[Viewpoint] Leverage with the North

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[Viewpoint] Leverage with the North

The spectacular failure of the latest missile test by North Korea is cause for puzzlement more than alarm. For nearly two decades, Pyongyang has shifted back-and-forth between apparent accommodation and bombastic hard line. This time, however, the return to confrontation has taken place even before North Korea could reap any benefits from an indicated return to cooperation. On Feb. 28, North Korea’s official news agency and the U.S. State Department jointly announced that the Pyongyang regime would cease uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons tests, and permit inspection of nuclear facilities.

This latest missile test quite predictably has led to immediate cessation of the planned U.S. food shipments. The test missile disintegrated in flight, providing monumental public embarrassment to the isolated communist regime. In the circumstances, the cautious public statements of President Barack Obama in reaction to the latest olive branch from Pyongyang are fully vindicated. Obama’s tough statements at the recent Seoul Nuclear Summit regarding defense of South Korea clearly were also justified.

How do we explain apparent schizophrenia in Pyongyang? Dictatorships encourage suspicion among their own populations and also outside intelligence analysts, leading to the bias of assuming coordinated planning. Considerable instant commentary on the missile test takes for granted that North Korean leaders have acted in concert. In fact, we may be witnessing an intense power struggle in Pyongyang, encouraged by the ineffectiveness of Kim Jong-un, the young, newly installed leader. Cracks in the facade of the regime provide openings for diplomacy.

Washington’s best course is to continue to be receptive to concrete North Korean moves toward reason, but also to emphasize the leadership of South Korea. The extensive business ties of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak can be utilized. Extremely limited trade between the North and South might be increased, in particular through the Kaesong Industrial Center just north of the DMZ.

Previous famine in North Korea argues for initiatives led by South Korea to expand nongovernmental donations of food and other humanitarian assistance across the divide.

Another war could devastate the Koreas once again, greatly disrupt international politics and might go nuclear. Additionally, the U.S. is engaged militarily in Afghanistan and other parts of the globe. Planned Pentagon budget cuts will leave even fewer forces for a possible war in Korea.

Over the years, Pyongyang has been effective at creating crises, sometimes approaching the brink of war, only to step back, usually in return for substantial economic aid. For Washington and allies, negotiation has been frustrating, at times agonizing, but war has been averted and stability maintained.

*The author is a Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”

by Arthur I. Cyr
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