I just got back from a pretty arduous day. I got up at 5am to take a 3-hour bus ride to Swansea in South Wales for a conference, and I just got back at 10.30pm. The conference was entitled ‘The Domestic and International Dimensions of Security on the Korean Peninsula’ and had a wide range of people talking, and I just want a take a few moments to report the day’s proceedings to you guys.
Firstly, Swansea. It was my first time there, and I think I’ve seen enough of it to not want to go back. While the University of Wales, Swansea was not a bad place, but the city was a shit-hole, to be fair. The contrast between university and city really couldn’t have been more marked as I stood outside the old Singleton Abbey (in which the conference was held) with a park below and the sea in the distance, far better than the grime and tack we saw driving in.
The conference was split into two halves, the domestic and international dimensions. The morning kicked off with a discussion entitled ‘Human Security in the DPRK’. Two of Swansea’s own lecturers gave papers in this session. Professor Michael Sheehan gave one entitled ‘Freedom from Fear: Political Oppression in the DPRK’ regarding the human rights abuses of the Kim regime. It was an interesting paper essentially showing how the DPRK had paid particular attention to the fall of the Ceauşescu regime in Romania and the lessons it drew from that, namely that change is dangerous and the North Korean practice of regime security was effective. Dr Alan Collins then gave a paper on ‘Freedom from Want: Famine and Migration in the DPRK’. Collins essentially outlined the culpability of the regime in the famine, as well as the link between regime security and the Public Distribution System (PDS), the main means through which food was distributed. He then advocated reunification as the best solution for the North Korean people, hoping for a peaceful change and a soft-landing.
The second morning session was on the reunification of Korea. Dr Key-young Son (of Sheffield University) presented a paper entitled ‘Are we near Sunset Boulevard? The Sunshine Policy and an ‘imagined’ road to unification’. It was an interesting discussion of what might happen after the Sunshine Policy hits its shelf-life. Son showed how the dots of economic cooperation in Mount Kumgang and Kaesong would develop, via South Korea’s modernisation of North Korean transportation, into lines linking the key locations of interest for the South Koreans in a cross-DMZ train service (one of the lines went from Seoul to Mt Baekdu). I wasn’t sure whether he was presenting his own projections, or those based on South Korean government desires. The second paper was by Professor Hideya Kurata (Kyorin University in Tokyo) on ‘Building Peace through Security Assurances’. My girlfriend told me she recognised Kurata from TV, and in talking to him she learned that he often gives his opinion to the press as an expert in East Asian international relations, and he has, at some point, been called a ‘North Korea collaborator’ by the press for his down-to-Earth views on the abduction issue (namely that Japan should be far more concerned with denuclearisation). His paper demonstrated the confidence-building measures and extended dialogue in the inter-Korean relationship, as well as peace-building beyond the current day.
The afternoon session on the international dimensions of Korean security began with discussions on the Six-Party Talks. Dr Jianjun Yu (of the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong in Shanghai) discussed China’s perspective in a paper entitled ‘China and Six-Party Talks: Seeking Multilateral Security in East Asia’. He suggested that the Six-Party Talks showed an East Asian conception of conflict resolution, different to that of Europe. In viewing China’s role in the talks, he discussed China’s change in security preferences (bilateral to multilateral engagement), its diplomatic plights (its strategic, moral, economic and political concerns vis a vis the DPRK), and the desire to institutionalise the Six-Party Talks as a multilateral security forum. Dr Russell Ong (University of Manchester) followed this up with a talk on the ‘US and the challenge of North Korea’, essentially running through the US perspective. This was largely reporting on what was already apparent to anyone who watched the news, and thus was the least interesting talk of the day (despite Ong’s engaging presentation technique). The one item that caught my attention was the US as an ‘Asian power’, that is a extraterritorial Great Power in the region.
The final session of the day was the most important and relevant for me, it was entitled ‘Nuclear Proliferation’ but didn’t really settle into this. Dr Christopher Hughes (Warwick University), a key writer on Japan’s defence posture, gave a talk on ‘Japan’s defence posture, missile defence and the response to DPRK nuclear proliferation’. I had no idea he was coming so it was a nice surprise for me. He discussed much along the same lines of my research interests, namely ‘North Korea as existential threat, alliance divider, terror state, and all-purpose pretext’. It was a great, yet brief discussion and I later asked him for his thoughts on the abduction issue, the marginalisation of Japan in the Six-Party Talks, and the effect on the US relationship. He saw Japan as ‘stranded’ and ‘in a corner’ politically, Abe had backed the wrong people (the US neo-cons such as Bolton) and now they are gone or going he is left as the seemingly hard-liner. The two other talks by Dr Seung-young Kim (University of Aberdeen) on the ‘US-South Korean Military Alliance: Impact of DPRK Nuclear Status’, and Unto Vesa (Tampere Peace Research Institute, Finland) on ‘North Korea and the Non-Proliferation Treaty’ largely passed me by (as I attempted to formulate the aforementioned question), although from what I gathered, Dr Kim saw South Korea’s relationship with the US becoming more open to choice, that is that Korea can choose to participate in adventures such as Iraq, unlike its close ties during the Vietnam War, for instance. Vesa showed the progression of the nuclear issue from the first North Korean nuclear physics research lab in 1959, right through the present day. He also saw the denuclearisation talks as a ‘long and winding road’, and essentially futile.
So, that was my day. Anyway, I’m going to go have a long soak in the bath to remove those bus-journey aches. Until next time…