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

Working to de-escalate tensions between them – and establish a basis for eventual reunification – will not allow the Koreas to free themselves from their geographic predicament, but it will increase their combined influence and give them more power to balance against external forces. This is the structural backdrop to their efforts to de-escalate tensions, which have been ongoing since April 2018. It is a logical reaction to their joint (and worsening) predicament.

A point worth noting is the authoritarian nature of the North Korean regime and the incompatibility between it and South Korea, a liberal democracy. In short, authoritar-an states are taken to prioritise regime survival above all else, have less respect for the rights of their own citizens (who they may actively repress), and can have hostile relations with democracies.66 All these weigh against rapprochement on the peninsula. While this is undoubtedly a complicating factor, history suggests it does not determine the future – for example, East Germany is now reunified with West Germany despite the fact virtually no one would have predicted it only a few years prior to reunification.

A final point worth considering here is that North Korea’s return to the diplomatic table suggests it is more confident in its position. After all, it now has a fairly reliable nuclear weapons capability; even if diplomacy fails, it can fall back on this as its existential deterrent. At the same time, the programme’s existence also constitutes the key bargaining chip that sustains dialogue with external actors, and if negotiations truly progress to a point where the regime feels it can trust external security guarantees, the nuclear program will be the chip that has got Pyongyang to that position.

New Zealand’s Options

So what are New Zealand’s options? The easy one is to stick to the status quo. This involves issuing statements in support of the diplomatic process and calling for restraint on all sides. To show some ambition, a maximalist approach would be to embrace ‘strategic liberalism’.67 This is consistent with the general foreign policy orientation pursued by Labour-led governments, who have sought to project liberal ideals into the international system.68 It reflects an understanding that globalisation facilitates cooperative norms and practices, and increases the incentives for cooperation to deal with thorny international problems that, through an increasingly interconnected international system, can reverberate far beyond their immediate region to affect even geographically remote states such as New Zealand. Threats can only be addressed through a view of security that requires states to work together. As a paradigm, strategic liberalism provides a wellspring for visionary objectives that contribute to the common security of the Asia-Pacific region and could help transcend regional security dilemmas (a security dilemma is a situation whereby a defensive state tries to improve its position relative to states that it perceives to be expansionist by increasing its military strength or establishing an alliance. This leads other states