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)

Asia Society-Australasia Centre
August 3, 1999

In the century long history of the Australian federation and the associated evolution of an independent Australian foreign and defence policy, our regional strategic environment over the last quarter century has probably never been more benign.

Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, with the exception of the Sino-Vietnamese border war , Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia and the ensuing civil war in Cambodia itself, neither East Asia nor the West Pacific has seen large scale military conflict.

This absence of military conflict has in no way small way contributed to the region's golden age of economic growth - one which only came to its conclusion (hopefully a temporary one) with the regional financial crisis of July 1997.

We cannot overstate the extent to which strategic stability and security have underpinned more than two decades of regional prosperity - prosperity from which this country has in no small part benefited.

There is, however, a temptation with the passage of years to believe that it will always be thus. And for those too young to remember anything else, that it may always have been thus - that this is the permanent and natural order of things.

The truth, of course, is that for this region, it is neither the norm nor the aberration.

Certainly if we look to the past, to the period prior to 1975, the region offers a litany of large scale civil war, wars of national liberation as well as the general conflagration that was World War II.

And when we turn to the future, informed by this history and shaped in part by a number of the problems left over from history, we need also to be circumspect.

Because I believe there is nothing intrinsically permanent about the peace, stability, and security that has characterised our region in the recent past. These are things that have been earned and which must continue to be earned.

If we expand our scope and include South Asia as well, the greater region is host to more than half of the world's seven major unresolved territorial conflicts - Timor, Kashmir, Taiwan, The South China Sea and Korea within the region; the Persian Gulf, Palestine and the Balkans beyond it.

Furthermore, three of these four unresolved regional conflicts involve nation states already in possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Indonesia and East Timor constitute the exception and it is to be hoped by all that the UN sponsored ballot scheduled for 30 August resolves this issue peacefully once and for all. For if it does not, it will present profound foreign policy and strategic policy dilemmas for Australia well into the future.

In Kashmir, a long standing conflict has been rendered more dangerous by the recent detonation of Indian and Pakistani nuclear devices.

The perennial problem of China and Taiwan is once again generating more heat than light - compounded both by the unpredictability of Taiwan's domestic democratic processes as well as the quantum deterioration in US-China relations over the last six months. I hope to be speaking on this topic in Melbourne later next week.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea also remain although regional processes have assited in ameliorating some of the more acute tensions of the past.

However, the fifth and arguably most volatile of our unresolved regional disputes is the Korean Peninsular.

Like the China-Taiwan dispute, that on the Korean Peninsular is now nearly half a century old.

As in China-Taiwan, the unresolved conflict between the two Koreas also had its origins in ideology, containment, and the Cold War.

In both cases, bloody civil wars were fought - in China's case in the absence of the direct participation of the super powers. In the case of the Koreas, the reverse.

However, that is probably where the broad similarities stop - if only because the maturity of the dialogue and the depth of the engagement between Beijing and Taipei is now literally light years ahead of that which exists between Pyongyang and Seoul.

That does not mean that the China-Taiwan relationship is stable. It is not. It exhibits every capacity for rapid deterioration - as demonstrated by Beijing's reaction to President Lee Teng-Hui's pronouncement that relations across the Taiwan Straits are now best characterised as "state to state" relations.

However, Pyongyang is a different phenomenon altogether. The absence of a mature relationship with the South, the regularity and intensity of its military provocations as well as the uniformly Stalinist nature of the regime itself, arguably places the Korean Peninsular much closer to the precipice than any other conflict within the region.

The Peninsular, therefore, must logically command the attention of Australian policy makers as well as our political leadership.

This can sometimes be difficult because when put to the test of Australian public opinion, the perception of the possibility of war on the Korean Peninsular and of any future Australian involvement in such a war would be very remote indeed.

In fact, the crude summary of Australian perceptions probably goes something like this: the conflict in East Timor is seen as "real" and one which involves important Australian interests - in part because of our historical engagement, in part because of geographical proximity.

China and Taiwan by contrast, are often seen as being on the medium to outer edge of Australia's strategic interests - at least, that is, in our national imagination, buffered as we are by continental and archipelagic South East Asia.

But when we speak of Kashmir and Korea, it is as if we are speaking of the outer edge of our strategic interests.

For different reasons, such perceptions are substantially flawed.

When we, for example, consider objectively the core strategic and economic interests we have at stake on the Korean Peninsular, we see that they are very large interests indeed.

Any strategic implosion on the Korean Peninsular would inevitably impact on Japan, China, and the United States.

South Korea itself continues as Australia's third largest export market.

When Japan and China are added, we are talking about more than half of Australia's total exports or approximately 10% of Australian GDP.

Then, of course, there are our defence obligations under the ANZUS Treaty and the possibility that the United States would require consultations with Australia (under the provisions of the Treaty) in the event of what Washington would probably perceive as a threat to common security within the broader region.

Future developments on the Korean Pensinsular, therefore, are at the centre, not the margins, of Australia's national interest.

And the simple proposition that I wish to advance today is that the energies of Australian foreign policy need increasingly to be directed towards the development of a stable peace on the Korean Peninsular.

And at the same time, Australian security policy needs increasingly to be mindful of the possibility that this stable peace may not necessarily ensue.

Nature of the DPRK Regime

Any rational analysis of how best to secure a sustainable and stable peace on the Korean Peninsular must begin with an analysis of the DPRK regime itself.

It is a curious and quixotic regime indeed that has as its President in 1999 a gentleman who departed this life in 1994 - namely Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader and now "eternal president" of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The Great Leader has, of course, been replaced in a substantial sense by his son, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il - although the only formal position which Kim the younger now occupies is that of Chairman of the National Defence Commission.

The cult of personality is the DPRK today is an extraordinary phenomenon to behold - even more dramatic to observe first hand as I did when I visited Pyongyang in May of this year.

This is a city which has a statue and a billboard on almost every corner extolling the personal virtues and revolutionary achievements of the Kim family dynasty.

As The Economist recently reported, Kim Jong Il's biographers reveal that in his youth he wrote six operas, each of them better than any in the history of music. And when Kim first turned his hand to golf, he scored five holes in one and beat the world record for a single round by 25 strokes.

A further insight into the genuinely bizarre nature of the regime is that at the Tenth Supreme People's Assembly held in Pyongyang in October last year the central leadership speech was not delivered by Kim Jong Il (who in fact made no speech at all) but by Kim Il Sung - or at least a tape recording of his address to the Ninth Supreme People's Assembly held back in 1991.

In the midst of all this strange behaviour, is it possible to discern some of the attitudes and policy predispositions of Kim Jong Il and his key advisers to such critical questions as domestic economic reform (particularly in the midst of an ongoing famine) as well as normalisation of relations with both the South and the United States?

There seems to be general consensus among analysts that between Kim Il Sung's death in 1994 and the convening of the Tenth Supreme People's Assembly last year, Kim Jong Il was principally preoccupied with the consolidation of his leadership. It also appears that the price for this consolidation has been an excessive reliance on the military - the Korean People's Army or KPA. The military historically represent the most conservative, non-reformist and least predisposed to peaceful unification of the various elements that collectively make up the political apparatus of the DPRK.

Kim Jong Il's reliance upon the military is underlined by his Chairmanship of the National Defence Commission and the absence of any formal positions either within the Korean Workers' Party or the formal apparatus of the state. The dominance of the KPA in the power equation is also reinforced by the fact that in the formal leadership rankings issued at the end of last year, all ten members of the National Defence Commission are listed within the top 20 of the DPRK hierarchy.

Moreover, within these leadership rankings, members of the National Defence Commission who are not members of the Party Politburo now outrank a number of full Politburo members. Furthermore, there was also a virtual doubling in the number of military officials elected to the Supreme People's Assembly as delegates from the 9th SPA to the 10th SPA.

Reduced as we are to the crude application of the dwindling arts of classical Kremlinology to try and make sense of the political composition and policy orientation of the North Korean leadership, the overall conclusion seems to be that North Korea's conservative military leadership have a strong grip on political power. A recent paper by Choi Jinwook in fact suggests that the National Defence Commission itself may well be in the process of taking over from the Politburo as the highest decision making organ within the DPRK - the Party not having held a formal Party Congress since 1980, nor a plenary session of its Central Committee since December 1993, both in complete defiance of the Korean Workers' Party Constitution. But then again the North Koreans are scarcely sticklers for form.

This conservative grip on power seems also to have been reflected in policy. Starting in 1993 there had been some experimentation with domestic economic reform along the lines long advocated in Deng Xiaoping's China. This, of course, was before Kim Il Sung's death.

However, by 1996, the experiment seems to have been concluded. From that time on, we saw the abolition of a number of reformist organisations that had earlier been established within the state apparatus. And, much more critically, the purge of a number of economic reformers themselves. North Korea's only special economic zone, located in the north of the country, launched several years before with considerable public fanfare, while technically still in existence is no longer actively promoted by the regime as a central part of its future economic policy. At best, the regime appears to pay lip service to its role - in stark contrast to the Chinese experience where China's four Special Economic Zones were vigorously promoted by the entire Chinese leadership from Deng Xiaoping down. Indeed, questions that I posed while in Pyongyang about the importance of the SEZ seemed to be met by an almost embarrassed silence.

Analysts argue that some reformist elements continue to exist within the North Korean power elite - located in discrete parts of the formal apparatus of the Party and the State. If this is the case, then they were certainly kept well hidden during our visit to Pyongyang in May, although a number of those we did meet were plainly less ideologically strident than others.

The importance of the sheer physical isolation of the DPRK cannot be overstated. The absence of any sustained exposure to international news media, the absence of any regular stream of visitors from mainstream OECD economies, together with a virtual dearth of foreign investment (and the exposure to international business norms to which such investment gives rise), means that what we are dealing with is a brittle political elite presiding over a crumbling economy, reinforced by one of the most impressive security apparatuses anywhere in the world.

Of course, none of this would matter all that much if the rest of us could all be confident that the regime's military arsenal is obsolescent or that the regime itself would simply one day collapse from within. However, despite three or four years of intense economic deprivation during which time between 300,000 and 3,000,000 North Korean civilians are estimated to have died from the affects of malnutrition, and despite a period of unprecedented political instability within the DPRK as Kim Jong Il consolidated his political leadership, there is no real evidence anywhere to suggest that this regime is about to fall apart any time soon. In fact, following the conclusion of the Tenth Supreme People's Assembly last year the reverse may in fact be the case.

Mechanisms for Engaging the DPRK

So how then should the South respond? How should the United States and Japan respond? And what, if anything, should the rest of us be doing?

To answer these questions, we need briefly to review the current bilateral and multi-lateral machinery in place for managing the relationship with Pyongyang.

First and most important is the "Agreed Framework" of 1994. We sometimes forget how close the world came to war back in 1993 when the DPRK unilaterally announced its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This was at a time when it had become clear to US intelligence that the North was constructing a nuclear re-processing plant capable of converting the spent rods produced by the country's Soviet supplied reactor into plutonium - the key component of a nuclear weapon. The "Agreed Framework" of July 1994 identified four specific sets of actions for both the US and the DPRK:

* the replacement of the DPRK's graphite-moderated reactors and related facilities with light-water reactor power plants and heavy fuel oil;
* DPRK re-acceptance of the NPT regime;
* a commitment by both sides to work together for peace, security and a nuclear-free Korean Peninsular; and
* a commitment to move towards full normalisation of political and economic relations.

On the first of these tasks, there is as yet no convincing evidence that the DPRK is not taking its responsibilities seriously under the Nuclear Freeze Agreement with the US. The recent US inspection visit to the suspect North Korean site at Kumchamgri provided further confirmation of general DPRK compliance.

On the American, South Korean and Japanese side, KEDO (the Korean Peninsular Energy Development Organisation) has now had sufficient funds committed to it by participating governments to deliver both the construction of the light-water reactors and heavy fuel oil consignments to the DPRK as promised.

So far so good - although this entire process came close to total derailment as a consequence of the DPRK's extraordinary decision in August last year to test its Taepodong I Ballistic missile by firing it into the Pacific Ocean across Japan. The Japanese in turn went ballistic themselves and it came very close to fracturing the political consensus necessary in Japan to support the proper execution of the KEDO program. The DPRK, of course, maintain to this day that the ballistic missile test was simply a satellite launch and that there is now hurtling through space a North Korean satellite playing revolutionary music extolling the virtues of the uniquely North Korean principle of self-reliance or "Juche". Recent reports of a possible second ballistic firing soon represent a fundamental cause for further concern.

As for the other aspects of the 1994 Agreed Framework, progress has been conspicuous by its virtual absence. Although the United States appears to have agreed in principle to provide assurances to the DPRK against the threat of nuclear weapons, the US does not intend to advance this agenda further until there is complete confidence of full compliance with the NPT - including verification by the IAEA of the accuracy of North Korea's initial report on the quantity of nuclear material already in its possession.

Finally, the prospect of a normalisation of economic and political relations between the DPRK and the US is now the subject of the Policy Review being undertaken (and, we understand, now completed) by former US Defence Secretary William Perry.

A second mechanism that has emerged for the management of political and military tensions on the Korean Peninsular are the so-called Four Party Talks, beginning in 1996 and involving the DPRK, South Korea, the US and China.

The express purpose of the Four Party Talks is "to initiate a process aimed at achieving a permanent peace agreement on the Peninsular". Substantive progress has been marginal - other than the establishment of two sub-committees: one to discuss replacing the existing, fragile armistice with a permanent peace treaty; and the other to formulate possible confidence building measures to reduce tensions. The sixth round of these talks are scheduled to start in Geneva on Thursday. The United States side is led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for North Asia, Charles Kartman, who was recently in Canberra.

While nothing dramatic is likely to emerge from the formal agenda of these talks, one of their important by-products has been to provide the only regular mechanism for high level vice foreign ministerial contact between the two Koreas themselves.

The third main mechanism for maintaining dialogue with the North are the Inter-Korean Talks themselves - the most recent of which occurred in Beijing on the 21st June. These talks focus on a range of economic and social initiatives aimed at developing solutions to the divided families issue, agricultural development in the North as well as humanitarian assistance.

These Inter-Korean Talks have been made possible in large part by the inauguration of President Kim Dae-jung in the South and the initiation of his so-called "Sunshine Policy" of "constructive engagement" with the North. This Inter-Korean dialogue has had a particularly short and rocky history - although it's interesting to note that the 21 June meeting proceeded notwithstanding the fire fight which occurred in the Yellow Sea on 15 June between North Korean and South Korean naval vessels. Once again, progress through these talks has been judged by the South, in particular, to be unsatisfactory - although interestingly neither side exhibits an interest in abandoning the mechanism altogether.

However, continued DPRK military provocations such as the Yellow Sea incident, repeated submarine incursions as well as last year's ballistic missile test only serve to erode the domestic political support in Seoul for the continuation of Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy.

The Perry Review

The key to the future of all these mechanisms for dealing with the DPRK is likely to be The Perry Review itself.

Bill Perry has been working on this Review for more than a year now and it is understood that the scope of the Review covers the breadth of the strategic, political and economic future of the DPRK, its relations with the South and, of course, with the United States itself. Perry visited Pyongyang in May. His mission then was to begin to outline to the DPRK the likely content of his Review and its recommendations.

My understanding is that the DPRK did not provide any considered response to the Americans - which is why tomorrow's developments in Geneva are so important. On the eve of the Four Party Talks, it is likely that Chuck Kartman will sit down with his North Korean counterpart, Vice Minister Kim Gye-kwan, to seek a read-out from Pyongyang before Perry reports to President Clinton and Congress next week. Of course the critical question is what will Perry recommend? And will it be acceptable in Pyongyang, Seoul, Tokyo, and probably most importantly, on Capitol Hill.

I believe Perry is likely to recommend a comprehensive package of measures which go considerably beyond the current scope of policy engagement with the North.

It's unlikely that Perry is going to offer a string of unilateral concessions. He is more likely to offer a series of heavily calibrated responses. Of course the method of calibration can be a critical one: do you only provide rewards to the DPRK in response to demonstrated good behaviour? Or do you do the reverse and extend a range of concessions to the North Koreans which in the future will be withdrawn, in part or in whole, in response to explicitly identified items of "bad" behaviour. It will be interesting to see what Perry does.

Of course, Perry's Review occurs in the midst of a much broader debate in Washington about the relative virtues of containment or engagement of the DPRK.

The containment argument is logical and predictable but after nearly five decades of relatively consistent application, has scarcely yielded any results in terms of the ultimate objectives of a denuclearised peninsular and a stable peace. The advocates of containment argue that no interests are served by rewarding in any way an undeniably rogue regime. As The Economist again notes, it is a regime whose approach could well be described as "one of tactical compromise in order to defend strategic intransigence". Such tactical compromises include a bare minimum of responsiveness to the range of proposals served up to them through the Agreed Framework, the Four Party Talks, and the Inter-Korean Dialogue. It also includes a preparedness to accept multi-lateral aid and the presence in-country of multi-lateral agencies to assist in managing the impact of four years of famine. Or as one British academic, Aiden Foster-Carter, has described it: a type of "militant mendicancy" that combines economic extortion with military threat.

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.

These are some quite modest Australian measures - but ones which, if implemented, may contribute to a sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsular - fully 50 years after Australians were first despatched to that Peninsular to fight a war that so far has not properly been concluded.

It is time, once again, for the re-engagement of an activist Australian foreign policy - both for our own purposes and also for what Hedley Bull elegantly described as purposes beyond ourselves.