Viewpoint: What does Pyongyang want?

File photo: Kim Jong-un, 25 April 2013 After North-South talks were aborted, Pyongyang's next move is unclear

In recent months North Korea has conducted its third nuclear test, threatened attacks on regional targets, offered and then scrapped high-level talks with Seoul and, most recently, suggested talks with the US. Dr John Swenson-Wright of Chatham House looks at what is driving Pyongyang's actions.

Following the abrupt cancellation last week of planned talks in Seoul between the two Koreas - what would have been the first formal bilateral ministerial negotiations since 2007 - it remains unclear what the prospects are for an improvement in ties.

Ostensibly, the talks foundered on the failure of the two sides to agree on the status of their respective delegation heads, but it is possible that Pyongyang was never serious about a meeting, simply using the offer of talks to demonstrate to China, its key political and economic patron, that it had adopted a more moderate posture.

Apparent moderation in this context may have been designed to offset efforts by Beijing and Washington at the recent Obama-Xi summit to pressure the North to give up its nuclear weapons.

If this were the intention, the North has failed to achieve its goal. Judging from the rhetoric of the US-China meeting, Beijing and Washington are firmly on the same page in calling for the North to denuclearise.

They have both upheld international sanctions to prevent Pyongyang from proliferating and made clear that the North's nuclear weapons programme is incompatible with the its economic development goals.

Increasing danger

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The North has used the spectre of hostilities on the peninsula to try to force the Obama administration to agree to direct talks”

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Since the North's test last December of a medium-range ballistic missile and its February detonation of a third nuclear device, it has become clear that Pyongyang - at least in terms of its weapons capabilities - represents an ever-increasing threat to regional and international security.

Most technical specialists assume that it is some three to five years away from marrying its missile and nuclear programmes to allow it to deploy a nuclear warhead on a medium-range missile capable of reaching US bases in Japan, Guam and possibly the west coast of America.

However the time horizon for nuclearising short-range missiles to strike at Seoul may be worryingly much shorter, perhaps as a little as a year or two.

North Korea's enhancement of its military assets may be, as it claims, a defensive move to bolster its deterrence capabilities to counter what it views as a hostile United States and its South Korean "puppet" ally.

However, the North's unusually belligerent rhetoric, and its high profile deployment of its military assets in March and April, suggests a more intentionally provocative stance.

The North could have as many as five possible motives in mind.

North Korean women walk in front of portraits of North Korea's founder Kim Il-sung (L) and late leader Kim Jong-il at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, 1 April 2013 The influence of former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il is still keenly felt in North Korea

Firstly, fostering a sense of crisis with the outside world is a means of creating unity at home, thereby reinforcing the legitimacy and status of the North's young and relatively untested leader.

Since his accession to power following the death of his father Kim Jong-il in December 2011, Kim Jong-un has consolidated his control over the key party, state and military institutions.

The visual impact and theatrical presentation of the nation united-in-arms also bolsters Kim Jong-un's political and reputational authority in the eyes of ordinary North Koreans, by directly associating him with the martial and guerrilla traditions of his father, and most notably his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the nation's founder.

Secondly, deliberately raising the prospect of war on the peninsula may be, in the view of Andrei Lankov, a noted Seoul-based North Korea watcher, a form of extortion.

The threats could be designed to secure economic and humanitarian assistance from the international community in return for a moderation of the North's belligerent posture.

Third, threatening its neighbours may also be the North's effort to divide the US from its allies. Historically, Pyongyang has used such pressure tactics to test the resolve of new presidents when they assume office in South Korea.

However, this approach seems to have failed, judging from the confident, self-assured manner in which the new South Korean President Park Geun-hye has managed the current crisis - a phlegmatic approach which mirrors the calm resilience of the populace in the face of the North's repeated provocations.

File photo: North Korean children eat lunch at a government-run kindergarten at Taedong county, south Pyongan province, North Korea, 19 July 2005 North Korea relies on foreign aid to feed millions of its people

Fourthly, a deliberately engineered stand-off with the international community has also allowed the North to justify breaching the terms of past agreements, whether by suspending direct lines of communication with the South or reactivating its suspended plutonium and uranium-reprocessing facilities at Yongbyon.

The latter is especially important since it will give the North the necessary time, once these facilities become active again, to expand its stockpile of fissile materials, allowing it to increase its arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Most important of all, the North has used the spectre of hostilities on the peninsula to try to force the Obama administration to agree to direct talks not merely on the nuclear question, but on a wider set of issues.

These include encompassing a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War (suspended at present by the armistice agreement of 1953), political recognition through the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the US, provision of economic assistance and the advancement of formal trade and investment opportunities.

The Japan factor

Washington remains opposed to such all-encompassing talks and has made it clear repeatedly that any discussions are conditional on the North initially complying with its existing obligations to freeze and ultimately dismantle its nuclear programme.

Additionally, the Obama administration continues to view international sanctions as a vital tool, arguing that the current restrictions represent a floor, rather than a ceiling, for measures that might apply additional pressure on Pyongyang to change course.

In this regard, the US has recently secured valuable additional support from China.

Japanese Cabinet Secretariat Advisor Isao Iijima (left) shakes hands with North Korean officials as he arrives at Pyongyang airport, 14 May 2013 Shinzo Abe's personal envoy made a rare trip to Pyongyang in May

Beijing has closed the accounts of North Korea's key Foreign Trade Bank and used the visit to Beijing in late May of Vice-Marshall Choe Ryong-hae, the personal envoy of Kim Jong-un, to signal its growing displeasure with the North's obduracy on the nuclear issue.

Sanctions alone may be of limited value in forcing the North to change course. Economic incentives are potentially equally important and here Japan may be an unexpected and important catalyst for change.

Prime Minister Abe's personal envoy, Isao Iijima, visited Pyongyang in late May to talk about the unresolved fate of Japanese citizens abducted by the North in the 1970s and 1980s.

Progress in resolving this longstanding issue would open the door, in principle, to bilateral normalisation between Japan and North Korea, and a financial settlement of some $5-10bn that would be hugely advantageous to the North's sclerotic economy and might persuade Kim Jong-un to compromise materially on the nuclear issue.

However, Japan's independent diplomatic stance has ruffled feathers in Seoul, where some government officials see Japan's actions as undermining the unified international response to the North's provocations.

Relations between Tokyo and Seoul have been undermined by persistent disagreements over historical and territorial issues, and a co-ordinated approach to North Korea may be a casualty of such tensions.


For the immediate future, the prospects for a major breakthrough in the standoff with North Korea are relatively poor.

The Obama administration shows little willingness to depart substantively from its longstanding de facto policy of strategic patience towards the North.

File photo: an undated handout file photo released by the Korean Central News Agency on 5 January 2009 shows a missile-firing drill at an undisclosed location in North Korea. North Korea routinely carries out missile tests

Newly intensified pressure from China may help to impress on Pyongyang the need for a change of course, but it will depend on how much direct pain is felt by a North Korean leadership historically jealously protective of its diplomatic independence and fiercely resistant to falling into line with Chinese instructions.

The best hope for progress may rest with South Korea, where the Ministry of Unification - the key bureaucratic actor responsible for dialogue with the North - has maintained a moderate, pragmatic posture in the hope of keeping the door open for future talks.

The forthcoming meeting of the Asean regional forum in early July in Brunei will be attended by both senior North and South Korean officials and may provide a venue for renewed dialogue, but it would be wise to guard against any immediate and dramatic breakthroughs.

North Korea is likely to continue to test the patience of the international community.

Looming in the background is the threat of another unanticipated provocation from the North, perhaps in the form of a missile launch or a border incident designed to raise regional anxieties and to reaffirm its historic success, notwithstanding its relative political and economic weakness, in determining the pace and timing of negotiations on the Korean peninsula.

John Swenson-Wright is Senior Consulting Fellow of the Asia Programme at Chatham House and Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, at the University of Cambridge.

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