So what does the North really want?

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So what does the North really want?

In social science, graduate students learn about “Ockham’s razor.” Proposed by William of Ockham, a Franciscan living at the turn of the 14th century, the principle is this: Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate, which translates as, “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” This has been taken by theorists to mean that the best theories or explanations are often the simplest ones.

Applying this theory to North Korea, the simplest explanation for its threats and actions is the desire to improve its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Countries do not pursue ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) or nuclear weapons simply to accumulate bargaining chips. Pyongyang’s devoting massive amounts of scarce resources to such projects suggests it actually wants to acquire these capabilities and be accepted by the world as a nuclear state. It is unlikely to trade them away in return for international acceptance and a peace treaty with the United States. Missile and nuclear tests are opportunities to demonstrate, learn from and improve their weapons. Rather than “upping the ante” with the United States or seeking attention, as many analysts argue, Pyongyang seeks to build better nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may want better nuclear weapons, but is that all he wants? After all, you can’t eat plutonium. I believe North Korea ultimately wants a deal with presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Park Geun-hye, but not one that requires abandoning their nuclear capability. In later rounds of the six-party talks in 2007, North Korean negotiators would assert that the United States should simply accept North Korea as a nuclear state, much as it did with India and Pakistan, and engage in arms control talks, like the United States did with the Soviet Union during the cold war.

Doves have always maintained that North Korea is willing to trade their nuclear weapons for security. Hawks say the North equates nuclear weapons with ultimate security. But the record of negotiations implies the DPRK’s true goal may be a deal similar to the arrangement the United States negotiated with India. That is, an agreement in which North Korea is willing to come back under IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards and monitoring, but is also assured of civilian nuclear energy.

Most importantly, they would want to retain control of a portion of their nuclear programs outside of international inspection, which in their eyes could serve as their nuclear deterrent. This was, of course, the most controversial element of the U.S.-India agreement. Pyongyang would certainly want a great deal in return for these “concessions,” including energy and economic development assistance, normalized relations with the United States and a peace treaty ending the Korean War. But on the nuclear side of the equation, they want the rules of the non-proliferation treaty essentially rewritten for them as they were for India.

But that is not all the North wants. Apologists for North Korea often argue that the regime’s nuclear programs derive from insecurity. The small, isolated state had few friends during the cold war and even fewer after East Germany and the Soviet Union collapsed. When China normalized relations with South Korea in 1992, the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing was never the same. Pyongyang validated the apologists’ theories by saying they desired an end to the hostile policy of the United States, and they pointed to comments like George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” as evidence of this hostile policy. While virtually no one in the United States (or the world, for that matter) believes any U.S. president would be itching to attack North Korea (not even Bush), it is natural for a small paranoid state to have such concerns, apologists argue.

There is some truth to this claim, and for this reason the United States on countless occasions has stated it does not have a hostile policy toward North Korea. In “The Impossible State,” I lay out all such statements by the United States government from Obama back to George H. W. Bush. But this is not what the North wants. They want a special type of “regime security assurance” from the U.S. This is different from the negative security assurance given to North Korea by the Bush administration in the 2005 joint statement. It stated that the United States would not attack North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons. Yet this does not appease the North because it seeks a deeper, more fundamental form of protection for the Kim family and its cronies, which is more problematic for the United States.

The desire for this very personal type of security assurance stems from the fundamental reform dilemma that the DPRK faces, which I wrote about in “Foreign Affairs” in 2002: It needs to open up to survive, but the process of opening up could lead to cracks in the hermetically sealed country and precipitate the regime’s demise. Thus, what Pyongyang wants is an assurance from the United States not against nuclear attack, but that it will not allow the House of Kim to collapse as Pyongyang (partially) denuclearizes and goes through a modest reform process to absorb economic assistance and opening to the outside world that would come with any grand deal.

Where does this leave the Obama administration? America will never offer Kim a civil-nuclear deal like India’s, and absent any real improvement in human rights, no American president could possibly offer assurances to the butchers of Pyongyang. This means the responsibility of finding a resolution falls to South Korea. During President Park’s visit to Washington next month, U.S. policy makers will be eager to hear her plans for dealing with the seemingly intractable problem of North Korea. Ninety percent of U.S. policy toward North Korea during the Obama administration has been to stay in close coordination with Seoul. And since U.S. policy is “strategic patience,” the ball rolls into South Korea’s court to lead the way.

*The author is D.S. Song-KF professor of government and director of Asian studies at Georgetown University.

by Victor Cha
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