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War & Peace on the Korean Peninsula

This undated picture, released from Korean Central News Agency on June 11, 2008, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (L) inspecting Korean People's Army unit 958 at an undisclosed location. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

This undated picture, released from Korean Central News Agency on June 11, 2008, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (L) inspecting Korean People's Army unit 958 at an undisclosed location. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The problem with containment, however, is that it doesn't take you anywhere. It is ultimately predicated on the assumption that the regime will collapse - a prospect which I would regard at this stage as being remote, given that regime survival is probably the single core policy objective remaining among Pyongyang's political elite.

Calibrated engagement by contrast, provides a more productive mechanism for perhaps finally bringing the Hermit Kingdom out of hiding.

It's important, however, not to be too starry-eyed about the prospects of success.

Given North Korea's track record for the last half-century, military provocation will continue - including at times when it appears to make absolutely no sense in terms of North Korean self-interest. For such is the nature of the oligarchy that currently rules in Pyongyang that reform and conciliatory initiatives from certain parts of the regime are likely to be countered (and at times check-mated) by aggression and confrontation from other parts of the regime threatened by political change - namely the military.

It's important to acknowledge all these impediments from the outset. It is equally important, however, not to be comprehensively engulfed by cynicism over the inevitably of failure.

It is, at least in my argument, worthy of experimentation for a defined period.

Australian Response

And so what should we in Australia do, if anything, about the above.

I've argued already that the future of the Korean Peninsular goes to the core of Australian regional interests.

For that reason, as I said before, our diplomacy should be directed towards an active policy of engagement while our security policy should simultaneously contemplate the possibility that engagement may fail.

If the Perry Review provides the sort of calibrated measures for the conditional normalisation of US-DPRK relations described above, I believe Australia should support it unreservedly.

Furthermore, whether Perry recommends such an approach or not, the time has come for Australia to revisit the question of normalising its diplomatic relations with Pyongyang once again. 25 years is a long time between drinks and I understand the government may now be looking for a new assignment for Mr Barratt.

Part of the problem in Pyongyang is the physical intensity of its political isolation.

If the only westerners you run into are the motley rag-bag of residual Marxists-Leninists loitering around the fringes of international political society, then there are very few people coming through town likely to in any way challenge your idiosyncratic view of the world and your place within it.

If, by contrast, mainstream politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen, both from this country and from others in the broader west, begin to engage in a sustained dialogue with DPRK interlocutors, there is at least some prospect in the medium term of engineering some form of political change.

People tend to forget that when Nixon when to China in 1972, it was a pretty scary place. A quarter of a century later, it is considerably less so.

Third, Australia should actively promote the further multi-lateral engagement of the DPRK. Ralph Cossa has argued in a recent paper that North Korea's isolationism on security policy issues would benefit from its inclusion in an official dialogue explicitly focussed on North East Asian security issues. Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi has recommended that a new North East Asian security organisation be established from scratch for this purpose. Cossa's argument is that a more productive approach would be to graft on to the existing ARF mechanism a sub-regional North East Asian dialogue. The advantage of course is obvious: the ARF already exists. It meets annually. Some North Asian security policy issues are now already discussed. All the potential players are already members - with the single exception of North Korea itself. Australia should therefore consider supporting North Korean membership under appropriate terms - noting that President Kim Dae-jung already personally supports such a move.

Finally, Australia must lift its humanitarian assistance to the DPRK to do what can be done to minimise the impact of the famine. This is the largest humanitarian disaster this region has seen since Mao's Great Leap Forward in 1959. Famine cannot be tolerated anywhere in the world - less so when it occurs in the region we claim to be our own. Australian and other international emergency aid - appropriate labelled - also serves to convey the message to the population at large that juche is nonsense and that the outside world may be considerably less evil than they have been taught.