North Korea Playing For Keeps
Gady Epstein, 04.16.09, http://www.forbes.com
Kim Jong Il wants to hold on to his nuclear stockpile.
BEIJING -- For years, the prevailing diplomatic consensus about North Korea has been that the regime wanted nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip, not necessarily as an end in itself. Now, that consensus has blown up in everyone's face.
"Westerners and many Chinese thought that the purpose of North Korea developing a nuclear program was to have a card to play with the international community, in order to get something it wants," says Zhang Liangui, a Korea expert at China's influential Central Party School in Beijing. "But this judgment is very wrong. The real purpose is to develop nuclear weapons, not to play cards."
This is a game-changing assessment, one that some have made before but that may now become crucial in shaping policy. North Korea watchers have long assumed that although Kim Jong Il and his regime may behave in ways we don't always understand, they are rational actors negotiating craftily to get what they need to stay in power: food, fuel and cash. But for a paranoid regime, especially an isolated one that has good reason to be paranoid, never giving up nuclear weapons may be a rational choice.
The regime's recent failed missile test and the decisions this week to pull out of six-nation talks, kick out atomic inspectors and reopen its nuclear facilities are not absolute proof of that--every move North Korea makes, every belligerent blast of rhetoric from Pyongyang, can be interpreted in the moment as merely another bargaining ploy intended to extract payoffs. The best evidence of the regime's intentions, though, lies in its long history of actions: North Korea pursued the bomb with rigorous determination for decades and is pursuing the ability to threaten the world with nuclear-armed missiles. Why would they then give that up?
"North Korea believes having a nuclear weapon means survival for the regime," Park Syung Je, at Seoul's Asian Strategy Institute, told me six years ago this month, when North Korean negotiators first told the U.S. during talks in Beijing that they had nuclear weapons. Park continued: "They didn't have any plans to give up their nuclear weapons program anyway. That's showing us that talking with North Korea is kind of wasting time."
The years of six-party talks since then have resulted in inducements from the other five parties in exchange for broken promises from North Korea. The most tangible gain, a shutdown of North Korea's nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, is reversible. The talks may not have been a total waste of time, though. The region's most important player, China, has been one of the most embarrassed of the six, and could change how it approaches its nominal ally. "North Korea actually has played tricks with the other five countries," says Zhang of the Central Party School. "During the six-party talks, North Korea has not only developed nuclear weapons, but also gotten compensation. ... It is impossible to take a deal with North Korea seriously ."
China, North Korea's chief supplier of oil and food, can help come up with a better way to contain its neighbor. Up to this point, Chinese leaders have consistently rejected tough U.N. sanctions. When they did finally accede to sanctions on luxury goods in 2006, after North Korea's test of a nuclear weapon, China actually increased its exports of luxury items to the regime, according to an analysis by Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The oil kept flowing too. The message was that there is no real penalty for misbehavior.
This year, the Chinese leadership stood by as Pyongyang planned its "satellite launch"--which, according to a report by the International Crisis Group, came after North Korea told China it planned to "test the waters" with the Obama administration. China agreed to condemn the launch in an official joint statement from the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and was rewarded this week with North Korea's hard-line response.
For the most part, Chinese leaders have preferred a softer approach, perhaps fearful that if the Pyongyang regime falters, they will have utter chaos on their border. That is a legitimate fear, but now, as Zhang says, Chinese leaders have to decide whether they are prepared to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea, and if not, what they are prepared to do about it.
There is a precedent for tough measures working, though in the end, the results were not encouraging. The last time China truly exercised its leverage with North Korea was in early 2003, when China cut off an oil pipeline to its neighbor for three days. North Korea shortly agreed to come to the negotiating table. Now we know that getting North Korea to talk is far from enough.