NATIONAL

‘Responsibility to protect does not apply to N.K.’

By Korea Herald

Pyongyang can use nuclear arms only to deter attack, not for coercing other countries, Walt says

  • Published : Jan 1, 2015 - 21:21
  • Updated : Jan 1, 2015 - 21:21
This is the second installment in a special New Year’s series of interviews with preeminent scholars on international politics and security. ― Ed.


Recent years have seen growing calls for the international community to more actively intervene to address North Korea’s human rights abuses under the responsibility to protect.

Last year, a U.N. investigation report underscored the need to apply the R2P, stressing Pyongyang had “manifestly” failed to fulfill its state responsibility to protect its people against “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations.”

In an interview with The Korea Herald, professor Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University expressed skepticism about the R2P’s applicability to the North Korean situation, noting Pyongyang has built a strong mechanism to fend off any outside intervention.

“R2P is not applicable to the North Korean case, because one of the conditions is that there be a feasible option for outsiders,” he said.

“The North Korean government has gone to great lengths to make it difficult to impossible for outsiders to interfere there, and using force to try to change their human rights behavior would probably hurt as many people as it would help.”

The R2P calls on the international community to take responsibility to protect citizens of a country that fails to safeguard its people from atrocities such as genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

The interventionist concept was first brought up after concerns rose over the international community’s failure to properly handle genocides in Rwanda in 1994 and in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica the next year.

Following a heated international debate on the concept, the U.N. adopted the R2P in 2005. The R2P was first applied in conflict-laden Libya in 2011, when the U.N. Security Council approved military action based on the norm.

On the issue of the intensifying competition between the U.S. and China over regional dominance, the political scientist forecast that the risk of military confrontations between the two would increase in the years ahead should China’s economic and military clout continue to grow ― a situation that would put South Korea in a tricky diplomatic position.

The following are excerpts from the interview with Walt:

Korea Herald: The international community has been struggling to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear program over the last two decades, but to no avail. Would there be a way to denuclearize the North, other than a regime change? 
Stephen M. Walt

Stephen M. Walt: The negotiations have failed because the North Korean regime is unwilling to give up a powerful source of protection against outside pressure. As long as it has a few nuclear weapons, other states ― including China, the United States, Japan and South Korea ― will be very careful not to put too much pressure on them. It is really the only source of leverage they have, and they are not going to give it up readily. This situation will not change until the government in North Korea decides it wants to have a fundamentally different relationship with the outside world.

KH: If North Korea fully develops nuclear arms, what kind of situations do you think will unfold? Do you think South Korea and Japan would opt to have their own nuclear arms to touch off a nuclear domino effect?

Walt: North Korea cannot use its small nuclear arsenal to coerce its neighbors; it can only use it to deter attack. If the North used its nuclear arsenal, it would almost certainly face devastating retaliation. The United States has a much more effective arsenal, and it is committed to defending both Japan and South Korea. Moreover, U.S. leaders would not want to let a nuclear attack on a U.S. ally go unpunished. I believe that North Korea’s leaders understand this reality.

KH: Pyongyang has adopted a policy of simultaneously developing its economy and nuclear weapons. What do you think about this two-pronged policy?

Walt: North Korea’s nuclear program is intended to prevent the United States (or others) from conducting a “regime change” in Pyongyang. Because remaining in power is the regime’s top priority, it has been willing to sacrifice economic development and full engagement with the outside world.

KH: Washington seems to have prioritized preventing North Korea’s spread of nuclear arms to other nonnuclear nations ― the “horizontal” nuclear proliferation ― while Seoul has prioritized the complete dismantlement of the nuclear arms ― the “vertical proliferation.” So there could be a policy gap in that regard. What do you think about this?

Walt: The United States opposes both vertical and horizontal proliferation, so there is no significant gap between Washington and Seoul. Preventing horizontal proliferation is a somewhat easier task, but both are important.

KH: North Korea has reportedly been developing a submarine-launched ballistic missile that will allow it to have a second-strike capability. How would you assess the SLBM threats?

Walt: I am not that concerned about this possibility, because a submarine-launched missile provides a second capability only if the submarine itself cannot be detected, tracked and attacked. That is unlikely to be true of any small submarine force that North Korea might develop.

KH: The relationship between South Korea and Japan has been worsening due to escalating territorial and historical disputes. What do you think about the current relationship between the two and would there be a way to improve the strained ties?

Walt: The current state of relations is deeply regrettable, and is not in either country’s interest. In my view, this is one area where the United States should be engaged in more active diplomacy, to try to smooth out these differences. I would also encourage South Korea and Japan to begin a “track II” process of academics, journalists and former officials, to begin to address some of the contentious historical issues that are disturbing the relationship.

KH: East Asia has long been suffering from distrust, and historical and territorial antagonisms. Do you have any suggestions to address them and promote peace and stability, like what Europe has done?

Walt: I would not be too pessimistic: Asia has made enormous economic and political progress over the past 40 years or more. But reconciliation in Europe was partly aided by a genuine multinational effort to come to terms with past history, and to “denationalize” its teaching. After World War II, European government and historians from different countries worked to correct the teaching of history in different European countries, in order to remove biased and nationalistic curriculum in schools and create a shared understanding of Europe’s past.

KH: Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago said in his latest version of the “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” that China would not rise peacefully. Do you agree with that?

Walt: I believe professor Mearsheimer is mostly correct: China’s rise will increase the level of security competition in Asia. If China continues to grow economically, it will also increase its military power and it will gradually try to push the United States out of Asia, mostly by trying to convince other Asian states to distance themselves from Washington. The United States will resist these efforts. I do not know if there will be a war, or even serious military confrontations, but I do think the risk of both will increase in the years ahead.

KH: South Korea has been striving to maintain both its strategic partnership with China and security alliance with the U.S. Amid the intensifying rivalry between the two major powers, Korea may be put into a tricky position. What do you think about the future course of Korea’s diplomacy?

Walt: You are correct that South Korea will face a delicate balancing act. But in international politics, ensuring a state’s security and sovereignty has to be the top priority. Without adequate protection, smaller states are forced to accommodate powerful neighbors and that is rarely a comfortable position to be in.

KH: China has recently been seeking to initiate a new regional security apparatus excluding the U.S., a “maritime silk road” vision and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. How do you assess all these moves?

Walt: These proposals suggest that China does want to challenge American leadership of key international institutions, but it has a long way to go before it is in a similar position of power. If China does move in this direction, it will also have to be willing to take on other global responsibilities, and that is something Beijing has been reluctant to do so far.

KH: How do you think China will strategically use both South Korea and North Korea in its quest to become a great power?

Walt: China faces potential threats from many directions and tends to be very sensitive to events on its borders. I believe it sees the Korean Peninsula more as a potential source of trouble than as an opportunity. Indeed, the main reason Beijing continues to support North Korea is to keep the peninsula divided and to preserve a “buffer state” there.

KH: There has been a growing concern here that the U.S. may not make all-out efforts to intervene in a possible conflict on the Korean Peninsula given that Washington has shown some reluctance to get promptly involved in crises in Libya and Syria. America’s reduction of ground troops has also triggered concerns that the U.S. ground-based military support for South Korea could weaken. What do you think about these concerns?

Walt: These concerns are misplaced. The United States does not improve its global position or its military strength when it gets involved in costly conflicts such as Iraq or Afghanistan. The United States does not in fact have vital interests at stake in Libya, Syria or even western Iraq today, and it would be a mistake to divert more attention and resources towards these issues. These conflicts must ultimately be handled by local forces, so that the United States can concentrate on more important issues, most notably Asia.

KH: South Korean President Park Geun-hye has paid much attention to the issue of national reunification. Do you have any suggestions to help lay the groundwork for unification?

Walt: Unfortunately, no. Reunification will depend first and foremost on a change of heart inside the North Korean government, and it is impossible to say when that will occur.


Stephen M. Walt

● Walt, the Robert and Renee Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is a leading theorist in the realist school of thought. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago.

● He is internationally acclaimed for his creation of the international relations theory of the “balance of threats” ― a modification of the prevailing rule of the “balance of power” developed by Kenneth Waltz, the late founder of neorealism, or structuralism.

● He is the author of several award-winning books, including “The Origins of Alliances,” which received the 1988 Edgar S. Furniss National Security Book Award.

● His publications also include “Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy” and articles for Foreign Policy and Naval War College Review.

● He serves on the editorial boards of Foreign Policy, Security Studies, International Relations, and Journal of Cold War Studies, and as coeditor of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, published by Cornell University Press.

● He received a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Stanford University in 1977, a master’s degree in political science from the University of California, Berkeley in 1978 and a Ph.D. in political science from Berkeley in 1983.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)