Does Syria Hold Lessons for North Korea?

Recent Features


Does Syria Hold Lessons for North Korea?

Of course there are differences, but could a Syria-like trade work on the peninsula?

Just as it seemed military strikes on Syria were inevitable, the Assad regime agreed to give up its chemical weapons. The deal reached between Russia and the U.S. happened so quickly, even the West was taken by surprise. Under the arrangement, Syria is to completely relinquish control over its chemical weapon stockpiles by mid-2014.

Of course, it is not unreasonable to question whether the deal will work as advertised, but for Syria at least, it very likely means no military action from the West for the next six months or so. Instead, action will take place under a UN framework. Viewed from China, with its policy of non-intervention in domestic affairs, the Russian contribution is laudable. Could a similar approach apply to other international hotspots?

Almost at the same time as the Syria deal was being hatched, a seminar marking the 10th anniversary of the Six-Party Talks was being held in Beijing, putting North Korea’s nuclear program back in focus. Just as diplomacy has brought some relief to Syria, to the west of Asia, could some kind of similar trade be used to bring peace to the East?

There are some reasons to think it is possible. Consider the similarities:

First, there is a credible threat of force from the West. With Syria, that threat has been present since the Arab Spring two years ago, and Syrian rebels have been receiving significant support from the West in weapons and finance. The threat for North Korea also remains real. Sixty years after the ceasefire that ended the Korean War, the combatants have yet to sign a peace treaty, a major source of tension for the region.

Second, both Syria and North Korea possess weapons of mass destruction. That Syria has chemical weapons is not in dispute. North Korea’s nuclear weapons represent an even bigger threat. Both nuclear and chemical weapons are prohibited or controlled by the international community, and both undeniably pose a threat to other countries and the region.

Third, the strategic interests of the great powers makes it almost impossible to solve either conflict with the use of force. Russia is generally seen as one of Syria’s patrons, maintaining its only overseas naval port there. Russia strongly opposed the West’s use of force, not just to maintain regional security but also to protect its own interests. As for North Korea, China will not allow one of its neighbors to be attacked by the West. Only a proposal acceptable by all stakeholders will be able to resolve the issue.

There are, however, some notable differences between the situations in North Korea and Syria. For one, Syria agreed to hand over its chemical weapons to forestall Western military strikes. Pyongyang is hardly likely to do the same. Rather, it will insist that the West take the first step to sign a peace treaty and establish diplomatic relations, and to effectively guarantee the safety of its regime. Only under these conditions will North Korea think about giving up its nuclear weapons.

Many suggestions for solving the North Korean issue have been proposed. Gao Haorong, who has been living and working in North Korea for more than a decade as a former correspondent for Xinhua, has suggested the West should trade security for North Korea’s nuclear weapons. In other words, the West should sign a peace treaty with North Korea and guarantee the safety of its regime, convincing North Korea that it doesn’t require the security provided by nuclear weapons. Only then will North Korea be able to give up on its nuclear weapons. That, of course, is very much easier said than done.

Still, on this anniversary of the Six-Party Talks, easing the tensions on the Korean peninsula should be a priority for China and its neighbors. And whether North Korea trades nuclear programs for peace or the West trades security for nuclear programs, they could do worse than look to the lessons of Syria.