Watching North Korea


North Koreans attend a rally in Pyongyang protesting U.S.-South Korean military exercises (courtesy of Xinhua)

North Korea’s nuclear program has been a thorn in the U.S. side for nearly two decades. With the unexpected announcement on February 29 that North Korea would halt its nuclear weapons testing and uranium enrichment activities in exchange for U.S. food aid, is the situation finally taking a turn for the better? Considering the past record of U.S.-North Korean interactions, most analysts remain skeptical. At the same time, cynicism hardly seems to be a productive stance.

The relationship between the United States and North Korea has vacillated between negotiation and friction for the past two decades. In 1992, for instance, North Korea agreed to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections but refused access to suspected weapons production sites. Then, in 1994, it agreed to halt its nuclear program in exchange for fuel aid. The following years were fraught with diplomatic and military skirmishes with neighbors South Korea and Japan, both U.S. allies. Tensions came to a head in 2002, after U.S. President George W. Bush called North Korea an “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq. By the end of 2002, the United States had cut off oil shipments and North Korea had reactivated its main nuclear reactor in Yongbyon. From 2003 to 2008, the Six-Party Talks between the two Koreas, Russia, Japan, China, and the United States went on and off, with both the United States and North Korea accusing each other of not fulfilling its commitments. North Korea would periodically threaten to reactivate its nuclear reactors while the United States would suspend food and fuel aid if North Korea did not make real progress.

The current round of negotiations (which have not even led to the resumption of the Six-Party Talks) between the United States and North Korea began in July 2011. With the death of long-time North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il in December 2011, the situation looked unpredictable as observers speculated on the status of the power transition to Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un. The younger Kim is estimated to be in his late twenties, fairly inexperienced, and needful of guidance from older North Korean leaders such as his uncle and aunt, Jang Song-taek and Kim Kyong-hui.

The succession of a new leader throws a wild card into North Korean-U.S. relations. Kim Jong-un has quite a few choices in attempting to consolidate power. He may try to negotiate with the United States in order to obtain food aid, thus improving the condition of the North Korean people and boosting his popular image as a benevolent ruler. However, Kim might also increase militant rhetoric against North Korea’s perceived enemies in order to appear strong and assertive. In just the past two weeks, North Korea’s new leader has done both.

Only days after accepting 240,000 metric tons of food aid in exchange for halting nuclear activities and allowing inspectors back to its main nuclear facility, Pyongyang launched a fierce protest against U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises as well as news of South Korean soldiers’ hanging an insulting poster of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un in their barracks, according to Xinhua, an official Chinese news agency. The Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s official English-language news organ, condemned the posters as “hideous provocations, urging a sacred war to take revenge upon the enemy.” While the North Korean rhetorical attacks against South Korea do not directly damage negotiations with the United States, they nevertheless illustrate a propensity to use military threats, possibly to balance out the appearance of appearing soft against “the enemy.” This is not the first time Kim Jong-un has used military provocations to seem tough. Many in the West, including U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, suspected that the March 2010 sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan was an attempt by Kim Jong-un to “earn his stripes with the North Korean military.” A few months later, the younger Kim was elevated to the rank of four-star general. These events show a troubling pattern in how Kim Jong-un builds his credentials. In attempts to prove his strength despite lack of leadership experience, the younger Kim often turns to threats and saber-rattling.

What do these mixed messages mean for the United States? While the unstable situation in North Korea is disturbing, it is nothing earth-shattering. The United States has dealt with a volatile North Korean leadership for years. Although past negotiations have not produced much progress, not taking action would result in no progress at all. The safest attitude for the United States to assume right now is one of cautious optimism. Without optimism, there is no hope for denuclearization. Without caution, however, these “modest” steps, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls them, might just result in more wasted aid diverted to the North Korean leadership. In order to take advantage of the situation and avoid being taken advantage of, the United States needs to fulfill its side of the deal while carefully making sure North Korea does as well.


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