Reappraising North Korea

South Korea is full of North Korea analysts who claim that the six-party talks cannot function normally any longer in dealing with an erratic North Korea, given the communist regime's most recent conduct of a second nuclear test and test-firing of a series of short-range missiles. ost of them previously pointed out that through the talks in which the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia have closely cooperated for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, North Korea literally "committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs." M

Now that North Korea has let the world know it intends to continue on its path to nuclearization, the analysts have begun to consider North Korean leader Kim Jong-il as hopeless. It is still too early to deal with the implications of the anointment of Kim's 26-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. Most analysts believe the current round of sabre-rattling has been to build domestic support to prepare the world for the succession.

But in any case, the Stalinist communist country's provocative behavior in abandoning its commitments was enough to show that the stalled nuclear disarmament negotiations have more holes than Swiss cheese and that the conventional wisdom that diplomacy is preferable to sanctions was wrong.

In addition, the political uncertainty of the Kim regime over power succession could provoke fierce struggles for control of its nuclear weapons, which must be tactical nuclear weapons with smaller yields and shorter range. It will probably take years for North Korea to launch strategic nuclear weapons with larger yields and longer ranges aimed at an adversary's nuclear weapons, cities, military command-and-control infrastructure, and political leadership, given North Korea's current nuclear technology capabilities. For a North Korea eager to hold a face-to-face negotiations with America, nuclear-armed ICBMs, if any, would be the greatest political asset, which could only e defanged by high-level interventions from the US

Through a covert blend of legal and illegal actions over a few decades, the reclusive North Korea has already become a nuclear-armed state in terms of technology capability if not in political terms. On the current course, the longer-term outlook is more dim and clouded. That said, it's like trying putting the toothpaste back in the tube. As a result, prospects for the US-North Korea relationship as well as inter-Korean relations will likely change drastically for the worse, essentially because the poverty-stricken North Korea's nuclear weapons program or material could fall into the hands of terrorist organizations.

The United States, Japan, South Korea and the IAEA have tried to checkmate North Korea's drive for nuclear weapons but failed. In particular, the US has applied unilateral sanctions and insinuated forceful regime change, whereas South Korea and Japan have joined Washington's efforts to restrain investment. The IAEA has insisted on the transparency of North Korea's nuclear programs and inspections on demand. Even China and Russia, which have relatively been reluctant to impose the global sanctions on North Korea, hinted this time at referring the recent cases to the UN Security Council for enforcement.


In this multidimensional chess/chicken game, nevertheless, North Korea is likely to move strategically in response to each of its opponents, raising military tensions in Northeast Asia. Giventhat nuclear weapons occupy the highest place of the pyramid of threats, it is almost impossible to have North Korea abandon its nuclear ambitions, which are certainly the greatest challenge to stability.

In short, the United States, South Korea and Japan need a fundamental change of perspective and attitude.

In return for a commitment to completely dismantle the country's development of enrichment and reprocessing facilities, not to mention the "complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of all of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs," North Korea would receive the following gains: the opportunity to pursue civilian and peaceful nuclear power through a fuel-cycle agreement with the United States; American and international acceptance of the completion of North Korea's known nuclear facilities including Yongbyon, provided that the fuel is delivered by and returned to the US; economic benefits from increased trade and investment resulting from a relaxation of a US unilateral sanctions; and eventual entrance into the international organizations such as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Monetary Fund, and the Asian Development Bank; and an American agreement not to change the North Korean regime by force and to establish a full diplomatic relationship between Washington and Pyongyang.

What is of utmost importance at this juncture is both the United States and North Korea should not anger their respective hard-liners, while restraining their own displeasure as much as possible and carefully gauging each other's response. Trust-breaking actions should be banned. To this end, Washington needs, in North Korea's shoes, to be much cautious in evaluating the Kim regime, in that the regime is not on the verge of being overthrown and the negotiations are still essential.

Even though Kim acts as if he intends to burn the bridges behind him, he would show himself to be ‘realistic' in calculating his best hope of holding off American military action. Kim himself is acutely aware that the nuclear facilities and key military bases could be completely destroyed by American state-of-the-art weapons. North Korea's ‘predictable brinkmanship' is no longer a negotiating ploy to gain leverage with the US North Korea can say what it wants but can't get anything of what it wants this time.

But the Obama administration should offer Kim a fine-tuned combination of irresistible carrots and intolerable sticks instead of no-question-asked assistance to the North, while warning that North Korea faces an unavoidable choice between two futures, neither of which includes nuclear weapons.

Needless to say, the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is the best option. President Obama should send a clear message to Kim in Pyongyang that North Korea can be offered what Libya tasted -- the benefits of a sanctions-free life. The military choice is the next one. Unless the Obama administration can find a way to have Kim fear a military strike, no negotiation can achieve its goals. The brute fact is that best negotiations are matched not by what negotiators say but by what they do. Plus, the US must demonstrate to the sick Kim that a second Korean war will invite him to the same fateful course as Saddam Hussein face.

Lee Byong-Chul is senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation, a non-partisan policy body based in Seoul, South Korea.