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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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

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