Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Talking North Korea in Australia

Many of the moral debates about North Korea are settled, even if the diplomatic questions are not.

Photo: Republic of Korea/Flickr
Photo: Republic of Korea/Flickr

This month, I was in Australia for events hosted by the Lowy Institute and Sydney Writers’ Festival respectively. The questions were excellent, and I would like to take advantage of this space to expand on some of the topics brought up.

Generally speaking, the questions at the Lowy event were more strategic, regarding US and South Korean (and Australian) choices in this 2018 season of North Korean summitry. At SWF, the questions were more philosophical, regarding the nature of North Korea and US engagement with it and South Korea over the decades.

The Lowy event was more traditional (or conservative or hawkish, if your politics on North Korea are leftish). Much of the discussion assumed that North Korea is a pretty terrible place – recognising its human rights abuses, the personality cult, the gulags, and so on – and a competitor with Asia’s democracies and the US. Hence the questions turned on issues such as the upcoming summit; what we might concede to the North in exchange for what else; missile defence; sanctions; and so on.

The SWF panel and audience was more left-progressive, and offered pushback on my assertion that North Korea was the worst country in the world, an Orwellian gangster fiefdom. My position was characterised as that of a “cold warrior … with a low intellectual quotient” and an inter-Korean peace treaty was seen as a goal in itself.

So here a few extended thoughts on these debates.

North Korea is Orwell’s 1984

Doves on North Korea would do themselves a tremendous favour if they just admitted what everyone already knows to be true.

I must say that I find the left-progressive pushback on labelling North Korea the world’s worst human rights abuser to be baffling. It is. There really is no question about that anymore.

As early as the 1960s, Eastern bloc diplomats were noting that North Korea was building a personality cult and police state more servile and repressive than Stalin’s. By the 1980s this was undeniable, and Western human rights NGOs had begun taking up the issue. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, plus North Korea-focused human rights groups such as Liberty in North Korea, have done heroic work on this.

If that is not enough, you can plow through all 408 pages of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea from 2014. Michael Kirby, the head of inquiry, analogised North Korea to Nazi Germany and its camps to the Holocaust. This report cannot be waved away as hack propaganda from the CIA or South Korean National Intelligence Service.

This debate is over, and Kirby had to come back to remind everyone that this year’s détente is once again eliding the human rights issue.

Yes, we can still talk to North Korea, but South Korea is the real Korea

North Korea is the last Orwellian totalitarianism on the planet. ISIS might have rivalled it, but that is collapsing. This puts North Korea in a special category.

Jeane Kirkpatrick famously distinguished between authoritarian and totalitarian dictatorships, and as distasteful as that may sound in a liberal democracy, it is undeniably true when comparing North Korea to just about any other state in the world. Again, I just find it amazing that the progressive left would argue for any kind of moral equivalence between the North and South.

Another SWF panellist suggested to me that the US also incarcerates a lot of people and is allied to Saudi Arabia. These are just grossly empirically and morally inaccurate comparisons. Even in the darkest days of the South Korean dictatorship, arguably the 1970s Yushin period, the South was never like North Korea in its brutality.

And yes, the US did some grim stuff in South Korea – turning a blind eye to Syngman Rhee may have been the worst – but mapped against North Korean atrocities, it does not compare. Again, just read the Kirby report.

Admitting that North Korea is the worst place on Earth does not mean we cannot talk to North Korea, or must attack it. But it does mean recognising honestly the vast moral gulf between the North and every other country in the world in 2018, especially the South.

South Korea is the real Korea – open, liberal, democratic, tolerant, wealthy, healthy, cosmopolitan. These are values progressives should embrace. This debate is also over.

The peace treaty is not about peace, but recognition

One of the great misunderstandings of the past four months is that a peace treaty in Korea is actually about peace. It is not. The Korean Peninsula is already at peace. Deterrence has held for 65 years.

Indeed, it has been North Korea’s many provocations over the years, such as the attempt to kill the South Korean president or the sinking of the Cheonan, which have threatened the peace.

Rather, ending the armistice and rolling over into a peace regime is actually about achieving a final, recognised status for North Korea. North Korea wants to be recognised as “just another country”, a regular part of the international system like South Korea.

A peace treaty would give it that recognition. The US and North Korea – and probably South Korea, even though it did not sign the original armistice – would sign some formal statement which would recognise the North’s existence as a separate, legally normalised Korean state distinct from the South.

This would reduce tensions, surely, but it also gives up a lot. It would formally recognise the division of Korea in perpetuity. It would also reduce the political space to criticise North Korean human rights abuses by recognising North Korea as a state worthy of diplomatic credentials. Opponents of a peace treaty have long argued that it would be bought at the cost of the pain and suffering of the North Korean people.

Perhaps we should nonetheless assent to such a treaty. I am unsure myself. North Korea has boxed us with its spiralling nuclear weapons program, and some kind of deal is better than last year’s march to war.

But let us be honest about what “peace” means – a massive diplomatic concession to the North. We should at least bargain very hard for this.

A hard-line position is justified

If all this reads as hawkish, I hope it is an empirical, as opposed to ideological, hawkishness. That is, a hard-line position on North Korea strikes me as justified given its behaviour. Were North Korea to change, we should change with it.

There are ultras, by contrast, who find North Korea so loathsome that their impulse is to strike no matter what. But more moderate hawks are open to North Korean change.

Unfortunately, North Korea has not, in fact, changed much. It has yet to make a genuine concession in the 2018 détente, nor has its grotesque internal character improved.

A deal with North Korea is not an end in itself; a peace treaty is not an end in itself. What we really want is for North Korea to change, to be less threatening to the world and its own people. That should be the moral driver of our diplomacy.

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