North Korea Readying New Surprise?

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North Korea Readying New Surprise?

With US attention focused on the Arab World and Pakistan, will Kim Jong-il spring another attention seeking nuclear surprise?

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.

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). 

So, is there anything the other five nations involved in the Six Party talks can do to avoid a third North Korean nuclear test?

South Korea certainly made a courageous start by indicating its willingness to withdraw its demand for an apology over the Cheonan incident. This seems especially brave considering there are real political risks for Seoul in apparently easing its stated position of holding the line against North Korean aggression. But while President Lee Myung-bak’s administration will likely lose some political capital in the short term because of the turnaround, in the long run it could still reap the benefits of promoting a pragmatic approach to greater security in the region.

The United States, meanwhile, needs to continue its role in tacitly approving a rapprochement between the two Koreas, while keeping enough sticks in its diplomatic toolkit to deter further acts of aggression from Pyongyang. Certainly by now it should be clear that the Obama administration’s policy of ‘strategic patience’ hasn’t worked. Instead, the United States should enhance the pressure of strengthened U.N. Security Council sanctions resulting from the 2009 nuclear test through unilateral penalties aimed at undermining the regime’s nuclear programme.

Against this backdrop, US diplomats are also continuing to play a central role in attempting to secure China’s acquiescence on a tough but measured approach on the issue. However, despite finding Kim’s regime a nuisance, Beijing appears unconvinced that ratcheting up the pressure on North Korea will accrue tangible political benefits. With this in mind, the United States should consider providing a more nuanced package of incentives to the Chinese that transcends the situation on the Korean peninsula, perhaps including gradual concessions on arms sales to Taiwan.

In addition, Japan and Russia both continue to be underutilized players in the Six Party talks, despite having the capacity to do more. Russia in particular could position itself effectively as a key interlocutor between North Korea and its most vociferous opponents, including the United States. Back in 2003, the Russians presented a package aimed at verifiably disarming North Korea, but with the caveat that this should be achieved through diplomatic negotiations and not through Security Council sanctions. The Kremlin is perhaps right to note that serious confidence building measures should be undertaken on security ties between North Korea and the United States before negotiations are likely to prove fruitful.

The situation with Japan is more complicated for a number of reasons, including lingering anger over the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents, historical problems tied to Japanese colonialism, and North Korea’s intentional ambiguity on future missile tests over Japanese territory. Yet despite these limitations, Japan needs to be given a strong (but tempered) voice in future discussions. After all, Japan’s defence posture is still very much focused on a potential threat from Pyongyang, and it therefore has an enormous stake in stabilized relations, especially in light of the US military bases on its territory.

Ultimately, of course, it needs to be the United States and South Korea that lead the push for a renewed policy of firm engagement with North Korea. But it would be foolish to ignore the significant role that other parties could still play.

North Korea has consistently demonstrated an unwelcome ability to spring surprises. It’s time for the Six Party nations to redouble efforts to head off any more.