At Large

No Pain, No Gain

With the North Koreans it's always back to square one.

By 4.24.09

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The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) may not be quite as opaque as Western press commentary would have it. But as the saying goes, it will have to do until the real thing comes along. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that the difference between North Korea and other countries is that the DPRK revels in the protection of its closed society while other totalitarian regimes make a considerable pretense at being open and democratic.

When Pyongyang wants to hide something, it does. It just wants to hide a great many things that other nations treat as open issues. Whether the subject is annual grain production or nuclear fuel production, the theory behind the North Korean modus operandi is that it is actually no one's business.

North Koreans have cultivated a natural inclination for secrecy -- not only toward outsiders, but also among themselves. These two factors alone, natural restraint and a tendency to hide the truth, are self-protection mechanisms of great value. Overarching these psychological elements is Pyongyang's certainty that the U.S. continues to seek the first advantageous occasion to destroy the North.

Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy, the lead negotiator at the original 1951-53 armistice talks with North Korea, synopsized the methodology of his adversary's endgame device:  The North Korean Communists "are not embarrassed in the least to deny an agreement already reached; [they] simply state your interpretation is the incorrect one."

Essentially this is what the DPRK is doing with the Obama administration. Pyongyang is rolling back the arrangements arrived at during the Bush presidency and restarting the negotiating (or non-negotiating) process. This means that Pyongyang is in a severe state of political and economic pain and withdrawing into its traditional shell on both offense and defense.

Such an action may appear to the Western mind as counter-intuitive, but that would be an incorrect assessment. Pain is a stimulus for North Korea's thought process. The concept has ancient roots in many parts of the world where an endangered people threaten suicide as a means to force their enemies to recognize the destruction they wreak. "If you don't do what we want you to, we shall just destroy ourselves."

So far the device of "starting, stopping, then back to the starting point" has resulted in the Kim Jong-il dynasty creating the time to develop its own uranium enrichment process, building perhaps 4-5 nuclear weapons, beginning an intercontinental ballistic missile capability and at the same time maintaining a well-equipped conventional million-man army. All this while the nation is generally reported to be undergoing disastrous privation.

North Korea's "Dear Leader" apparently has recovered from a serious illness, possibly a stroke. He must reassert his authority as clashes proceed behind the scenes working out succession. Kim Jong-il and his supporters have no choice but to initiate once again an aggressive denial of all previous agreements and the negotiations that led to them. Next a new low-level contact with South Korea is at hand. It's not surprising. What would have been surprising would have been if such a tactic had not been initiated.

The American administration is delighted with itself. The recent unanimous Security Council agreement strengthened existing sanctions against the DPRK for its missile launch and subsequent expulsion of both UN and U.S. nuclear inspectors. This, of course, was exactly what Pyongyang expected -- and needed. Its calculation is that the sanctions can be handled.

This new "pain" unifies the leadership and the citizenry alike while proving once again that North Korea must stand strong against the world. More sacrifice is the plan and rallying cry. Pyongyang's propaganda line is that any building of the DPRK's nuclear arsenal and intercontinental delivery system would be justified because the danger exists of an American/Japanese/South Korean attack on the North. The Chinese and Russian vote for greater sanctions by the United Nations is simply ignored. It is a plan that has worked before and there is no reason it shouldn't work again.

Yes, Admiral Turner Joy had the North Koreans well figured out over fifty years ago. The current White House will find there is nothing new about not being able to do anything concerning the DPRK's constant shifting of ground. But then it shouldn't think anything is being accomplished either by economic sanctions. Playing the game of pain takes a special type of toughness; that the North Koreans have in abundance.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.