Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

     Apr 26, 2012

Dangerous illusions over North Korea
By Yong Kwon

Reeling from North Korea's provocative rocket launch, the international community is shining the obligatory spotlight of shame on Pyongyang. As always the rhetoric of condemnation came from around the world and the United Nations even gained China's consent in the joint statement chastising North Korea. However, the monochrome analyses of the situation by policymakers and "experts" reflects how the world will continue to be ineffective in dealing with the North Korean problem.

In a recent article on Foreign Affairs, Jennifer Lind identified some of the reasons why the US has been rendered immobile on the Korean Peninsula: Pyongyang's unpredictability, the catastrophic consequences of North Korea's collapse, and the regime's nuclear capabilities. [1] Professor Lind's conclusions are not out of the ordinary, but her contextualization of the launch within a "long


history of unpunished provocations" provides an interesting insight on a common shortfall in popular analysis of North Korean foreign policy.

Lind presumes a single linear narrative from the 1968 hijacking of the USS Pueblo to the 2010 shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island. While all these events share the common theme of North Korean instigation and Washington's inaction, without attempting to assess the various factors that motivate Pyongyang's provocative behavior, the broad interpretation of events implicitly reinforces the presupposition that North Korea's leaders act irrationally or without calculating risk.

Deprived of context, the provocations appear to be a mere application of brute force seeking immediate gratification (US hostages, death of South Korean politicians, etc) without long-term strategic gains. Yet evidence suggests that North Korea, like other states, practices doctrines, assumes legacies, and responds to international conditions. This is not to insinuate that Pyongyang's every move falls within some grand strategy, but there is no need to encourage an oversimplified interpretation, especially when there is empirical evidence that reveals the complexity of Pyongyang's foreign policymaking rationality.

The 1968 Pueblo crisis highlights this fact. Since Pyongyang did not share its intentions to hijack the US navy intelligence ship with other communist states, North Korea's true rationale behind the provocation remains unknown. Nonetheless, new documents uncovered in the archives of former communist states by the Woodrow Wilson Center underscore several key factors that were present in North Korea's decision-making process. Most recently, documents from the archive of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs note how Pyongyang may have sought closer ties with Beijing in 1968 by aggressively engaging Seoul and Washington. [2]

If cooperation with China was what incentivized North Korea's provocations during the Pueblo crisis, then Pyongyang would have been forced to reassess its behavior when China's relations with the United States shifted in the 1970s. This is consistent with the dramatic decrease in violence on the peninsula during the US-China detente despite Pyongyang maintaining hostile intentions towards Seoul. [3] Furthermore, this also explains why scholars have been unable to identify a singular motive running through North Korea's maritime provocations against South Korea in the Yellow Sea; Pyongyang is relentless responding to changes in the international environment. [4]

In short, there is little value in looking at the different North Korean provocations without assessing their causes and circumstances because each event developed from strategies responding to realities of that period of conflict. The manifestations of these strategies often appear violent and provocative because they are built upon pre-existing military tensions on the peninsula.

Failure to see all these variables at play results in a redundant assessment that yields no useful recommendation to break the tragedy and suffering in Korea. Likewise, while Lind is correct to criticize the ineffectiveness of current US policy that merely revolves around sanctions, she too does not present anything new.

Going forward, analysts and policymakers of the international community must keep in mind the current realities that will affect North Korea's strategic thinking. Pyongyang's willingness to forfeit the nutritional aid promised in the "Leap-day Deal" highlights the regime's readiness to combat the international order. Many see the rocket launch as a precursor to a nuclear test; in particular, now that the satellite has failed to enter orbit, experts suggest that the North Korean state may feel compelled to prove its destructive capacities to its citizens. [5]

Meanwhile, Moscow and Beijing's quiet responses to the rocket launch indicate that even in the event of a nuclear test, neither of Pyongyang's major supporters is likely to do anything substantial to reprimand the regime. On the contrary, growing Chinese investments and Russia's vision of a trans-Korean pipeline protect North Korea from rebuke that would jeopardize continued cooperation in these key projects. Pyongyang is undoubtedly aware of this and acts accordingly.

Despite solid support from China and Russia, North Korea is still dominated by extreme insecurities. In order to maintain parity with Seoul, Pyongyang has to project its greatest asset: the regime's apparent willingness to go to war. (See Calculus of an existential war Asia Times Online, April 21, 2011.)

However, since the sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan and the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island, the North Korean military cannot attack physical assets in South Korea without provoking a serious response. Therefore, Pyongyang must choose other means to project deterrence. Rocket launches and nuclear weapons tests accommodate the needs of the state perfectly.

Recognizing that Pyongyang is motivated by insecurity, Washington's best chance of bringing stability to the region is to play a high stakes game where the US offers North Korea recognition, security, etc, in exchange for the nuclear program, ballistic missiles, and more.

Former ambassador Morton Abramowitz suggests exactly this approach and recommends sending a senior level official such as the vice president to negotiate. [6] While Abramowitz recognizes the inherent political challenges associated with dispatching such a senior politician to a rogue state, it is hard to see an alternative method of dealing with this crisis without broaching the subject of what the North Korean state most desires.

Washington bears the burden of dealing with Pyongyang. Allowing instability to overtake the region will be costly and unsafe for both North Korea's neighbors and North Koreans themselves. The fastest way for this to occur is if the US elects not to negotiate at all.

Unfortunately, this is most likely to happen in a sensitive time like an election year. Nonetheless, US policymakers must dispel the long-held assessment that North Korea will not alter its behavior under any circumstances and move forward towards engagement. Pyongyang will respond to changes, but Washington must initiate these changes.

The alternative is for the whole world to carry another security and humanitarian crisis into the decades to come. The time for change is now.

1. Jennifer Lind. "Why North Korea gets away with it." Foreign Affairs, April 12, 2012.
2. "This Warmongering State of Mind: New Materials on the Korean Crisis of 1968." NKIDP E-Dossier #5, April 20, 2012.
3. Christian F Ostermann and James Person. "The Rise and Fall of Detente on the Korean Peninsula, 1970-1974." NKIDP Critical Oral History transcript, July 2010.
4. Michishita, Narutshige. "North Korea's Military-Diplomatic Campaigns, 1966-2008." London: Routledge, 2009.
5. "Admission of failure." The Economist, April 13, 2012.
6. Morton Abramowitz. "Storms Brew in Pyongyang." National Interest, April 6, 2012.

Yong Kwon is a Washington-based analyst of international affairs.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Three messages from Pyongyang's party (Apr 24, '12)

Pyongyang hits US with one-two punch
(Apr 17, '12)

Three messages from Pyongyang's party

2. Party struggles to put the lid on Bo

3. Suu Kyi's party 'boycotts' assembly over oath

4. Thinking the unthinkable

5. North Korea redefines 'minimum' wage

6. Europe undams Myanmar sanctions

7. IMF misses target with record Bangladesh loan

8. US wades into China-Philippine standoff

9. US, Turkey and Iraqi Kurds join hands

10. The French road to perdition

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Apr 25, 2012)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110