Things looked so positive at the start of this year. After the drama of 2010 on the Korean Peninsula, including the sinking of the South Korean warship the Cheonan and North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, there appeared to be a thaw in bilateral ties. Having originally insisted on a formal North Korean apology as a precondition for resuming the Six Party talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, the South Korean government eventually relented and tacitly acknowledged that it would return to the talks without such an admission.
Meanwhile, North Korea eased up on some of its more bellicose posturing, apparently recognizing that its southern neighbour would – and indeed could – not respond so lightly in the event of any further military exchanges. Pyongyang even seemed to be offering an olive branch to Seoul by offering to hold bilateral discussions and indicating its willingness to return to the Six Party talks.
Yet despite these cosmetic moves, the reality is that the relationship is continuing its descent to new lows.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
To most policymakers and analysts, North Korea’s cycle of intransigence is nothing new, with Pyongyang continuing to follow its well-trodden ‘bully-turned-victim’ foreign policy. Time and time again we’ve seen agreements broken by Kim Jong-il’s regime. As far back as the autumn of 1994, US diplomats under the Clinton administration returned to Washington with Chamberlain-esque illusions that North Korea was willing to eliminate its nuclear programme. The grand bargain was called the Agreed Framework, and it declared that Pyongyang would freeze and then destroy its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for much needed fuel and political ‘normalization’ with the West.
Yet history has betrayed the work of this declaration’s architects. The North Koreans claimed that the United States was insincere in fulfilling its obligations under the agreement – especially regarding political normalization – and argued the US continued to threaten the regime’s existential security. Relations continued to worsen with the North’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty in 2003, and reached its nadir with subsequent nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
Fast forward a little to today, and the North Korean regime still seems fixated on how to get the attention of the United States and South Korea. With the US currently fixated on developments in the Middle East and North Africa, the military establishment in North Korea is getting impatient and unpredictable. Combine this with uncertainty over the machinations within the Kim regime concerning the succession – and the expected ascension to power of Kim’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un – and the danger becomes clear.
What does history teach us to expect? Previous North Korean behaviour suggests we should be prepared for more bad behaviour. Indeed, there are signs that this might already be underway. Won Sei-hoon, head of South Korea’s intelligence service, recently reported to key national legislative representatives that North Korea appears likely to conduct a third nuclear weapons test out of frustration over the stalled Six Party talks.
Won indicated that he believes ‘North Korea will use military action such as nuclear and missile (tests) to turn the tables if its current tack of dialogue fails.’ And while there’s so far no concrete intelligence showing a test is imminent, there have been reports that the North Korean military has been excavating new tunnels around previous test sites. This news follows North Korea’s latest ‘surprise’ over its nuclear programme when, last November, it revealed to a respected Western scientist that it had constructed a 2,000-centrifuge uranium enrichment facility, prompting fears that Pyongyang was attempting to master a second path to nuclear weapons (its previous tests were with plutonium devices).