US finally wise to Pyongyang's ways
By Andrei Lankov
SEOUL - In the past few weeks, North Korean watchers have been confronted with
a sight they do not see frequently: Americans outsmarting North Koreans.
Usually, the opposite is the case. North Korea might be a failing state,
balancing on the verge of famine, but when it comes to diplomatic games, North
Korean politicians are second to none.
They have studied the dangerous art of manipulating great powers since the
1960s, when they played Russians and Chinese against one another. They
perfected their skills in the 1990s, when they managed to manipulate the US,
South Korea and China into
providing large amounts of food and energy aid while giving essentially nothing
This was a remarkable achievement, and it seemed that the North Koreans would
always have the upper hand when confronting Washington. However, this time
things are different. North Korea's attempts to use tried-and-tested methods
When in November 2008, Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the
United States, North Korean strategists had good reasons to rejoice. Obama was
perceived as a soft-liner who had even hinted at the possibility of a summit
with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. It could be expected that Obama's policy
towards North Korea would be conciliatory and soft - and in this area little
would change, since the last two years of George W Bush's presidency were
marked by a soft approach towards Pyongyang.
However, observers also agreed that while the Obama administration clearly
favored negotiations and compromise in dealing with Pyongyang, North Korea
would not be too high on its foreign policy agenda. The new administration had
other, more pressing challenges, and one could expect that North Korea would be
treated with a measure of neglect.
This might be the reason why Pyongyang strategists, usually quite good in
reading (and using) the mood in Washington, decided to be proactive to make
sure that North Korea would get enough attention from the White House. To
achieve this, they decided to apply a well-tested strategy they had used a
number of times, invariably with success.
This essentially consists of three stages. In the first stage, the North
Koreans raise tensions, creating the impression they were going to do something
really dangerous. They launch missiles, test nuclear devices and engage in
ultra-bellicose rhetoric. Once tensions are sufficiently high, and neighboring
countries feel uneasy enough, leaders in Pyongyang move to the next stage: they
make a few goodwill gestures and hint at the possibility of a negotiated
settlement. The world signs with relief and agrees to negotiations.
In the process of negotiations, Pyongyang extracts aid which comes,
essentially, as a reward for North Korea's willingness to restore the status
quo which existed before the crisis they themselves manufactured.
This stratagem worked fine in the early 1990s, when it brought regular
shipments of crude oil and also helped to increase food aid. It worked again in
2006-07, when the Americans rushed to the negotiation table as soon as a
semi-successful nuclear test was conducted by the North Koreans.
So it was only logical that the North Koreans decided to apply it once again.
This time, however, there was some awkwardness in the North Korean diplomatic
maneuvers: perhaps it was a result of Kim Jong-il's health problems, and he was
probably not in full control when the scheme was launched in late 2008.
Nonetheless, the events unrolled in accordance with the well-tested pattern.
The North Korean media began to run stories about an impending invasion by US
imperialists, telling its audience that a full-scale war would erupt within
weeks or days. Then North Korean tested a long-range missile, thinly disguised
as a "satellite".
The ensuing international sanctions were described as an act of war, an
infringement of North Korea's sovereign right to explore outer space, so the
only choice in the face of such undeserved hostility, North Korean media said,
was to improve the nuclear deterrent.
A nuclear test soon followed, accompanied by even more verbal bellicosity. At
some point, the North Koreans even declared the 1953 armistice null and void,
thus essentially declaring war on the US (nobody paid attention, though). It
was also claimed that the six-party talks on denuclearization were useless and
hence North Korean would "never" take part in these multilateral negotiations.
In other words, it was business as usual for North Korean diplomats, even
though the intensity of the rhetoric exceeded what we had seen before.
In July, the expected switch to a conciliatory mood happened. Early that month,
Pyongyang used confidential channels to approach the US, suggesting
negotiations. Around the same time, the floodgates of anti-American propaganda
were suddenly shut down, and official media greatly decreased the frequency of
hostile references to US imperialism.
Two American journalists who crossed into North Korean territory in March were
released to a high-level visitor, former president Bill Clinton (a clear
reminder of an earlier use of the same stratagem: in 1994, it was former
president Jimmy Carter whose visit to Pyongyang signified the switch to the
negotiating stage of the scheme).
The Americans, as expected, expressed their wish to talk, not rejecting even
the probability of bilateral talks, long an anathema for Washington.
So, for a while, things seemingly worked in the usual way. However, by October,
North Korean diplomats made an unpleasant discovery: the Americans, while
smiling broadly and expressing their willingness to talk, were in no hurry to
start actual negotiations, let alone shower North Korea with money.
Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy, is
much-waited in North Korea, but he has not visited Pyongyang yet (and, in a
telling gesture, did not even retire from his academic job). One can also
expect that once negotiations finally begin, the North Koreans will make
another unpleasant discovery: it is now far more difficult to squeeze
concessions and money from the US.
There are at least two reasons for this change in mood. First, Americans are
learning from their experience. This time, they have a much better
understanding of both North Korean methods and the likely outcome of
negotiations. When in 1993-94 the North Koreans drove tensions high, many
people really expected a war and there was even talk about a preemptive strike.
This time, Pyongyang's bellicose rhetoric and sable-rattling were seen merely
as negotiation tricks. In July, when the North Koreans were just beginning
their "charm offensive", US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton send them an
important signal, albeit in a somewhat unusual fashion.
In an interview, she likened the North Koreans to "unruly teenagers" who make
mischief to attract attention: "Don't give it [attention] to them, they don't
deserve it, they are acting out." While the North Koreans replied with a
barrage of personal abuse, they should have taken this message seriously. It
was the first sign that their usual trick was not likely to succeed.
Another sign came later, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked why the US
should "buy the same horse twice?", a remark which clearly shows that the usual
North Korean stratagem was not working.
Apart from bitter experience, there is another, more important reason for the
American lack of enthusiasm for negotiations and, especially, concessions.
Americans were willing to talk to North Korean diplomats and pay money to Kim
Jong-il's regime as long as they believed this was a way to get rid of North
Korea's nuclear weapons.
Denuclearization has always been the overwhelming goal of the US in dealing
with Pyongyang. It is also important to understand that it is not the North
Korean nuclear devices per se which make Americans uneasy. Their major worry is
how to avoid a dangerous precedent. If North Korea, a country which once signed
the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is allowed to walk away with impunity and
turn nuclear, this would create a dangerous precedent which will be emulated by
Apart from this, the existence of North Korean nuclear labs greatly increases
the likelihood of proliferation, since there is always a possibility of North
Korea selling fissile material or nuclear technology to rogue countries or
terrorist groups. The only way to counter these threats is to persuade the
North Korean government to surrender its nuclear program completely. As long as
such surrender was believed to be possible, the Americans were willing to
negotiate and pay.
These expectations were wrong from the very beginning, since North Korea's
leaders never had the slightest intention of giving up their nuclear programs.
It is too important both for security reasons and as a blackmail tool.
Nonetheless, the present author was often surprised when in the past he came
across otherwise reasonable American officials and analysts who believed that
North Korea would surrender its nuclear weapons program if subjected to the
right combination of pressure and rewards.
However, this is an old story by now. It seems that after the second nuclear
test in May and all associated statements, virtually nobody in the US
government still clings to the belief that denuclearization of North Korea is
possible. In other words, the Americans have come to realize the obvious: North
Korea will stay nuclear.
Perhaps, North Korean diplomats do not see this remarkable change of mood as a
bad sign. After all, they have repeatedly stated that they want to be treated
as a nuclear power. It seems they now expect the Americans to engage in
negotiations somewhat similar to the arms-control negotiations which once were
conducted between Moscow and Washington - the only difference being that North
Korean diplomats expect to extract some monetary and political benefits from
In other words, North Korea seemingly expects to be paid for its willingness to
slow down or freeze its nuclear research program while keeping stockpiles of
weapons-grade plutonium and a number of nuclear devices.
However, this is not going to happen - in the near future, at least. North
Korea's nuclear weapons - a few crude devices of the 1945 level, without
efficient delivery systems - constitute only a limited threat to US security.
The major threat is proliferation, and the "arms control" approach does not
diminish this threat.
The Americans do not worry that much about North Korean missiles descending on
San Francisco or Los Angeles. They worry about al-Qaeda operatives buying North
Korean plutonium or about Syria emulating Pyongyang in attempts to go nuclear.
From the US viewpoint, if denuclearization is not achievable, the major
incentive for conducting talks with North Korea has gone. The US Congress will
not look favorably at any payments to Pyongyang if these payments are unlikely
to bring about the complete halt of North Korea's nuclear program.
This does not mean that the US will not negotiate with Pyongyang, when the hope
for denuclearization is dead. However, these negotiations lack a comprehensible
goal, so the Americans believe (with good reason, one should add) that nothing
can be gained by an excessive rush to the negotiation table.
If North Korean strategists expect large monetary rewards from these
negotiations, they should prepare themselves for disappointment. They have to
invent some new tricks - and this is what they will probably do.
Andrei Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul,
and adjunct research fellow at the Research School of Pacifica and Asian
Studies, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State
University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea.
He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia.