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

operation amongst them. It also holds that strategic futures are inherently indeterminate and that we need not repeat the tragic mistakes of the past. This approach also suggests New Zealand should emphasise ‘open polylateralism’: a commitment to permanent partnerships in international affairs and open multilateral architectures that do not exclude other states. This consciously runs counter to the foreign policy theory and approach known as realism, which hold that states only have interests, not permanent friends or allies. This is not an academic point: closed multilateral and security architectures generate feelings of insecurity amongst others, creating pressures to form countervailing alliances. This brings us back to the system-transcendent goals of strategic liberalism which, initially, could be directed towards overcoming security dilemmas in the Asia-Pacific region.

As it relates to North Korea, a maximalist objective through this framework would be for New Zealand to try play an instrumental role in supporting continued diplomatic efforts between the US and North Korea. As a first step, New Zealand could put itself forward as a location for an upcoming US-North Korean summit to promote cooperation and confidence building between them. In this, New Zealand can utilise its remote geographic position as neutral ground, as well as championing its historic role as a fair-minded honest broker, as Peters noted in Otago, and presumably contributed to the DPRK’s willingness to meet with Peters in 2007. Additionally, North Korean citizens apparently have more positive feelings about New Zealand than they do other western nations owing to Wellington’s anti-nuclear policy, hydropower expertise, and different foreign policy compared to that of the US and Australia.72

New Zealand could construct an explicit reassurance programme to promote between the US and North Korea. This would involve incremental step-by-step efforts in the military and non-military realms, centred on reciprocal restraint, in an effort to build trust and create a cycle of cooperation. Here, Wellington could draw upon the literature on ‘reassurance’ whereby initial signals act as feelers and require a corresponding reaction to induce further steps.73 The most significant signals involve a state opting to unilaterally decrease its forces and engage in joint arms control efforts to modify military postures and capabilities in a way that decreases the ability of states to challenge the status quo.74 Ultimately, reciprocal concessions must reach a point that makes it clear that neither state is considering attack or aggression.

Relatedly, New Zealand could champion an interesting proposal outlined by the military and legal scholar, Professor Philip Bobbitt. Bobbit has published a series of essays where he proposed China extend its nuclear umbrella over North Korea so that Pyong-yang had less incentives to pursue a nuclear weapons program and China is reassured that it’s role is cemented in the diplomatic process.75 In turn, the US nuclear umbrella over its allies would remain. While this risks locking in ‘spheres of influence’, and the DPRK could prove resistant owing to its view that foreign states are unreliable, Bobbitt concludes that all the other options – (1) sanctions and threats,