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Is North Korea Playing a New Game?

North Korea may believe it has found a successful approach to getting what it wants from the United States. Its past pattern involves crisis escalation to draw diplomatic attention and subsequent entry into negotiations as a means by which to relieve the pressure. All the while, the North has accepted economic benefits without conceding the core elements of North Korea's nuclear capacity. This approach has worked with both the Clinton and Bush administrations. As the provocations and crises have unfolded in the early days of the Obama administration, many long-time North Korea watchers, including Obama administration officials who cut their teeth with North Korea in the Clinton administration, are having feelings of deja vu.

This is the game that North Korea played to great effect during the Clinton administration. But this time, American officials are all insisting that they will play a new game with North Korea: that the North Koreans can't sell Yongbyon to a new U.S. administration for the third time and that the Obama administration can't afford to enter endless rounds of fruitless negotiations with North Korea in which they face North Korean salami tactics of dividing other parties while providing minimal concessions.


If the North Koreans are playing the same old game, then the focus is on creating crisis as a means by which to draw the United States into a coveted high-level direct dialogue, effectively marginalizing the six party process and opening the way for United States to once again provide significant concessions and humanitarian assistance to North Korea. In this case, the United States will need to stand firm and alter the playing field to its advantage by insisting on North Korea's return to a six party process in which tangible steps are made toward denuclearization in return for a political and economic package that "normalizes" North Korea's relations with the other parties.


But what if North Korea's inward focus on politics surrounding the leadership succession has fundamentally changed the game in terms of dealing with Pyongyang? The characteristics of the new game include an aggressive fast-forwarding of their drive to secure nuclear and missile capabilities as a fait accompli in an effort to lock in their nuclear status. This persistent escalatory drive might serve both as a signal to the outside world not to interfere with Pyongyang's leadership succession process and underscore the accomplishments of the Kim dynasty, even as Kim's health continues to decline. North Korea's series of premeditated challenges in fact underscore North Korea's vulnerability: Kim Jong Il may be in a hurry because he knows that time is not on his side.


In this case, North Korea's top leaders are all inwardly focused, unwilling to pursue conciliatory measures toward external actors, and likely to prioritize internal considerations over a worsening external environment (as suggested by North Korea's handling of international food assistance and the Kaesong Industrial Complex), even at direct tangible cost to the economic benefit of the regime. Under these circumstances, American efforts to prematurely seek new diplomatic channels with North Korea are likely to end badly, and the other parties can only continue to underscore through word and deed that the viability of North Korea's external economic and political relations ultimately depends on its denuclearization. The only viable successor would be one who accepts that this is the case.


If the North is playing the old game, the new administration, intent on setting new terms for interaction with North Korea, takes actions to set a new tone and pattern of interaction with a North Korean leadership that increasingly realizes that time is not on the side of Pyongyang. Both sides test each other, but ultimately, the safety valve of renewed diplomacy works and North Korea adjusts to new realities and recognizes the necessity of following through on its commitment to denuclearization.


In the new game, North Korea's management of its own internal politics takes time and the prospect of external influences succeeding in influencing internal dynamics is low. In this circumstance, there is little that the international community can do through negotiations, and combined pressure might not only speed the inevitable but help shape the choices of a North Korean successor regime in a sufficiently stark manner that cooperation with the outside world will be perceived as the only option that can assure regime survival.


This opinion column originally appeared in the June 19, 2009, edition of the Korean-language Chosun Ilbo and is re-printed here with permission.

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