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In from the cold

International isolation continues to hurt North Korea's people. Photo by Joseph A Ferris III on flickr.
14 February 2013
International isolation continues to hurt North Korea's people. Photo by Joseph A Ferris III on flickr.

International isolation of North Korea is only strengthening the regime’s power and punishing a population in need, writes EMMA CAMPBELL.

When I heard about the North’s nuclear test yesterday my heart sank. It was not a great surprise as ongoing activity around the detonation site suggested that a third test was in the offing, but the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) government’s test of a nuclear device in the Northeast of the country makes the work of academics like me who support and promote economic, humanitarian and diplomatic engagement with North Korea increasingly difficult.

The likely reasons for their pursuit of a nuclear program are relatively easy to deduce: domestic and international prestige; a military deterrent against the United States, South Korea and Japan; a useful bargaining tool; and, most chillingly, the development of a lucrative nuclear technology export industry. It is suggested that as much as five per cent of the DPRK’s GDP is dedicated to the development of their nuclear program. This is in a country where recent UN reports highlights that 16 million people are living with food insecurity, acute malnutrition is returning and prevalence of tuberculosis and its drug resistant form is reaching concerning levels.

The regime bears full responsibility for the desperate state of the DPRK’s population and the development of a nuclear capacity outside of internationally agreed norms. The North Korean government must change its behaviour, address the needs of the population and abide by international law. These are not only the demands of the North’s ‘enemies’ such as the United States, Japan and South Korea, but the wider international community including the North’s ‘ally’ China.

However, the current policies of the international community led by the United States and South Korea aimed at persuading the North to change direction have failed. The DPRK believes that a nuclear capability is central to guaranteeing its security and has not been convinced by the US’s security assurances. The current policy of isolating North Korea has had limited success in promoting reform of the DPRK regime and weakening its hold on power. Further, the North’s population of 25 million continues to face considerable hardship.

The United States has not provided any meaningful humanitarian aid since 2009 and UN programs in North Korea struggle to find funds. The punishment of the North Korean population for the regime’s nuclear program only helps to bolster the claims of the DPRK government that the US and others are responsible for the plight of the North Korean people. There are now calls for China to cut off food and energy supplies to North Korea. If such policies were to be pursued, North Korea may be the first example of a humanitarian crisis where it has been considered acceptable to place responsibility upon the population in distress to reform their own government in order to receive aid.

The ongoing diplomatic isolationist stance of the United States, South Korea and Japan towards North Korea has failed to achieve the goals of moderating the North’s behaviour. No problem was ever resolved without negotiations and isolation serves only to promote the goals of the regime. Both the direct threat of the North’s nuclear capabilities and concerns about the proliferation of this technology demand that compromises be made to restart the Six-Party Talks. President-elect Park Geun-Hye’s policies to seek engagement with the North must be enthusiastically supported by South Korea’s allies. Australia finds itself in a unique position in the region with diplomatic relations with both the North and South and should act as a conduit for cooperation in collaboration with its allies the United States and South Korea. My own interactions suggest that the South Koreans would welcome such a role for Australia.

Calling for diplomatic engagement, economic ties and humanitarian support for the North Korean people does not deny the responsibility borne by the DPRK regime for the current situation. Nor does it preclude a concurrent effort amongst South Korea’s allies to cooperate on defence strategy. However, engaging does present a means for escaping the present scenario where the threat level continues to increase whilst the plight of North Korea’s population worsens. Periods of instability often encourage conservative and hawkish reactions. It is time for some bravery and creativity on the part of the international community in its dealing with a nuclear North Korea.

Dr Emma Campbell is the Korea Institute Postdoctoral Fellow in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. Her research interests include politics on the Korean peninsula, international relations and humanitarian aid and intervention.



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