Why the North Korean Crisis Demands a New Diplomatic Approach

Even as Washington presses Pyongyang on its arsenal, a growing number of analysts worry that unconditional denuclearization is a strategic dead end

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David Guttenfelder / AP

A North Korean soldier passes by a roadside propaganda poster depicting a North Korean soldier killing a U.S. soldier in Pyongyang on April 10, 2013

Asia woke up on Friday to news that the Pentagon’s intelligence arm now thinks Pyongyang has the ability to produce a nuclear weapon that can fit on a missile. The Defense Intelligence Agency document, disclosed by a Republican Congressman in a budget hearing, reportedly states with “moderate confidence” that North Korea has the know-how, even though the “reliability” of the technology is probably low.

Although a Pentagon spokesman downplayed the claim hours later, stressing that Pyongyang had not “fully tested, developed or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced,” the news is sure to exacerbate an already tense situation on the Korean Peninsula. In recent weeks, with the U.S. and South Korea conducting annual joint military exercises, North Korea has turned up the dial on its warmongering rhetoric, offering near daily provocations, including the threat of missile tests and even full-fledged nuclear war. Though South Koreans have largely dismissed the statements as standard-issue bluster, the North’s propagandists have managed to generate no shortage of international attention, with a recent CNN/ORC poll suggesting that American fear of North Korea is at an all-time high. On Thursday, the leaders of the G-8 nations condemned North Korea’s nuclear plans, a sentiment that was echoed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who landed in Seoul on Friday for talks. “We are all united in the fact that North Korea will not be accepted as a nuclear power,” he told the press. “The rhetoric that we’re hearing from North Korea is unacceptable by any standard.”

(MORE: In the Shadow of North Korean Threats, South Korea Shrugs)

But even as Washington presses Pyongyang on its arsenal, a growing number of analysts worry that unconditional denuclearization is a strategic dead end. Among academics, analysts and humanitarian workers, there is a growing consensus that North Korea will not abandon its nuclear program. “Virtually all longtime observers from U.S., China, Russia and elsewhere know that there is no prospect North Korea will give up weapons anytime soon,” says David Straub, a former U.S. diplomat who is now associate director of Stanford University’s Korean Studies Program. Korea expert Andrei Lankov, who has studied in North Korea, said in a recent interview that the Kim regime sees nuclear weapons as a strategic priority. The weapons are a way to both prevent attacks, particularly from the U.S., and also to engage in what he calls “blackmail diplomacy.” In terms of GDP and population, North Korea is on par with countries like Mozambique and Ghana, he said. Unlike those countries, it is able to exert considerable global influence. “North Korea’s logic is that if they have a nuclear weapon, then they will be able to get much aid without too many conditions attached.”

This assessment jibes with the regime’s domestic propaganda, as well as reports from the inside. On March 31, dictator Kim Jong Un announced a “new strategic line” that ignores Western demands, saying he will simultaneously rebuild his country’s economy and expand its nuclear arsenal. The framing channels his grandfather, Great Leader Kim Il Sung, who used similar language to link defense and development in his time. “The thinking is, ‘We are strong, we have a nuclear program, now we can focus on the economy,’” says Katharina Zellweger, a longtime aid worker who spent five years living in Pyongyang as head of the Swiss development agency’s local office. “They view the nuclear program as life insurance.”

(MORE: North Korean Breakthrough? Or U.S. Intelligence Snafu? Or Both?)

If this is the case, the future containment of Pyongyang may require new leadership. A recent report by Straub and his colleagues at Stanford argues that 20 years of American-led policy has “not succeeded” in changing North Korea’s trajectory. And since the U.S. will not budge on the nuclear front, there is no basis for further U.S. negotiations. To move forward, they say, South Korea must step up. The country’s new President, Park Geun-hye, ran on a platform of re-engagement and is perhaps the best hope for diplomacy. She will face heavy pressure to take a hard line, but as the daughter of the country’s Cold War strongman, she is well placed to take a calculated political risk.

(MORE: History’s Child, Park Geun-hye)

So far, Park has expressed unqualified commitment to protecting her country, while carefully signaling that her government could be open to talks. “Park Geun-hye has really simplified the game plan,” says Bong Young-shik, senior research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “As long as North Korea continues its provocations, there will be no dialogue, but if North Korea changes its behavior, there will be.” Once the current crisis passes, she will need to find ways to engage her neighbor without undermining the U.S. The Stanford report suggests appointing a high-level envoy to initiate contact with Pyongyang, just as the Clinton Administration brought in former Secretary of Defense William Perry in 1998. Others, including Lankov, have called for increased person-to-person contact whether through student exchanges or joint business ventures.

(MORE: Take Cover! It’s the North Korean New Year)

These efforts will be bolstered by the ongoing efforts of aid groups, many of which have been working for years to broaden the focus of U.S. and South Korean policy. “When the U.S. negotiates, I wonder, do people really think it will lead to results?” asks Kim Yun-tae, the director of the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights. Working closely with defectors, his organization gathers information on the ground and clandestinely sends information into North Korea. The hope is to gauge the level of humanitarian need, while gradually building political consciousness. It is slow, dangerous work, but “we need to find ways to weaken or change the regime from within,” Kim says. “Right now, it’s like we are on a hamster wheel: it’s the same thing over and over again.”

And so it is for North Koreans. Another spring has brought another season of hunger, as winter stores dwindle and energy is diverted from food production to the military. The new regime is putting the weapons program above everything, Kim says, forcing hungry peasants to leave their fields to conduct drills and mock evacuations. More and more North Koreans have some knowledge of what’s happening in the outside world, but that has done little to ease their suffering. “The people feel like they can’t take it,” Kim says. “They tell us, if there is going to be a nuclear war, we hope it comes quickly.”

— With reporting by Audrey Yoo / Seoul

PHOTOS: North Korea Ratchets Up Tensions on the Peninsula

32 comments
buckybone
buckybone

"The framing channels his grandfather, “Great Leader” Kim Jong Il"

Stop right there. Jong was his father, his grandfather (the "Great Leader") was Kim Il Sung. They wonder why we don't trust the media anymore, when they can't get the most basic fact about the topic right.

JoeJones
JoeJones

This saber rattling by North Korea is connected to the budget negotiations ongoing in congress. The american military budget is in danger of being cut. North Korea knows that if they play the boogeyman really hard right now, they can help the american military complex maintain its fat expenditures, and they know they will be paid off with aid/loans/food later on down the road because their boogeyman act will have helped scare the taxpayer and thereby manufacture consent for cutting social programs instead of the military.

This timing is no coincidence. The budget cuts this year in the american budget will be the deepest in a long time. And North Korea has played this game before. But this time they are really hamming it up. Because the budget cuts are the most severe threat to the american military industrial complex.

Follow the money.

Cui Bono.

Mecánica
Mecánica

Sadly, it appears the situation won't be all that different after the grace period

leonvang
leonvang

If the US had pulled out of South Korea a long time ago, we would have China's cooperation.  We are a threat to both North Korea and China

nubwaxer
nubwaxer

why do we play along in li'l un's game of threat from them then we respond with more threats and suddenly there's new intelligence, pulled out of someone's you know where that the north koreans have nuclear weapons ready to use.  humbug.  don't ignore li'l un but shut up and make reasonable preparations to defend south korea instead of talking up another unnecessary war.

GaryRMcCray
GaryRMcCray

The comment that "The North Koreans have not fully tested the kinds of weapons referenced" is the total utter White House New Speak for what we are saying here is totally meaningless, any intelligent person would ignore this comment entirely.

Kind of tells you what the Pentagon thinks of the American Public.

The North Koreans have so far pretty much not ever "fully tested" anything.

You think that's going to stop them from using it.

Gosh, it might not work maybe we'd better launch 3 or 4 just to make sure.

And is he stupid enough to do so? - - I Have every confidence that he is.

DefCon 3

archFinder
archFinder

Kim and company is bluffing because they are so comfortable with the idea that the US an allies would never actually use force.  So, we've lost our leverage.  We have nothing to bargain with.   The thing to do is have all of our allies in the region begin a massive military build up akin to the 1st Gulf War.  But no bluff.  The requirement is that nukes are off the table and all of their nuclear capacity gets nullified....or we do it for them.   Faced with those options these puppets will crumble.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

Can't Dennis Rodman go back over? They're great friends.

Seriously, someone needs to pick up a phone and talk to them. Is Kissinger doing anything these days? He'd scare the piss out of them, he always scared me.

I hope the message is "no more extortion kid; any attack on your part will be answered by total annihilation; put your toys away and start to do something meaningful for your country. We guarantee we will never attack you unless you do something first". And I hope we mean it.

MrObvious
MrObvious

Kim jung whatever...hold your breath. It works - promise.

MichaelSlowik
MichaelSlowik

I'm reminded of an old Groucho Mark movie, where the president of a country something like Estonia, declares war on another larger more powerful country. The objective was to not fire a shot, but request war reparations. I believe this little man in North Korea, has been watching too many old American made movies! This little man wants us to believe that all the people in North Korea are war mongers and crazies, go figure.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

I'm going with the reverse theory.  In nearly every case, the solution to a diplomatic crisis is to send everyone home with their egos intact.  Part of the reason NK has been ratcheting up beyond stupid levels is because their egos couldn't handle being ignored.  Solution: leak something saying "yes, we think you are a serious threat, Mr Kim"

CoutbisMickCoutbis
CoutbisMickCoutbis

the best approach for obama to go and meet with kim in pyogyang .that well be the kind of a leasership the world need today in making peace without having to go for war for misunderstanding and keeping good mind of today.

ZacPetit
ZacPetit

North Korea is burning its last bridges. If it continues this kind of fear mongering, it is going to lose its last "ally" in China, who cares much less about its "buffer" to South Korea (Japan, a US ally, is also close to China geographically, but it sees no need to have a puppet state near there...) than it cares about stability in the region. At that point, the international community would do well just to let North Korea starve itself.

In this scenario, the people of North Korea will eventually rise against their own leadership and topple the regime. Kim Jong Un will only resort to real military action if he feels that his power is threatened, and if it is being threatened by his own people, it stands to reason that they are who he will use such force against. It is deeply regrettable that civilians will be exposed to this, but once upon a time American colonists took up arms to topple a corrupt government, as did the French. 

Honestly, the only scenarios I see that involves North Korea using a nuclear weapon is if a foreign nation invades. Using that weapon in any other way would result in Kim's death with complete certainty.

rutnerh
rutnerh

The verbal escalation is stoked by the self serving generals on both sides who want to continue spending a major portion of GDP on imaginary aggressions. But NK basically wants to restart negotiations to get much needed foreign aid to feed their starting people without giving up their nuclear weapons program, meaning they want to act like a super power while pursuing a policy of both guns and butter funded by other nations. NK is in effect a mouse that roared and the mighty USA welcomes this folly to justifyma huge DoD budget.

chacalcdn1
chacalcdn1

Enough with N Korea.

A full black out on it will do us all a world of good.

One can call fire so many times then the fireman stars home.

destor23
destor23

So that's where Saddam was keeping his WMDs!  Please, tone down the rhetoric.  There is no "crisis" in North Korea and there is no reason for a "tough" response from the U.S.

antonmarq
antonmarq

Yes, one that goes "BOOOOM." 

AlvaroSevilla
AlvaroSevilla

The man in the power in North Korea only want some international recognition, that any government including their Godfather, China, meet with him in line to obtain in their own country a back up that doesn't have. The world must be smart and say: Hey Mr. Kim yes of course we meet with you but GIVE MORE FREEDOM to the North Korea people.

Daperez1
Daperez1

This saber rattling by North Korea is connected to the young Kim Jong Un harnessing power and appealing to his elders in the military by showing his willingness to resort to military action. It also is tied to the fact that North Korea is already surrounded by America's military might and fear an invasion by the U.S. that could possibly topple the regime. Cuts in our nations military budget would only give the North what they want, a weaker U.S. military. So I'm having trouble following your rationalization considering North Korea has already been given food and economic aid by the U.S. but then scrapped it by testing new nuclear weapons and long range missles over the years.

nubwaxer
nubwaxer

@MichaelSlowik freedonia, andthat's one scenario except the trigger happy usa would escalate to nuclear obliteration very quickly.  bad for business everywhere.

i think there was another movie called the "mouse that roared" with a similar surrender to larger country to receive funds to rebuild plot.

destor23
destor23

Glad you all changed the headline on this piece.  You should probably note that. Though, it's still not a "crisis" by any means.

ZacPetit
ZacPetit

@AlvaroSevilla No. That is what we have been doing since they developed the bomb. "Here is aid, give it to your people." What do they do? Turn around and make more weapons. 

In order to see any kind of improvement, Kim Jong Un needs to see that this sort of fear mongering will not work. It is crucial that we do not meet with Kim Jong Un until he has taken significant steps away from his current path.

dongersmith
dongersmith

@nubwaxer @MichaelSlowik 

Military in S. Korea is under the U.N., not the U.S. 

And-- it was N. Korea that started this mess in 1950, not the U.S.- 

Quit spouting N. Korean lies- if the U.S. wanted to destroy N. Korea it could have done so fifty (+) years ago-  The Chinese are even tired of these terroristic games the N. Koreans are playing.