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What's Driving Pyongyang?

Author: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
July 3, 2009


Given North Korea's history of crisis escalation, it should have been apparent that the "Dear Leader"--Kim Jong Il--would not abide the prospect of being ignored by a new American President who has pursued a strategy of continuity, containment, and incrementalism. In fact, North Korean never gave the President a chance to reach out before acting provocatively by conducting a second nuclear weapons test as well as more missile tests. This highlights the need for a proactive US policy toward the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia.

In the face of North Korea's stream of hyperbolic nuclear threats, President Obama's Rose Garden June 16th press conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak gave the impression that North Korea had exhausted its threat capacity. The President argued that the US should calmly and firmly break North Korea's past pattern of bad behavior, but North Korea is unlikely to respond well to such an approach.

North Korea's premeditated provocations appear to have been calculated to solidify North Korea's status as a nuclear weapons state. The North Koreans say they desire recognition of their status as a nuclear weapons state as the starting point for negotiations. They point to the US relationship with a nuclear-capable India as the model. Although the North Koreans have not ruled out eventual denuclearization, they have taken it off the table as a quid pro quo for diplomatic normalization, in the process further underscoring doubts about the possibility of any voluntary North Korean path to denuclearization.

A common assumption is that North Korean crisis instigation tactics are aimed primarily at drawing the US into dialogue and one-sided concessions. However, internal changes--including preparations for a leadership succession--may be more determinative of its recent behavior.

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