Why This Time is Different: The North Korea Crisis and New Zealand’s Interests

Author: Steff, R.1

Published in National Security Journal, 09 April 2020


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North Korea remains the ultimate international outlier: an isolated totalitarian state seeking to acquire a credible nuclear weapons program. As such, a simmering crisis between the North and the US has been playing out since the end of the Cold War. Yet, while past attempts at diplomacy have failed, change is afoot as the Trump administration seeks to shift US-North Korean relations onto a new footing. While skepticism is warranted, this article explains that new personalities and a shift in the structure of power in and around the Korean peninsula provide grounds for cautious optimism that long-term rapprochement is feasible. Small states like New Zealand have a stake in a positive outcome, as its interests dictate that it seeks a stable and secure Asia-Pacific. Furthermore, US-North Korean negotiations take place against the backdrop of intensifying US-China great power competition; a situation that complicates the picture and suggests that long-term peace on the peninsula is only possible if diplomacy takes into account all regional actors. With the above in mind, this articles makes a contribution to our understanding of the North Korean issue. It provides a background to the crisis; outlines how personal and structural changes (in terms of the shifting balance of power) suggest that the outcome of diplomatic efforts could be different to failures of the past; considers whether North Korea is an ‘irrational’ actor; and offers a conceptual (and self-avowedly idealistic) framework – ‘strategic liberalism’ – to act as a guide for New Zealand as it looks to calibrate its approach to ongoing tensions and diplomacy on the Korean peninsula.

Keywords: New Zealand, North Korea, Northeast Asia, Trump Administration, Balance of Power, Nuclear Proliferation, Rapprochement


North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), remains the ultimate international outlier: an isolated totalitarian state that has resisted efforts to reunify with South Korea – the Republic of Korea (ROK) – and exhibits aggressive behaviour towards the outside world. Of great concern has been the determined efforts by the North to acquire nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles to deliver them – an effort that has accelerated markedly in recent years.1 Given that repeated attempts at diplomacy have failed, it is difficult to be confident that the new round of diplomacy will, ultimately, be successful. One constant is that political situations change and assuming the way things are is the way they will always be is a poor basis for analysis in what is an increasingly dynamic international environment. As such, this paper seeks to contribute to our understanding of the changes taking place in and around the Korean peninsula. These changes are both structural and personality-driven. Collectively they are driving, albeit in fits and starts, the DRPK and ROK on one hand, and the DPRK and the US on the other, to de-escalate tensions and attempt to move their relations onto a more positive footing. The stakes involved are high. Failure to break out of the historical impasse risks a new and higher level of tension emerging in Northeast Asia. Additionally, the changing global balance of power between the US and China, and outbreak of great power competition between them, positions North Korea as an issue that could very well test whether Washington and Beijing will be able to cooperate to settle thorny geopolitical issues in the years ahead, or if zero-sum competition will prevail.


1 Dr Reuben Steff is a Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science and Public Policy, Waikato University. Contact reuben.steff@waikato.ac.nz.