What North Korea Wants: A Look at the Evidence

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DPRK artillery cannons on display at a military parade. Image from ibtimes.com.

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North Korea’s recent spate of belligerent rhetoric and activity has sent policy makers across the world into a frenzy of speculation about what North Korea is after.  While this level of aggressiveness is in some ways unprecedented, a closer examination of what North Korea has done and what it has refrained from doing helps put it into perspective.  Such an examination suggests that North Korea is merely continuing its time-honored policy of adroit diplomatic maneuvering to extract concessions from other nations while flagrantly ignoring the conditions and expectations that come with such aid and minimizing risk of major military confrontation.

Historically, North Korea has always played the “great game” of diplomacy with particular skill.  During the Sino-Soviet split, it managed to receive massive aid from both the Soviet and Chinese camps, without ever providing more than nominal loyalty to either.[1] After the end of the cold war, it continued to receive concessions and elude responsibility.  In the 1994 Agreed Framework between the U. S. and the DPRK, North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon in exchange for billions of dollars in economic aid.  Conspicuously absent in the treaty is any mention of uranium enrichment. The fact that by some estimates North Korea began its uranium weapons project just a few years after the inception of the agreed framework suggests that this omission may well have been deliberate on North Korea’s part. In any case, by the end of the 1990s, it became clear that North Korea had received billions of dollars in aid, avoided the kinetic responses threatened by the Clinton administration, and still managed to develop nuclear weapons.  Any neutral observer can’t help but be impressed.

In the words of M. Greene, North Korea’s actions of late have been “out of the same playbook” as those of the past. Interestingly, despite their fiery rhetoric, the North Korean armed forces have not attempted any further armed provocations since the shelling of Yeonpyeon Island, when the South Korean government made it very clear that further use of force would be met in kind, and could lead to military escalation. The North has instead chosen the safer route of limiting itself to threats.  While bellicose rhetoric carries very few direct consequences, it has created such a climate of fear in South Korea that some companies are considering moving their operations elsewhere. The result has been to force South Korea back to the negotiating table, and North Korea thus far has used such negotiations to attempt to sidestep responsibility for increasing tensions.

In many ways, North Korea’s recent proposal for high-level talks to ease tensions on the peninsula, coupled with its continued assertion of its right to a nuclear arsenal, follows this pattern. The United States is unlikely to accept such a proposal as long as North Korea refuses to discuss denuclearization, and such a refusal may well be interpreted by China as another indication that the U. S. is just as responsible as North Korea for the recent increase in tensions. If Pyongyang can divide Beijing and Washington, as it once divided Beijing and Moscow, any sanctions against it will be meaningless, and it will continue to be propped up by foreign donations while still pursuing nuclear and missile technology.

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A North Korea-China border crossing. Image from nytimes.com.

The artfulness and pattern of these actions shows that North Korea is not bent on sparking a major military confrontation.  Rather, it is simply using time tested brinkmanship tactics to get still more concessions out of the international community without having to change its behavior.  Such an analysis of North Korea’s actions suggests several responses.  First of all, we should ignore the rhetoric.  Kim Jung-Un’s unwillingness to match his violent talk with violent action indicates that despite its threats, North Korea has no intention of engaging in any major military action with the U.S. or South Korea at this time.  In addition, the U.S. and South Korea should continue to make it clear to North Korea exactly which red lines they cannot cross without a kinetic response.  Pyongyang will likely avoid crossing them, and even if they do, escalation can probably be avoided by keeping responses limited and localized.  Because North Korea is probably not seeking major military confrontation, it will likely work to contain any conflict.

Second, the U.S. should work with China to offer Pyongyang a clear plan for peace, taking concrete actions and sending aid only as North Korea verifiably phases out its nuclear arsenal.  China has indicated support for such negotiations, and this opportunity should not be allowed to pass us by. It is also essential that the U. S. is more careful than it was with the Agreed Framework to meticulously keep its side of any bargain, in order to avoid giving North Korea any pretense to exit the deal.  If the North Korean government is indeed willing to give up its nuclear weapons for diplomatic recognition and international support, as it indicated it was in the agreed framework, then such an agreement would give everyone what they want.  If not, North Korea’s room for diplomatic maneuver and obfuscation would be severely limited, and it would be forced to turn down China’s own peace plan, ideally setting the stage for devastating sanctions from the only country with which North Korea has any substantial trade.


[1] Hassig, R. C. and Oh, K. (2000). North korea through the looking glass. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution.

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