Global Policy Forum

Why N Korea’s Neighbors Soft-Pedal Sanctions


By Andrei Lankov*

Asia Times
November 29, 2006

Negotiators from the United States, Japan and South Korea have begun talks in Beijing with their Chinese counterpart in an effort to restart the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program. This at least is one positive development after Pyongyang's first underground nuclear test on October 9.

The six-party talks, involving the two Koreas, the US, China, Russia and Japan, are aimed at finding a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the North Korea nuclear issue. The negotiations stalled last November, but North Korea agreed last month to rejoin, although no date has been set. However, beyond this, it does not appear that South Korean leaders and their allies are willing to deliver the promised punishment for Pyongyang going ahead with its test.

A few days after the nuclear explosion in a remote North Korean mine, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1718, which condemned the test and introduced a sanction regime against the reclusive country. Even North Korea's longtime protectors China and Russia issued suitably harsh-worded statements, so some observers began to talk about how the solidarity of the outraged world would press North Koreans into surrendering their newly acquired nuclear weapons.

However, soon the world learned news that cast grave doubts about willingness of Beijing or Seoul to fight the new nuclear menace. In spite of all the rhetoric, most neighbors of North Korea continued their economic cooperation with the supposed "outcast" regime, and in most cases this cooperation is based on unilateral economic concessions to Pyongyang.

To put it simply, both Beijing and Seoul continued to feed the nuke-armed North Korea as if nothing had happened. In a strict sense, they are not breaking the letter of the UN resolution, which dealt with a limited scope of items anyway: weapons and luxury goods.

The Security Council resolution has had no impact on the economic activity in the remote northeastern corner of North Korea where Russians and Chinese are building transportation infrastructure for future industrial-development projects. As was planned before the nuclear test, the Russians began repairing a dilapidated railway line, while the Chinese continued with their highway-construction project.

The lively exchanges continued between North and South Korea, even though Seoul is supposed to be Pyongyang's main enemy and main target of the newly acquired nukes. There were no delays in the normal operations of the Kumgang (also transliterated Geumgang) project, a joint tourist venture on the border between two Koreas. Every day many hundreds of South Korean tourists travel about 20 kilometers into the North to visit the picturesque mountains and spend a few days there, leaving their currency in the accounts of the North Korean government. The project has always been a major money-earner for the cash-hungry North. The Americans tried to stop Kumgang operations, but the South Koreans refused, and business continued as usual.

Soon after the nuclear test, another joint project had a minor celebration. It was reported this month that a number of the North Korean workers employed by South Korean companies in Gaesong industrial park exceeded the 10,000 mark. Gaesong industrial park is the largest cooperative venture between two Koreas. It is the place where South Korean capital and technology use cheap North Korean labor to produce internationally competitive stuff - or at least this is what is supposed to be going on there.

In spite of optimistic talk, so far the project has been a money-losing enterprise for the Southerners, and most companies stay in Gaesong only because their government is willing to back them financially. Thus the Americans have some reasons to see the project as yet another device for pumping money toward the rogue regime. Still, Seoul, even when it talked tough, did not do anything to slow down the project. On the contrary, the Gaesong project is growing fast, and so, one might suspect, are revenues it provides to the Pyongyang regime.

It is also clear that South Korea will not become an active participant of the Proliferation Security Initiative. This means it will not take part in inspections for nuclear material hidden aboard North Korean ships that will be stopped at sea.

By now it has become patently clear. No international sanction regime against North Korea worthy of its name is in place, and there is no chance that such regime will emerge in future. China, Russia and, above all, South Korea do not want to punish North Korea for going nuclear.

This shows a major divergence of interests between the United States and Japan, on one side, and three other major players - China, Russia and South Korea - on other. The US, being the sole superpower, has to think globally, and North Korean nukes do not bode well for the global future.

With Pyongyang going nuclear, the chances of proliferation have increased greatly, and it is only a question of time before other rogue states will start acquiring their own nuclear weapons. Thus it is in the US interests to use whatever means available to eradicate North Korean nukes. This also might indeed be in the interest of the world community at large.

However, none of the other players is a superpower, and their concerns are necessarily local, not global. This is not to say that Russia, China or South Korea is happy about increasing prospects of nuclear proliferation. After all, radioactive fallout does not stop at national borders, and economies of the region seriously depend on the whims of the world market. Nevertheless, their concerns are largely local.

Proliferation for them is a bit like the ozone hole or global warning - an unpleasant process they cannot do much about anyway. However, local considerations make these countries take a very moderate and forgiving stance on the North Korean nuclear program.

China is not happy about a nuclear North Korea, but probably sees it a lesser evil than a unified Korea that is likely to be under US influence and will perhaps even have US military bases. Beijing does not want this. It also does not want a collapse of another state under communist rule - this might be a bad news for domestic propagandists.

And last but not least, in recent years Chinese companies have moved into North Korea, taking over mining and infrastructure, so such gains need be protected as well. At the same time, the North Korean nukes are not seen by Chinese strategists as an immediate problem: the Chinese assume (correctly, perhaps) that these weapons will never target China and will not be transferred to China's enemies. So for China, keeping North Korea afloat is a strategic imperative.

In recent months Beijing has undertaken some steps to show Pyongyang its dissatisfaction with ongoing nuclear and missile developments. Few North Korean defectors were allowed to fly from China straight to the US, the amount of aid was reduced, and the price of oil was increased. Widely hailed as signs of Chinese determination to stamp out the North Korean nuclear program, these measures, however, seem to have been carefully calculated to inflict inconveniences but not to result in a collapse of the system. In most cases, it is still "business as usual", and there is no significant reduction in the number of trucks and trains that every day cross the bridges of the Yalu River.

Russia is not a major player in the Korean game nowadays, but it has some leverage as a potential "blockade breaker". Without sincere cooperation from Russia, no efficient sanctions regime will be possible, and such cooperation seems unlikely. Moscow does not want the North Korean regime to collapse. The country's leader Kim Jong-il is potentially useful for numerous diplomatic combinations, and also as a deterrent against the Americans, who are increasingly seen by President Vladimir Putin's Moscow as dangerous global bullies.

However, it is South Korea whose policy is decisive in these issues. Indeed, in recent years North Korea was kept afloat by generous Southern aid, with some 500,000 tons of grain and a large amount of other supplies being sent north every year. This aid saved countless lives in the North, but it also contributed to keeping the regime in control.

It has been clear for a decade that South Korea, in spite of all the rhetoric, does not want unification to happen too fast or too soon. The German experience demonstrated how vastly expensive unification might become, and Koreans have good reasons to believe that their situation is much worse than that of Germany. After all, the per capita gross national product in East Germany was roughly half of the West German level, while in the case of North Korea, per capita GNP is less than one-tenth of the South Korean level.

When Seoul politicians try to envisage what unification would look like, they think not about nationwide celebration of unity, but rather about a crushing financial burden and floods of refugees. Thus it is understandable that they want to postpone unification to some uncertain but distant future, on assumption that North Korea will develop its economy somehow so the gap between two countries will become less yawning. However, in order to develop, North Korea has to survive first, and this means that its current regime should not be pushed too hard.

The Western public often assumes that common South Koreans should be terrified by the North Korean nukes, but this is not really the case. It was remarkable to see how little impact the Northern nuclear test had on daily life in Seoul. During October, North Korean nukes were not even a topic of street conversation any more than results of some baseball game. There are good reasons for such calm.

First of all, there is a widespread belief in Seoul than North Korea will not attack unless seriously provoked. Second, there is somewhat naive belief that North Koreans, being nationalists, would not use any weapon of mass destruction against fellow Koreans. This belief appears to be unfounded. After all, the North Korean regime has slaughtered far more Koreans than any foreign invader in the country's long history. However, such belief is much present in Seoul and to some extent is encouraged by North Korean propaganda and its faithful parrots in the South.

Third, the nuclear weapons per se did not increase the threats to the South too greatly. About half of the country's population, some 23 million people, are inhabitants of Greater Seoul, and more or less the entire metropolitan area lies within the range of North Korean artillery. At least 5,000 artillery tubes are amassed in what in essence are the northern suburbs of the city, so a couple of crude nuclear devices, even if used against Seoul, would not change the balance of death too much.

Thus from the South Korean point of view, it is dangerous to put excessive pressure on the North. If the pressure succeeds in toppling the Kim family regime, Southerners will suffer an unprecedented economic shock. If the pressure drives Pyongyang to adventurism, it will be the Koreans who will pay the price in human lives. Proliferation is a relatively minor concern to them. Millions of Koreans will be upset for a brief while if they learn about a nuclear conflict somewhere in Middle East, but they will be far less happy if one day sounds of an artillery barrage wake them in their beds.

Hence Seoul's major goal is not to rock the boat, and this is where its objective interests come into clear contradiction with the interests of the United States, which would prefer to punish severely the breaker of the non-proliferation regime, thus reducing chances that some other country will emulate North Korea in future.

Some right-wing Americans want to believe that South Korean passivity reflects a position of the nationalist left, so powerful in Seoul these days. However, it seems that the difference in the approach reflects much more a serious divergence of two nations' interests in regard to North Korea. It seems that the left will lose the next election (not because of Northern nukes, a non-issue in South Korean domestic politics, but because of poor economic performance). Nonetheless, the would-be right-wing government will be no more willing to challenge the North, though its rhetoric might change.

Nobody wants to alienate the Americans and openly condone nuclear proliferation, hence the UN rhetoric, but nobody wants North Koreans to run into really serious trouble, hence the cautious policy of all sides involved.

Thus like many (perhaps most) exercises in "multilateral diplomacy", the sanctions regime against North Korea has been a rather pathetic failure: a lot of tough talk indeed, but no walk.

But is this really bad? Perhaps not. Judging by the experience of the 1990s when the North Korean regime was more isolated than now, economic pressures alone will not necessarily lead to its collapse. During the great famine of the late 1990s, between a half-million and a million people starved to death without causing any inconvenience to the regime. There are no reasons to believe that sanctions would achieve much either, apart from producing another famine and many more deaths.

In contrast, the ongoing exchanges bring to North Korea information about the outside world, and this information is subversive by definition, making more and more people wonder whether something should be done about their country's political and economic system, so clearly inefficient and anachronistic. Thus the current situation surrounding the so-called "sanctions" might be a rare case when the hypocrisy and duplicity of so-called "collective diplomacy" is doing more good than harm.

Early this month a market riot happened in the remote North Korean city of Hoeryong. Perhaps for the first time since 1945, a large group of North Koreans openly and vocally protested an unpopular decision of the local administration. This was a minor incident, but in the long run it might be more significant than all the meaningless invectives delivered by the well-dressed people in the UN Assembly Hall.

About the Author: Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the Faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at the Kookmin University, Seoul.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.