NAPCI – The answer to ‘strategic impatience’ with North Korea?

The Asia Paradox has long bewildered area experts and
politicians. Despite a high degree of economic cooperation and interdependence,
Asia has largely failed to institute inclusive and effective multilaterals to
deal with common security threats. To cope with this, South Korea’s latest
North Korea strategy favors incremental improvements over sweeping advances.

A panel of experts and policymakers from the US and Asia
discussed the prospects of South Korean President Park Geun Hye’s Northeast
Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI) at an event titled “Striving for
Northeast Asian Peace,” at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
(CSIS) in Washington D.C. on October 2nd. Unlike past attempts at Asian multilateralism,
NAPCI “emphasizes the process of constantly fostering small yet meaningful
forms of cooperation,” rather than laying the groundwork for a formal
institution to handle comprehensive cooperation.             

The security environment in East Asia is much changed since
the Six Party Talks were last held in 2009 and NAPCI was first introduced in
May 2013. China has shown great exasperation with North Korea, notably by
placing President Park next to President Xi Jinping on the main dais at the
WWII military parade, a spot traditionally held by a North Korean
representative. In addition to cooling NK-China ties, the U.S. has stepped up
its presence in the region and beefed up alliances with Japan and SK. North
Korea appeared at once belligerent and then conciliatory this summer when a
landmine incident led to tit for tat exchanges and high level negotiations.
Japan’s reinterpretation of its pacifist constitution allows the SDF to
increase military support to allies in the case of NK aggression. 

Negotiators from South Korea, the U.S., and Japan gathered in Washington to unsuccessfully
attempt to revive the Six Party Talks on Nov. 6, 2013. Image: Yonhap News

We might soon get a chance to see how dramatically the
shifting balance of power in Northeast Asia and the increased isolation of
North Korea affects the way that regional powers respond to Pyongyang’s
provocations. In September, North Korea’s state newspaper KCNA announced plans
for a “satellite” test launch in the near future. It is believed that October 10th
may provide a historical backdrop for the occasion, as the Korean Workers’
Party celebrates its Foundation Day. The experts remain divided on the probability
of North Korea actually conducting this test. The question is, Can the rather
unambitious first few stages of NAPCI really help the big four (the U.S.,
Japan, China, and South Korea) deal with a wily Pyongyang?  

Shin Beom Chul (Director General for Policy Planning in South
Korea’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs) believes that the Six Party Talks failed
to provoke positive change because their goals were too grand from the start.
Evan Medeiros echoed this belief when he complained that, as Asian Affairs
Special Assistant to President Obama from 2009-2015, he was forced to
participate in countless ineffectual meetings of toothless Asian institutions.
The fundamental lack of trust among East Asia’s major powers makes genuine
multilateral cooperation extremely difficult. In light of this, Dr. Shin notes
that it’s important to address the major players’ differing priorities before
attempting a ‘grand unified strategy,’ to the North Korea problem.

That’s why, unlike the Six Party Talks, NAPCI will promote integrated
efforts on practical matters – such as nuclear energy regulation, public
health, and climate change – before graduating to more fundamental strategic
matters. It is believed that this low level collaboration will eventually
stimulate trust and interdependence, while also establishing an inclusive forum
for dialogue. Importantly, NAPCI will eventually attempt to support and enhance
the liberal international order and rules based system in Asia that President
Obama has continually hit upon when discussing the goals of the U.S. rebalance
to Asia.

When it comes to dealing with North Korea, both Even
Medeiros and Dr. Kang Choi (Director of Foreign Policy for the Asan Institute)
underscored the need for “less carrots and more sticks” in the event of a
nuclear or military provocation. When asked what such a “stick,” or punitive
measure, might look like, Even Medeiros encouraged a change in U.S. force
posture and a new round of sanctions, this time with the support of China.

A fisherman in the North Korean city of Wonsan at sunset. Image: Josiah Cha

Dr. Choi also highlighted the importance of Chinese
cooperation in pressuring the Kim regime. Dr. Jin (Professor at the School of
International Studies at China’s Renmin University) responded that Beijing’s
influence on Pyongyang was at an all-time low and warned the audience not to
expect dramatic change from the Chinese leadership. Kurt Campbell (CEO of the
Asia Group) suggested that while the relationship has changed drastically,
China still has the ability to utilize coercive diplomacy. Dr. Jin responded by
noting that China supports NAPCI in spirit, but will await further details
before it commits. “Beijing wants to ‘de-specialize’ its relationship with
North Korea, but will not encourage regime change as a means to do so.”  

Before it spreads to the international community, NAPCI will
have to gain headway in South Korea. On this topic, Director of U.S.-Korea
Policy at the Council of Foreign Relations Scott Snyder points out that
although Korean politics is normally complicated by bitter party rivalry, both
sides of the aisle regard institutional cooperation in East Asia as a necessary
and important endeavor. In point of fact, NAPCI is similar in nature to a
proposal from liberal President Roh Moo Hyun. This invites us to consider the
nonpartisan appeal of NAPCI in South Korea.

Kurt Campbell said that the Korean peninsula is likely to be
the fulcrum for the region’s future. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense for
President Clinton John Hamre agreed, saying that Korea will determine whether
the region becomes unstable or remains peaceful. Evan Medeiros remarked that
South Korea has graduated from being “a shrimp among whales,” to being a shark,
and that the region as a whole will benefit when South Korea steps up its
global leadership roles.

But will NAPCI really be able to spread trust and increase
cooperation among Asia’s major competitors? Scott Snyder compared NAPCI to
similar initiatives in Cold War Europe. He suggested that ultimately it took an
existential crises to bring about cooperation there, namely the Soviet nuclear
threat. He somberly explained that in the absence of a common security
emergency, NE Asia’s key players will have a very tough time working together.  

As if to demonstrate this difficulty, sparks flew when Dr.
Narushige Michishita (a Director at the National Institute for Policy Studies
in Japan) accused South Korea of being a “free rider” by hanging onto U.S.
coattails while counterproductively hedging with China. Dr. Choi responded
forcefully by reiterating SK’s security commitments and arguing that any plan
that strives to successfully deal with North Korea must engage rather than
ignore China. The exchange symbolizes how tensions still divide key allies and
hinder collective responses to North Korea.

It wasn’t all bad news, however. For example, many believe
there is hope for some of the “seven soft security agenda” items of NAPCI:
energy security, cyberspace regulation, public health, climate change, disaster
relief, and nuclear energy. Choi and Snyder were both optimistic about the
potential for NAPCI to bring together a wide collection of voices to work
together on the more practical issues, such as public health, environmental
protection, and nuclear safety. TEMM is a prime example of South Korea, Japan, and
China coming together to work on environmental issues, despite significant
disagreements over history, territory, etc.

To return to the original question, it is doubtful that
NAPCI will be able to unify the region’s disparate voices in short order. But ever
since the first nuclear crisis in 1994, the world has backtracked on North
Korea by swinging for the fences. It’s high time to make progress though
gradual trust building, sustained and invigorated by practical collaborations
and increased dialogue. Because of failure to gain traction with a resolute
U.S. commitment from President Obama, NAPCI might not succeed in its current
form. To sum up, the thinking that created NAPCI won’t help us hit a homerun
with North Korea today, but at least we can put a man on base.

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