Will S. Korea save her communist brother?

April 8, 2007

“South Korea to Give North Rice Despite Possible Failure to Meet Nuclear Deadline” — SEOUL, South Korea (AP)

South Korea will offer North Korea rice aid even though Pyongyang may miss a deadline for shutting down its atomic reactor under an international disarmament agreement, a South Korean official said Thursday.

Top Asian officials voiced concerns earlier this week that the North was unlikely to meet the April 14 deadline because of glitches in the transfer of North Korean money in a Macau bank that had been frozen because of U.S. allegations of money laundering.

The South “will give rice to the North as scheduled” after economic talks between the two countries set for April 18-21 in Pyongyang, Vice Unification Minister Shin Eon-sang told reporters. The North had requested 400,000 tons of rice from Seoul during high-level talks last month.

“The momentum for inter-Korean development should not be lost,” Shin said.

Seoul, a key aid donor to the North, had put off discussing the humanitarian assistance until the economic talks, planned just days after the April 14 deadline for Pyongyang to shut off its main nuclear reactor.

The timing for the aid was believed to add additional pressure on North Korea to comply with an international disarmament agreement. The North had pledged in February to shut down its sole operating nuclear reactor by mid-April in exchange for energy aid and other political concessions.

North Korea boycotted nuclear talks for more than a year due to its anger over Washington blacklisting a Macau bank where Pyongyang had about US$25 million (euro18.7 million). During that year, the North also conducted its first-ever nuclear test, in October.

Pyongyang only agreed to return to six-nation arms talks after the U.S. said it would address the financial issue. Washington said it would resolve the matter in 30 days after the North’s Feb. 13 pledge to take initial steps toward disarming.

After reading the above AP news piece, we pondered over how to apply various IR theoretical frameworks:

Marxists believe capitalists are exploiting the working class and there is a need to ‘intervene and regulate’ to address the brutality of capitalism. Perhaps North Korea is using its atomic reactor to ‘regulate’ the structural inequalities that exists between its own country and the capitalist world.

On the other hand, liberal institutionalists believe in institutionalizing peace and security. That may be the reason why South Korea has agreed to provide this rice donation despite the fact that North Korea has yet to fulfill its promise to shut down its atomic reactor.

What if South Korea adopted a ‘Constructivist’ attitude on this issue? The famous constructivist scholar, Alexander Wendt once noted that “anarchy is what states make of it.” If the global system is dominated by states, like North Korea, that see anarchy as a life or death situation, then the system will be characterized by warfare. Perhaps South Korea was aiming to change this characterization with its actions. In this sense, can we say that from a constructivist’s point of view, South Korea’s donation might in fact save the North from slipping into potential warfare?

Post by Kenneth Li and John Liauw (but posted by Alex)

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14 Responses to “Will S. Korea save her communist brother?”

  1. Carole Chen Says:

    May I view the S Korea’s action in this way?

    No matter the two Koreas were friends or enemies in the past, they are Korean, sharing the same national identity and values. If we say ‘Democtratics do not fight Democtratics’- adopting the idea that similarities appreciate each other, then the two Koreas should help each other.

    On the other hand, the collapse of N Korea is not a good new for the South on the constructive perspective. The failure of N Korea may, to some extent, indicate that the Korean are not capable enough to run a country(I am not racial discriminating), which is an image the South do not want to have as well. In this way, the South has the responsibility to support the North despite of the delay of disarmament of the North.

  2. HippoMay Says:

    I did agree with Carol. I believe South Korea’s giving rice promise was a factor in Pyongyang’s recent decision to return to the negotiating table after boycotting the six-nation talks for more than a year. If finally, the North brothers agree to abandon the WDM, then South Korea will be, in anyhow, one of the “heros” in persuading her North brothers. Their voice, politically will be louder. As China and Japan are both growing stronger, South Korea has to grasp the attention of world as well. With such good intention of “helping” North Korea, this generosity should play a role in determining South Korea’s position in the political world.

  3. Carole Chen Says:

    By saying S Korea’s intention to enhence its position in the political world, I do not know whether this generosity would really help.

    South Korea was and is an ally of the US who is sanctioning the North. When the South is helping the North, is it taking a risk of annoying the US? It is not good for the alliance.

    Personally, I think South Korea will not have any reciprocation from this action, at least from the North. No one hopes for the North’s compromise in the six-party talk. South Korea’s help may blur its international image, that is, what position the South is holding in the eyes of other countries.

  4. ralphchow Says:

    A country solely depending on foreign aid to survive will have no future. It is quite obvious that N.Korea is a failing state unless it follows the China’s reform policy to revive its economy.

    In fact, nowadays, few countries still stick to the extremes of any ideology like socialism or capitalism but they are all trying to strike a balance to serve their best national interests.

    S.Korea obviously doesn’t want N.Korea to collapse as the refugee problem will be too immense for it to cope with. On the other hand, a unification plan will be too much a financial burden for it to shoulder. The best alternative seems to be for S.Korea to assist N.Korea to carry out the economic reform, in a way similar to what HK had helped China a few decades ago. This may lead to a win-win situation if the reform can be brought to fruition.

  5. mark Says:

    Isn’t offering rice, simply a continuation of the Sunshine Policy from the early 1990s?? – same plan different product. Nothing new here.

    SK is shit scared of a collapsing state. As is China. Realism will dictate that they protect themselves by trying to support NK if they can to avoid damaging their own economies and to keep up their own influence within the NK hierarchy.

    Liberals might sugest that international institutions take the lead in bringing NK back in the fold.

    Ultimately, it all depends in our friend Kim Jon-il no matter what international negotiations their are, and no matter how much rice is delivered.

  6. Carole Chen Says:

    It is obvious that each country prefers a stable neighbour, so does S Korea and China.

    Both S Korea and China were and are helping N Korea and it seems that NK takes it for granted. I wonder why NK could rely on foreign aid for such a long time and does not cooperate on some global issues, such as disarmament.

    Does ‘carrate and stick’ strategy make sense in NK?

  7. mark Says:

    Nothing makes sense in NK, which is why there is this on-going back and forth politics with them…its two steps forward three steps back.

    North Korea has taken an isolationist position in the world. And, as such, it will do what it wants when it wants. When i say North Korea, of course i mean Kimmy-boy!

    In some respects it has stuck it to the US better than any other “rogue nation”. Each time it doesn’t get its way or enough attention, it retreats into itself once again until someone pays it attention.

    NK only wants to be loved….

  8. Adam Blinick Says:

    I wholly agree with Mark’s points. Kim Jong-il is largely irrational–the only reason why I don’t say completely irrational is because I believe he knows that his country is teetering on collapse and acts accordingly. He can live with 1 million of his own people starving, but shivers at the thought of losing control. The “carrot-and-stick” approach that has played out for the last several years is like watching reruns of some brutal, dark comedy on TV–nothing changes or means anything, because NK knows the limits of what the West will do. Anytime it needs more rice or oil, it will act like a lunatic, throw a missile in the air, and watch the rest hand over the goods. Until this thing falls apart internally, don’t expect other countries or institutions (acting at the behest of their member states) to do anything differently. (I can never fully cover my realist POV.)

  9. Carole Chen Says:

    It seems that we know what NK is doing and no one expects something good to NK, but countries still have to talk to NK, in six-party talks, in money affairs, etc. Talking to such a country is fustrating but we still need to do so. Anyway, stable neighbourhood is more important for a country than the suffering of the diplomat.

  10. Shermann Says:

    The behaviour of South Korea is difficult to be understood if we apply the game-theoretic analysis used by realists as mentioned in Wendt’s “Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” The analysis would predict that cooperation is the outcome of repeated positive actions from another player. However, North Korean continued defiant against international call for denuclearization did not justify positive actions from the South.

    It may be right as what Ralph has suggested. The payoff matrix in the “game” for South Korea is so tilted towards cooperation that South Korean has no other choice but to appease the North. At the same time, we should note that most of South Koreans (especially the youth) do not see North Korea as their major threat of security (the U.S. tops the list). This may be interpreted as a strong “soft” power North Korea possessed with respect to South Korea. However, these explanations need to change a lot to the realist assumptions of anarchy and egoist state behaviour.

    The constructivist analysis used by Wendt may be a better explanation for South Korean actions. The common identity as Koreans is re-emerged and is deeply embedded in South Koreans after the sole emphasis on ideologically differences between the two states was removed with the end of the Cold War. This removes the barrier for South Koreans to work along the process to transform competitive security to cooperation. In addition to the rice aid in this blog, the “Sunshine Policy” and reluctance to carry out UN approved embargo by South Korea are some examples. However, where this strategy of South Korea will lead to is a question mark. This process-oriented approach will only result in path-dependent outcome as suggested in Wendt’s article. Going along this path is difficult if North Korea continually refuses to cooperate and if the US and other stronger players in the system disapprove this approach as in the Cold War era.

    On North Korean behaviour, I would think in the following ways. First, there is a misalignment between the interests of the ruling elites and the interests of the public at large. The ruling elites are comfortably isolated from the public through their oppressive machine. The regime security, not the state security, is the thing they want to protect. Secondly, there is no incentive offered by international community, especially the US, for good behaviour. Labelling North Korea as “rough states” is not doing any good to eliminate mistrusts. The fate of Iraq even they were cooperating with IAEA sent a very discouraging signal to North Korea. Thirdly, other major players do not seem to have real interests to eliminate the current regime in North Korea. China and Russia will not be comfortable to be bordered by a united Korea likely to have US troops stationed in. Japan might not want to see a strong, anti-Japanese, Korea next to it. South Korea is still figuring out what should a united Korea look like. The U.S. is tied up by its war in Iraq and a united Korea will reduce its legitimacy to stay in Korean Peninsula to check the balance of power in East Asia. These are realist calculations. There may only be changes to this stalemate if North Korean ruling elites can transform their thinking to a more cooperative one as in Gorbachev’s case. Whether the agreements of the Six Party Talks can be upheld will be the real test to this possible transformation.

  11. fannyl Says:

    I agree with Mark and I believe so far, there is not a school of thought good enough to examine North Korea’s action. Kim is just irrational and even his big brother, China, cannot take the control. Most of the political trick North Korea played were rhetoric, threats…etc. and the main target is not South Koream but US. See the mess of 6-party talk, it’s just a regular meeting for the six parties to taste Peking Duck. So in my point of view, the “help” from southern brother will not help at all.

  12. Ronny Chan Says:

    Koreans want unification! The Koreans are separated by different ideologies, but not their national identity. This is the main difference between the two Koreas and China-Taiwan situation.

    The new generations of South Korea are more inclined to help North Korea rather than to isolate them. President Kim’s Sunshine Policy and the President Roh’s Peace and Prosperity Policy are obviously telling us that they don’t want N. Korea to collapse, but in learning the lesson of Germany’s unification, the S. Korea elites prefer to have a gradual process of transition. That’s why they assist the economic reform of N. Korea like the Mt. Kumgang Tourist Project and the Kaesong Industrial Project, and this also explain the rice aid to the N. Korea.

  13. mark Says:

    Ronny, Interesting Point – I see what you mean about the difference with Taiwan / China, but do you really think that the two Koreas still have one identity – after 50 years of separation?

  14. Shermann Says:

    Mark, I think there is difference between common identity and unification. I have the feeling that South Koreans are interested in unification. North Koreans “may” also be interested in it. However, they have different views on how the two sides are integrated and what would the unified Korea be like.


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