What do you think is behind the recent skirmishes on the Korean border? What kind of message could North Korea be sending?
We know little about the true reasons for these kinds of activities—there’s a lot of speculation. It may well be connected with the succession and allowing the new leader to demonstrate that he’s a tough guy. Or it may be a long standing North Korean approach to firmness from South Korea, a sort of tit for tat.
It has also been speculated that North Korea is looking for ways to drive wedges between South Korea and the United States, and it could also be that the in the current period, the North Korean leadership feels that it has a something of a blank cheque from China, and so can act a little bit more aggressively with less concern for the risks involved than it otherwise might do. But the important thing is that South Korea has decided that it’s not going to back down in the face of provocation or threats to retaliate.
Earlier this month, North Korea offered to return to the Six-Party Talks on its nuclear programme, which have been stalled for two years. Why the sudden change of heart? What chance is there that these talks will be fruitful?
What we’re seeing is yet another cycle in a well-established North Korean pattern of behaviour. They engage in provocative activities, they get everybody upset, and maybe they get awarded for these activities. At a certain point, they might engage in smile diplomacy and say, ‘lets all be friends, lets discuss these issues’ so that maybe negotiations on one issue or another will resume—until North Korea decides it isn’t getting what it wants and so provokes again.
So last year, for example, we had two acts of war from North Korea against South Korea (the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong). We also had revelations that it had a uranium enrichment programme up and running that was in violation of its past commitments to the Six-Party Talks. But it didn’t necessarily get them what they wanted, and it probably got China concerned. So they’ve gone into smiling mode.
It’s important to note that they said they were willing to resume the Six-Party Talks without preconditions. Well this was very kind of them, but they know perfectly well that others, especially South Korea, the United States and Japan, do have conditions. First of all, South Korea, the victim of the two acts of war, believes it deserves an apology of some sort. And then the US, South Korea and Japan have very little confidence that North Korea will negotiate seriously, so they’ve said they are waiting for a unilateral step that demonstrates that North Korea is serious, otherwise they don’t see the point in resuming the talks.
I think there’s a good case to be made that North Korea would be perfectly happy with the status quo, with negotiations that don’t go anywhere, precisely because they are still in the middle of proving their nuclear deterrent and proving that their nuclear device can be used as a weapon—that it can be put on a missile and hit the United States. If they were able to do that, it would give them more security, but they aren’t there yet. So they need time, and although having talks that don’t produce outcomes is OK, whenever it appears that talks might actually lead to an outcome that may constrain them, they back off. One can make the case that when President Barack Obama came into office and seemed to engage with the North Koreans, that they went ahead with a missile test and a nuclear test precisely because they didn’t want to be engaged.
Does North Korea still play a role as a 'buffer' state for China and neighbouring states?
Strategists in China continue to see North Korea as a buffer. I think there’s reluctance on China’s part to allow a unification of Korea under South Korea as US forces might be on the border between Korea and China. I don’t think we (the United States) would be interested in that, and we could make pledges to China that we wouldn’t put troops up there. But they might not necessarily believe us. So, I think for some in China, it’s an important reason to keep North Korea afloat, make sure the succession keeps going forward, while opposing tightening the implementation of sanctions.
Could a unified Korea remain united?
I think it will be unified at some point, but it might not be in my lifetime. I think it will be, and that it will remain unified. It could be difficult for South Korea because the northern part of Korea that they will inherit will be a basket case—materially, psychologically and politically. It will require a big sacrifice on the part of the South to bring the North along. This is probably a harder job than what West Germany had to do in unifying East Germany.
In light of the rapid overthrows of government in the Middle East, do leaders in the Asia-Pacific have a contingency plan for unification?
I expect that some in North Korea are watching the situation in the Middle East. I expect they are also watching the way that US forces made short shrift of Col. Gaddafi’s war machine—at least the air dimension of it. But, I think in the case of any political rebellion in North Korea, the regime doesn’t have to worry about it.
The first reason is that the repressive capabilities are much stronger in North Korea than those that existed in Tunisia and Egypt. Second, tools of social and political mobilization, such as social network sites and so on, don’t exist in North Korea. There are cell phones, but not everybody has them, and you can only use them to talk. And people are also pretty scared. And finally, the army is probably a lot more loyal to the regime and the Kim family than was the case in Tunisia and Egypt.
Richard C. Bush is Director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of ‘The Perils of Proximity: China-Japan Security Relations’ and ‘A War Like No Other: The Truth About China's Challenge to America.’ This interview was conducted by Sally Herd.