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North Korean quagmire a failure of analysis

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In Brief

Last year’s sinking of the Cheonan, the revelation of a new uranium enrichment program at Yongbyon, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island brought North Korea back to the center of worldwide attention as a rogue regime.

Although the Obama Administration shows signs of interest in dialogue, Seoul appears bent on more sanctions, military exercises, and contingency planning, premised on the belief that a North Korean collapse may be nearing.


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Two major analytical failures — misreading Pyongyang’s intentions and misunderstanding its capabilities — keep the US and South Korea stuck in a North Korean quagmire.

Method in the madness: security first

The primary analytical failure consists in a fundamental misreading of North Korea’s intentions. The DPRK’s objectives are regime survival, national security and economic strength, in that order. In the absence of a negotiated process that guarantees the North’s security, normalises its diplomatic status, and provides it with energy and economic assistance; nuclear development and military conflict are bound to continue.

Washington and Seoul are treating the resumption of talks as a reward for North Korea, which underscores a fundamental misunderstanding of North Korea’s intentions. For Pyongyang, dialogue and negotiation are a means to an end, not ends in themselves. What Kim Jong Il wants from the talks is security assurances, primarily through the termination of hostile relations and diplomatic normalisation with the United States. Providing for the security of his regime would in turn create conditions conducive to a more successful push at economic development. In the absence of talks, the North will continue to develop a nuclear program, as minimal deterrence against the US threat of ‘extended deterrence,’ i.e., the US ‘nuclear umbrella’ over South Korea. North Korea’s ‘uranium breakout’ during the early Obama Administration, much like its plutonium breakout in George W. Bush’s first term, is a consequence of misreading North Korean motivation, ignoring its security interests in negotiations, and treating engagement as a reward instead of a means to resolve the issue.

Threat perception & the Yeonpyeong tragedy

A failure to understand the DPRK’s security preoccupations is also evident in the reactions to the tragic shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Seoul views the attack as a premeditated act to provoke the South, nullify the Northern Limit Line (NLL), and bolster the succession process by contriving external tension. North Korea claims that the attack was a justified act of self-defense against South Korea’s aggressive move of shelling its territorial waterway.

Given there is no mutually agreed upon or internationally recognised sea border between the two Koreas, is it unreasonable for North Korea to feel threatened by full-day, live-ammunition, heavy artillery firing into disputed waters seven miles off its coast, carried out in conjunction with war games involving 70,000 troops, during a period when inter-Korean relations are hostile? If North Korea’s purpose were to provoke and destabilize Seoul, why not attack just prior to the G20, as was feared? If the shelling were an undiluted act of aggression, why request a cessation of exercises on the morning of the altercation? The failure to take North Korea’s threat perception and security concerns seriously, ignoring explicit warnings, pushed the Korean peninsula closer to war.

The end is not nigh

The second category of analytical failure is chronic underestimation of North Korea’s capabilities — including its very survival as a regime. End of North Korean-ism, which first emerged in the early 1990s, is back in fashion. South Korean President Lee Myung Bak recently asserted that ‘an unstoppable change is taking place among the North Korean people, and the time has come for South Korea to prepare for unification.’ The South Korean policy of pressure and sanctions is justified, in turn, by the presumption that regime change may be imminent, so long as the DPRK remains isolated.

This policy approach is by and large predicated on wishful thinking. Despite economic hardship, the Kim Jong Il regime seems stable, and the succession process is, by all appearances, taking place smoothly. Broad-based elite cohesion, including the military, has maintained regime resilience despite a hostile international environment. Formidable mechanisms of state surveillance and control, combined with the absence of civil society organs, make the prospects of organised popular revolt slim. Last but not least, China is actively engaged on diplomatic and economic levels in supporting North Korea’s survival, stability and development.

Sanctions, meanwhile, may be doing more to strengthen the regime than hasten its demise. Sanctions play an important role in generating domestic support for the Kim regime and maintaining socio-political cohesion. Further, international sanctions and increased interdictions have failed to deter North Korea from enhancing its military and nuclear capabilities. In November of last year, North Korea unveiled a new ‘ultramodern’ uranium enrichment facility to American scientist Sig Hecker, despite financial sanctions vigorously pursued by the US Treasury Department, interdictions in Burma, Thailand, and the UAE related to the Proliferation Security Initiative, and ‘tough’ sanctions from the UN Security Council. Those who expected such measures to constrict or destabilise North Korea are instead confronted with clear evidence of significant improvements in the DPRK’s military and nuclear capabilities.

Wishful Thinking & Biased Sources

Misreading North Korea’s intentions and capabilities can take the form of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hard-line thinking about policies toward the North gained currency starting with the new administration in Seoul three years ago, and was met with hard-line responses from Pyongyang. The combination inspired hard-line conventional wisdom in Washington. The news media has, for the most part, been content to play up the storyline about the illness, insanity, or imminent collapse of the North Korean leadership. Moderate voices in favor of engagement have been drowned out. Messages sent directly by Pyongyang are being ignored. Washington has failed to listen to what North Korea really wants, and instead projects its own fears and interests onto the ‘black box’ of the DPRK. North Korea’s demonstrated capabilities are being ignored in favor of imagining the day when its government no longer exists.

Today, there is an increasing danger that wishful thinking has become embedded in the intelligence process. Key decision makers in Seoul seem to have anchored their North Korean policy on the imminent collapse of the North. Washington has slipped into de facto endorsement of this approach.

Feeding this confusion are serious problems with information collection about the domestic situation in North Korea. Policymakers in Seoul and Washington rely heavily on information provided by North Korean defectors. Defectors and networks of informants who move across the China-North Korea border, are key sources for a new constellation of media organisations like Daily NK, Open North Korea Radio, Free North Korea Radio, Good Neighbours, Radio Free Asia (US), Asia Press (Japan). However, the new ‘media’ organisations are not staffed by independent, professional journalists. To the contrary, they are propaganda organs and advocacy organisations designed to undermine regime stability in the North. Their reports frequently lack verification, yet regularly appear in Yonhap News, the leading South Korean government news agency, without any filtering. International news media, in turn, reprint them as world news. Unverified reports and politically motivated characterisations of North Korean instability are transmuted into truth.

Fix the framework, then the policy

Today, the arteries of engagement with North Korea are clogged. US diplomats, lacking direct contact with North Korean counterparts, are in the dark about North Korea’s strategic intentions and negotiating positions. Even North Korea’s public statements are summarily dismissed as ‘empty words’ or ‘blackmail’ — even though North Korean behavior over the long term tends to conform to its high-level pronouncements. Instead of an engaged, empirical approach, policy decisions are being made on the basis of defector reports and disinformation, of preconceived ideas and wishful thinking. The response to the unsettling revelations at Yongbyon and tragic shelling of Yeonpyeong are case in point.

Ultimately, both Seoul and Washington will need to overhaul their policy approach on North Korea. We do not see signs of that happening anytime soon. In the meantime, analysts, academics, journalists, and other members of civil society have a critical role to play in correcting the analytical framework for understanding North Korea, so that when a policy review comes, it can be based on a pragmatic and empirical basis.

John Delury is Assistant Professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies. Chung-in Moon is a professor of political science at Yonsei University and former Ambassador for International Security Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Republic of Korea.

This is a digest version of a longer article first published here at 38 North.

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