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North Korea: What next?

What are the issues surrounding the nuclear test in North Korea? What is North Korea trying to achieve?

President Bush branded North Korea along with Iran and Iraq as members of an ‘axis of evil’. The regime in Iraq has been toppled though this has brought neither stability nor relief from threats against security in other parts of the Middle East or elsewhere. If the aim of the ‘axis of evil’ policy was to encourage ‘rogue’ states (states that do not accept the normal pattern of inter-state relations) to accept due international process, the policy appears to have failed. North Korea, by all accounts, has acted with confidence knowing that neither the United States nor even China can do much at least in the short run, to alter the course of events in Pyongyang. China is constrained by fear of potential instability in the area should the regime crumble under any withdrawal of Chinese economic support. The United States is engaged in financial sanctions and will push harder. Any lack of effective international action against North Korea will be avidly studied by Iran and the political consequences noted. Both China and the United States have tended to use multilateral negotiations. The United States worked with the six-nation contact group and the Chinese supported this. We must expect that the Chinese are currently talking with Japan and other interested Asian countries. China, irritated by North Korea, but needing to balance stability against potential chaos, is the country to watch.

But what is North Korea trying to achieve? It could not win a nuclear confrontation with the United States nor can such a confrontation be considered likely except as an act of self-destruction, at some stage in the future. This would not seem to be the issue unless 'regime change' is on the agenda. The regime in North Korea simply wants to survive. Colin Powell hinted at this in his talk recently in Minneapolis. Survival and direct negotiations with the United States are also the subjects of an article by Selig S. Harrison in the Washington Post of the 10 October 2006. The debacle in Iraq illustrates very clearly both the strengths and limitations of American power and seems to have strengthened the will in both Tehran and Pyongyang.

Harrison’s argument is that the secretive regime in North Korea wants to coexist with the United States. The North Koreans are not engaging primarily in a ‘military challenge’ rather they wish to urge direct bilateral talks concerned with the ‘normalization of relations with the United States’. The regime does not wish to suffer the fate of Iraq. Harrison contrasts Washington’s view with the Pyongyang view that the denuclearization agreement had two basic elements: ‘abandoning nuclear weapons’ and steps to ‘normalize relations’ between the United States and North Korea. Washington focuses on the first point, whereas the regime in North Korea is profoundly concerned with the second. Normalization of relations would include the loosening of United States financial sanctions against the regime.

Harrison is clear that diplomacy is needed and in this case direct diplomacy as the perceived threat (generated no doubt by notions such as the 'axis of evil') in North Korea is from the United States. ‘Regime change’ is out of the question. The effort must be to both coordinate a diplomatic effort that includes China and at the same time encourage direct discussion between North Korea and the United States. Such disucssions should aim to remove the nuclear option whilst encouraging stability. Harrison’s argument deserves further attention. The bargaining elements for a dimplomatic settlement are available i.e. concessiosn with respect to nuclear policy and concessions with respect to sanctions, particularly financial sanctions and the added possibility of Chinese support. There is of course a bind in all of this: by creating the idea of an ‘axis of evil’ a set of expectations has been generated by those labeling and those being labeled that seems to have made matters worse. Getting caught by one’s own rhetoric suggests that with significant diplomatic issues, saying less may well be best.