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

another. This resulted in Russia banning dairy imports from Europe, leading to thousands of tonnes of additional dairy products dumped on the international market that halved milk prices and decreased dairy prices overall that have yet to return (except for butter) to pre-crisis levels.13 It also forced former Trade Minister Tim Groser to make a sudden departure from Moscow in August 2014, despite being only 24 hours from signing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan (the FTA was expected to deliver $27 million to the New Zealand economy annually and to ensure New Zealand would not be treated less favourably than other economies. The FTA remains in limbo).14 As such, while Russia’s seizure of Crimea and activity in eastern Ukraine was at odds with New Zealand’s interest of seeing a rules-based international system that rejects territorial conquest sustained, it also damaged New Zealand’s economic interests and impeded a once-promising relationship between Wellington and Moscow. It is likely that a conflict on the Korean peninsula – while it would differ to that in Eastern Europe – would have negative global political and economic consequences that, in turn, would threaten New Zealand’s economic and political interests.

The status quo of a divided peninsula living under the threat of war cannot be sustained in perpetuity while, in the background, the changing balance of power between the US and China creates an uncertain environment for all stakeholders. Indeed, in many ways, as China’s power continues to rise relative to the US, the North Korea issue may very well constitute a test of an emerging US-China centric world order; the true test case as to whether they are able to manage major international issues jointly or whether a zero-sum competition will prevail. In the latter scenario, both sides will attempt to settle issues in ways that benefit them and that come at the expense of the other power. As the February 2010 WikiLeaks cables noted, China would only be comfortable with a reunified Korea if it is part of a benign alliance that is not hostile to Beijing. This implores small states like New Zealand to try encouraging these states to cooperate and work to reduce as many points of international friction as possible. As such, New Zealand, and the region, would benefit by continued dialogue and incremental steps towards DPRK denuclearisation, and indeed eventual Korean reunification. The chapter now turns its attention to North Korea, providing context through a brief consideration of its historical experience as a buffer state before outlining its quest to acquire nuclear weapons.

The Tragedy of a Buffer State

It is important to recognise that the DPRK’s efforts to develop an indigenous nuclear deterrent cannot be divorced from the Korean peninsula’s geographic location that make the two Koreas – but especially the north given its isolation and economic weak- ness – relatively weak ‘buffer states’ caught between more powerful states. The DPRK is located on the northern portion of the Korean peninsula – a peninsula that juts out from the Asian mainland between the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea – and it shares a land-border with China along the Amnok River, Russia along the Tumen River, and with South Korea along the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).