N. Korea’s Puzzling Intent
By Tong Kim
There seemed to be a consensus among North Korea watchers here in the United States that the Obama administration offers the best chance in a long time for the North to strike a deal with the United States. It is puzzling that the North, instead of grabbing the opportunity up front, has continued raising tensions, ultimately with its rocket launch.
Beginning January, several groups of private Americans with a varying degree of expertise on North Korea ― including Stephen Bosworth prior to his appointment as the top North Korea policy coordinator ― visited Pyongyang and told the North Koreans about their views of what's coming from the new administration vis-a-vis North Korea. Their message was the new administration would be serious to resolve the issues of mutual concern bilaterally with Pyongyang and multilaterally through the existing six-party talks.
The North Koreans turned down Ambassador Bosworth's plan to visit Pyongyang, which was part of his initial consultations with the participants in the multilateral talks for denuclearization. Bosworth's Asia trip immediately followed Secretary Hillary Clinton's visit to the region, during which she had sent mixed signals to Pyongyang. Although the North did not publicly react to some of the secretary's displeasing remarks, the North Koreans did not find a clear departure from the Bush Administration's policy other than a shift in approach ― with the appointment of a senior envoy and giving more weight to direct diplomacy.
Conversely, the North stepped up provocative threats on South Korea and imposed new demands that the United States should treat it as a nuclear weapons state and that it should first normalize its relationship with the DPRK before denuclearization. The North also lowered the level of its interlocutors for most of the American visitors, from vice foreign minister to the director-general of U.S. affairs ― from Kim Gye-gwan to Li Geun.
It is also notable that Pyongyang denied a recent American visitor group access to the Yongbyon nuclear complex: the group included Siegfried Hecker, a well-known nuclear authority, who had visited the site five times before. Hecker's first visit was allowed because the North wanted to prove its nuclear capability, which was eventually demonstrated by a nuclear test.
The denial of access does not indicate possible renewed nuclear activity. But the North may want the world to speculate on what is or what is not going on there. Pyongyang knows how to play the cutoff of information to the outside world or the effect of ambiguity to its advantage.
Some analysts attribute the North's lukewarm response to a new opportunity from Washington to its internal political situation ― including an alleged ``succession crisis" that had begun with Kim Jong-il's health problems. Kim had some medical issues last August, serious enough not to be seen in public for a stretch of months, but even during his disappearance form public view, there was no evidence disputing his control of the military, party and government in the North.
Since January, he has been seen much more often on site visits than usual. The National Intelligence Service's research institute in Seoul said that the number of visits could be on the same level as before, but Kim Jong-il's past visits may not have been fully reported. President Lee Myung-bak said this week that Kim does not seem to have trouble governing the country and his health seems to have improved.
Pyongyang's tougher actions against the South and the United States ― including the threat of going to war with the South and the expulsion of humanitarian NGO groups from the North and declining food aid from the latter _ may have risen from competition among sub-level leaders, both hardliners and moderates alike, for unity and loyalty to Kim Jong-il. In the DPRK system, Kim's subordinates constantly express their determination to fight their enemies from within or without, pledging that they would give their life to protect their leader and their system. Unfortunately, the South has become an external enemy again.
On the other hand, the North knows that Washington, despite its initial setting of policy direction, is still going through a process of refining the issues with Pyongyang and retooling the ways of going about them. When the dust from a missile launch and other disturbing developments settle, the North Koreans will be ready to engage the United States with their enhanced nuclear leverage.
The North seems to have decided to celebrate the convening of a new term for the Supreme People's Assembly that convenes April 9 and the late leader Kim Il-sung's birthday April 15 with a rocket launch. Pyongyang has been put on notice by the United States, South Korea and Japan that its rocket launch will face stern sanctions from the international community. But the North also learned there would be no attempt to shoot down its rocket and that it would be unlikely for the U.N. Security Council to pass new sanctions against it.
North Korea's nuclear threat does not come from the magnitude of its nuclear stockpile or the technology of its delivery systems, but from the perceived threat that it might actually use a nuclear weapon or transfer it to a third party. Recently, even some of the most eager proponents of engagement seem to be baffled by North Korea's worsening behavior.
As discussed above, the motivation for the North Koreans' provocative behavior is multiple and complex. There are other factors that inevitably affect the North Koreans' thinking. The North could live with a strengthened U.S.-ROK alliance; it understands the United States would coordinate its North Korea policy with the South. But the North Koreans vehemently react to the talk of joint preparedness for a sudden change in the North. They also react to U.S.-ROK joint exercises, but the exercises are not new.
The North misinterprets South Korea's ``strategy of waiting" as Seoul's waiting for a sudden change in the North, instead of ``waiting for the North to return to dialogue with the South." The North suspects that the South wants to seek a collapse of the North with the support of the United States.
But the South Korean president told reporters in London that he would send a special envoy to Pyongyang, if acceptable to the North. It is not likely that the North would accept an envoy at this point. It would be wiser that the South first reestablish a credible line of communication with the North, rather than making unconvincing offers through public statements.
Over-reaction, either from Seoul or Washington, or both, to the latest challenge from the North in rhetoric or action would only increase the difficulties in dealing with the North Korea issue. Nobody needs a new military crisis on the Korean Peninsula. What's your take?
Tong Kim is a research professor with the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He can be reached at email@example.com.