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

North Korean Premier Apologizes for Currency Change

11 02 2010

By Bomi Lim, Businessweek (February 10, 2010)

Feb. 10 (Bloomberg) — North Korean Premier Kim Yong Il has apologized for inflation caused by last year’s currency revaluation and vowed to better feed the country’s 24 million population, a Seoul-based rights group said.

Kim acknowledged the state prices for goods were wrongly set after the currency revaluation in December, causing “confusion and unrest,” Good Friends said yesterday on its Web site. Kim’s comments were made at a recent meeting with key officials in Pyongyang, said the group, which says it obtains information by contacting people in North Korea.

The report is the latest to suggest unintended fallout from the totalitarian regime’s currency revaluation, which reportedly stoked inflation and caused shortages of goods. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il fired Pak Nam Gi, head of finance and planning for the Workers’ Party earlier this month, holding him responsible for the failures, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported last week…

(Chosun Ilbo, 11 Feb. 2010) A North Korean source has shed more light on an apology by Premier Kim Yong-il on Feb. 5 which apparently acknowledged that the currency reform in late December went disastrously wrong.  The source said Kim (not to be confused with leader Kim Jong-il) read out an hour-long statement before village chiefs and other party officials at the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang on Monday morning. “I sincerely apologize for having caused great pain to the people by recklessly enforcing the latest currency reform without making sufficient preparations or considering the circumstances,” the source quoted him as saying.

Kim also pledged to rectify the mistakes, saying he would do “my best” to stabilize people’s financial circumstances. The revaluation of the won, instead of curbing inflation, led to skyrocketing prices of daily necessities. He indicated that the regime will allow people to use foreign currency, which has been banned since the reform, and permit open-air markets to return to normal after a crackdown that seemed aimed at strangling a nascent market economy. But Kim at the same time stressed the need to stick to state-set prices, adding that the government will strictly crack down on the hoarding of goods.

Some experts say the situation in the North has returned to almost the state before the currency reform. A South Korean official said North Korean authorities loosened their control of the markets since there has been unprecedented resistance from ordinary people. This seems to have forced Kim’s hand. After Kim’s apology, most money changers and illegal traders who had been arrested were reportedly freed. The number of people leaving for China has grown noticeably as offices of state agencies or state-run corporations involved in earning dollars, which suspended business due to the ban on use of foreign currency, have resumed business…

ANU Ph.D student, Danielle Chubb, spoke to 702 ABC Sydney Radio’s Deborah Cameron about how a currency devaluation in North Korea might destabilize one of the world’s most closed nations. Download as MP3 file here…

Chinese government fears the collapse of the DPRK

12 09 2009

Danielle Chubb_photograph_2SBS Radio Worldview (3 July 2009)

In an interview with Australia ’s SBS Worldview program, Danielle Chubb discusses the recent announcement by the World Food Program regarding shortfalls in food aid to North Korea and answers questions as to why the North Korean regime seems to be willing to incur the wrath of the international aid donor community in return for the continuation of its nuclear program.

She argues that the North Korean government views its top priority to be regime security and is thus willing to risk a decrease in food aid donations from the international community if it believes that it is able to gain itself a more favourable bargaining position through the provocative actions that have caused such discontent among international aid donors.

It is thus important to understand that the politics of how the North Korean government deals with the nuclear issue is actually quite independent of how it approaches the question of food aid.  Relatedly, Danielle argues that while China, an important donor of aid to North Korea, has publicly condemned the most recent North Korean nuclear tests, the North Korean regime is aware that the Chinese government fears the collapse of the DPRK and would thus ultimately be unwilling to cut North Korea from all aid, as it perceives survival of the North Korean regime to be the most pressing issue…   Download the MP3 audio file here…

* Danielle Chubb is a PhD Candidate in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University in Canberra

Also listen to the ABC Radio Australia’s interview with Dr. Leonid Petrov “China still demonstrating ‘ambiguous’ stance on North Korea” here…