The Debate

What Does North Korea Want?

Maybe now we know why Dennis Rodman said Kim Jung-un wanted President Obama to call him — to present his wish list.

Over the weekend, in between some gardening and walking the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts with my wife, I decided to bulk up on any and everything that is North Korea. One of my favorite books on the subject is Victor Cha’s The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future. I had the chance to read the book about six months ago, and I was fascinated by just the sheer breadth of knowledge Professor Cha presents to the reader. You can dislike his conclusions or politics, but the book is well written, finely researched, and should be on anyone’s reading list trying to gain insights into Pyongyang’s motivations or next move.

There is one part of the book that struck me as noteworthy for obvious reasons (Disclaimer: I am a non-resident fellow at CSIS’s WSD Handa Program):

“A study I (Professor Cha) directed at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. tracked all DPRK provocations on a weekly basis from March 1984 to the present. It charted these provocations against all periods of negotiation involving the United States. The finding was that every DPRK provocation for the past thirty years has been followed within months (on average 5.9 with the United States, 6.3 with South Korea) by a period of dialogue and negotiations in which the North got something they needed. In October 2006, the North’s nuclear test was a brazen act that led to international condemnation, UN Security Council sanctions, but also a period of intense negotiations with the United States. Similarly, during the Clinton administration, the North launched its three-stage Taep’odong-I over Japan at the end of August 1998, and by October the two were holding missile talks in New York. That’s playing a pretty good hand with a bad set of cards. The point here is not to argue that this was the primary cause for the Yeonpyeong Island shelling. Instead, it is to demonstrate that there is a logic to North Korean belligerence that cannot be deterred in the same way a second DPRK invasion has been successfully discouraged.”

So to follow Professor Cha’s line of reason, what does North Korea need this time? Is Pyongyang looking for food aid or a cash injection to keep its economy from collapsing? Maybe now we know why Dennis Rodman said Kim Jung-un wanted President Obama to call him after all, he wants to present Washington with his wish list.

What if the Obama administration and its South Korea allies don’t take the bait and decide there will be no negotiation? Will Pyongyang continue to ratchet up tensions? What will North Korea do then?

One thing is for certain, the next few weeks will be very interesting. Stay tuned.