North Korea, the risks of isolation

Last week I had the opportunity to listen to Prof. Remco Breuker and his views on North Korea and recent developments on the Korean peninsula. I have been following him for some time through Twitter and as it turns out we are fellow Japanologists. Though I suppose we both hide that well – Remco Breuker has gone over to the Korean side, while most of my professional life over the past few years has been focused on China.

The lecture was very timely as of course the Korean peninsula is causing quite some headaches again. One of the reasons for my fascination with East Asia is in large part to do with the immense variety of the countries in the region: six countries with completely different political, economic and social systems.

The North Korean state is the one that possibly is the most puzzling in the region to most outside observers. Isolated, poor, but with a large population, large reserves of minerals and a definite streak of independence. And again the country is causing problems by renouncing the cease-fire with South-Korea, and testing its long range missiles every few months or so. Remco Breuker gave us some more background on why this is happening, and gave some interesting insights and thoughts. Some examples:

> Unification is growing more unlikely, not only because of the immense financial cost involved but research in South Korea is showing increasingly that in fact younger generations in South Korea don’t look at the North anymore as being of the same country. As Remco Breuker put it: they are South Koreans, not Koreans.

> No one wants any kind of armed conflict on the Peninsula, but in the current situation unintended escalation is an easy risk.

> Engagement is the only way to get any further in this process. Increasing sanctions on North Korea is only making things worse, as to the people in North Korea it confirms what they know of the outside world: everyone, especially the US, wants to destroy North Korea. However, engagement will not be easy – and to quote Churchill will have to be “failure after failure after failure”. It may also mean that some people in the regime will not get the punishment (straight away) they deserve as the first and foremost objective should be to improve conditions in the country itself for its population. It may be necessary to engage exactly those people who are responsible for the current situation to get there.

There is no easy solution, and there is definitely not an easy way out of the prospect of North Korea becoming a nuclear power. In Breuker’s view this will be something we will have to deal with, as it looks unlikely/impossible that this will be bargained off the table.

Especially the discussion on the role of the regional powers such as Japan and China was a part that I would’ve liked to go on for longer. The complexities of the region are many, and some aspects of it are not really understood here at all. Again, the abduction issue was brought up – the topic of my MA/MSc thesis – which is still having an effect on the Japanese position towards North Korea. I guess some things never change: what may look like an insignificant issue to us in faraway Europe means everything to a resolution that may or may not come.

I wonder what the future will hold for the region, a unified Korea – or two countries continuing to go in a very different direction?

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