[Viewpoint] Countering the North’s bluster

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[Viewpoint] Countering the North’s bluster

Through a statement by its Foreign Ministry spokesman, North Korea recently declared that dialogue with the Barack Obama administration would be useless and that it will bolster its nuclear deterrent power.

In another statement Saturday by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, the North also said the South Korean government has openly insulted the North and challenged its dignity and its political regime.

The North said it will address the situation with “merciless punishment,” rejecting any inter-Korean talks.

The hard-line statements were released on the eve of the scheduled Asian tour by Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea policy, and the second inter-Korean government contact over the Kaesong issue. Such timing has prompted confusion in the international community on how to read the North’s actual intentions and what direction they should take in their North Korea policy making.

The North’s uncooperative policies such as rejection of talks and threats to build up nuclear capacity are likely a part of its customary brinkmanship to pressure Washington and Seoul, to test their intentions and win concessions once talks actually resume. Although Washington and Seoul differ in their positions and interests, they probably both want to resume talks with Pyongyang and resolve the situation through economic rewards.

The United States - both in the Clinton and Bush administrations - ended up conceding to the North’s brinkmanship. This time around we will probably see the same. Washington will likely compromise with Pyongyang in order to stop the situation from deteriorating further. Although the Obama administration’s brain trust has snubbed the North, more and more people in Washington back U.S.-North bilateral talks within the six-party context and insist on sending a special envoy to Pyongyang to facilitate the release of two American journalists held in captivity in the North.

The Lee Myung-bak administration has said its North Korea policy will stick to principles, but it is clear that Seoul also desires talks with Pyongyang. The delay in joining the Proliferation Security Initiative and the attitude revealed when the North proposed contact concerning Kaesong showed such desire.

Instead of a firm stance that the release of the detained Hyundai Asan employee will be the top priority, Seoul may tone down its position. Seoul will likely try firmness and pragmatism simultaneously by strongly raising the detention issue while focusing discussions on the North’s demands and humanitarian issues. The North’s brinkmanship will likely produce a success for Kim Jong-il with help from Seoul and Washington.

The North’s hard-line policy is a double-edged sword. Winning a concession by using brinkmanship will allow the North to achieve its short-term goals.

On the other hand, the North may be able to achieve a larger goal if it employs a deceptive course of action. It is preparing for the second power transition in its history.

In a dictatorship defined by a personality cult, the safe establishment of succession is most crucial for the regime’s survival.

That was possible in the past because the roles of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il overlapped to a degree. Kim Jong-il was nurtured to take over from his father.

But under current circumstances, none of the Kims in the wings are likely to rise to be a charismatic leader. The North seeks to accumulate as many achievements as possible to back the successor, which means the current state of emergency and the plan for building nuclear power will likely continue through 2012.

The North’s brinkmanship will not end this time. Pyongyang will endlessly continue its deceptive efforts. In 2012, the United States will have a presidential election that will measure Americans’ confidence in Obama. At the same time, the Lee Myung-bak administration will end.

If Seoul and Washington want to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula until then, there is no reason for them to be played by the North’s threats and brinkmanship. There is no need to be played by Pyongyang’s deception.

Seoul and Washington must challenge Pyongyang directly based on accurate understanding of the North Korean regime’s characteristics and nature.

The U.S. and South Korean governments must counter the North’s threats confidently based on principle. That’s the only way to win the trust and support of nearby nations and their own people. Wisdom and courage are the best ways to disarm the North’s greed and deception.

*The writer is a professor of North Korea studies at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Yoo Ho-yeol
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