Does North Korea’s latest nuclear foray signal the death of engagement policy? Is the sun setting on South Korea’s Sunshine Policy? The main players in the North Korean situation have always been divided when it came to dealing with the rogue state. Japan and the US have stood firmly in the “no negotiation” camp while China and South Korea have cultivated a much cosier relationship with Kim and his cohorts. But the bomb test may have changed all that.

“Until now, China and South Korea have continued to undermine the strict isolationist policy of the Bush administration by continuing to provide aid to North Korea (with very little monitoring),” Bronwen Dalton from the School of Management at Sydney’s University of Technology told Crikey.

In contrast, the US hasn’t been big on engaging Pyongyang in any kind of discussions. “Way back in the beginning of the Bush administration, they said that the US needed to adopt a set of policies that makes the demise of the regime more likely rather than talking to them and cutting a deal,” Ron Huisken, Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU, told Crikey. “That tension meant when the US was participating in the six party talks and negotiations, there were no negotiations, they’d make a statement and a demand and that was it.”

Pyongyang’s testing of a nuclear device could provide ammunition to the US, which has always argued that Chinese and South Korean engagement policies don’t work. These “countries will now come under pressure from the United States to persuade Pyongyang to come to the table – the six party talks,” says Dalton.  

Traditionally Pyongyang has “sweet talked China and South Korea enough to ensure there’s a big gap between them and the Japan and US approach,” says Huisken.

But now Pyongyang, in a misguided attempt to prove its nuclear strength to the world, may be “alienating its last two lifelines,” says Dalton. “Then things start getting really serious. Its economy is already in a tailspin. With a more effective sanctioning regime – such as South Korea ceasing the export of key commodities such as food stuffs — the economy could enter freefall.”

The US has to rethink its non-engagement strategy, says Dalton. “It’s time to engage, to offer incentives for good behaviour and abandon the hardline Bush approach. If not, millions will potentially die of hunger.” 

“Of course you need to continue to talk to North Korea,” agrees Huisken. “People need to have their finger on the pulse to see how the government is thinking under a regime like this so you can seize any opportunity to get them to rethink their current strategy…”