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North Korea and East Asian Security

“A Real and Present Danger?”

Summary of a talk by John Swenson-Wright

This is a write-up of the talk ‘A Real and Present Danger? North Korea and the Nuclear Crisis in East Asia’ given by Dr John Swenson-Wright on Friday 22nd October 2010.

Defining security

Dr Swenson-Wright argues that North Korea can be seen as a throwback to the Cold War era, where security was defined as much in terms of an ideological clash as in territorial dispute. According to Swenson-Wright, the power of historical precedent and systematic contrast continues to be central to an explanation of the security situation in East Asia.

This “existential challenge” feeds a situation of “competing alliances” that has existed ever since the Cold War. By forming organisations, countries leave little room for neutrality and subtlety, instead granting even more influence to the most powerful nations.

Historical precedents

In the early years of the Cold War, a clear-cut situation was apparent. Communism was seen as “a challenge to the democratic legitimacy of the West”, and that in the “fragile world” that followed the Second World War, Western powers sought to avoid any kind of the appeasement that was extended to Nazi Germany prior to the conflict.

The new problem ideology on the horizon was communism, and this time there would be no mistake - immediate hard power should be used to resolve the issue. Because of this the mere potential for any Western influence was an inherent threat for communist nations, and could not be tolerated.

This sense of basic ideological threat - a “Cold War mentality” - continues to inform North Korean foreign policy today.

The failure of the US to secure its political interests in either Korea or Vietnam (the only theatres of direct Cold War combat), along with the Watergate scandal, eroded the “moral legitimacy of the US and its allies”. The Cold War began to be seen in more basic, Realpolitik terms of a struggle for survival.

The conflict was no longer a “morality play”, but a highly-strung situation where war by accident was a real danger. The insanity of the situation became apparent in popular culture with the M.A.D. concept and films like Dr Strangelove.

Here Swenson-Wright referenced Albert Wohlstetter’s description of the situation as a “delicate balance of terror”. The description still applies to North Korea’s position today in the face of what it sees as international opposition; it has very little room for manoeuvre, and a nuclear deterrent is one of the few defences it has available.

East Asia today

In Swenson-Wright’s view, hard power is clearly still a central issue in the region today. Many nations have concerns over China’s “increasingly assertive posture” and its rapid expansion in maritime capability. Territorial tensions run high with regional disputes over Takeshima and Tokto, the Senkaku Islands and Taiwan.

Alongside this, there are frictions over trade and economic issues, particularly with currency revaluation (for example in China and Korea). Finally, human rights issues, such as those in Tibet and Burma, continue to cause international discord.

However, the Obama administration has brought some optimism to the situation. The US and China are now beginning to make some joint progress on climate change policy, and on the issue of North Korea. This is of the utmost importance, as China “holds all the cards” regarding North Korea.

These preliminary “universal values” might suggest that ideology is less important in East Asia today, with the focus having shifted to hard power. This view is far from the truth. Any universal values that exist are superficial at best; looking any deeper immediately brings the clash of the Washington Consensus and the Beijing Consensus on economic policy.

The North Korean anomaly

A large anomaly in any optimistic view is, of course, North Korea. The DPRK is still rock-solid in its commitment to a specific world-view, explicitly stating this in its Juche ideology, which emphasises permanence and individuality. Further to this is the lack of any true civil society, ruling out any “seed for change”; the DPRK is a static (or even stagnant) society.

Swenson-Wright also put forth the view that the DPRK is a relic of the Cold War, citing the lack of a real peace treaty with South Korea (and the result that the two Koreas technically remain at war to the present day) and its consistently strong adherence to Juche.

With reciprocated global hostility to North Korea, and its rise to nuclear power status, it’s hard to view the situation with any optimism.

What kind of threat is North Korea?

With North Korean nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, it seems obvious that the state is a threat to its immediate neighbours, particularly South Korea and Japan. Further to this are its extensive sabotage capabilities (which likely include sophisticated online techniques), a conventional military with over one million troops and chemical and biological weaponry.

However, all this confirms only the potential threat of North Korea. It is unlikely that the DPRK currently has the means to deliver a nuclear weapon long range (although Swenson-Wright did note the possibility of a suitcase-bomb delivered by guerilla forces).

An important point is that “the regime is rational”. It may be “brutal and unattractive”, but it is rational. Swenson-Wright compared North Korea’s situation to that of Japan prior to the Pearl Harbour attacks; only as a desperate final defensive measure would it resort to large-scale engagement with another country. The state’s belligerent attitude and military development is focused on continuing a “threat perception” in the global community. Again, this is reminiscent of the Cold War.

Bruce Cummings

Swenson-Wright devoted some time to discussing the views of Bruce Cummings on the situation. Cummings’ made the controversial proposal that the Korean War was in fact started by the South, and that the initial actions of the North were retaliatory.

Cummings also comments on the importance of historical precedents and the attitude of other nations in North Korea’s conduct. The Bush administration was singularly unhelpful, with Bush’s crass “axis of evil” concept and outrageous “pygmy” comments about the North Korean leadership.

It’s also important to remember that during the Korean War, more ordinance was dropped on North Korea than in the entire Pacific Theatre of the Second World War. The North was flattened; it’s no surprise that it now has zero trust for Western nations, particularly the US.

Cummings also suggests that the North Korean administration takes Iraq as a lesson - a real nuclear deterrent (demonstrated by regular tests) is its only means to prevent invasion by the US.