All Writings
October 26, 2004

Behind North Korea’s Nuclear Brinkmanship

Without understanding the psychological disposition of North Korea’s leaders–how they view themselves and the world around them–the next administration, like the present one, will not reach any peaceful accord with Pyongyang and thus fail to permanently defuse the nuclear threat. North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship is not without historical reference and certainly takes into full consideration the current international atmosphere in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its consequences as seen from Pyongyang’s perspective. The next administration will have fewer options in dealing with North Korea. (The military option, for obvious reasons, has all but been ruled out.) And whether Bush or Kerry wins, the next president must contend with a North Korean nuclear reality, resulting from failed U.S. policies and the current administration’s inability to get a grip on the conflict because it had no insight into Pyongyang’s psyche.

The heightened conflict between the United States and North Korea, however, cannot be ascribed to one side or the other. Both nations must share the blame for the present dangerous impasse. President Bush’s suspension of the talks with North Korea almost immediately after taking office (before it became known that NK was cheating on its 1994 agreement with the United States) was most unsettling to Pyongyang. Then, after North Korea acknowledged that it had begun stockpiling a new, highly-enriched-uranium (HEU), which it offered to stop doing in exchange for a nonaggression agreement with the United States, Mr. Bush refused to enter into any dialogue. Instead, his administration managed to suspend the deliveries of 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil that had been sent annually to North Korea under the 1994 agreement, an act that further escalated tensions and brought the Korean peninsula to the precipice of a disaster. The situation worsened when Pyongyang‘s perception of Washington’s increasing hostility was given greater credence after President Bush included North Korea in his “axis of evil” speech to Congress. In such a tense environment, it is hardly surprisingly that the administration’s adoption of the preemptive doctrine was interpreted by the North Koreans as nothing less than a direct threat to their national security that had to be countered.

All of this, of course, has to be also considered in the context of the overall message Mr. Bush projected to the world almost immediately after taking office. An administration heavily influenced by neoconservative ideology asserting that this is the American century has dramatically affected America’s foreign policy agenda as the only remaining superpower. More specifically, neo-conservatism holds the view that America has both the historic opportunity and the responsibility to shape the world in its image, which, among other things, means consolidating its influence in many strategic areas, including South East Asia and the Middle East. The terrorist attack of 9/11 brought these ideas into even sharper focus. And it added another dimension to the ideological zeal as shown in President Bush deep faith that he is on a mission sanctioned by a higher father or authority to right the world’s wrongs. These views shaped Bush’s announcement that the United States would not hesitate to act unilaterally against any perceived threat. The administration’s new strategy was alarming enough to America’s friends but it was simply ominous to its adversaries and literally sent shivers down their spines. After 9/11 these ideas were quickly put into practice and the countries of the world, especially Iran and North Korea, witnessed America waging almost simultaneously two wars–against Afghanistan and Iraq–while challenging other nations to come clean especially on WMD. North Korea saw itself as next target of the United States for regime change and was not about to wait for the ax to fall before taking what it deemed necessary precautions.

Surprisingly, and little noticed, North Korea had undertaken a number of positive initiatives during the Summer and Fall of 2002, including an invitation extended to a U.S. delegation for talks in Pyongyang, preceded by a meeting between Secretary of State Colin Powell and his North Korean counterpart. North Korea also enacted several economic and market reforms such as free floating the prices of staples; offering to start high-level talks with South Korea, agreeing to build a railroad with the South Koreans, and beginning in earnest to remove mines from the demilitarized zone. Finally, Pyongyang restarted high-level talks with Japan that led to a summit with Japan’s prime minister.

Then, after the United States froze all direct contact with Pyongyang following North Korea’s admission that it was building a new HEU nuclear program, Kim Jong Il responded aggressively: his government first announced it would reopen its nuclear facilities in Pyongyang and then removed the seals and monitoring cameras from its frozen nuclear labs. Subsequently, the North Koreans took their dangerous spent fuel rods out of storage and announced plans to reopen their reprocessing plants in February 2003. Pyongyang next expelled inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, and finally, withdrew from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, to Washington’s dismay. It is hard to ascertain whether North Korea kept its nuclear program active because of fears for its own security or because Pyongyang never intended to abandon it, as this would signify giving up its sovereign rights and/or was a blow to national pride. What is clear is that by refusing unconditional direct talks with North Korea once the existence of the HEU program was conclusively confirmed, the Bush administration left Pyongyang with no choice except to engage in nuclear brinkmanship. This choice was based on the North’s assessment of Washington’s increasing difficulties in Iraq and the lack of appetite by other powers notably, China, Japan South Korea, and Russia to threaten or use force to compel Pyongyang to change course.

As North Korea surveyed its surroundings and calculated the risks and benefits of its strategy of nuclear brinkmanship, it seems to have concluded that only possession of nuclear weapons will afford it the advantages it seeks with a minimum of risk.

First, according to its view, the possession of nuclear weapons would prevent a U.S. preemptive attack. This why Pyongyang continues to insist on a non-aggression pact with the United States, and why it sees the participation in such a pact of other powers like China, Russia, Japan and South Korea as of secondary importance; they are not a substitute for the United States. The fact that Washington remains preoccupied with Iraq and continues to face a violent insurgency as well as armed opposition in Afghanistan, have only stiffened Pyongyang’s resolve and made it more resolute in its demands. The only thing immediately on the horizon that could change the present dynamic is if Senator Kerry wins the upcoming elections. He is on record that his administration will make every attempt to start direct negotiations with the North Korea.

Second, North Korea is also keen on playing the South Korean card, knowing that there is disagreement between the United States and South Korea on how to resolve the nuclear impasse with the North. While South Korea wants to pursue its sunshine policy of engagement that will ultimately bring about unification between the two Koreas, the United States is bent on using coercive diplomacy to isolate and contain North Korea as a way of forcing it to abandon its nuclear weapon’s program. North Korea has every incentive to exploit this discord to its advantage. In a recent meeting between Secretary of State Colin Powell and his South Korean counterpart Mr. Ban they have publicly disagreed on how to bring the North Korean to the negotiating table. Whereas Mr. Ban strongly felt that there is a need for more “creative and realistic approach,” Mr. Powell kept insisting that the North must join the negotiation unconditionally. The Chinese government was also supportive of the South Korean position suggesting that a “flexible and practical attitude on the issue” is needed.

Third, North Korea is surrounded by five powerful nations (economically, militarily, or both)–China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, plus the United States which is also an Asian power. For Pyongyang, nuclear weapons in this situation act as equalizer affording it leadership, and with that, the ability negotiate from strength. Without nuclear weapons, both China and Russia can bully North Korea; that is, “persuade” it to accept terms that may not be as favorable. Moreover, knowing that all five powers want to avoid nuclear or conventional conflagration, North Korea is calmly playing to these fears, convinced that time is on its side.

Fourth, North Korea has never forgiven Japan for its brutal occupation of Korea and the atrocities committed against the native population during it. For the first time, in modern history, North Korea feels it has the upper hand, and it is not about to squander this newfound sense of national strength, especially in negotiating war reparations from Japan. It is true that Japan can quickly assemble nuclear weapons and neutralize North Korea’s advantage. But such a course will only intensify the arms race and leave Japan under the shadow of nuclear holocaust something that the Japanese understand and fear more than any other nation.

Fifth, North Korea knows that its future is wedded to that of the South, but North Koreans do not want to be absorbed by their other “half”; their goal is to be treated as equal partners. In this context, they believe that their being a nuclear power will balance the economic prowess of the South and so give them equality in any negotiations between the two nations as well boost the domestic public perception of being equal. As long as South Korea wants to cooperate, North Korea recognizes that it can maneuver to exact concessions and play hard to get.

Sixth, North Korea’s dire economic situation makes it nearly impossible to trade the nuclear card for anything less than major economic aid programs that will provide a long-term and sustainable recovery. Indeed, once Pyongyang gives up its nuclear advantage, it will have no other chips with which to bargain. This explains why Pyongyang is unwilling to dismantle its nuclear and missile program before it is guaranteed economic security.

Although North Korea is in violation of international treaties and has been engaged in a dangerous nuclear brinkmanship, the Bush administration’s approach and policies toward Pyongyang and its preoccupation with Iraq have caused a further deterioration in the situation; heightening the danger regionally and globally. From the North Korean perspective the means to stay alive, regardless how egregious they may be, were sanctified because of the lack of other options. And on balance, North Korea seems to have won the brinkmanship game with the United States, and it is now up to the next administration to come up with a formula acceptable to all parties to arrest the potential of a nuclear conflagration in the Koran Peninsula and beyond. The next administration must focus on ending North Korea’s nuclear program and with that its prospects for becoming a modern nuclear peddler, selling such material and technology that could easily end up in the hands of el Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

To defuse tensions and remove the danger of nuclear threat, the next administration must abandon its not so secret desire to bring about a regime change and provide a combination of possible sanctions and rewards to change the dynamic of the negotiations. To begin with, the United States should offer North Korea a non-aggression pact if it freezes its nuclear program in a verifiable way. The next step would be for North Korea to start dismantling its nuclear program in exchange for peace, economic aid, and integration into the international community. The need for reciprocal measures will be necessary because of the profound distrust between the two sides. As long as North Korea’s compliance can be fully verified, such an approach will neither undermine America’s interests nor prestige and will certainly serve the interests of all the countries involved. If North Korea accepts, then this conflict will be resolved, perhaps permanently. But if its leaders refuse, then the administration can lean on China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea to support a more coercive diplomacy, including severe sanctions, because it would be clear that the United States has exhausted every option in order to avoid military confrontation.