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     Mar 12, 2005
North Korea: Fortune will favor the bold
By Bruce Klingner

During her Asia trip next week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will face a region deeply split over the North Korean nuclear crisis and increasingly distant from and distrustful of Washington's policy. North Korea's admission that it has built nuclear weapons and its threat to resume missile launches has reinforced South Korean, Chinese and Russian fears of instability and led to impassioned pleas for US flexibility in order to induce Pyongyang to return to the six-way talks. Rice is to visit India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea and China from Monday through March 21.

Pyongyang's alternating use of threats and conciliatory statements reflects traditional North Korean tactics to define negotiating parameters and extract maximum benefits for minimal concessions, in some cases demanding rewards for a return to the status quo. Although North Korea's actions were directed primarily at forcing the administration of US President George W Bush to accept Pyongyang's prerequisite demands, they were also likely intended to divert global attention from suspicions of Pyongyang proliferating nuclear material to Libya.

On February 10 North Korea announced that it had built nuclear weapons - no surprise to anyone who had been following the situation - and was building more because of US hostility. It announced it was suspending participation in the six-party talks, but later said it could return under certain conditions. These include the United States ending its hostile rhetoric (Rice called Pyongyang an "outpost of tyranny") and its perceived interference, such as the congressional North Korea Human Rights Act aimed at helping defectors and those who help them. The talks involved North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the US.

Japan, for its part, has allowed Washington to do the hard work by confronting North Korea on the nuclear issue but concurrently implemented new maritime regulations to constrain Pyongyang's ability to earn hard currency through bilateral trade. Tokyo's tougher insurance laws, taken in lieu of more inflammatory official sanctions, were the result of rising nationalist ire over Pyongyang's foot-dragging on resolving the issue of Japanese abducted by North Korean agents over the years.

Missile moratorium: The dog that hadn't barked
On March 3, Pyongyang threatened to resume testing long-range missiles, renouncing in effect its self-imposed missile-launch moratorium. Pyongyang justified the renunciation of the ban on the failure of the US to pursue direct bilateral relations, a longtime North Korean strategic goal.

Pyongyang had enacted the restriction in September 1999 in return for an "unlinked" US promise to ease economic sanctions that was announced by Washington several days later. Since the inception of the missile-test moratorium, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had affirmed the ban on several occasions, eschewing opportunities to threaten to resume missile launches and demand additional compensation, raising speculation that Pyongyang's missile program was quiescent because of problems with its long-range missiles.

Although the 1998 launch of a Taepo Dong-1 caused great consternation by overflying Japan, its third stage exploded and failed to place a satellite in orbit. Media sources have since reported on occasional missile and rocket explosions at North Korea's launch facility.

Kim's threat to resume missile launches, coming so soon after the nuclear announcement, was likely calculated to intimidate its neighbors by raising the specter of North Korean nuclear weapons with delivery systems. Military experts estimate that the Taepo Dong-2 would be able to deliver a nuclear payload to the continental United States.

Pyongyang avoids crossing the Rubicon
The collective indifference - or the calculated decision to react calmly - shown by the international community to North Korea's nuclear and missile threats has left Kim Jong-il with the choice of escalating the situation still further in order to gain his desired diplomatic and economic objectives - or having to develop an alternative strategy.

Despite its belligerent rhetoric, Pyongyang has always carefully calibrated its position to avoid transgressing a point of no return, instead allowing itself a way to deescalate the situation or forcing its opponents to accept a new status quo through "creeping normalcy".

North Korea was talked down from its lofty perch in 1993-94 by achieving direct bilateral talks with the US and, eventually, the Agreed Framework. The aborted crisis in 2003 after Pyongyang's admission to an illicit uranium-based nuclear-weapons program is particularly illustrative: after quickly implementing a series of increasingly provocative steps that led some experts to predict war on the Korean Peninsula by mid-2003, Pyongyang simply allowed the situation to dissipate, having achieved no concessions or even an apparent reaction from Washington.

Kim is unlikely in the near term to undertake extreme actions, such as a nuclear test, since it would undermine Pyongyang's efforts to characterize the Bush administration as the cause of the nuclear impasse and isolate the US from the other six-way-talks participants. Moreover, a test would eliminate the strategic ambiguity that has allowed South Korea and China to deny the existence of North Korean nuclear weapons.

Increasing questions of US assertions
Washington's failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has emboldened South Korea, China and Russia to express their skepticism over US intelligence claims about North Korea's nuclear-weapons programs. Asian officials have publicly questioned or dismissed US reports, including recent assertions that Pyongyang exported uranium to assist Libya's nuclear program.

South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young sought to undermine the veracity of Pyongyang's own admission. His comments, however, were in conflict with a White Paper put out by Seoul's Ministry of Defense that stated that the North had probably assembled one or two nuclear weapons. Opposition lawmakers accused Chung of "idle optimism".

Chung and Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon asserted that there was no immediate reason to change Seoul's policy of engaging with the North, "despite fresh uncertainty" over Pyongyang's nuclear program. Hong Seok-hyun, South Korea's new ambassador to the United States, indirectly criticized the US hardline policy: "As diplomatic means, there are carrots and sticks, but they say the finest horse trainers use carrots first."

Early this month, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing questioned the validity of US intelligence reports after a visit to Beijing by Michael Green, senior director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council. Green reportedly briefed the Chinese leadership, saying that the North Korean nuclear program had progressed further than previously estimated and was selling nuclear materials abroad.

In Moscow, meanwhile, Sergei Antipov, Russia's deputy atomic energy minister, told reporters this Thursday that North Korea has no nuclear weapons despite Pyongyang's claims to the contrary. Li's and Antipov's dismissive comments indicate that neither Beijing nor Moscow is likely to support any US efforts to gain United Nations Security Council support for a strong international response to Pyongyang, such as possible sanctions.

Regional reluctance to accept US intelligence estimates will likely be reinforced by the forthcoming report of a US commission that reportedly takes a highly critical view of US intelligence on the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, though no details are publicly available. The presidential-directed commission, led by retired federal judge Laurence Silberman and former Virginia governor and former senator Charles S Robb, is scheduled to provide its highly classified findings by the end of March - with a redacted, unclassified version to be released shortly thereafter.

The US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is conducting "preemptive oversight" on US intelligence reporting on the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs as a follow-on to its scathing report on US prewar conclusions on Iraq's nuclear weapons. The committee leadership of Pat Roberts of Kansas and John Rockefeller of West Virginia have concluded that current intelligence on North Korea and Iran has "come up short".

Kim Jong-il's diplomatic shortcomings
While Kim Jong-il has been tactically brilliant, playing a poor hand well and avoiding both regime collapse and military attack, he has been unable to parlay his diplomatic advantage into tangible strategic benefits. Kim has time and again refused to take the necessary conciliatory steps to receive lucrative rewards of international aid and development.

Although such rewards would provide direct economic benefit as well as generate a less threatening environment, allowing North Korea to redirect its limited resources to improve its condition, Kim perceives the price for such development - namely opening the country to the contagion of capitalism and democracy - as simply too high.

As a result, Kim and the region remain locked in an endless loop of cyclical crises with predictable threats and gestures by a regime unwilling to risk either raising tension too far or defusing the confrontation completely. Breaking the pattern seems unlikely, absent bold initiatives that both North Korea and the United States seem unwilling or unable to implement. In fact, both sides may find the status quo preferable to the alternatives, including further negotiations.

Bruce Klingner is with Eurasia Group, an independent research and consulting firm that provides global political risk analysis. His areas of expertise are strategic national security, political and military affairs in China, Korea and Japan. He can be reached at klingner@eurasiagroup.net.

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