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North Korea’s Quest for WMD: Implications for Asia and Dilemma for the United States

North Korea’s Quest for WMD: Implications for Asia and Dilemma for the United States
Date/Time: Jul 08, 2007 / 5.00pm

Setting the background, Professor Lee Chung Min started his lecture with the reminder that no other region in the world has the same combination of powerful rising economies and states of regime failure as in Asia.  The question is what Asia’s economic rise, combined with a huge accumulation of military power, means for stability in the region.

He outlined the key questions surrounding North Korea’s nuclear test, first providing possible reasons why Kim Jong Il would want to have nuclear weapons, then why Kim Jong Il would want to conduct nuclear testing.  He noted that there are not many policy options left.  Unfortunately, South Korea suffers a denial mentality regarding the threat that North Korea represents to the region.  By continuing with an aid policy, South Korea has become, as Professor Lee calls it, “the ATM of North Korea”.  While South Korea believes there is a need to engage North Korea, it makes no attempt to seek assurance that North Korea will use the aid for humanitarian purposes.  And while sanctions are a policy option, no one wants the military option because the US believes that it will lead to another Korean war.

The next question is what this means for the future of non-proliferation.  Will Japan go nuclear despite being one of the major players in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT)?  Both the Japanese and South Korean governments could take the option of nuclearising, and can do so quickly.  However, Professor Lee’s assessment is that both countries probably would not as this would quickly destroy their alliance with the US.

Some comments from the Q&A segment:

Q: The Americans seem undecided on whether they want to see containment or regime change in North Korea.  Can Kim Jong Il hold under this situation?

LCM: Regime change from the outside is impossible due to the power triangle of the dynasty, communism and the military.  Kim Jong Il must be ousted by a coup, or die of natural causes.  In the latter case, Kim Jong Il’s two sons could take over and continue the regime, though that would likely draw more attention to the irony of a dynastic communism.     

Q: While the current situation will probably not lead to nuclear proliferation, what could happen?

LCM: The NPT from the 1970’s kept the lid on nuclear proliferation up until Pakistan and North Korea.  North Korea is a death blow to the NPT.  The Iranians know that the only way they can be stopped is by a pre-emptive attack from Israel, but Israel is not seen as having the political will to do so.  We can be sure thatIran is closely monitoring North Korea now; learning lessons as the situation unfolds to gauge the implications for Iran

A worrying possibility is if countries are determined to obtain nuclear weapons, will North Korea be a collaborator?  Or worse yet, will it join up with terrorist networks such as the Al-Qaeda?

Q: Is it overly optimistic to expect that North Korea will give up its trump card of a nuclear programme?  If the Kim Jong Il dynasty continues, how long can the cognitive dissonance last? How possible is a coup given North Korea’s powerful intelligence?

LCM: Chechnya had also thought it was strong, but there are always cracks in the system.  With food supply failure, desperate structural change should come.  Furthermore, the dynastic system is unheard of in communism.  At best, North Korea could adapt to the Vietnamese model of communism. 

Q: My impression is that China perpetuates the North Korean situation.  What is your view on the Chinese position?

LCM: While China used to exploit the North Korean situation, under Hu Jintao, I believe this is changing.  China has finally realised that if North Korea goes nuclear, it will provide Japan with an incentive to rearm, which is bad for China’s long-term interests.

Q: Given recent reports of large numbers of North Korean refugees in Thailand and Vietnam, do you foresee more escaping to seek refuge?

LCM: These North Korean refugees escape to places like Thailand and Myanmar enroute to South Korea.  It is unlikely there will be more.

Q: Was North Korea’s presence at this year’s ASEAN Regional Forum with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice of any use or should we put it to a side?

LCM: Even if, realistically speaking, nothing gets resolved, there is always room for dialogue.  It is always good to keep the communication pipelines open.

Q: The troops alliance of South Korea and the US is distancing.  Can the alliance be put back right?

LCM: The South Korea and US threat perception of North Korea has diverged widely.  South Korea’s younger generation does not remember the Korean War toll.  But South Korea is realising the threat of North Korea, and will drive the South Korea-US alliance closer in the longer term.

Q: With the realisation that the Sunshine Policy is not going to work, and the impending government change, what is the future of the Sunshine Policy?

LCM: Many academics support the Sunshine Policy.  Though I am pro-engagement, I do not support the Sunshine Policy for the following reasons: First, there is no guarantee that aid is going to meet humanitarian needs, and not instead to feeding the army machinery.  Second, the unconditional aid of the Sunshine Policy makes the policy an overly emotional one.  Based on the simplistic argument of Korean brotherhood, the Sunshine Policy does not link North Korea’s behaviour with aid.

Q: With the human suffering in North Korea, how sustainable is Kim Jong Il’s policy of using WMD?

LCM: I can’t guess, but the regime likely has a maximum shelf life of another ten years.  Given that North Korea is currently surviving on Chinese aid and South Korean largesse, once this combination is gone, North Korea will suffer tremendous combustion.  I believe change will come from within the ruling circles, not through popular uprising.

Q: Could you provide some crystal-ball gazing for North Korea?

LCM: All roads will lead to collapse because I don’t believe North Korea’s ideology is a sustainable concept.  Either the military will come in to introduce Park Chung Hee-style reforms, or banana republic reforms will cause the regime to collapse.  Once doubts become ripples and ripples become oceans, North Korea’s collapse will be inevitable.  In South Korea of course, many thinkers see North Korea’s collapse as a nightmare scenario because of the certain influx of refugees it will bring.


Profile of speaker

Currently a visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (NUS), Professor Lee Chung Min has researched extensively on Korean and East Asian security and defense; WMD trends in Northeast Asia; and US defense and foreign policy. Professor Lee has over 150 published articles on the subject matter. Previously, Professor Lee has also held posts as Director of the Division of International Education and Exchange; Co-Director of the Air Power Programme and Associate Dean for External Cooperation at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea. He has a M.A.L.D and Ph.D. from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy atTufts UniversityMassachusettsUSA. Professor Lee currently sits as member of various Advisory boards; including the ROK National Emergency Planning Commission; the ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade; and the ROK Air Force.

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