N. Korea Can Fool No One
By Andy Jackson
Some people could be forgiven for believing that North Korea has made a fundamental change in its strategic outlook and is seeking peaceful coexistence on a nuclear weapons-free Korean Peninsula.
Pyongyang sold two American journalists (whom it now appears were captured in China and dragged back into North Korea after making a run for it) for the rock-bottom price of a visit from former President Bill Clinton.
Then Hyundai Asan employee Yu Seong-jin, who was seized by North Korean officials for criticizing the Kim Jong-il regime and allegedly enticing a North Korean woman to defect, was returned to the South on Aug. 13. Hyundai Asan, Yu's employer, which operates in the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, had to pay $15,747 to get him back.
Just last week, the North Koreans released four fishermen who had strayed past the Northern Limit Line.
Those moves are part of an ongoing charm campaign, which also included North Korea officials meeting with President Lee Myung-bak on the sidelines of former President Kim Dae-jung's funeral. A North Korean delegation also made a point of making a very public visit to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (who has a history of promoting himself as an intermediary with Pyongyang).
Then there is North Korea's normalization of cross-border traffic to the Gaeseong Industrial Complex and the recent agreement to a new round of reunions between families in the North and South separated by the Korean War.
When taking all those factors into account, observers of Pyongyang could come to the conclusion that North Korea is ready for a fundamental change in its relationship with its neighbors ― but only if they are completely naive.
Fortunately, with the exception of a few of my fellows in the commentariat, Pyongyang does not seem to have fooled anyone with its recent diplomatic maneuvers.
Unification Minister Hyun In-taek has called Pyongyang's moves ``tactical," noting that North Korea has ``neither declared its return to the six-nation talks nor changed its position" on its nuclear weapons programs.
Hyun's sentiments were echoed by Stephen Bosworth, the United States' special envoy on North Korea, in Seoul last Sunday. While Bosworth said that the United States was ``gratified" that North Korea had released the two American citizens it had been holding, he noted that he did not ``think there's been any fundamental change" in North Korean policy on its nuclear weapons programs.
In fact, some of North Korea's other recent actions have made it abundantly clear that they have not yet made any significant change in policy.
The Aug. 14 seizure of North Korean weapons bound for Iran is a clear sign that Pyongyang does not intend to give up its proliferation activities. While the weapons in question are low-end (mostly rocket launchers, detonators, munitions and rocket-propelled grenades) their export is a violation of Security Council resolution 1874, which prohibited all arms exports from North Korea.
The other shoe dropped on Sept. 4 when Pyongyang announced that it had nearly completed its program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, providing Pyongyang with a second source nuclear weapons-grade material to go along with its stockpiles of plutonium. It is worth remembering that it was the discovery of the uranium program that led to the collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework in 2002.
So what can we make of Pyongyang's seemingly incongruous actions?
It is important to note that North Korea's nuclear and weapons proliferation activities are part of its core ``military first" policy. The increasing shift of resources to the military has made it a disproportionately large source of both money and diplomatic leverage for Pyongyang, so we cannot expect it to give up its nuclear weapons development or proliferation programs unless there is a major change in its strategic calculus.
However, several factors have begun to exert pressure on Pyongyang to adjust that calculus. First, the inauguration of Lee Myung-bak last year ended nearly a decade of largely unquestioning financial and political support from Seoul.
Second, measures like resolution 1874, along with sanctions from the United States and Japan, have put increasing economic pressure on Pyongyang. A third development has been an increased level of coordination of North Korea policy between Seoul, Washington, Tokyo and (for the time being) Beijing.
In that context, North Korea's recent charm offensive can be seen as an attempt to gain more financial aid (through direct aid, increased use of the Gaeseong Industrial Complex and a reopening of the Mt. Geumgang Resort) to counter the effects of sanctions brought about as a result of its nuclear weapons programs. The overtures are also probes to find gaps between Seoul, Washington and others involved in the six-party denuclearization process that Pyongyang can exploit.
While Seoul and Washington should be open to diplomacy with Pyongyang on issues other than denuclearization, such agreements should remain limited in scope and care should be taken to insure that they do not undermine sanctions against North Korea's nuclear and proliferation activities.
There cannot be any fundamental change in policy toward Pyongyang without a corresponding real and fundamental shift in policy from Pyongyang.
Andy Jackson has taught courses on American government and has been writing on Korean politics and other issues for four years. He is the chairman of Republicans Abroad-Korea. He can be reached at email@example.com.