North Korea’s rocket launch of April 5, the U.N. Security Council vote to condemn the launch and strengthen sanctions, and the North’s decision of April 14 to pull out of the six-party talks have thrown a monkey wrench into prospects for a negotiated resolution of Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapon and missile programs. On the surface it appears that North Korea is again embarked on a threatening course; it has vowed to continue work on its contested weapons programs. But on closer examination, the North’s weapons tests always occur at times of insecurity. Its tough posturing belies the tenuous internal and external circumstances in which it operates.
Far from seeking to create an international crisis, North Korea is acting defensively. This is a regime that above all else seeks to remain in power, to preserve its juche ideology of militant nationalism and self-determination, and to run its economy without following China’s advice about “reform and opening.” But the regime presides over a desperately poor country with few resources, very little international trade, an ever-widening gap between itself and South Korea, a calamitous public-health situation and a military that gobbles up the greater part of the budget. On top of all that, North Korea no longer can count on its Chinese and Russian partners for security, and not always for food and fuel.
To interpret the latest North Korean actions as provocations, pure and simple, badly misreads the message and the precarious position of its sender. An insecure regime with an economy that may easily descend again into widespread famine, and a leader, Kim Jong Il, who appears very ill, to judge from recent photos, is not bargaining from strength. Self-preservation is the name of its game. The leading decision-making body that Kim heads, the National Defense Commission, is filled with generals who most assuredly want to demonstrate that the regime still has muscle. These are people who know that war means their demise, whereas a bargain with the U.S., while it would require stopping nuclear-weapon and missile production, would give the regime legitimacy. It might also spare them from having to give up the six to 10 plutonium bombs they evidently have.
In such dire circumstances, the North’s leaders not only consider nuclear weapons and long-range missiles a necessary deterrent, they surely also regard them as their only bargaining chips. And the bargaining can only be with Washington, which Pyongyang has recognized for some time as its best hope for surviving. From the North’s point of view, any bargain would have to take the form of a new package deal that would reaffirm to Kim Jong Il that the U.S. is not hostile to the regime, accepts its legitimacy and is willing to provide long-term development assistance. Only the U.S. can persuade the leadership in South Korea not to seek to absorb the North or undermine it so long as North Korea terminates its plutonium-bomb program under verifiable conditions. In sum, it can be argued, North Korea’s security is actually the best way to promote South Korea’s and the region’s security.
The six-party talks, which began in 2003, have resulted in several improvements in the security situation on the Korean peninsula. The North has stopped plutonium production and completed several promised steps to disable the Yongbyon nuclear facility. South Korea has become an important trade and investment partner of the North. Some nongovernmental organizations, such as Mercy Corps, have had regular access to North Korea because they have delivered on meaningful development projects. If talks resume, they will surely be invited back. And China has moved from being a passive to an active player in the talks.
Some critics will say that a dictatorial regime such as North Korea, with all its human-rights abuses, does not deserve added security. But as former U.S. defense secretary William Perry said in 1999, on returning from Pyongyang: “We have to deal with the North Korean government not as we wish they would be, but as in fact they are.” Although the U.S. does not consider itself a threat to the North, Perry continued, Pyongyang believes the opposite. The North’s need of a deterrent, Perry said, has “a very clear logic.” The prescription seems plain: keep engaging the North while defanging it. If the other parties persist in engagement, North Korea will return to the negotiating table. It needs the six-party talks as much as anyone.
Mel Gurtov is professor emeritus of political science at Portland State University, editor in chief of Asian Perspective and the author of numerous books on Asia and U.S. policy