Non-Traditional Security Issues in North Korea (Review)

Posted January 8, 2013

Categories: Articles, Book Reviews, Korea

Kyung-Ae Park, Non-Traditional Security Issues in North Korea (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013), 265 pages


The U.S. government views North Korea largely through one optic: as a nuclear threat. Pyongyang claims membership in the nuclear club, has exported its nuclear expertise, and may or may not have the capability to attack another country with a nuclear device. If North Korea’s nuclear program were suddenly to disappear, the country would drop far down the list of U.S. security preoccupations. To sustain U.S. interest – and potentially U.S. assistance – North Korea tightly holds onto its nukes, permitting small glimpses now and then to keep journalists and policymakers at the edge of their seats.


But North Korea is not just nukes. In fact, the nuclear program that has motivated two decades of U.S. negotiations with North Korea is but one small part of the security situation in and around the Korean peninsula.  From a traditional security point of view, South Korea has been more focused on North Korea’s artillery positions and the size of its infantry. Since the launch of the Taepodong in 1997, Japan has cared more about North Korea’s conventional ballistic missile technology.


But we are still in the realm of traditional security. A focus on conventional or nuclear armaments still leaves out a tremendous number of issues related to security. In a new edited collection, University of British Columbia professor Kyung-Ae Park and her contributors look at the rest of the picture.


The volume, Non-Traditional Security Issues in North Korea, unites a number of related contributions under the general rubric of “human security.” This concept, popularized in particular by the United Nations with its 1994 Human Development report, broadens the notion of security to include threats not to simply to countries but to individuals. The possibility of a nuclear attack is a source of insecurity: for governments, for populations. But the average person has more down-to-earth concerns. They are made insecure by lack of food or shelter. They’re worried about the prospects of illegal imprisonment or suffering as a result of a damaged electricity grid.


One reason to expand the view of North Korea to encompass human security is analytical: a focus on North Korea’s nuclear program or jet fighters doesn’t fully explain what is going on inside the country, the motivations of the country’s leadership, or the reactions of neighbors such as China. Another reason is prescriptive. You might raise issues of human security in order to have a wider range of sticks to use against North Korea: the country is evil not simply because of its nuclear program but because it deliberately deprives part of its population of food. Or you might view human security as another way of engaging North Korea – not just at the negotiating table over nukes but also through the delivery of humanitarian aid to alleviate malnutrition or technical assistance to improve its energy generation.


The contributors to this book generally fall into this second camp. As Jae-Jung Suh observes in the opening chapter, “given that the North’s human insecurity undermines its own national security and ultimately that of neighboring countries, one way to increase their national security would be to help the North Koreans improve their living conditions.” Subsequent contributors explore this suggestion in the realms of agriculture (W. Randall Ireson and Mark Manyin), energy (David von Hippel and Peter Hayes), and gender (Kyung-Ae Park).


To have any success in improving the living conditions of North Koreans in any of these arenas, of course, it is vital to have a detailed understanding of the sources of insecurity. So, for instance, an energy strategy requires a multi-pronged approach that addresses, through many small-scale projects, the variety of energy liabilities the country faces. An agricultural strategy requires a change in cropping patterns to raise crop yields to a more sustainable level. And a gender strategy requires an understanding that although women play a dominant role in the emerging market economy they are also the victims of trafficking to China and elsewhere.


As many contributors point out, these non-traditional security threats affect not only North Koreans but millions of others who live near North Korea. Economic migrants and refugees fleeing repression have flooded China; roughly 25,000 now live in South Korea. As Shin-Wha Lee argues, the unclear status of refugees in China requires considerable legal and diplomatic efforts to ensure their safety and security – and underscores the urgent need to prepare for the possibility of even larger refugee flows in the future. North Korea’s participation in the international drug trade strengthens the operations of organized crime in the region, though as David Kang points out in his chapter, the image of North Korea as a drug state has been wildly exaggerated.


The U.S. government is largely fixated on preserving stability in Northeast Asia to secure its own geostrategic and geoeconomic position in the region. It has zeroed in on North Korea’s nuclear program as the greatest source of instability. But this book, in the words of Brendan Howe, “challenges the traditional belief that diplomats should ignore the internal affairs of states in order to preserve international stability and posits that the lack of internal justice may actually increase international disorder.” The focus on nukes, in other words, has obscured the link between insecurity within North Korea and insecurity in the region as a whole.


There isn’t any support in the book for a military intervention into North Korea – under the auspices of the Right to Protect, for instance – to improve the living conditions of North Korean citizens. Rather, the contributors are more interested in identifying ways of engaging North Koreans at all levels of society, through governmental and non-governmental means, to both alleviate the government’s abstract feelings of insecurity and the public’s concrete experience of insecurity. Talks on nukes have been stalled for years. Expand the definition of security, the contributors argue, and we can get to the roots of insecurity and contribute to improving security on the ground.


The challenge is that the North Korean government, because of its rather strict interpretation of sovereignty, often views engagement with ordinary North Koreans as a threat, not the alleviation of a threat. In the end, the North Korean government is trapped in the same traditional understanding of security as the proponents of realpolitik in Washington. It clings to its nuclear program as an unassailable trump card and elevates its military through a “military-first doctrine” that only strengthens its traditional understanding of security. The real question, then, is whether a move by the U.S. government toward addressing non-traditional security threats will eventually push North Korea to do the same. So far, whether Democrat or Republican, U.S. administrations have been reluctant to stray from their focus on nuclear weapons in order to test this proposition.

Korean Quarterly, Fall 2013

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