World Economic Forum East Asia Debate – Seoul, Korea

Masood Sharif Khan Khattak spoke at the World Economic Forum in Seoul, Korea on the topic of Asian Flashpoints: Challenges to Security along with Brad Glosserman, Lee Chung-Min, Makio Miyagawa and Moon Chung-In. Moderated by Richard Samans. Here are some highlights and the introduction video:


Despite the wide ranging nature of security issues in Asia including terrorism, endemic disease and illegal immigration, the conversation rarely veered from the nuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the current attempts to diffuse the situation. Participants discussed the various intricacies of North Korea’s nuclear strategy and what involved countries could do to defuse the situation.

What does North Korea think? There is little consensus, both on this panel and outside, over the question of why North Korea does what it does. Currently, unknowns include the level of China’s influence, Kim Jong Il’s succession plan and the threats North Korea perceives itself facing from the outside world. There was, however, a general consensus that North Korea will not get rid of its nuclear weapons anytime soon.

Why do countries develop nuclear weapons? One participant suggested that the divergent interests of leaders of countries and the populace is one reason three of the countries that have nuclear weapons – India, Pakistan and North Korea – also have millions of mouths to feed. One panellist opined that South Korea pursuing nuclear weapons would be a big mistake because it would lose the moral high ground, damage its relationship with the US and cause Russia and China to focus on it as a threat. North Korea, one participant posited, developed nuclear weapons not as a result of external stimuli but because former President Kim Il Sung made the strategic decision to develop them, and Kim Jong Il followed that decision.
Why are countries less willing to offer incentives to North Korea? Participants discussed how rewarding North Korea could affect the situation. One participant exposited that the United States’ domestic politics prevent it from offering more carrots to North Korea, while others suggested that North Korea’s continuous “pocketing” of the carrots has led to countries being much more wary about offering aid.

What is China’s Interest? China currently provides North Korea with 70% of its food and oil; ostensibly, it is North Korea’s closest ally. If China lets North Korea fall, an estimated one million North Korean refugees would flow into north-eastern China, destabilizing the 2.5 million Koreans already there. On the other hand, a nuclear North Korea would trigger a military build-up in South Korea and Japan, which is detrimental to China’s long-term interests. China has agreed to a UN resolution that imposes sanctions on North Korea for its non-normal trade.

The overwhelming consensus among participants was agreement on the sheer complexity of the issue.
“Trying to make sense of Asia today is like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle where the shapes and colours are changing at the same time,” summarized one panelist.

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