North Korea’s attempted rocket launch in April was just the latest example of a country accustomed to reneging on international agreements, a panel of security experts told the East-West Center International Media conference in Seoul last Sunday.
The panel on Northeast Asian Security Issues touched on a wide range of topics, most of which related to North Korea, but it all boiled down to two words: distrust and misunderstanding.
“Since the first [North Korean] nuclear crisis broke out in the early 1990s, there have been repetitions of breakthroughs and breakdowns in the negotiation process,” said Ambassador Lim Sungnam, head of the South Korean delegation to the stalled Six Party Talks aimed at North Korean denuclearization.
China’s consistent support of North Korea enables the Pyonyang regime to flout international law, the panelists said, adding that Beijing views its support as a way to balance a region that Beijing sees as increasingly hostile.
South Korea’s efforts to increase coordination with the United States and Japan as a concerted effort to counter North Korea “has created a new regional order that China perceives that as a way of returning to the old Cold War structure,” said Moon Chung In, professor of political science at Yonsei University. “That’s bad news.”
“Beijing has shown a pattern of rewarding [North Korea’s] bad behavior,” said Peter Beck, South Korea country representative for the Asia Foundation. “China has shown – year in, year out – that it will steadfastly stand by North Korea, no matter what North Korea does, short of starting a war. If North Korea starts a war, I think China will watch.”
Although the North Korean leadership may often seem irrational to Western eyes, Beck said, self-preservation will always be a guiding force.
“It just makes no sense sometimes, but … the North Korean regime wants to survive, and, in that sense, will behave in a rational manner,” he said. “But if the regime has a death wish, if they think they’re going down, all bets are off.”
However, he said he doesn’t see that as a likely scenario in the immediate future. “What I worry about is not that North Korea has a death wish, but that they could miscalculate,” he said. “Koreans of all stripes are masters of brinksmanship, but the problem with brinksmanship is sometimes you go off the edge.”
Beck appealed to the journalists in attendance not to “get North Korea wrong.”
“Notice I did not say ‘get North Korea right,’ he added. “I don’t know how to get North Korea right.”
Beck said he doesn’t think internal forces will topple the Kim dynasty anytime soon.
“There are many in the media who say North Korea is unstable,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the correct word. I think what we face with North Korea is a lot of uncertainty right now, particularly regarding Kim Jung Un – who he is, what he really thinks, who he listens to and, most importantly, what path he will be choosing in the months and years to come.”
— Reporting by Adam Aton, Missouri School of Journalism