On 13 October, Seoul will host the third Australia – Republic of Korea foreign and defence ministerial (2+2) consultations. While topics to be discussed include cybersecurity, border security and maritime safety, North Korea will dominate the agenda.
One prominent question posed will be whether Australia can support Seoul’s North Korea policy.
Australia has traditionally followed the US on North Korea. Australian government officers routinely reiterate views so similar to Washington’s that South Korean officials wonder if a distinct Australian position actually exists. Australian strategists often fancy Australia to be under direct threat as the 51st state, and a sensible understanding of policy, defence procurement, budgeting and risk assessment—let alone an understanding of the Korean peninsula—disappears when North Korea’s missiles are discussed. Meanwhile, in the Australian media, sensationalism and trivialisation leave little room for thoughtful policy debate.
However, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Canberra to follow Washington’s position on North Korea. The Trump administration lacks a clear policy. It has no recognised specialists advising on Korean affairs, no assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, and no ambassador in Seoul. Under Trump, US policy has been replaced by thought bubbles blaming previous administrations or tweets exacerbating the crisis and sowing doubt among allies. Hopeful commentary defending the president’s handling of the crisis as ‘madman theory’ or a ‘calculated misinformation strategy’ neglect the long-term impact on deterrence, negotiation and key regional allies.
Sanctions, pressure and bombastic rhetoric contribute to the likelihood of miscalculation and increase the risk of conflict. Needless to say, conflict—and the associated regional economic downturn, political instability and prospect of direct involvement—is not in Australia’s interest. As with any major conflict, it could also result in long-term strategic uncertainty with unforeseen results, such as a US withdrawal from the region, Chinese hegemony or aggressive Japanese rearmament.
South Korea’s position is much clearer. It seeks to encourage engagement, a return to the status quo, and ultimately a long-term policy change in North Korea.
From a public administration perspective, policy is set in motion by political choices that reflect the national interest. Path dependence makes change difficult: parameters established in an initial trajectory constrain and influence subsequent courses of policy action. Change occurs only when a combination of drivers makes maintaining the status quo more difficult.
We can assume that North Korea’s decision to speed up its nuclear and missile programs derives from some combination of exogenous shock (heightened threat perception following US intervention in Iraq, Libya and Syria), cumulative exogenous change (incapacity to compete with regional economic growth, technological change and military modernisation), incremental endogenous change (decreased political and social stability resulting from marketisation, information flows and political illegitimacy), and endogenous shock (decreased stability under new leadership).
The US approach, with its focus on sanctions, pressure and rhetoric, addresses only one of the drivers of policy change. Encouraging policy change requires a strategy that addresses multiple drivers, as Moon Jae-in recognised and articulated in his 6 July address to the Korber Foundation in Berlin.
Moon’s plan addresses North Korea’s heightened threat perception by pursuing military dialogue, putting restraints on military exercises, and ultimately negotiating a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice. It addresses North Korea’s incapacity to compete through economic cooperation, such as the Mt Kumgang tourism project, the Kaesong joint industrial zone, and ultimately joint and regional resource, energy and logistics projects. It addresses decreased political and social stability through humanitarian assistance, family reunions, and cessation of propaganda. Finally, it addresses decreased stability through bilateral and multilateral policy dialogue and ultimately a bilateral leadership summit.
Inevitably, Moon’s plan invites comparison with the Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. The Sunshine Policy has attracted criticism. It was overly politicised, its cooperation projects were economically unviable and separated from the North Korean economy and people, it pumped illicit funds into North Korea in return for ultimately ineffectual political meetings, and it didn’t prevent several provocations or nuclear weapons and missile development.
But today’s North Korea is very different. Marketisation has enhanced Pyongyang’s preparedness for economic cooperation. Today’s South Korea is also different. The public demands accountability, transparency and evidence-based policy. Having learned from past mistakes, Seoul is designing future engagement strategies that will seek to decrease politicisation, increase connections to the broader economy, and encourage international engagement. Importantly, it will seek institutionalisation to ensure continuity across presidential administrations in order to avoid constraints imposed on engagement as a result of alliance politics.
The aim of any engagement strategy is to open opportunities to encourage long-term policy change. A recent study by CSIS demonstrated that during 25 years of US – North Korea nuclear negotiations, provocations decreased during periods of negotiation. Essentially, diplomacy restrains provocative action. Moon’s plans are strategic, evidence-based and well thought out, but still lack timing.
Engagement requires a reduction in tension. That may ultimately require awarding North Korea interim recognition as a nuclear-weapon state in return for a freeze on testing activities, or some other form of security agreement to shore up Kim Jong-un’s political status. In the meantime, Moon is following a well-worn path of firm resolve, restraint, conflict avoidance and, where possible, close coordination with the United States—a path that has maintained peace on the Korean peninsula for 60 years. Scarily, the Trump administration appears to have departed from that path.
Moon’s approach is currently the only viable policy put forward to address an important regional issue, which concerns Australia’s economic, security and strategic interests. Australia could disengage, and effectively play its own version of strategic neglect in the hope that the crisis abates. But to actively promote Australia’s interests, the question becomes not whether, but how Australia can better support Seoul’s North Korea policy.
As published on the Australian Strategic Policy Institute blog The Strategist on 11 October 2017.