November 30, 2010 / 12:06 PM / 9 years ago

Analyst View N.Korea's diplomatic gesture and "rational policy"

SEOUL (Reuters)- The following is an edited version of an analysis by Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University, of last week’s bombardment by the North of Yeonpyeong island in the South and what to expect.

“Essentially we are dealing with a premeditated diplomatic gesture conducted in a somewhat unorthodox way ...

“The contents of the message were predictable and clear: ‘We are here, we are dangerous, we are getting more dangerous every year, and we are not going to remain quiet if you keep ignoring us. Actually, we can and will make a lot of trouble, but nonetheless we are also willing to negotiate a price for being reasonable’...

“For roughly two decades U.S. policy toward North Korea was largely based on the assumption that with the right incentives and payouts North Korea can be persuaded to surrender its nuclear program and generally moderate its behavior.

“However, after the second nuclear test in May 2009, American policymakers finally came to realize something which was actually crystal clear from the beginning; there are no incentives that the United States government can realistically offer which will lead to North Korea surrendering its military nuclear program.

“Such an approach is not a demonstration of North Korea’s alleged ‘irrationality’ or ‘bellicosity’ ... It’s quite a rational policy, actually, since North Korea does need nukes.

“First, North Korea needs nuclear weapons pretty much for the same reason that all nuclear powers need them - as a deterrent. Frankly, after the Iraq and Afghan invasions it is difficult to say that their fears of an attack are completely groundless.

“Second, it is a powerful tool of blackmail diplomacy and such diplomacy is vital for North Korea’s survival. North Korean leaders believe that due to their peculiar position as a divided country, Chinese style economic reforms are not acceptable to them. They suspect - perhaps, correctly - that in the case of North Korea such reforms are likely to produce an East German style political collapse rather than a China style economic boom. Thus North Korea is stuck with its anachronistic and inefficient economic system which cannot even feed its people.

“Therefore in order to stay afloat, the North Korean regime needs a certain amount of aid obtained from overseas...

“Third, the nuclear program is necessary for domestic purposes, it is one of the few things that the Kim Jong-il government can proudly boast about ...

“Fourth, to some extent the nuclear and missile programs are money earners since a certain amount of foreign exchange can be procured by selling technology and sometimes materials to third countries.

“The significance of the nukes as both a deterrent and the major tool of the aid-extraction diplomacy means that the surrender of such programs is completely out of the question. It has always been the case, and finally American policy makers realized this...

“It is often stated that the dramatic reduction in South Korean and U.S. aid, combined with international sanctions, has begun to bite and is now slowly pushing North Korea toward the brink of the regime collapse ... this seems to be wishful thinking.

“If anything, the food situation in North Korea today appears to be better than it has ever been over the last 16-17 years. However, the reduction of aid has had some political consequences which are not welcomed by the North Korean leadership: this made them almost entirely dependent on China as a sole source of aid...

“Why is this growing dependence on China seen as a major problem by the North Korean leadership?

“... It’s true that China would like to maintain the division of Korea and would also like to maintain the North as a buffer zone to protect its North-East. It’s also true that China fears instability in North Korea and hence is willing to provide Pyongyang with a certain amount of aid.

“However, even though China needs (or at least would prefer to have) a separate North Korean state, it does not need this state to be headed by the Kim’s family. On the contrary, many in Beijing would prefer to see a state that is easier to control, is less unpredictable, and would be more willing to conform with Chinese interests.

“After all, we should not forget that Beijing (with the tacit assent of Moscow) in 1956 sponsored a group of North Korean dignitaries who aimed to depose Kim Il-sung and replace him with another leader more agreeable to China. And we know that the memory of this event is still alive and well in North Korea’s Supreme Family.

“...So North Korean leaders need American and South Korean unconditional aid once again not because they are facing the threat of mass starvation, but largely because they want to curtail the worrying rise of Chinese influence over domestic policy.

“What to Expect?

“Since nothing of significance can and probably should be done, we can be almost certain that North Korea will get away with it without any serious implications - not the first time, and certainly not the last.

“However it seems highly likely that in due time ... North Korean generals will stage another operation of similar type and with similar political goals in mind. The Pyongyang regime will use violence to emphasis the same message: as long as the North Korean government is not getting its fair share of aid from Washington and Seoul, it is capable of inflicting punishment which on balance inflicts far more damage on South Korea than such aid costs the South Korean tax payer.

“....As long as the North Korean government exists in its current form it cannot change its economy, and as long as it cannot change its economy it is bound to follow a foreign policy designed to solicit aid from the outside world using centrifuges, artillery or any other tools considered useful.”

Editing by Jonathan Thatcher

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