July 22, 2003

Some Thoughts on North Korea

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has announced the existence of a nuclear weapons program. They claim to have produced enough plutonium for at least six nuclear bombs, in direct violation of earlier agreements to freeze its nuclear programs in exchange for energy aid. Most recently, new sites of weapons production have been discovered, making their threat not only more serious, but more complicated to eliminate since the U.S. cannot know for sure how many weapons they have or where all the weapons are. North Korea makes these provocative moves in an attempt to engage the U.S. in “bilateral talks with the U.S. that produce our recognition of DPRK sovereignty, a non-aggression treaty, and a promise not to obstruct North Korea’s economic development.” (a quote from a Congressional hearing) These demands for equal status, recognition, and elimination of threats to sovereignty may point to the crux of the matter: North Korea’s insecurity and desire to be recognized as a world power.
The Bush administration has largely been trying to downplay the issue, but ignoring the crisis has only aggravated the situation, causing North Korea to make more provocative moves. The Bush administration can no longer avoid the crisis. President Bush must decide whether to follow past precedent of pursuing economic sanctions or threats of pre-emptive strikes to relieve the immediate situation, or to embark on a new campaign for diplomacy to solve the dilemma permanently by seeking to address North Korea’s deepest concerns for status, recognition, and sovereignty.
The U.S. has several interests at stake in the crisis with North Korea. First, U.S. national security is threatened. The U.S. must protect its people from the threat of nuclear strike, or from sowing the seeds of terrorism in an already suffering country. Second, the U.S. must work to preserve economic and political stability in Asia. By doing so, the U.S. will be promoting strong Asian economies, thereby serving American economic trade and investment interests. Finally, the U.S. has been providing political and humanitarian aid to the people of North Korea, and wants to continue to advance the best interests of the North Korea people through economic and social progress. The U.S. must preserve its ability to help people whose best interests have long been sacrificed “for the sake of power games played by the power elite”. (quoted from a Congressional hearing)
The DPRK’s insistence on maintaining the ability to produce nuclear weapons, along with their demands for non-aggression treaties, and willingness to attempt negotiations point to a conclusion that they perceive their security to be threatened and are working to preserve national security interests. However, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, IAEA, and the 1994 Agreements all sought to provide for their security, yet the DPRK was still unsatisfied. Therefore, another underlying issue must be at stake.
This underlying issue and cause for tension may stem from North Korea’s insecurity and desire to be respected, as well as attempts to be considered an equal and treated as a major power in the world. Coming from a militaristic regime, with Stalinist roots, the North Koreans equate military force with political power. “When Pyongyang is pressed to defend itself from an external threat, the logic of nuclear brinkmanship and regime survival sets in. To disguise its sense of insecurity, the North Korean regime utilizes extreme forms of brinkmanship, following hyperbolic threats and intimidation with more tenable bargaining overtures.” (Kihl, 201) North Korea clings to its nuclear power as a bargaining chip, but it is also a cry for attention. When former President Clinton negotiated the 1994 Agreements, the U.S. temporarily assuaged the situation, but never hit the heart of the issue. The Agreements never made North Korea an equal in world politics. So the DPRK rebuilt its nuclear program, again demanding recognition. In a speech to Congress, the newly elected President George W. Bush called North Korea a member of the “Axis of Evil”, and then refused to acknowledge the growing nuclear crisis. Instead he called the crisis a regional problem, thereby downplaying North Korea’s significance and greatly aggravating the situation. Ever since, more and more evidence has been found, showing North Korea’s expanding weapons arsenal. It appears the only way to defuse the situation permanently is to reduce North Korea’s insecurities.
Reducing the DPRK's fears and insecurities embodies an entirely new strategy to defuse the situation, in which Bush can work to help North Korea get recognition and status, thus answering their desire to be considered a major power. President Bush can try to convince other world powers including: China, Russia, France, Germany, Britain and Japan to embark with the U.S. in negotiations with North Korea. In this conference, President Bush can lobby for economic and cultural inducements to meet North Korea’s needs, as well as help North Korea become a member of the World Trade Organization. The aim of these negotiations would be to ensure North Korea gets status and perceived equality in the world community. By giving North Korea the status and respect it so desperately wants, the U.S. would be relieving the DPRK’s insecurities. North Korea would have no need to use nuclear weapons because they would have a new forum in which they could secure and protect their interests.
Giving North Korea the status and respect that it craves may be the best way to alleviate the underlying cause of its aggression. First, by insisting other world powers take part in the negotiations, especially those who don’t always agree with the U.S., the U.S. would bring North Korea in a world forum, making the DPRK an equal and its problems of international significance. Arguably, economic cooperation has been to be a stronger deterrence against aggression than use of force. For example, France and Germany had been at war for over 100 years, fighting for control over coal, steel and iron ore. However, in 1952, the European Coal & Steel Community was created, putting production and resources under a unified authority, thus making war impossible and strengthening all economies involved. This partnership prevented German militarism, gave the U.S. a strong economic trading partner, and laid the foundation for the powerful European Union of today. (Hughes, 256) Over time, economic collaboration helped these countries become inherently concerned in promoting economic interests rather than risking everything for war.
My suggestions are based on the assumption deduced from North Korea’s actions that status and power in the world community is ultimately what North Korea is seeking. Because the culture is so guarded and secretive it is difficult to be sure what North Korea will be satisfied with in the end. If this assumption is correct, then North Korea will take advantage of the opportunity to gain power and security, allowing the world community to press for cooperative de-militarization and inspections. Ignoring the DPRK’s need for power and equality will only lead to immediate appeasement but future aggression, as evidenced by the 1994 Agreements.
However, if the assumption is incorrect, North Korea will still take advantage of the newly gained status, but will have learned that brinkmanship is an effective tool to use in the future to “compel the world’s attention.” (New York Times, 7/20) If that happens, the only response the U.S. can take is to try again to search out the source of North Korea’s aggression. Whether the assumption is proven correct or not, the Bush administration must delve into the underlying issue, not merely attack the symptom or North Korea will keep coming back, making demands and threats, at the cost of international economic and political stability.

Posted by at July 22, 2003 08:46 AM

I think North Korea is also playing its nuclear hand as a bid for more economic development. Compared to South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and other highly performing Southeast Asian economies, North Korea missed out on the development boom of the 1990s. Since it is unwilling to go the free market route and embrace/succumb to foreign capital and all that entails, it's looking to use its political muscle to protect its economy. After North Korea announced its nuclear weapons program, the U.S. and Japan responded by ending (or maybe just suspending?) shipments of oil made under an energy aid program.

As you mentioned in your post, this seems to be an issue about control. North Korea wants control over its economic development, which it wouldn't have if it allowed foriegn investment, so it is trying to get capital in other ways, namely by intimidating the U.S. and other countries. I think this strategy is going to fail, because I don't have faith in the people behind U.S. foreign policy.

Posted by: Cody on July 22, 2003 09:26 AM

You make good points. Hopefully by becoming a member of the WTO, North Korea will perceive it has other options it can pursue and other ways to wield power that would be less threatening and perhaps more effective in helping it get what it needs.
The best way to get exactly what you want is to ask for it, instead of being grumpy and making everybody else try to guess at what's pissing you off. :)

Posted by: jade on July 22, 2003 11:50 AM