Will Kim scrap brinkmanship?“Brinkmanship” commonly refers to North Korea’s politicking tactic against goliath United States, extracting fresh aid and concessions through nuclear threat.
Months before the U.S. and North Korea reached an Agreed Framework in Geneva in October 1994, the U.S. prepared a massive air strike against North Korea’s suspicious nuclear facilities. Tensions elevated to panicky state as the U.S. was even willing to wage another war in the Korean Peninsula and planning to send family members of American soldiers out of the country.
South Koreans stocked up canned and instant food as well as other necessities amid rampant rumors of impending military conflict. But Washington scrapped the plan at strong protest from South Korean President Kim Young-sam and instead renewed talks. It finally capped bilateral negotiations in Geneva after making concessions to Pyongyang.
The interesting part was North Korea’s response. Phobia against Americans is forced and inflated in North Korea. Pyongyang incessantly repeats propaganda that North Korea which invaded and soon occupied most of South Korea saw reversal of fortune due to U.S. intervention. Whoever has been to Pyongyang would have heard that North Korea had been entirely wiped out by U.S. air raid. The story is, however, sold to justify the regime’s extravagant military expansion and spending at the cost of starving its own people. Children at school grounds are trained to shoot or strike dummies of American soldiers.
But while South Koreans were panicking over the possibility of a war, North Korea remained strangely calm. It went to a contingency war state and upped loudspeakers to “fight and crush American imperialist,” but did not act beyond the clamor. It would have been well informed that the U.S. was preparing massive cruise missile attack. But Kim Jong-il and the rest of leadership in Pyongyang sat comfortably back as if daring Washington to strike if it could. It was poised to challenge Washington in a game of chicken.
Because it neither flinched nor swerved, it won over Washington and took home rewards in food and oil aid as well as pledge to light-water reactor in place for nuclear power plants.
On the other hand, North Korea lost nothing. It promised to allow international inspection and freeze and dismantle nuclear weapons facilities. But it dragged its feet in incremental procedures to finally break off the agreement. It instead accelerated nuclear weapons and missile development program. North Korea went on with its tactic, raising tension to wangle new talks with the U.S. and get fresh aid and rewards. Early this year, North Korea proudly described itself as a nuclear state in its Constitution. Its brinkmanship served the country well.
After a long stalemate, Pyongyang is gearing up diplomatic maneuvering against Washington. It renewed verbal attack against freshly re-elected U.S. President Barack Obama. So far, its statement has not gone beyond its official mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun. But it succeeded in getting the attention of the U.S. President. During his first overseas visit to Myanmar since re-elected to office, Obama mentioned North Korea during a speech. “To the leadership of North Korea, I have offered a choice: let go of your nuclear weapons and choose the path of peace and progress. If you do, you will find an extended hand from the United States of America,” he said.
Would Pyongyang return to its old trick? But its overused tactic no longer would work on Washington. Americans have played along the game too long. They have seen the overtures with denuclearization card too often. They stopped paying attention four years ago. The so-called “strategic patience” Obama referred as policy toward North Korea is just nicely-put wording for “sick-and-tired.” Its nuclear brinkmanship has expired.
So what now for North Korea? Diplomacy and security serve to uphold national viability and prosperity. Brinkmanship helped to defend the regime’s survival. But a regime cannot be sustained without prosperity. That is especially so for a poor small country like North Korea which does not have cash well like oil-rich Middle East states. It is a task Kim Jong-un inherited from his father Kim Jong-il along with the crown title.
The young North Korean leader has a long age to live. If he doesn’t solve the problem of prosperity, his as well as the regime’s viability cannot be guaranteed. He may be on the path by transferring authority over economic affairs from the military to the cabinet and strengthening the Workers’ Party hold over the military. Is he working on a new diplomatic tactic? We may have to wait and see.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kang Young-jin