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Can Britain help address the ‘North Korea problem’?

With the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea’s (DPRK, or North Korea) belligerence showing few signs of abating, the United Kingdom (UK) must remain committed to calling for the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and general weapons programmes. Should any rare, longer-term opportunity for dialogue with North Korea arise, Britain should ensure it does not depart from this stance. Nonetheless, one should be realistic about what the UK can do to address the ‘North Korea problem’. In line with its dedication towards solidifying stability in the Indo-Pacific, the UK should reassure its Northeast Asian partners of Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) of its commitment to strengthening relations with like-minded partners and deterring a nuclear North Korea, not least given how UK-ROK relations celebrated their 140th anniversary last year.

North Korea’s latest spate of tension-escalating behaviour demonstrates a significant upgrade in its technological capabilities, from a solid-fuel intermediate-range ballistic missile test earlier in the year, to the test of an underwater nuclear attack drone, first seen in April 2023. Pyongyang justified such actions on account of ‘deter[ring] the hostile military manoeuvres of the navies of the U[nited] S[tates] [US] and its allies’, referring clearly to trilateral military exercises held between America, South Korea, and Japan. In January, North Korea also launched several submarine-launched cruise missiles. Whilst not banned according to United Nations (UN) Security Council sanctions, these launches reinforce Kim Jong Un’s determination to strengthen North Korea’s naval forces and expand the range, type, and credibility of Pyongyang’s weapons arsenal. Whilst it is easy to overlook North Korea’s repeated missile tests, neither the UK nor its allies and partners should become complacent in accepting North Korea’s self-proclaimed status as a nuclear state. 

The UK’s North Korea policy remains one of ‘critical engagement’. Akin to that of the European Union (EU), critical engagement seeks to ‘uphold the international [nuclear] non-proliferation regime’ and ‘improv[e] the situation of human rights in the DPRK.’ As the UK’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific, updated in March 2023, made clear, the UK continues to ‘support peace on the Korean peninsula’ and urges North Korea to ‘show restraint’. Nearly one year on, however, North Korea’s actions demonstrate that restraint looks not to be one of its behavioural choices this coming year. Even the ultimate goal of the EU’s approach of ‘critical engagement’, namely the ‘lasting diminution of tensions on the Korean Peninsula’, seems unlikely, as Pyongyang looks to heighten its provocations towards South Korea. Thus, what can the UK do to address an increasingly antagonistic North Korea? 

Unlike the US, Britain has, for over two decades, maintained diplomatic relations with North Korea. For any diplomatic relations to be effective, however, embassies and channels of communication need to be transparent. North Korea’s borders are only now starting to re-open following its self-imposed closure in January 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, Pyongyang is typically prioritising engagement with its authoritarian, anti-Western partners of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia, and Cuba. North Korea still views the UK as merely another free and open country which adopts a hostile approach to the state, but the longer-term prospect of UK-DPRK dialogue such as at Track 1.5 or Track 2 levels – though unlikely at present – should not be ruled out, even if their effectiveness in catalysing change would be questionable. 

Britain and its allies and partners should be cautious. For now, the UK and South Korea should strengthen their historic partnership. It was hardly a coincidence that Yoon Suk-yeol, the South Korean President, became the first foreign leader to conduct a state visit hosted by King Charles III last November. As Yoon highlighted in his address to the British Parliament, the two countries should ‘stand in solidarity and respond to many of the world’s challenges’, since ‘one country alone cannot defend peace.’ These words are particularly relevant when dealing with North Korea, which encompasses a multidimensional set of issues beyond nuclear capabilities that neither South Korea nor the UK can address alone. Whilst Yoon stressed how ‘together, [both states] will tackle North Korea’s W[eapons of] M[ass] D[estruction] threats’, any concerted global effort to address the North Korea nuclear issue, at present, remains hindered by Pyongyang’s unwillingness to negotiate with the outside world, not least the US, South Korea, and their allies. 

The somewhat unimaginatively-named Downing Street Accord signed between Yoon and Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, however, offers some room for optimism. The agreement has upgraded UK-ROK relations to a new level by strengthening cooperation in diverse areas beyond addressing the thorny issues of North Korea and the PRC, including green energy, cybersecurity, and semiconductors, the latter which has been South Korea’s single largest export since 2013.  

In addition to economic and technological cooperation, the UK should continue to engage in bilateral and multilateral military exercises with allies and partners in the Northeast Asian region, as was seen in the joint UK-ROK exercises in November 2023. Moreover, UK-ROK cooperation should leverage the rare opportunity that this year, Britain, Japan, and South Korea will all be members of the UN Security Council, with Japan and the ROK as non-permanent members. Although the council remains stymied by the polarising geostrategic objectives of its permanent members, this will offer a useful occasion for the UK to play a central role in bolstering coordination with its allies and partners in ensuring rigorous enforcement of multilateral sanctions at a time when any silver bullet to the North Korea problem remains elusive. 

One example was witnessed in late-January this year, when the UK’s Ministry of Defence provided a UN panel of experts with satellite photographs showing North Korea engaging in ship-to-ship transfers of cargo from the DPRK to Russia. The importance of intelligence-sharing with likeminded partners should not go unnoticed, and is one area in which the UK can continue playing a vital role. 

Addressing Yoon at the state banquet in November last year, King Charles III underscored how the South Korea and UK should ‘stand shoulder to shoulder in defence of all that we hold dear’, referring specifically to values of ‘democracy, human rights, and freedom.’ At a time when global politics remains fractured by a range of simultaneous crises, standing firm with our allies and partners is more important than ever. 

Dr Edward Howell is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Oxford, and the Korea Foundation Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House.

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