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

bilateral Pyongyang-Washington diplomatic format that excludes Beijing does precisely this and could free up the US to devote more resources and attention to containing China’s rise. It is also far from certain that Pyongyang would like to see the US exit the region entirely if it leaves China the dominant actor in Northeast Asia, a fact China will be acutely aware of and that will shape its own efforts to facilitate or impede US-DPRK diplomacy.

The Trump administration is also likely influenced by strategic concerns that the changing balance of power in the region will reduce its influence to shape events in Northeast Asia in the future. For example, a 2015 report by the Royal Institute of International Affairs that looked out to 2030 made the case that as China’s economic growth continues, the region will become harder to manage. Essentially, as the power distribution between states in the region changes it becomes more difficult for leaders to clearly assess their operational environment, raising tension and chances for miscalculation. Compounding this is the fact power will continue to diffuse away from the state to non-state actors (a broader ongoing trend across the international system) and at the same time power itself becomes more multidimensional.62 This will reduce the influence of state actors, complicating efforts to understand who are the decisive actors in any given situation and making it harder for leaders to send clear signals. As such, the region will become more unpredictable and difficult to govern as new actors, challenges and technologies proliferate, leading to greater chances of policy paralysis in the face of a complex and rapidly changing environment.63 As such, ‘solving’ North Korea sooner rather than later becomes more important – the future could be less favourable to such an outcome and more dependent upon Beijing, which may seek to have the matter resolved in its favour.

The third difference taps into the history of Korea as a buffer state, and broader trends that are aligning the interests of the DPRK and ROK. The North’s predicament is not dissimilar to that of the South: both states occupy a divided peninsula that is easily exploitable as a buffer and are at the mercy of external powers. Neither is in an ideal situation. At the same time, regional developments are weakening their separate positions and an increasingly assertive China is emerging. As noted, the North has reasons to view China with suspicion and an unreliable partner. Meanwhile, Seoul agreed to purchase US Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) systems to defend itself against missile attack from the North in July 2016. China, viewing this as a threat to its own nuclear deterrent (and an adjunct of Washington’s expanding array of global BMD systems), launched a campaign of economic retaliation against the South that lasted until 31 October 2017.64 Were the US to attack the North it would have devastating consequences for both the North and South, potentially unleashing a nuclear war (not to mention the North’s artillery on Seoul) causing a long-term humanitarian disaster.

Therefore, both states are dependent on external powers that makes them vulnerable to decisions in foreign capitals and changing conceptions of national interest. On this score, Trump’s repeated questioning of US defence commitments cannot be reassuring to Seoul,65 and as separate states the DPRK and ROK are weaker than they are together.