[VIEWPOINT]The talks are the North’s only optionNorth Korean National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il has again gone into hiding. Mr. Kim visited his military’s troops every two to three days in the first half of this year, but his whereabouts have not been known for more than a month since the firing of missiles on July 5. I presume that Mr. Kim has retired from the world for the time being, staying at a special guest house near the scenic Samjiyon Falls at Mount Paektu. He is probably contemplating whether to use brinksmanship or to cooperate with the South to block the United States.
In the brinksmanship tactic, Mr. Kim would escalate tension. The day after the North fired missiles, North Korea issued a Foreign Ministry statement that “if [the United States] tries to put pressure on our military exercises, we will take ‘stronger physical action.’” Judging from this statement, Mr. Kim would probably take used fuel rods from its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon to extract plutonium. And he could also dare to force a nuclear test.
North Korea has already dug out tunnels for nuclear tests in Gilju, North Hamkyong province. If North Korea moves a nuclear bomb and measuring instruments into the tunnel and connects them with wires, American spy satellites would detect it immediately. Then the whole Korean Peninsula would be confronted by a serious nuclear crisis, exceeding the intensity of the first North Korea nuclear crisis in 1994.
Consequently, Mr. Kim will try his usual brinkmanship tactics of trying to strike a “nuclear deal” with President George W. Bush of the United States. If he failed to gain what he wants, Mr. Kim could trigger the bomb and North Korea could be the ninth nuclear nation, after the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan and Israel.
The card of “cooperating with South Korea to block the United States” is a strategy of enduring the two and a half years left of President Bush’s term, hoping for a change in the U.S. policy on North Korea, while taking political and economic gains from the Roh Moo-hyun administration. With this card, North Korea has succeeded so far in making the South its advocate in international society after creating a crack in the South Korea-U.S. alliance.
The North has gained a lot through this economically. In the past six years, North Korea received $3.4 billion worth of economic aid from the South, which is bigger than the North’s annual budget of $2.5 billion. If Mr. Kim chooses to keep on playing this card, North Korea will stay away from the six-party talks for a while, and try to strike a deal with a new U.S. president from the Democratic Party, who would be inaugurated in 2009.
Speaking in a North Korean way, whether Mr. Kim decides to trigger the nuclear bomb or chooses to endure two and a half years of playing the card of cooperation with the South to block the United States, it is a matter of the “sovereign right” of Pyongyang’s leadership.
However, the problem is that both the brinkmanship tactics and the strategy of enduring three years will turn out to be big strategic misjudgments.
If Mr. Kim dares to force a nuclear test, not only the United States, South Korea and Japan but also China, joining hands with them, will put pressure on the North. Then, the North Koreans should be prepared to endure a march of suffering that will last at least 10 years.
The strategy of waiting for a new American president would also be a misjudgment. Recently, the position of the Democratic Party and that of the Republicans on the North Korean issue have changed.
During the North Korean missile-firing incident, the one who suggested launching a pre-emptive strike on the North was William Perry, who served as secretary of defense under the Clinton administration. In contrast, Vice President Dick Cheney, who is known as a hardliner on the North Korean issue, supported a diplomatic solution.
Even if North Korea succeeds in enduring until the end of the Bush administration and concludes a second Geneva Agreed Framework between the U.S. and North Korea, there is scant possibility the framework will be observed.
Pyongyang should not forget the precedent of the Geneva Agreed Framework, which the North concluded with the Clinton administration in 1994. It was discarded by the Republicans when they captured the majority in Congress. Historically, it was the Republicans, not the Democrats, that improved ties with Russia and China.
In conclusion, the alternative left for North Korea’s Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il, who has been driven to a corner by the missile-firing, is the six-party talks on its nuclear program, not the cards of the nuclear test or the strategy of cooperating with the South to block the United States.
If North Korea returns to the six-party talks, it can get guarantees of survival from the United States, such as the guarantee of the security of its regime, diplomatic recognition and economic aid.
I would like to tell Mr. Kim, “Forget about the secret fund frozen at the Macau bank and come back to the table for the six-party talks.”
* The writer is a North Korea specialist at the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Brent Choi