Dealing with North Korea: A Process that Must Begin with Syria

North Korea refuses to de-nuclearize. Five atomic tests and endless threats of violence have passed and, neither the United States nor China have understood how to approach Kim Jong-un’s unyielding regime. Whilst the American President recently announced the termination of the era of ‘strategic patience’[1], it remains understandably unclear whether, for all his words, Mr. Trump can offer a solution that does not push the peninsula towards war. Although China has, for its own part, promised to increase pressure, it continues to maintain stable economic and political relations with its neighbour; so much so, that it seems determined to keep its neighbour afloat regardless of all else Policy appears to have reached a dead-end; hence a new approach must inevitably consider the deeper issues that are discussed in Pyongyang, and in particular, this approach must identify how the North’s thinking links to the world of contemporary international affairs.


Political scientists do not deny that fear constitutes the primary force of Jong-un ’s thinking. Following the violent overthrow and death of fellow authoritarian leaders such as Saddam Hussein and Mu’ammar Gaddafi, the North Korean leader has become adamant to deter Western powers from taking the risk of intervention. Whilst this approach constitutes a credible theory, equally, it presents an impasse in that policy can never work on North Korea because a certain external precedent (the killing of the national leader in full public view) has been set. The approach of this issue from such an angle therefore, predominantly relies upon a change of attitude appearing from within Pyongyang. This could occur as a result of two possibilities, the former if it were to be coerced into negotiating by its neighbour, or (a more unlikely possibility) that North Korea takes the initiative itself. Alternatively, this ‘new reality’ of international conduct must be broken in order to introduce a dynamic new approach towards conflict resolution that can empower a novel line of thinking within Jong-un ’s leadership.


On the 30th of September 2015, it finally became clear that the Western model of regime change has been halted the moment Russian Aerospace Forces, for the first time, engaged with the Syrian Rebels and Daesh fighters in Syria. Coupled with Chinese diplomatic assistance at the UNSC, Russia’s political and military lifeline to Assad has defied the conventional Western strategy of dealing with authoritarian leaders, and indeed it has solidified Assad’s status. There is no doubt that Kim Jong-un eyed this development carefully in order to anticipate how an international response to an internal conflict within his own country would unravel.


Under Jong-un ’s rule, North Korea has engaged relentlessly in the development of nuclear weapons and suitable delivery methods. Yet what may appear to be an aggressive strategy is in real terms a radically different policy than that of the late Kim Jong-Il. It is noteworthy to observe that Jong-un has not followed in his father’s footsteps of engaging in direct border conflicts. The naval battles of Yeonpyeong in 1999 and 2002 respectively, as well as the infamous 2010 sinking of the South Korean naval vessel ROKS Cheonan that killed 46 sailors[2] have become relics of the past. Skirmishes have continued, yet the regime has fixated itself on a prioritised doctrine of domestic defense whilst still refraining from approaching the likelihood of a direct border conflict. Nonetheless, the question remains to be asked: is this the result of a generational change in leadership, or perhaps a reaction to the cruel death of Gaddafi and the attempted removal of Assad from power? It would be inadequate to dismiss this coincidence, instead of entertaining the notion that Jong-un’s thinking has been substantially driven by events in the Middle East. As of now, Kim Jong-un is likely find himself in the same position as Assad during the early phases of the Syrian conflict; an isolated autocrat with significantly less military strength than that of Western nations. But, having seen that support from Russia and China has stabilised Assad and removed the previously likely outcome of the Syrian President being bludgeoned to death by rebels, Jong-un has found himself in a much more comfortable position than before, albeit one in which fear persists.

Regardless of the element of fear, proponents of an alternative position would point to the success of the Irani Nuclear Deal and the benefits of prolonged negotiation. Yet, one thing is clear North Korea is no Iran. As a nation with substantial political and military reach in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and arguably Oman, Iran has always enjoyed geopolitical significance coupled with the economic might it has received from its possession of immense oil and natural gas reserves. Even throughout the sanctions, the regime in Tehran never remained as isolationist as North Korea currently is, indeed Tehran extended its influence in the region, gaining the attention of both Russia and China. Whilst Gaddafi’s Libya and Sadam Hussein’s Iraq were truly international pariahs with social conditions that were ripe for revolution, a western-sponsored coup has been an unthinkable scenario in Iran, a state where genuine anti-US and anti-Western feelings run high. Iran, aware of its significance and its power, not to mention its strong cultural and religious role in the Middle East, has been fully attuned to the impracticality of a Western-induced overthrow and it engaged in negotiations knowing it had more to gain than to lose.


Even if Assad were to remain safely in power or flee towards the comfort of asylum, these outcomes would be primarily facilitated by his allied states. This is what Jong-un, arguably , does not have. Russia lacks the interest or power to commit to another support mission in North Korea, whilst China has refrained from providing military guarantees to Kim Jong-un’s regime. Nevertheless, the attempted regulation of the Syrian Civil War has introduced a new form of conflict governance in which Western powers are forced to face equally well-positioned Revisionist states that challenge the previously enjoyed American unipolarity. Far from representing a victory for the non-liberal order, Russia and China’s ascendancy has introduced a voice of critique and opposition towards the US-directed foreign policy action that has even emerged within some Western societies. As such, Non-Western regimes have found Greater Powers that are not necessarily dedicated protectors of fellow authoritarian rulers, but can contribute to more favourable negotiations in a potential conflict. If translated to the North Korean case, Russia and China’s new positions could inject new energy into the ongoing Six-Party Talks. Indeed this could even offer the possibility of a sustained diplomatic engagement in a more balanced setting. Whilst this may not fully ease Jong-un’s fear of being overthrown, the existence of a new context for discussion certainly presents a valuable basis upon which the West could engage with Kim’s regime instead of threatening it.


Understandably, the argument of this paper may be disaparaged for its neglect of the possibility of a legal pursuit of Assad’s actions or for omitting the repeated call that the Syrian leader must stand trial for war crimes. Indeed, this paper has consistently entertained the idea that the reduction of tension can be achieved through a peaceful regulation of the Syrian war and a favourable deal to Assad. In this respect, this paper aims to clarify that it recognises the unique and undeniable protection Assad enjoys as well as the highly probable prediction that his future likely does not necessarily entail persecution. Equally, it must be emphasised that our argument neither condones nor concurs with the strategy of killing national leaders to deal with unfriendly regimes (as has been done in the past). This is, according to our line of argument neither a justifiable nor an acceptable option (indeed as has been proved in Iraq amongst many other nations, this strategy inevitably sows the seeds for bloodshed as well as further civil and international discord). As an ally or as a proxy of Great Powers, Assad, just like many other leaders who held a similar position, will predictably avoid justice in an international system that continues to exist as an entity designed by and for geopolitical powers. Adherence to international law ends where national interest begins, and attempting to view Assad’s fate from another perspective would constitute a tragically fictitious view of international affairs.


Finally, whilst Kim Jong-un most certainly hopes to see his Syrian counterpart remain in power, the offer of asylum and safety to Assad, his family, associates and assets would send a new signal to the North Korean regime. If Kim Jong-un and his well-knit circle may be convinced that their departure would not entail a brutal death at the hands of revolutionaries (but instead be carried out under orderly international supervision) we can still expect the possibility of North Korea downscaling from its nuclear program and perhaps even a passage towards negotiations. Through compelling Western states to accept Russia, China and others as equals in conflict management, we can facilitate the construction of a viable foundation for negotiations. Dealing with North Korea is then, ultimately inextricably linked to the delicate handling of the future of Syria’s regime; this is the only alternative that would break the precedent that has previously sent authoritarian leaders scrambling to deter Western powers and undoubtedly, in the process this would end the current stalemate with North Korea.







Stanislav Skriabine currently serves as the Head of Presidents at King’s Think Tank, as well as PC President for Defense and Diplomacy. 


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