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Is Pyongyang reacting to or shaping events?

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In Brief

In a fit of calculated fury, North Korea has undone the work of several years of negotiations, declared the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953 to be null and void, and promised ‘merciless’ retaliation against anyone that violates its unilateral definition of sovereign rights.

Subtlety and imagination are among the many things in short supply in Pyongyang. Policy setbacks lead the regime to press the only button on the console: belligerence. Even so, the latest phase of ill-humour is strikingly fierce.

Why? Has one or more of the other five participants in the Six-party talks done something so aggressive or insulting that Pyongyang was left without a choice?


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If not, then perhaps Pyongyang wants to be where it currently is, and has inflated lesser policy setbacks to the point where it believes they can serve the constructed appearance that the DPRK has responded to extreme provocation.

Back in October 2008, the Bush administration removed the DPRK from its list of state sponsors of terror and from the provisions of the Trading with the Enemy Act. This was done in response to Pyongyang having begun the process of disabling its Yongbyon reactor and reprocessing facility, and providing its comprehensive declaration on all its nuclear facilities (although the declaration had some significant shortcomings).

A popular line of speculation is that since that time Pyongyang has felt increasingly sidelined and resentful of Washington’s preoccupation with changing administrations, the GFC, relations with Russia, China and Cuba and so on. The DPRK, it is suggested, is simply demanding to be re-instated as the first priority. I don’t find this persuasive.

We also have a new government in Seoul that has dropped the (Sunshine) policy of unconditional engagement in favour of linking aid and economic cooperation to developments in the political relationship and, specifically, progress on denuclearisation in the Six-party talks.

Pyongyang has reacted adversely to this development, not least by putting in jeopardy the joint venture in Kaesong. Again, this is hardly an adequate explanation for scrapping the Six-party talks, conducting a second nuclear test and threatening war.

An explanation begins to emerge when one recalls that in February/March this year, Pyongyang announced that it intended to launch a satellite. Pyongyang would have been aware of how provocative this would appear to the US and Japan in particular, and how close it was to being a violation of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1718, passed after its first nuclear test in October 2006.

It is certain that Beijing used its connections to stress the same points. Not only did Pyongyang proceed with the launch, it threatened beforehand that even a hint of protest from the UNSC would elicit strong retaliation.

This introduces the possibility that Pyongyang was seeking to create the circumstances in which it could present the second test and its other actions as a response to provocation, that is, the fault of the hostile attitudes amongst its negotiating partners. The UNSC statement condemning the satellite launch-cum-ballistic missile test was precisely what Pyongyang expected, and sought.

The final piece of the jigsaw puzzle is Kim Jung Il’s stroke and, presumably, diminished confidence in his longevity. Many have speculated about a leadership struggle and portrayed the latest developments as part of shoring up support among factions of the elite, especially, one imagines, the military. An equally plausible explanation is that Kim’s ill health has already produced a new configuration of power at the top of the DPRK government.

Further, it may be that the consensus among this new group that the 6-party process would deliver too little to the DPRK, and thus needed to be derailed.

It is even possible that the new consensus is that it was a mistake to agree that the Bomb could be negotiated away, that there was no imaginable deal that would leave the regime in Pyongyang better off than retaining the Bomb.

This line of speculation is reinforced by the thought that Pyongyang has a very limited stock of plutonium, perhaps 30-50 kilograms, and that the two tests have probably consumed 10-15 kilograms. The military may have agreed to the second test on the condition that the reprocessing facility be reopened to replenish the stockpile.

The task now is to discover whether Pyongyang still wants to negotiate and, if so, whether those negotiations will be about denuclearisation or some lesser objectives linked to coexisting with a nuclear-armed DPRK.

An approach that is probably among the options being considered is that the UNSC will endorse a regime of targeted sanctions with real teeth, that is, sanctions that signal an intent to unseat the present leadership. Implementation of the sanctions could be deferred pending a visit to Pyongyang by a high-profile emissary (Bill Clinton and Colin Powell have been mentioned) to ascertain the scope for new negotiations.

While Beijing, in particular, will be loath to contemplate such a course, Pyongyang has now twice aggressively rejected its counsel: as recently as January this year, a senior Chinese envoy met with Kim Jong-Il and secured a reaffirmation of the DPRK’s interest in denuclearisation.

In addition, Beijing has been a trenchant critic of unipolarity and championed the ‘democratisation of global leadership’. It would not relish yet another example of the UNSC being exposed as impotent when it comes to the hard issues of protecting international peace and security.

This reading of the tea leaves suggests that Pyongyang wants any re-engagement to be premised on its status as a state with nuclear weapons. US Secretary of Defense Gates signalled in Singapore last week that the US was not prepared to proceed on this basis.

Seoul has not backed away from its insistence that economic aid and investment in the North will be made conditional on progress in the 6-party talks, and underscored this posture by confirming its intention to join the Proliferation Security Initiative.

Tokyo has for some time been an advocate of a harder response to Pyongyang’s provocations and made no secret of its disappointment in Washington’s decision last year to drop the DPRK from the list of states that sponsor terrorism.

That leaves Russia and, especially, China. China has consistently declined to give denuclearisation priority over regime stability. Abrupt change of any kind in Pyongyang could not only become violent and result in a heavy influx of refugees from the DPRK, it would also make it more difficult for China to steer longer-term outcomes to its advantage.

Will Beijing now conclude that the DPRK is set on a course too likely to result in China’s worst-case scenario and that supporting harsh, targeted sanctions is the best of the unattractive options still open?

The answer, if there is to be one, should be discernible in the response being worked up in the Security Council. What is clear is that Pyongyang has crossed the Rubicon, and elected to see what the future holds for it as a state with nuclear weapons.

One response to “Is Pyongyang reacting to or shaping events?”

  1. It is disappointing that the UNSC has been so slow in coming up with a new sanction resolution. The slowness and indecisiveness of UNSC may create an impression that the international community is unable to effectively deal with DPRK and its missile and nuclear tests. That is unfortunate, no matter who have been holding up the UNSC process.

    China should realise that it has lost its kind and subtle influence over DPRK and continue its past strategies will not work. DPRK appears to have got an upper hand over whatever China’s strategies in the six party talks have been. It can only be forced to the negotiation table through hard and effective sanctions. So China needs to fundamentally reconsider its approaches. Fearing the implications of the collapse of DPRK can only encourage it to act more reckless and ignore anyone’s advice.

    There should no longer be any illusions over the current DPRK leadership. The solidarity of the international community is the only way to deal with DPRK reckless gambles to take the advantages created by any inconsistency within the international community.

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