Arguing Against a Peace Treaty on the Korean Peninsula

East Asia Forum

August 10th, 2013

Sixty years after the end of the Korean War, it has become an article of faith among some policy-makers that a peace treaty between the United States and North Korea would help ease tensions on the Peninsula.

Often, reflecting North Korean propaganda statements, these policy makers explicitly link US troop withdrawals on the Korean Peninsula to a treaty ending the war. Such narratives generally state that a peace regime would assuage North Korea’s security concerns and get the Six-Party Talks back on track. A recent article in China’s Global Timesmakes this very argument, and though convincing it ultimately rests on faulty assumptions.

First, a US peace treaty at this stage would implicitly act as a symbol of recognition that the United States accepts North Korea’s status as a nuclear power. While some may argue that that horse has already left this particular barn, the United States simply cannot explicitly or implicitly accept a nuclear North Korea. It would undermine the non-proliferation treaty even further than it has already been and could shatter South Korean/Japanese confidence in the US nuclear umbrella. While this may not disturb regional powers like Russia and China, it should. Such a loss in confidence would undermine the current balance in deterrence and could ultimately lead to Seoul and Tokyo seeking nuclear weapons for themselves. In April this year, while on a visit to Washington, M.J Chung, a South Korean politician, claimed that the South might have to develop its own deterrent. Finally, accepting the North’s nuclear status may well encourage North Korea’s provocation-in-exchange-for-aid strategy.

Second, the peace regime argument assumes that North Korea’s decision to develop nuclear weapons derives purely from ‘insecurity’. Dig deeper, and there is the further assumption that North Korea’s insecurity derives from external forces — the result of pressure from the combined forces of the United States and South Korea. While it is true that North Korea’s decayed military forces are outmatched by the forces arrayed south of the Demilitarized Zone, the simple fact is that the North already has a weapon of deterrence: artillery. Seoul’s proximity to North Korean artillery has always meant that the North could obliterate the city within five minutes, a danger that has stayed the hand of US–ROK forces many a time during previous periods of hostility. Furthermore, the US has offered a number of written and spoken guarantees – long demanded by the North – as a part of its efforts in the Six Party Talks process, including seven by President Obama since 2009.

But are external factors the only reason for Northern insecurity? One could argue that all totalitarian states are inherently unstable and suffer from massive internal insecurity. After all, they require large amounts of capital for internal security forces, propaganda and ideological social training. Some argue that the percentage of secret police and their informers to population is larger than the Stasi to population in East Germany during the height of the Cold War.  Totalitarian regimes are expensive to run, after all. In other words, North Korea’s insecurity is also self-created and stems from the regime type of the country as much as it does the regional geopolitical situation. The case of Vietnam shows that other choices are possible for the North: Hanoi has successfully managed to adopt economic reforms, while forging a new relationship with the United States, all while remaining a nominally communist-run state.

If Pyongyang’s insecurity is derived from the unaffordability of its system, why does it not enact economic reforms to ease the lives of its citizens and pay off the bureaucracy? While it has tried small incremental reforms over the years, and there are signs of a small middle class in Pyongyang, it has always rolled these back because of the fear that reforms would create a strong entrenched merchant class, which would call for political rights. Economic opening would lead to political opening, and the general population would become aware of the economic and political success of South Korea, surely a regime-killer in any scenario. Despite proclamations of systematic superiority, North Koreans would learn that their fellow Koreans in the South live a life which is nearly 18 times wealthier. This fear  of the effects of economic reform, explain the 2009 currency reform, which destroyed the savings of the   emerging merchant class in the country. Pyongyang is systematically unable to fully reform its economy in the way that Beijing and Hanoi have managed. Thus, North Korea is impelled to rely on external support to prop itself up.

While North Korea’s rulers realise that they cannot accept economic reform, they also know that the economy is in critical condition. Without a strong economy, internal security and the military become weaker and private markets sap the regime of its legitimacy as the sole provider of resources to the population. Despite the development of special economic zones with China, these have had limited success. Indeed, the relationship between the two is increasingly characterised by extractive policies by Beijing on the North’s resource base. Naturally, Pyongyang also realises this, and knows that without nuclear weapons it has a strong chance of simply becoming a Chinese resource–client state.

It must be clear to the ‘Dear Successor’: Nuclear weapons are more than just providing security from ‘foreign forces’ for the North. They also provide the only way for the North to squeeze aid from China, the United States and its allies while avoiding economic reform. The most recent nuclear test and bellicose rhetoric show that Pyongyang is becoming increasingly desperate for that aid. The silence from Washington must be puzzling. But with its hand slapped away, the Obama administration has played it cool, deciding it would ‘not buy the same horse twice’. Chinese patience with Pyongyang now also appears to be slipping. On a visit to the North to mark the 60th anniversary of the Armistice, Chinese Vice-President Li stressed regional stability in his remarks to Kim Jong-un. Financial figures published before his visit underscored China’s testiness: PRC–DPRK trade has plummeted 13.6 per cent between June and January.

A Peace Treaty sounds like the right thing to do. It sounds like the sane and humane thing to do. However, unless a peace treaty were explicitly tied to denuclearisation, it would only act as a means of legitimising the regime’s nuclear status. It would also enable the North to continue pressuring the region to bankroll what is the world’s least efficient form of government. And it would continue the suffering of a great many North Koreans.

Surely, that’s a price too high to pay?

The Case for UK-US-Japanese Cooperation in Post-2014 Afghanistan

(Part 2 of UK-Japan-US Trilateral Proposal)

By Dr. Victoria Tuke


For over a decade, the stability of Afghanistan has represented a common foreign policy priority for the US, UK, and Japan. Immediately following the attacks of 9/11, all three worked together to ensure Pakistan’s leader, Musharraf, joined the US-led NATO ‘War on Terror.’ Today, the US and Japan are the top two financial contributors and the US and UK are the top two military contributors. US forces have suffered over 2,000 fatalities and the UK over 440, with many thousand more wounded. For Japan, whilst no ground troops have been deployed in armed missions, its economic contributions to a number of security areas including security sector reform remain essential. Between 2001 and 2012, $9 billion of aid was committed, and in July 2012, Tokyo hosted the latest multilateral forum on Afghanistan’s future.

Competition rather than cooperation, however, has prevailed in Afghanistan policy, as various donors have sought opportunities to contribute to post-Taliban development. Donors have failed to adequately deal with local complexities, resulting in delayed projects, mismanaged funds, and vulnerability to corruption. As troop numbers are scaled back, this paper argues for a post-2014 agenda which requires cooperation, not just at the multilateral level but within this structure between such heavily involved governments as those in Washington, London, and Tokyo.


  • Dialogue through a trilateral forum should aim to improve understanding of each others’ policies and activities.
  • With budget constraints affecting all three states and domestic pressure to defend aid contributions, efforts should be made to improve efficiency and avoid overlap of development projects. Through greater information-sharing, the US, UK, and Japan can take advantage of each country’s individual strengths, such as favorable opinion among Afghan elites, strong on-the-ground presence, and sound stabilization methods.
  • With sustainability of projects a priority, and the shift from a war to normal economy a substantial challenge, the three governments can coordinate over how best to manage the transition of Afghanistan’s economy towards self-sufficiency. Such work would also secure the US, UK, and Japan a stake in Afghanistan’s future.
  • Each country has unique relations with regional partners which should be capitalized upon to expedite the effectiveness of policies

Current levels of dialogue

Limited dialogue exists between the US, UK, and Japan. For example, only the US, UK, Japan, and Germany have Special Representatives responsible for coordinating government policy regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan.At this senior level, communication channels take place at the departmental level and can be seen in the regular conferences on Afghanistan hosted by these governments. The Tokyo Conference held in July 2012 was largely seen as a success. Yet the follow-up scheduled to be held in the UK in 2014, after Afghanistan continues the transition process with a presidential election, will be even more important.

Potential areas for deeper coordination

In advancing the case for closer US-UK-Japan trilateral dialogue on Afghanistan, it must be first recognized that Afghanistan resonates differently with the domestic audiences of all three states. Within the US and UK, the debate on Afghanistan is primarily about terrorism, whilst for Japan, the debate on Afghanistan revolves around development assistance.

The three differ in their styles of distributing aid, with Japan often taking a more business-focused approach through loans, rather than offering grants, more favored by the other two. Japan is also not in the habit of attaching moral conditions, such as human rights commitments and universal values to ODA, and in general has resisted pooling aid with others due to an aversion to this type of conditionality. The UK and US on the other hand, have no such reservations about making aid conditional on the application of values.

Increase efficiency

There remains significant room for improving the monitoring of development aid. Given the substantial commitments of USAID, DfID, and JICA, sharing information on successes and failures in the field would provide help all three through the learning process in a very fluid and dynamic field of operaitons. All three are facing domestic financial constraints, making the need even greater to ensure funds are allocated effectively and minimize overlap and duplication.

In the US and UK, public scrutiny of aid budgets is intense, spurred by government-wide spending reductions and reports of (US) mismanagement of aid to Afghanistan. Such mismanagement of funding has damaged public perceptions of each government’s work, presenting potential obstacles to future funding streams. In the summer of 2012, Washington was forced to defend claims that a $45 million compound for Afghan security forces was too expensive for Afghanistan to operate. The UK government was also under fire in September 2012, when British-built schools were forced to close since there were no staff available to run them. In Japan, by contrast, public interest is minimal and rarely discussed in public fora.


Japan differs from the UK and US in having a severely limited physical presence in Afghanistan. By avoiding boots on the ground, Japan has learned to operate large-scale funding operations with an extremely small national footprint. This has largely been achieved by ‘Afghanizing’ the monitoring stage of its aid process and by accepting losses to corruption. This small footprint presents both challenges and opportunities for USAID and DfID, who may have to resort to similarly small operations in-country. On the one hand, they have much to teach JICA on monitoring of development funds, while JICA has much to teach them on operating with vastly minimized staff numbers. In a country as large as Germany, achieving both of these functions should is essential to the combined efforts of Washington, London, and Tokyo.

Japan enjoys a very favorable image in Afghanistan which could benefit others. In part this stems from Japan’s lack of history in the region and absence of ground troops. Through the consistent commitment of funds to Afghanistan, Japan has accumulated moral capital and the perception of credibility as well as impartiality. This asset, when coupled with US and UK commitments and development expertise, can act as a force-multiplier creating mutual benefits.

Sustainability – the transition from aid to economic investment

Going forward from 2014 in Afghanistan, sustainability will be key. To date, substantial amounts of aid have been allocated and each of the three governments share a significant interest in ensuring the smooth continuation of project work and the development of self-funding efforts. With the withdrawal of troops by the end of 2014, the donor community will remain but efforts to make the transition from an aid-dependent to a self-sustaining economy. Efforts will need to accelerate in passing over civilian-control of development projects to Afghan organizations. Here, the US, UK, and Japan hold a shared, noncompetitive objective, which would benefit from coordination and information sharing of best-practices and lessons learned.

Until now, the unstable security situation has dissuaded the US, UK, and Japan, as well as other European countries from deepening private sector investment. However, looking ahead, despite understandable reluctance, greater efforts are needed to invest in Afghanistan’s economy and create a new model for economic development that places responsibility in Afghan hands.

Among other initiatives therefore, the US, UK, and Japan should begin coordination over how risks could be shared in the potential boom of such productive sectors as mining, agriculture, energy, and Afghanistan’s nascent private sector. These efforts would provide long-term results for the Afghan people by creating new sectors and industries and providing the Government of Afghanistan with much needed revenue. Financial contributions are set to dramatically decrease following the withdrawal of troops in 2014. Whilst $110 billion to $120 billion a year is estimated to have been allocated by the US alone since the 2010 ‘surge,’ this could be reduced to a still-substantial-sum of $2.7 billion.As the scaling back begins, assisting in the transition from a war to a normal economy and securing funding for the Government of Afghanistan (GOA) will ensure the stability of any future regime.

Such efforts would also ensure for the trilateral members a future stake in Afghanistan and secure another presence from that of military or aid provider. China, India, and Russia are already investing heavily. China, for example, has signed a partnership agreement and was the first to take an interest in Afghanistan’s mineral resources, investing $4.5 billion into the copper industry and $7 billion over 25 years into Afghanistan’s oil resources.Russia has also shown interest and Afghanistan was admitted as an observer member to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in June 2012.

Using Soft Power

Each government also has built relationships in the region which, if utilized effectively, could provide wider benefits. For example, all three have been deepening ties with New Delhi, which stands as a vital partner in future Afghanistan stability by ensuring Pakistan does not support the Taliban. Pakistan is crucial for Afghanistan’s future; therefore, how the three co-ordinate with Islamabad is also important. Relations between the US and Pakistan have been strained due to US drone attacks, but with good relations between Japan and Pakistan continuing as well as with other Afghan neighbors, Japan can encourage Pakistan further to support Afghanistan’s transition to stability and encourage consensus. Despite some setbacks, the US continues to hold influential sway over Pakistan, as does the UK, which has historical, demographic, and economic relations.

The US, Japan, and UK have already invested large amounts of money, men, and materiel into Afghanistan. The withdrawal of troops in 2014 will mean more pressure on the government of Afghanistan, and the gradual lessening of ISAF. It is incumbent on all three to ensure that this transition is a smooth one for Kabul and that the future of Afghanistan is a bright and secure one.

For access to the original chapter, please click here.

International Stabilization and Reconstruction and Global Korea

Asia Unbound, November 15th 2012


South Korea’s stabilization efforts in Afghanistan have not gained a lot of prominence in the Western media, but they are arguably one of the great successes of recent ROK overseas policy and deserve international recognition. The decision, made this September, to extend South Korean involvement in the Afghan theatre for one more year, demonstrates Seoul’s determination to continue its contribution to the stabilization efforts of International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and NATO troops and to solidify its Global Korea posture.

However, it is not yet clear if the next administration in Seoul—to be elected this December—will seek to maintain South Korea’s stabilization and reconstruction (S&R) activities as described in CFR’s new ebook Global Korea. It is not beyond South Korea’s capacity to develop the skill sets required for these missions, since they have already – to some extent – begun the process of acquiring and honing them for the last two years building and maintaining a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Parwan Province, Afghanistan. However, carrying out S&R work under securitized conditions is a historically unusual activity for South Korea, and much will depend on how South Koreans view the net gain of such operations.

Keeping military personnel in, what are commonly described as, ‘traditional’ roles is a basic assumption of any global military. These traditional roles include war-fighting, defense of state sovereignty, internal security, and, over the last century, disaster relief. Two areas added to this list of functions in the past fifty years have been peacekeeping and stabilization and reconstruction. While disaster relief, peacekeeping, and S&R share commonalities (a high level of civil-military engagement), they have pose different levels of security threats. Of the three, S&R activities are commonly agreed to as having the highest risk factor for deployed personnel since, by its function, development work takes place while a conflict is still on going.

South Korea has three reasons for wanting to carry out stabilization activities. In no particular order, they are: a function of their alliance commitments to the United States; a realization of ROK sense of obligation to ”international society”; and a potential tool necessary in any collapsed regime scenario involving North Korea. (Michael J. Finnegan highlights the potential benefits of South Korea’s S&R activities to the U.S.-ROK alliance in the event of North Korean instability in U.S.-ROK Alliance: Meeting New Security Challenges). According to interviews with South Korean diplomats, development workers, and military personnel conducted this past year, all three factors played a part in the decision to deploy the PRT in Parwan, and were a result of fortuitous timing with South Korean internal politics and internal U.S. alliance dynamics. Whether South Korea wants to retain this capability is essentially a political decision and difficult to predict.

However, should a new South Korean president decide to keep S&R, what do ROK government agencies have to do to maintain this capability? As the involved agencies of the United States and the United Kingdom have learned, S&R is difficult to maintain, requiring intense training and adaption of force postures to the unique practicalities required. Here are some basic recommendations:

  • South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) should set stabilization as a core mission alongside war fighting and peacekeeping
  • South Korea should send bi-ministerial research teams (consisting of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and MND personnel) to the United States, the United Kingdom, and NATO Centres of Excellence to look at how those entities maintain this function
  • The Ministry of National Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) should establish a joint department training facility, staffed jointly by MND, MOFAT, and Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) personnel. As well as running courses for pre-deployed personnel, the facility could also host visiting scholars and practitioners from the international community which deals with stabilization activities
  • MND and MOFAT should also create S&R units within their ministries, whereby they may contain these functions. Alternatively, the MND could add these functions to the Evergreen PKO unit
  • South Korea should establish a taskforce to establish how best to deal with the operational and planning difficulties presented by stabilization at the bureaucratic level. For example, there is the ‘joint unit’ system as in the United Kingdom’s Stabilization Unit, or the ‘coordination function’ system such as the American Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations
  • The Korean Institute for Defense Analyses and the Korean National Defense University should be allocated research grants for building programs that carry out S&R research and contain S&R fellows

Global Korea: South Korea’s Contribution to International Security

Council of Foreign Relations, October 2012


The Korean peninsula often comes to mind as a global security flash point. The most recent reminders include North Korea’s April 2012 failed test of a multistage rocket and the November 2010 North Korean shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island. Given the seriousness of the ongoing standoff on the Korean peninsula, South Korea’s emergence as an active contributor to international security addressing challenges far from the Korean peninsula is a striking new development, marking South Korea’s emergence as a producer rather than a consumer of global security resources. This volume outlines South Korea’s progress and accomplishments toward enhancing its role and reputation as a contributor to international security.

Contents Overview Scott A. Snyder Korea and PKO: Is Korea Contributing to Global Peace? Balbina Hwang South Korea’s Counterpiracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden Terence Roehrig The ROK Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan John Hemmings Counterproliferation and South Korea: From Local to Global Scott Bruce Publisher Council on Foreign Relations Press

Release Date October 2012 Price$10.00 100 pages ISBN 978-0-87609-542-3

PacNet Number 26

Lessons Learned? Responding to North Korea’s Latest Provocations

Co-written with Dongjoon Park, this PacNet is based on the findings of a simulation that took place at a Pacific Forum CSIS conference in Seoul October 14-15, 2011, and can be found at here.

Once again, North Korea is increasing tensions in Northeast Asia. The launch on April 13 is part of a cycle of calculated North Korean provocations. However, it seems that the US, South Korea, and Japan scrambled to respond with the same strategies that have failed them in the past. China’s blocking of any meaningful response was as predictable as it was effective.

For Pyongyang, the launch served several purposes. It celebrated North Korea becoming a ‘strong and prosperous nation’ in 2012. It commemorated the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. The launch also underscores the ‘great successor’ Kim Jong Un’s leadership in front of the party leadership, the Korean People’s Army (KPA), and the people. It is an attempt to set the terms of future negotiations with the international community. Finally, and most of all, the launch lets the North set the regional agenda, putting other countries in the region on the back foot.


Given the repetitive nature of this cycle, experts have been predicting such a North Korean provocation for nearly a year. As early as last October, a group of Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leaders convened in Seoul to conduct a simulation based on a hypothetical satellite test (which also went wrong). These young professionals were divided into groups representing the US, South and North Korea, Japan, and China to develop reactions and identify obstacles hindering a coherent and coordinated response. The key lessons from that simulation were as follows:

China cannot be relied upon: With its massive investment, aid packages, and resource trade with Pyongyang, Beijing is presumed to have the most influence on North Korea. The US has since the ‘90s sought China’s help in dealing with the North. The simulation found that China will never take the US side: it won’t destabilize a regime that it supports, and in which it has so much at stake. Anything that destabilizes North Korea could affect Chinese economic growth, and the Chinese strategy is to preserve the North and eventually lever the US out of the Korean Peninsula. China is, at best, a stumbling block; at worst, part of the problem. Therefore, China should be increasingly sidelined during crises (though not publicly, of course). When China tries to help, it can be acknowledged, but otherwise, it should not, and will not be central to any solution.

Japan and Korea do not cooperate: If China cannot be relied upon, the only solution is for the US, South Korea, and Japan to work together on North Korea. Despite their mutual interests in solving the North Korean problem, this is unlikely. There are several reasons, some historical, some geopolitical. They can and must be overcome by the part played by the US.

Seoul is torn: Seoul’s cultural ties and physical proximity to the North mean that, when it is not under direct threat, it views the North differently from its allies. In cases like the launch, South Korea is more concerned with making sure the situation doesn’t spiral out of control than with making the North pay for its provocation. The technology being tested is not, in any case, likely to be targeted at South Korea. With a range of 4,000 miles, these rockets are more likely to be aimed at Japan and the continental United States. South Korea’s desire to play a regional balancing role also means that it favors moderation when not directly threatened.

Japan must be reassured: While Japan would seem to be less directly threatened by a rogue North Korea, the Japanese have much at stake. North Korea’s rhetoric about Japan’s historical misdeeds and its past successes in separating and isolating Japan worry policy makers in Tokyo. The debate on reforming Japan’s military posture is directly linked to how Japan perceives its sense of security. The US must work to assuage this strategic insecurity to prevent Japan pursuing independent options. The US must push South Koreans to take Japanese insecurity seriously.

The US needs to lead: The simulation found that both South Korean and Japanese teams expected the US to lead in a crisis; not to coordinate, but to lead. The US must decide on a goal and lead the other two allies toward that goal. The security perceptions differ too greatly between Seoul and Tokyo, and only Washington has the muscle and the authority to decide on a policy direction. In the course of normal discussions, both Koreans and Japanese may complain about Americans being too assertive or controlling. When a crisis emerges (even a simulated one), they still look to Washington to lead. The US must push Seoul to recognize Japanese security concerns and away from its moderate stances during these occasions.

North Korea can manipulate the situation with ease: The strategic calculations of the neighboring countries foster an environment that is vulnerable to North Korean provocations. North Korea reaps maximum benefits through such actions with little or no consequences.

If it wishes to stop North Korean provocations, the US must take three clear steps: One, it should not rely on China to solve the problem. The idea that China would help the US deal with Pyongyang has been disproven in almost every crisis, with even China openly questioning its ability to exert influence. Certainly, Beijing should be consulted, but it should not be seen as a key to solving problems with North Korea. Second, the US needs to lead its allies during these crises. It is the superpower and should act like it. The US must prioritize trilateral diplomatic and military cooperation. Japan must realize South Korea’s reasons for moderation during crises are real and immediate. This may mean breaking its silence on sensitive Korean-Japanese bilateral issues. Third, working with its allies and without China, the US will have to find a way to influence North Korea directly. Previously, it has sought economic punishment as the only non-kinetic tool in its toolbox. This has failed as Chinese investment in North Korea has grown over the last two years.

Sanctions are not the only possibility however. The US has barely touched one of the possible tools in its arsenal: information. The US and its allies must take the initiative and find a non-kinetic way of making North Korea pay a price for its actions. While there are many reasons for the USSR’s final collapse, one critical cause was that it lost the war of ideas to the US. This collapse occurred because ordinary citizens could see the inequalities in living standards between themselves and party apparatchiks. This inequality is even more pronounced in North Korea. The US didn’t fight the USSR: it fought its ideals and showed them to be false. That same lesson should be applied here.

Given Pyongyang’s paranoia about opening up and its desire to control information, it is clear that this is a vulnerability. US intelligence agencies should carry out an information campaign consistently and heavily after every North Korean provocation. Videos containing South Korean television shows, and pop culture could be smuggled in, with the logic that overt political messages are less effective than lifestyle-content. After the Yeonpyong island shelling, Seoul increased such efforts, scattering not only leaflets that introduce the Arab Spring movements, but also everyday products such as medication and clothing. After the first of these campaigns, North Korean leaders would think twice about future provocations, since they would have paid a price for their actions. While sanctions may be a punitive tool in some cases, they have not deterred North Korea because they were a price the regime was willing to pay. Can Pyongyang afford to let uncontrolled information trickle through to its population? We should find out.

South Korea: A Return to the Sunshine Policy Could Prove Dangerous

East Asia Forum, 12th March, 2012

Some have speculated that South Korea’s electorate, unhappy with Lee Myung-bak’s handling of relations with North Korea, wants a return to Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun’s liberal policies — and with them, the Sunshine Policy, or greater engagement with Pyongyang.

With a new, young leader in power in North Korea, it would seem the right time to try something different — a new approach for a new era.

After all, the effectiveness of Lee’s hard-line policy toward North Korea has increasingly been called into question. Tying inter-Korean relations to progress on the nuclear issue may have pleased Washington, but it quickly destroyed South Korea’s developing relationship with the North. Since 2007, North Korea has shot a South Korean tourist, withdrawn from the Six-Party Talks, tested another nuclear device, sunk a South Korean vessel and shelled civilians on an island in South Korea. If anything, it seems that Lee’s policy has only raised inter-Korean tensions.

The Sunshine Policy would arguably bring North Korea back from teetering on the edge of financial collapse and enrich the state enough to feed its people. Instead of being backed into a corner, North Korea could follow China’s path and enact financial reforms in select areas, which would benefit both the population and the country’s neighbours. A wealthier North Korea would not feel so threatened, would not rely on threats and provocations to secure aid, and might even begin the long process of political liberalisation that so often accompanies economic reform.

All of this sounds very promising and hopeful, but it is unlikely to work. And even if it did, it could cause serious unintended consequences.

There are two reasons for this. First, the Sunshine Policy failed to produce the desired results the first time round because it never linked warmer relations with the North to progress on the nuclear issue, political liberalism or human rights conditions. It therefore did not push North Korea to shift its own strategy. North–South ties became less acrimonious, but this arguably came at great cost to South Korea’s security. While Seoul operated under Kim and Roh’s liberal policies, the North continued to build up its military, withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (2003), tested a nuclear device (2006), continued research and development on its short-range and long-range missile program, and withdrew from the Six-Party Talks (2007). The cost-benefit ratio for symbolic goods was simply too high for the South.

Second, the Sunshine Policy rests on the false assumption that political liberalisation naturally follows on from market reforms. This may not always be true. Supporters of the Sunshine Policy often point to the success the West had in opening up Chinese markets, and the changes wrought on Chinese society since Mao. This misses an important point: is the region really better off now that China is rich? Certainly, it is a real achievement that so many Chinese people have been lifted from poverty, but a rising China has also presented the region with many new security challenges. States along China’s coastline, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan, are now dealing with a bolder, more assertive China. This illustrates that there are unintended consequences to everything.

Do we really wish to enrich North Korea and give it the modern military that it thinks it deserves? Those who wish to rely on the liberal assumption are overlooking not only the unintended consequences, but also the fundamental nature of the regime. The Kim family derives its support from a uniquely Korean nationalist ideology, Juche (Self-reliance), adopted and upheld by the military. According to North Korea’s highest-ranking defector, Hwang Jang-yop, the regime derives its support from the military, with the implicit promise that the state’s ultimate purpose is to unify Korea. Would the regime jettison this belief simply because there was more money in the bank?

Finally, this assumption overlooks the nature of the Korean situation. Large segments of the population in both North and South Korea still believe in reunification. But while a wealthier China was able to develop stronger economic ties with Taiwan, for example, it was also able to continue developing its missile arsenal across the Taiwanese Strait. Similarly, a wealthier and militarily stronger Pyongyang would probably lessen any possibility of a Korean unification in the long run.

The Sunshine Policy is a good idea, based on a good principle. Unfortunately, it ignores the realities on the peninsula and the nature of the regime in the North, while also resting on a host of faulty assumptions.

Jeremy S. Maxie

Energy & Political Risk Consultant

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