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

New Zealand’s interests are in a stable and secure Asia-Pacific, and thus it has voiced its support for recent diplomatic efforts.2 Owing to an interconnected and interdependent international system, the consequences of crises and conflicts in distant regions do not stay localised. Rather, they cascade outwards to affect the interests of far-flung states, including New Zealand. Thus, to the extent it can, New Zealand’s interests dictate that it should contribute actively towards the success of diplomacy on the Korean peninsula. With the above in mind, this paper seeks to make a contribution to New Zealand policymakers, academics and security practitioners’ understanding of the North Korean issue. Additionally, it outlines a conceptual (and self-avowedly idealistic) framework to act as a guide for diplomats and officials as they look to calibrate New Zealand’s approach to ongoing tensions and diplomacy over the Korean peninsula. This article adopts a blended theoretical approach afforded by the integrative potential inherent in ‘strategic liberalism’. While realism is used in parts to explain and examine the North Korean crisis, it must be recognized that material factors and systemic pressures are not the sole determinant of state actions (Waltz, 1979); strategic futures are not pre-determined and liberal tenets are a fulcrum for states to take action to improve their collective security, thus recognising and advancing national interests. The recommendation section of this article advances from this understanding.

This article makes its contribution through five steps. First, it considers the interrelationship between New Zealand’s interests and the simmering crisis on the Korean peninsula. Second, it provides some geographic context, explaining that North Korea is a victim of its location that has made it a ‘buffer state’ between larger powers. Third, it provides a history of the DPRK’s quest to acquire a nuclear deterrent, and touches upon the question of whether North Korea, labelled by some a ‘rogue state’, is an irrational actor or one responding to structural incentives. Fourth, it examines the recent rounds of diplomacy that began in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential election, and outlines a number of factors that make the context for negotiations different this time. Fifth, a conceptual approach, called ‘strategic liberalism,’3 is proffered as a framework New Zealand could embrace. The paper concludes by asserting that North Korea’s nuclear quest is part of a rational response to an unforgiving environment and secondly that seeing diplomacy succeed is in New Zealand’s interests. Lastly this article identifies some risks of greater engagement and warns that an inclusive peace, rather than one that excludes key regional players such as China, is essential if a long-term peace is to be secured.

New Zealand’s Interests

In 2001 New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark stated that New Zealand was “the most strategically secure country in the world.”4 Whether that was true at the time is debatable, yet it communicated a basic fact: New Zealand is geographically remote and, as a consequence, does not face many of the traditional security concerns that confront other states. However, since Clark’s statement, the onward march of globalisation has resulted in an increasingly interdependent and interconnected international system whereby geopolitical crises and events can cascade and wreak havoc throughout the system. As such, whatever security distance affords New Zealand its interests, across a range of levels, are connected to stability in distant regions, including Northeast Asia.

The recent 2018 Strategic Defence Policy Statement identifies North Korea as “a critical disarmament and non-proliferation challenge.”5 Specifically, it’s continued nuclear and missile development efforts are viewed as increasing the chances for conflict on the peninsula and for horizontal proliferation (regionally this refers to Japan and South Korea, and beyond that to Iran) to take place.6 As such, it states that it is in “New Zealand’s interests to support efforts towards denuclearisation,” with the recent inter-Korean and US-North Korea summits cited as positive steps.7 The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affair’s Strategic Intentions 2018 also welcomed “the shift from extreme tension on the Korean Peninsula” following the summits, while also noting “denuclearisation of North Korea remains a challenging, long-term goal.” It continues: “New Zealand will also play its part in helping to resolve situations that are destabilising the Asia-Pacific region,” which presumably includes North Korea, and seeks to promote nuclear disarmament.These efforts have been bolstered by the