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

(2) a military strike by the US to ‘solve’ the problem and (3) containment of Pyongyang that inevitably leads Japan and the ROK to go nuclear – do not establish a basis for long-term success. After rejecting the alternatives, Bobbitt makes his case for a nuclear guarantee to be provided to Pyongyang by China. This, itself, would not solve the situation, rather it would be the foundation for an additional series of initiatives to be pursued, one of which would be a US-organised conference to include the Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia. The objective from the outset would be to end the Korean War and codify final borders.

Clearly, a diplomatic breakthrough that leads to a denuclearised Korea would conform with Wellington’s longstanding, and recently re-energised, dedication to nuclear non- proliferation. A fully nuclearized, yet still isolated, North Korea will ensure conflict remains a possibility and regional tensions high. Yet, there are also wider regional implications to any resolution. As such, the best outcome would be an agreement that includes all regional players, and not one where Seoul and Washington resolve the crisis without Beijing sitting at the table. This could simply lead to the solution to one long-standing crisis but the emergence of another, as the US-China strategic competition moves to centre stage with Beijing chaffing at being humiliated and potentially strategically disadvantaged by being excluded from a diplomatic resolution on its doorstep. This is the hidden danger of success. At a minimum, to the extent New Zealand has a voice and is willing to use it, it should encourage negotiations that include all the major states in Northeast Asia.


To explain that Pyongyang’s efforts to develop a nuclear deterrent to secure its survival is not to be an apologist for a brutal regime. Rather, it is to understand that North Korea’s nuclear quest as being a response to a hostile and unforgiving environment, un- reliable ‘allies’, and to a history dictated by its geography that has made it a buffer state vulnerable to the predations of external powers. While North Korea cannot be comfored by the changes it sees taking place all around it, at the same time, a number of factors appear to be driving the interests of the DPRK, the ROK, and the US closer together. In this instance, uncertainty, threat and Trump’s ability to break norms has created a foundation for transforming the diplomatic status quo. Given the record of diplomacy, there is no certainty that current efforts will succeed but seeing them do so is in New Zealand’s national interests: a shock in Northeast Asia could throw the global economy into a tailspin; or a direct military confrontation between regional states – or with the US – could force New Zealand to make decisions in favour of one party that hurts its relations with others; and New Zealand’s military could be embroiled in a coalition or UN response to conflict. As such, Wellington should work to support diplomatic efforts to the extent it can while encouraging efforts that ensure all the major regional players have a say in the eventual outcome. An inclusive peace on the peninsula could be sustainable and contribute towards an emerging world order founded on great power cooperation between the US and China;