An Approach to Managing North Korea

Introduction

With the signing of the ‘Initial Actions for Implementation of the September 19 Joint Statement’ on February 13, it seems that much of the tensions on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia that arose from North Korea’s missile launch in July and nuclear test in October 2006 have subsided. In addition, the five working groups of the Six-Party Talks are continuing their discussions. And also on October 3, the Six-Party Talks released a joint statement on ‘Second-Phase Actions for the Implementation of the September 19 Joint Statement.’ Involved nations, including the Republic of Korea, assess that the recent agreements would serve as the turning point in achieving peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.

Moreover, with a joint declaration signed by the leaders of South and North Korea at their bilateral summit on October 4, expectations for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula are increasing. It may hint at a possibility for a fundamental shift in security structure on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia.

Despite these positive developments, pessimistic views still remain on whether North Korea will abide by the agreements and entirely give up its nuclear program including its HEU program, and whether North Korea will follow the rules of the international community and implement reforms geared toward an open-market economy. Suspicion still lingers due to North Korea’s repeated violation and ignorance of nuclear agreements, such as the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework and the 1992 Declaration of Denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

Both optimistic and pessimistic views held by outsiders on the North Korean issue are fundamentally due to the reclusive nature of the regime in Pyongyang. North Korea is the world’s most secluded and tightly veiled nation. Furthermore, the complex relationships between neighboring states - and different perceptions among them about North Korea’s ideological tendencies, political interests and reliability of related intelligence - make it difficult to assess the future of North Korea.

Despite these facts, we are all at a general consensus on the following statements. First, North Korea is perceived as a dangerous state. The North Korean regime has enhanced its military strength after the Korean War in order to forcefully unify the peninsula under the communist control. The Kim Jong Il regime has raised the threat by declaring the “military-first” policy and endeavoring to develop weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Furthermore, North Korea is consistently applying its strategy against the South to divide its public opinion and drive a wedge in the ROK-U.S. alliance by repeatedly demanding the withdrawal of USFK, cessation of ROK-U.S. combined military exercises, and nullification of the Armistice Agreement.

Second, North Korea is seen as a failed state. Not counting its military sector, North Korea has reached overall stagnation, and the view that unless it undertakes aggressive reforms and opens itself up it will not be able to maintain its system has already been suggested since the mid-1990s. This stagnation is evidenced by the gradual increase in the number of defectors from North Korea. There is a significant opposing view that even though North Korea is a failed state, it will not easily collapse because the adaptability of its people is well-developed, through a long period of internal difficulties, and because of the nations’s strong monitoring and controlling system to its civilian population.

Both the Republic of Korea and the United States have had concerns for a long time about how to manage such a North Korea. However, there are few positive assessments that we are managing North Korea in an effective manner. The future fate and courses of action of North Korea will have a decisive influence on the Korean peninsula and all of Northeast Asia. There may be no differences of opinion that it is the obligation of this generation to rationally analyze North Korea and come up with an effective solution. It is worthwhile to suggest a proper strategy for the ROK-U.S. alliance to manage North Korea. An effective strategy first requires a review of the current situation and projected change of the North Korean regime, an assessment of its external relations and strategic intent, and an understanding of perceptions and positions on North Korea of the Republic of Korea and other regional states.