Dealing with North Korea can be compared to playing the Japanese strategic board game of Hikaru No Go, but in three dimensions and within a maze. The tendency is to want to knock the board off the table.
Negotiations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) cannot be viewed through the same logic set that governs international negotiations in general. To begin with debate is an end in itself for North Korea. In this respect any accord that is reached is merely a part of the overall dynamic of the ongoing negotiations.
This sense of continuum tends to be hard for the Western mind to accept because it disrupts the traditional logic in settling disputes; that of a contractual mentality where matters agreed upon are set aside as finished products. What is the point of an agreement if every aspect continues to be vulnerable to reinterpretation, disregard, and even denial? Ultimately, however, unless an opposing party is willing and able to smash the North Koreans into submission — or at least ignore them at one’s peril — the only alternative is to proceed with negotiation by their rules.
Asst. Secretary of State Christopher Hill accepted this restriction and pursued negotiations accordingly. The result has been attacked as simply a repeat of the agreement reached by the Clinton Administration in 1994 that ended in futility with Pyongyang covertly creating a small number of nuclear weapons after pursuing a secret uranium enrichment program. How, therefore, is the new accord, albeit with a broader strategic context, going to result in something different from the earlier one?
This answer may reside in the altered role of China during the thirteen interim years. China, already politically dominant, is now recognized as the major regional economic power — competing only with Japan. Ironically this strength has been gained through the PRC veering away from its commitment to strict socialist economic principles. The North Korean leadership cannot admit it openly, but it no longer can consider China as the same fraternal partner it once was. Pyongyang, from its continued Stalinist perspective, certainly views Beijing’s eroding Communist dogma as giving impetus to China’s emergence as a nascent capitalist state.
For its part Beijing perceives the ongoing contest of wills between Washington and Pyongyang as now having a new formidable component in Tokyo’s intense reaction against the DPRK’s nuclear armament. Japan is no longer relatively passive in the face of North Korea’s aggressive behavior. In other words, the overall dynamic has been altered.
The North Koreans, in turn, recognize this change in the environment of the negotiations at hand. Under this new set of parameters is a host of economic, political and military considerations that did not exist thirteen years ago. What does remain, however, is the technique the North Koreans use within the context of agreement negotiations.
THE BREAKTHROUGH, SUCH AS IT IS, occurred through private unofficial meetings held between the U.S. and the DPRK, proving once again the importance of secret diplomacy. Later Pyongyang signaled at the formal six-power conference that they were willing — for the moment — to accept the specific offers of energy assistance in the context of future broad considerations of strategic matters. These included, among other things, full diplomatic relations with the United States and the intention to negotiate a separate peace agreement on the Korean peninsula.
China expects success in the next two months in the shutting down of the North Korean nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, as does most, though not all, of the Bush Administration. The Japanese are not nearly as sanguine, but have their fingers crossed. The Russians act as if they are just going along for the ride. And the South Koreans are cheering in hopes their enthusiasm will have a positive effect on their northern brother.
The DPRK desperately needed the proffered energy assistance and the Bush Administration needed this political win. But that accomplishment has come at the cost of ignoring the existence of Pyongyang’s nuclear mini- arsenal and advanced missile program.
For the deeply self-reliant North Koreans to give up their nuclear-armed status after having sacrificed so much to get it would be tantamount to national surrender and contrary to their historical character. The choice that the United States and China will have to make is whether they can afford to allow the DPRK to continue with its ploy of pretense. So far it appears they have agreed that there is no alternative in this potentially deadly game of Go.
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