know only too well what decisive action can look like in practice: the Middle East is still suffering from George W. Bush’s calamitous efforts to bring democracy to Iraq.

But there is another, less tangible reason that this sort of cynical cold-blooded mass murder or political assassination is generally not undertaken: it would fly in the face of a long-standing belief in the US that it is an “exceptional” nation that is supposed to be a beacon for all that’s good and noble in the world. There are, of course, many examples where the US has violated its own principles and employed a fairly brutal form of realpolitik when pursuing its own geopolitical interests. Indeed, Obama’s frequent use of drones seems at odds with such principles. But is it really too fanciful to suggest that values and norms actually constrain the hand of even the most powerful actors? I think not.

All of this matters because the world is full of people who are clearly entirely uninhibited by “civilized” norms of behavior. Luckily, most of them don’t have access to weapons of mass destruction or not yet at least. Unfortunately, we can’t be certain that the next incumbent of the White House will be restrained by supposedly civilized norms either. If that day dawns, we really could inhabit the sort of amoral world that some of my peers in academia believe is the natural order of things.

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