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North Korea Misfires

Author: Brian P. Klein, Former International Affairs Fellow in Japan, Sponsored by Hitachi, Ltd.
May 27, 2009
International Herald Tribune

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TOKYO - Lifting economic sanctions, full integration with the West, peace on the Korean peninsula - all are up for discussion if North Korea simply rejoins the Six Party Talks. And yet, in another provocative move, Pyongyang has test-fired more missiles and declared a second nuclear test a success, rattling not only the ground in China but the international nonproliferation community as well.

While brinksmanship is nothing new for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and previous outbursts have often brought increased attention--and rewards--this time international reaction is likely to be swift and unforgiving. North Korea has miscalculated the global ire its provocation has raised.

On all fronts, the North is scaling back its interaction with the rest of the world and offering nothing but clenched fists. Missile tests, the unilateral canceling of contracts with South Korea, the reprocessing of spent fuel rods, and now declaring an exclusive economic zone that conflicts with South Korean maritime claims - all point to a newly emboldened military influencing decision-making. These actions indicate the desperate state of the North, with its ailing leader and unclear succession plans.

Theories abound as to what North Korea actually wants: bargaining leverage to gain bilateral negotiations with the United States? The potential to sell its nuclear material and missile technology for vital hard currency? Full recognition as a nuclear state, akin to India and Pakistan? No one knows for certain, and it often appears that even North Korea is confused.

Whatever the ultimate cause, its belligerency is having the exact opposite of any intended effects. The much-sought U.S. attention will be decidedly negative. Washington's special representative, Stephen Bosworth, publicly stated in April a willingness to discuss issues directly with the D.P.R.K. within the overall Six Party process. But separate, direct negotiations are a near-term impossibility as the United States remains committed to resolving the conflict with all regional powers.

China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and the United States are closing ranks, increasingly likely to agree on more punitive measures. All parties now recognize that recalcitrance will require more robust collective action. The few bridges left with China are burning as its influence over the North steadily declines

For the North, repeated missile and nuclear tests have diminishing returns since their principal value is demonstrating new capabilities - which they have now done. Doubts remain as to the range of their rockets. Even the recent nuclear event may have been more a conventional explosion than nuclear fission. Time and air samples will tell.

Next in the tired playbook of provocation is the possibility of increased activity in the fishing waters along the contested western sea border with South Korea. Naval skirmishes occurred in 1999 and 2002 with the South's forces prevailing. The risk of embarrassment for Kim Jong-il's government is high.

International responses to the provocation are limited as well. Successive rounds of sanctions have failed to deter the regime from furthering its nuclear capabilities. This is due in large part to their spotty enforcement. Targeted financial sanctions will severely limit vital overseas hard-currency earnings. Interdictions at sea of suspect vessels involved in proliferation activities is also an option. Suspending over-flight rights, as India did in 2008 for an Iran-bound Air Koryo flight, could become a more-coordinated effort.

China plays an increasing part in any effective sanctions regime. As the only major trading partner left for the North supplying vital energy and food supplies, China has repeatedly said it would not take actions that threaten stability or cause an influx of refugees across the porous border.

This risk needs to be re-examined. Limiting oil exports may dim the lights in Pyongyang, but a weakened internal security apparatus triggering popular insurrection and humanitarian disaster is highly unlikely. Historical precedents aside, China's relationships with South Korea and Japan are becoming increasingly more important and the continued antagonism from North Korea simply puts further strains on an already shaky relationship.

All of this tension should be kept in context, however. The danger of military confrontation on the peninsula is fairly remote, simply because the North cannot escape the devastating consequences of an attack. Firing a nuclear-tipped missile at Japan or the U.S., if and when capable, is also an extremely remote possibility; it would mean the annihilation of the regime.

Kim and his advisers should not be misread as irrational or suicidal. Comments regarding the defensive nature of their burgeoning nuclear threat should not be underestimated.

Sooner or later the regional pendulum will shift and the Kim regime, or some variant of its successors, will feel confident again through this recent display of relative military might. They will inevitably realize that talks are the best alternative among a rapidly diminishing set of options to achieve the security and recognition they crave.

Brian Klein is an international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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