We Need to Engage with North Korea

18 08 2011

by Danielle Chubb (The Australian, August 18, 2011)

THIS week marks the 66th anniversary of Korean independence. And yet while the peninsula may no longer be a colonial outpost, it is still divided and the ongoing existence of the DPRK regime continues to pose a potent security risk to northeast Asia.

The fact is, as Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd (quoted by Peter Alford in “Australia may be nuclear target: Kevin Rudd”, The Australian, July 23) and Greg Sheridan (“North Korea poised for nuclear weapon test next year”, The Australian, August 16) have reminded us, North Korea is a dangerous and belligerent state.

Usually cited as northeast Asia’s biggest wildcard and most unpredictable security threat, it is a country that is continuously cast in the role of a wildly irrational and dangerous international outcast. In the words of Sheridan, a nuclear weapons test next year by the DPRK “will bring us much closer to the day when North Korean nuclear weapons could threaten Australia”.

The reality, of course, is rather more complex. Useful and creative policymaking does not start with arousing public angst about a far-off and unlikely scenario that most serious security analysts do not even begin to entertain.

This type of scaremongering speaks to an unhelpful paradigm of conflict that has so far failed to convince North Korea to either disarm or to attend to a regime of non-proliferation. The security situation in northeast Asia remains fraught, and the unstable and tightly sealed North Korean hermit state continues to survive against all the odds. But a direct threat to Australia? Hardly.

Generally, given the nation’s status as an international sovereign state of mystery, journalists tend to veer away from the subject of North Korea. When it does hit the media, we are usually treated to what we are told are rare glimpses “behind the curtain” – photographs of North Korean people in the cities and countryside taken during heavily monitored tours.

These images reveal to the world that North Koreans are indeed real people who attend markets and go on picnics, who sing traditional songs at the Children’s Palace, enjoy soccer, eat, drink and laugh together and even ride bicycles to their place of employment. It should not come as a surprise to us that these people exist. And yet it does, precisely because North Korea is generally portrayed as the great unknowable.

On the other hand, we receive reports of a country run by madmen, who pose a real security risk, not just to neighbouring Japan and South Korea, but also to the US territories of Alaska and Hawaii and even northern Australia.

The fact US Northern Command believes the Taepodong-2 rocket is incapable of reaching US territory (let alone Australia) notwithstanding, the North Korean nuclear crisis is seen as evidence of a government whose goals and ambitions seem insusceptible to usual diplomatic routes, run as it is by a man with whom one can clearly not negotiate. Rather than reminding ourselves of the many ways in which North Korea is different to us, we need to begin our conversations with a recognition of what we have in common. Yes, North Korea deserves our condemnation. However, recent history shows us that treating North Korea as an exceptional case has not served us well.

We have had a string of policy failures and little progress has been made towards either disarmament or non-proliferation. It is time to move past the notion that treating North Korea as a legitimate negotiating partner is akin to a form of appeasement.

Our Foreign Minister, rather than describing the North Koreans as “detached from reality”, as he did during the July ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali, would do well to start talking about lifting the visa ban that prevents North Koreans from coming to Australia for cultural and educational programs. Calling a country’s policies “irrational” is actually an admission that we don’t understand their rationale.

Such understanding is gained through interaction, not isolation. There are no quick fixes to the “North Korea conundrum” and moral posturing will not get us far. On the back of spectacular policy failure after spectacular policy failure, it is time to look with new eyes at this country that sits in the centre of northeast Asia.

Australia needs to open its doors to North Korean citizens and government employees, for it is not until we recognise that North Korea is a state made up of real people with real fears about their national security (well-founded or not) that we will be able to come some way to crafting a more intelligent and innovative response to the North Korea nuclear crisis and eventually achieve the end goal of a nuclear-free Asia.

* Danielle Chubb is Vasey Research Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS and spent three weeks in Pyongyang in 2007. Her book, Contentious Activism and Inter-Korean Relations, will be published next year

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