[Viewpoint] The brinkmanship of Pyongyang

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[Viewpoint] The brinkmanship of Pyongyang


The recurring theme in the inter-Korean talks and dialogue between North Korea and the United States over the decades can be summarized as agreements that have separate understandings by Pyongyang versus those of Seoul and Washington. Almost all agreements were grand at first, but they later became empty words.

The Sept. 19 Declaration, agreed upon at the six-party talks in 2005, was a classic example. Only one day later, North Korea changed its mind, demanding that the provision of the light water nuclear reactor be discussed first, although the matter was agreed to be discussed during the course of implementing each side’s promises.

The group gymnastics at the Moranbong Stadium in August 1985 is another example. The incident took place during the inter-Korean Red Cross talks in Pyongyang. At the time, the two sides agreed that no propaganda moves will be made during the visit, but the North escorted the South Korean delegation to the stadium to show a youth performance.

At the stadium, however, a group of students dressed in North Korean military uniforms showed off their bayonet skills, performing as if they were attacking enemies dressed in U.S. military uniforms.

There are, however, some cases where the South handled the matter poorly. The July 4 Joint Declaration of the two Koreas announced in 1972 included words like “independence,” “peace” and “grand unity of the Korean people,” and it was a classic example of a South mistake.

Once again, the high-level talks between Washington and Pyongyang repeated the 40-year-old pattern of agreement followed by violation. The U.S. agreed to provide food in return for the North’s agreement to suspend uranium enrichment activity and missile launches as well the return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

The North, however, announced its plan to launch Kwangmyongsong-3 only 15 days after the agreement, claiming it is an artificial satellite. The North insisted that the satellite launch is different from a long-range missile launch, thus it was not in violation of the agreement with the U.S. The North went ahead even though Glyn Davies, U.S. chief negotiator, made clear to his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye-gwan that firing a satellite was also in violation of the agreement.

The North understands clearly that the international community will fiercely protest, but still decided to violate the agreement because it believes it can get away with it. First, it can stress that the agreement did not specifically include the expression “satellite.”

The North can say that the U.S. negotiator only spoke verbally that a satellite launch would be in violation of the agreement, but that it was not included in the written agreement - thus the verbal remarks are not binding. The North probably also thinks that U.S. President Barack Obama doesn’t want a worsened situation on the Korean Peninsula for his campaign for re-election.

The North likely has a strong belief that China will support it eventually. The U.S. and China would protest for a while, but the North thinks they will return to talks sometime after the launch.

After Kim Jong-il’s death, the North’s top priority is the stable establishment of the Kim Jong-un regime. It also needs to create a circumstance that will meet its promise to the people that 2012 will be the starting point of a strong, great country. To this end, securing food and holding military events are their best ideas. The North is trying to get both through negotiations with the U.S., even at the cost of toying with Washington.

If that’s the North’s intention, South Korea and the U.S. have no other option than “stern countermeasures.” There is no need to stress that the North has violated the agreement. They just need to warn the North clearly that it will have to pay for its violation and start reviewing a wide range of sanctions, including the suspension of the nutrition provision.

There should be no need for expectations that the countermeasure will change the North. It will be fortunate if the North decides to give up the launch plan under pressure from China, but if not, South Korea must make redoubled efforts to make sure its alliance and coordination with the U.S. will not falter. Ahead of elections in both countries in the same year, Seoul and Washington have often experienced discord. That must not be repeated.


*The author is a senior fellow of the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Institute.

by Ahn Hee-chang


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