Features | Diplomacy | Security | East Asia

North Korea: To Talk or To Provoke?

Trustpolitik may be a start, but all parties need to return to the table at some point.

By Duyeon Kim for
North Korea: To Talk or To Provoke?
Credit: REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

At the end of August the U.S. and South Korea conducted their joint military exercise Ulchi Freedom Guardian (August 19-30), a drill Pyongyang views as a rehearsal for war. North Korea was notably restrained during the entire episode.

Before the drills began, some North Korea watchers were concerned Pyongyang might use them to return to confrontational behavior, despite an August 14 deal with Seoul to normalize operations at the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex. This agreement had given many experts hope that inter-Korean talks would be the springboard to eventual talks with the U.S. and continued dialogue. Pyongyang continued the charm offensive when it agreed to cross-border family reunions on September 25, although this gesture was likely aimed at restarting tours to Mount Kumkang, a guaranteed source of much-needed hard currency for the North.

Byungjin and North Korea’s Charm Offensive

These events raise the question of why North Korea is pursuing a charm offensive at this time? No one can be certain, but one potential answer is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s byeongjinnoseon (byungjin, or “parallel route”), or strategic line, introduced last March with the aim of simultaneously pursuing nuclear and economic development.

While it appears Kim Jong-un is trying to put his stamp on the strategic line, it is in fact not a new concept.

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The original concept of byeongjinnoseon dates back to his grandfather and founder of the North Korean regime, Kim Il-sung. It was first raised during a 1962 Workers Party Central Committee meeting at a time when Kim Il-sung was seeking to build a home-grown military defense and economy, instead of relying on what he reportedly viewed as an unreliable Soviet Union and China for regime security. Byeongjinnoseon was apparently adopted officially in 1966 and became the North’s basic guideline. Kim Jong-un’s byeongjinnoseon also seems to be the method by which to achieve his late father’s dying injunction of building North Korea into a “mighty and prosperous nation” (gangseongdaeguk) in 2012, which the young Kim seems to have downgraded for now to “powerful state” (gangseonggukka).

Contrary to conventional wisdom and his decades-old tyrannical image, Kim Jong-il’s dying wish apparently also included economic prosperity, according to Kim Jong-un’s March 2013 Workers Party Central Committee speech.

Thus, the young Kim seems to have taken a decades-old policy of parallel military and economic development, and repackaged it to include nuclear development. In doing so, he apparently aims to establish his own legacy while fulfilling the goals of his two predecessors.

Will Kim Jong-un’s byeongjinnoseon succeed? He may have no choice but to try to make it work.

This doesn’t herald an end to provocations from Pyongyang. It also doesn’t mean the world won’t see continued activity at North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities, just as the latest news points to satellite imagery of resumed operations at the Yongbyon 5 MW research reactor. Rather, it suggests that the Kim Jong-un regime may alternate between pursuing the nuclear and economic tracks, or both paths simultaneously, depending on which route is more advantageous to the regime at any given time.

Provocations are an integral component of North Korean tactics, and history has shown that they are a matter of time and circumstance. Indeed, North Korea has every technical and political reason to continue nuclear and missile tests, as well as both domestic and international political interests in periodically provoking.

For the time being, however, Pyongyang may opt to stick with its charm offensive as a way of advancing the economic track of the new strategic line and managing international relations. After all, Kim Jong-un already established his “national security” credentials, beginning with a series of missiles launches and the country’s third nuclear test. Besides enhancing Kim’s credibility with important domestic audiences, Pyongyang may believe these actions have also put it in a more “powerful” position for negotiations, further enhancing the attractiveness of engagement at this time. Thus it may be feeling freer to pursue diplomacy, resulting in the Kaesong agreement (despite the difficulties implementation will entail) and agreeing to family reunions.

South Korea’s Trustpolitik

Under President Park Geun-hye, South Korea has adopted a vision of trustpolitik, which aims to create a process that leads to a rapprochement, denuclearization and peace via trust-building measures. Already, doubts are being raised as to whether it is a viable and sustainable solution to solving the long-standing rivalry with Pyongyang.

Still, party platform and politics aside, it is notable that trustpolitik is the only vehicle that exists among the five parties, and Washington may piggyback on it until the White House devises a real denuclearization strategy of its own. At present, no one has an alternative solution.

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While trustpolitik still seemingly lacks a detailed strategy, the key is whether Pyongyang will accept it. The lack of trust for the past two decades is perhaps the only point of agreement among all six parties – North Korea surely has its share of gripes in this area. Perhaps the Kaeseong breakthrough is a sign that Pyongyang is giving trustpolitik a try, although it’s too early to tell.

Even as Pyongyang has tried to use old wedge-driving tactics prior to the latest inter-Korean talks, Seoul, Washington, and Beijing appear to be moving closer to triangular alignment, at least on the fundamental principle of denuclearization, even if they are still oceans apart on tactics.

Against this backdrop, Pyongyang has two choices: continue wreaking havoc and isolating itself, or giving trustpolitik a real shot. This means that Washington will need to begin formulating a strategy, too. It needs a proactive strategy that deals with what appears to be Pyongyang’s growing uranium enrichment and plutonium programs, which is the ultimate game changer in the nuclear equation.

The Long Road to Negotiations

Despite recent diplomatic efforts among the other five parties, reviving the Six Party Talks will not be easy, and it is not at all certain that the U.S. and North Korea in particular will return to negotiations any time soon. Indeed, just getting to the point of talks is more difficult now than it was in the past.

Until now, the challenge had been narrowing the gap between Washington and Pyongyang during negotiations, made more difficult for two decades by one basic obstacle: the lack of trust and follow-through. The challenge still exists, but today the gap is wider because of differences on how to meet.

The U.S. says it will only return to talks if Pyongyang takes concrete actions to demonstrate its willingness to roll back its nuclear program. In other words, Washington refuses to “talk for talks’ sake.” Meanwhile, North Korea since June 16 has been proposing high-level talks without preconditions, seemingly unaware or perhaps intentionally ignoring the fact that its belligerent actions this year despite the February Leap Day agreement make it tough for Washington to return to dialogue so easily.

Perhaps a stroke of Chinese diplomacy could produce a tête-à-tête, in light of Chinese nuclear envoy Wu Dawei’s trip to Pyongyang last month. Even if it could, however, there is still the question of what to talk about and where to begin.

Denuclearization is Washington’s ultimate objective. On the other hand, Pyongyang seeks a peace treaty to replace the armistice, as well as negotiating mutual nuclear disarmament with the U.S. in order to be seen an equal nuclear power. This is out of the question for Washington.

Demanding a peace treaty is nothing new for Pyongyang. The 2005 Six Party Joint Statement agreed the issue would be discussed among “directly related parties” at an “appropriate separate forum.”

Technically, the parties could pursue peace regime talks and nuclear talks simultaneously when the political climate is ripe, but Washington and Seoul believe it is imperative that a substantial part of denuclearization comes first.

Even if talks were to resume, a host of questions would immediately arise. For example, should the talks begin with the Leap Day deal the U.S. and North Korea concluded in early 2012, or pick up from where the Six Party Talks broke down in 2008 on how to verify the North’s nuclear stockpiles? And what to do about Pyongyang’s clandestine uranium enrichment plants?

The U.S. and South Korea are pro-dialogue in principle, but they do not want to “reward bad behavior” by rushing into talks again immediately after every North Korean provocation. This is especially the case this year, given the intensity of Pyongyang’s threats to unleash nuclear war.

In this context, trustpolitik is at best the beginning of a long process that may work or flop, but at some point all six parties will somehow need to return to the table – even if that means going back to square one. Otherwise, the region may find itself dealing with a more sophisticated North Korean nuclear program sooner than expected.

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Duyeon Kim is the senior non-proliferation and East Asia fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, DC.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated to note the shorter transliteration of byeongjinnoseon as byungjin.