Roland Bleiker: What to do about North Korea?

View of the concrete wall and barbed wire separating South Korea from North Korea. Roland Bleiker studies North Korea’s recent provocations and argues for an integrational approach to information diplomacy. Image from Creative Commons.

Professor of international relations at the University of Queensland 

Dealing with North Korea has never been easy.

Authoritarian and reclusive, the country’s regime has for long held nuclear ambitions that regularly triggered major international crises. Its recent leadership transition, from the deceased Kim Jong-il to his 28-year-old son Kim Jong-un, has only made the situation more tense and unpredictable.

One of the first actions of the new leader, on April 13th, was the launch of a long-rage rocket: an act seen as signaling renewed nuclear ambitions. Although the experiment failed miserably, its effects have been felt worldwide. Experts now fear another North Korea nuclear test as compensation.

North Korea’s provocations offer a direct challenge to President Obama, who only recently promised food aid to North Korea in response to promises that the country suspend its nuclear ambitions.

How are we to understand these provocations—and, more importantly, how are we to respond?

There are two explanations for North Korea’s actions. The first is internal. The country’s new leader may have all the official titles he needs, but this is not enough to gain legitimacy, particularly at such a young age. There is no better way to prove himself than to show strength and leadership in a time of crisis. This is why many Korea observers see the recent provocations in light of the leadership change.

The second reason is an external and more important one. North Korea’s main goal is surviving in a world surrounded by ideological enemies. But since the country is economically ruined it has very few means to do so. One of the main strategies—which North Korea has used for decades—is to create tensions in order to gain concessions from its archenemies.

The present crisis does, in fact, strongly resemble two previous crises, one in the early 1990s and the other in the mid-2000s. In each case North Korea embarked on a number of provocations, withdrew from the non-proliferation treaty and declared its intention to develop nuclear weapons. After tense crises periods and extensive negotiations, North Korea then abandoned its nuclear ambitions in exchange for economic aid, heating oil and security guarantees. Only to start all over again.

Policymakers and commentators are deeply divided about how to respond to North Korea’s recurring nuclear brinkmanship tactics.

The traditional approach has been to confront North Korea with military threats and economic sanctions. But this approach, epitomized by the policies of the Bush administration, clearly has not worked. A military intervention is far too dangerous to be an option in Korea. Economic sanctions have had no success either. The regime was securely in power even during the most severe instance of starvation following droughts and floods. In fact, military threats and sanctions only increased Pyongyang’s perceived need for a nuclear based defense—and gave its leaders an opportunity to rally the population behind a common threat from the outside.

The alternative to confrontation is engaging North Korea in negotiations, hoping to find an arrangement that can bring stability to the region. This is, in my view, a far more promising route. But it too is littered with obstacles. For one, there are major ethical dilemmas in negotiating with or delivering aid to an authoritarian regime that commits widespread human rights violations. Add to this that North Korea has often promised one thing and, in secret, done another, as US policymakers discovered yet again recently.

What, then, is the most promising way forward?

The key, I believe, is to integrate North Korea as much as possible into the world community: to open the country up so that its population is more exposed to information—and ideas—from the outside world.

The North Korean regime is able to stay in power not only because of ruthless repression, but also because it controls the minds of its citizens. It is one the most reclusive societies on earth, anywhere, anytime. Average citizens have no access to foreign television programs, radio broadcasts or newspapers. There is no Internet. Travel beyond one’s place of residence requires permission. The country’s official and only media is completely controlled by the state and geared towards one objective: the mythological legitimization of the state and its leaders. The propaganda machine is all-pervasive, entering virtually all aspects of everyday life.

If North Korea is to change, then the motivation and pressures for it have to come from the inside: from a budding civil society, from people who have not only the knowledge necessary to promote change but, eventually, also the numbers to do so.

This is why engaging North Korea politically, economically and culturally is the best way forward—so long as the engagement policy is doubled-up with efforts to open borders and promote the flow of information and ideas.

 This is why it is time for a new approach: information diplomacy.


Roland Bleiker is professor of international relations at the University of Queensland. He is author of Divided Korea: Toward a Culture of Reconciliation. From 1986 to 1988 he served as chief of office for the Swiss delegation to the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission in Panmunjom.

“One of the freshest analyses of Korean security in many, many years. Well worth reading.” —Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies 

“Bleiker, formerly chief of the Swiss delegation to the Neutral Nations Supervisory commission, passionately argues that the prevailing approach of confronting and deterring North Korea will not work. Pyongyang should be treated with respect instead of constantly denounced in offensive terms.”
—Foreign Affairs

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