North Korea Poses a Very Real Dilemma

North Korean behaviour has gotten so bad, according to East-West Center Visiting (EWC) Fellow Victor Cha, that foreign policy experts are really at a loss about what to do.

You do want to have some sort of diplomacy or engagement, but what do you do if a country just refuses to engage, and in the meantime it continues to build nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles?” Cha said during an interview at the EWC’s recent 50th Anniversary International Conference. “It’s a real dilemma. This is really a case of a country that is operating outside the normal bounds of international relations. And when use of force is really difficult to contemplate as an option, what are you supposed to do?”
Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University and former National Security Council Director of Asian Affairs, Cha is an often-quoted commentator on North Korean issues. He is a regular participant in East-West Center policy dialogues and is currently pursing research as an EWC visiting fellow.
Here is a brief interview with him at the EWC conference on July 4:

You were part of an independent task force put together by the Council on Foreign Relations, which last month published a study recommending that the Obama administration prioritize its approach to plan for possible effects of volatility in North Korea. Can you elaborate?
Some of the press coverage has sort of been saying the report is very critical of the Obama administration, which I don’t think is an accurate reading of the report. The report showed a wide variety of opinions with no very clear, strong direction about what to do, which I think reflects the state of play in terms of the policy problem today.
North Korean behavior has gotten so bad that people are really at a loss about what to do, because you don’t want to go to war, right? You do want to have some sort of diplomacy or engagement, but what do you do if a country just refuses to engage, and in the meantime it continues to build nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles?
It’s a real dilemma. This is really a case of a country that is operating outside the normal bounds of international relations. And when use of force is really difficult to contemplate as an option, what are you supposed to do?

The report talks about potential repercussions for China and South Korea if instability or regime change were to occur in North Korea. How do you see a scenario like that playing out?
I think everybody’s worried that with North Korean leadership that is both sick and unpredictable, there’s real potential for instability. Right now I don’t think we are well prepared for that.
If anything, the Chinese are doing their best to hedge against change, which is not the most productive role for them to be playing in Asia. As a great power in Asia, they have to contribute to things that promote stability, not perpetuate a situation that creates instability. They should be trying to help solve the problem, not allowing it to continue just because it basically doesn’t hurt them. It’s very parochial thinking.

Do you think we need to be preparing more for some sort of military action?
I’m not worried about military conflict, but I think basically many members of the task force believe the US and other countries need to start having a serious but quiet dialogue about what to do if there is some sort of instability in Korea.
We just can’t just do this ourselves. We have to do it with Koreans, Japanese and particularly the Chinese, because it becomes a huge coordination issue.
I think there’s no doubt that if the North were to collapse what the final state would be – it would be unified under the South. The question is, how do you get to that point in a way that doesn’t create all sorts of insecurity spirals and miscalculation. That’s what you want to avoid.

The report recommends that the countries involved in the suspended Six Party Talks – the US, China, Japan, Russia, North Korea and South Korea ­ really need to work together to get back to the table. What can be done to get the talks back on track?
The first thing is there needs to be some accountability by the North for the actions that they’ve taken. Once you have some accountability and the North and the South are able to re-engage in normal dialogue, then you have the basis for going back to the Six Party Talks. We’ve never had Six Party sessions when North-South relations have been bad.
It’s not going to be easy, quite honestly. The last time we had a round of the Six-Party Talks was December 2008. That’s a long time ago.

The Honolulu-based EAST-WEST CENTER promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research and dialogue.

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