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

Author: Steff, R.
Published in National Security Journal, 09 April 2020

test has occurred as of 25 January 2020.

Ultimately, while efforts to denuclearise Korea could very well fail, the initial Trump- Kim summit has shifted the paradigm for US-North Korean relations. At the least, it has allowed de-escalation to take place. At the most, it creates a basis to move towards denuclearisation and eventual Korean reunification. As the next section explains, un- like past attempts to alter the equation on the peninsula, there are a number of factors that suggest cautious optimism is warranted.

The North Korea’s Diplomatic Dance: This Time it’s Different

The first key difference lies in the personalities at the table. On the US side there is President Trump – a figure unlike any of his recent predecessors. On one hand, Trump’s penchant to shift positions rapidly and contradict himself could prove to be a significant impediment to sustained progress. On the other, Trump is clearly not concerned by normal diplomatic procedures that prevented his predecessors from making bold moves to change the political dynamic with the North. As such, rather than forcing Pyongyang to change its behaviour prior to the beginning of high-level dialogue, Trump flipped the equation to say dialogue would precede substantive change. Futhermore, Pyongyang might view Trump as an aberration in US presidents, and thus as an outsider who can make moves other US presidents could not (or would not), and thus true change can only be cemented with Trump in office and needs to occur before the US reverts to type. On the North Korean side, personality changes have also taken place. STRATFOR reports that Kim has removed many of the DPRK’s leaders that had close ties to China, re-establishing some independence of action.59 Kim is also part of a third generation of North Korean leaders who, unlike the first generation, never fought the US in the Korean War or, like the second generation, rose to power during the Cold War and were indoctrinated with Communist ideology. The new generation were often educated in Western Europe, have an understanding of the modern world and thus may be more willing to entertain serious thoughts of denuclearisation in exchange for real economic benefits and reunification with the south.60

A second difference is the deterioration of US-Chinese relations. While Trump’s first year in power was characterised by a charm offensive vis-à-vis China, the gloves came off in the latter stages of 2017. The administration’s National Security Strategy (released December 2017) and National Defence Strategy (released January 2018) labelled China a revisionist power that “seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.”61 The increasing US military budget, warming ties between the US and Taiwan (a state Beijing considers a ‘renegade province’), trade tariffs levelled against China and, indeed, the recent diplomatic initiatives involving North Korea, must be viewed in this context; the US is looking for areas around China’s periphery where it can place pressure on Beijing. Forging the North Korean crisis into a