James J. Na is a Foreign Policy Fellow of the Discovery Institute
North Korea has been a vexing mystery to the United States for decades. Because of its secretiveness and provocations, the regime in Pyongyang has long been viewed as erratic. This seeming unpredictability, combined with its military capability despite economic poverty, has created consternation among American policy makers. However, North Korea’s recent nuclear saber rattling, in effect a brazen attempt at extortion, and its sudden reversal of policy in concurring to multilateral talks are nothing new. While North Korea’s acceptance of multilateral talks provides a new opening to security discussions in East Asia, an examination of the history of North Korean behavior demonstrates that it has been remarkably consistent in its opportunism.
While the U.S. was preoccupied with Vietnam, North Korea actively engaged in destabilizing South Korea through numerous infiltrations, sabotage and acts of terrorism, including assassination attempts on South Korean leaders. America’s withdrawal from Vietnam and the subsequent North Vietnamese victory in 1975 further emboldened North Korea. It engaged in increasingly provocative actions, culminating in the infamous Panmunjom axe murders in 1976, in which unarmed American servicemen were brutally killed by axe-wielding North Korean soldiers in the DMZ.
Having underestimated the U.S. as a “paper tiger” since Vietnam, the stunning American victory in Desert Storm in 1991 was a tremendous shock in Pyongyang. The North Korean rhetoric softened, and its leadership displayed unusual willingness for dialogue. However, when the U.S. withdrew from Somalia, after the Mogadishu incident in 1993, North Korea became aggressive again. It began to play the nuclear blackmail game, and in 1994 extracted significant concessions from the Clinton administration in return for a largely unverifiable promise to curb its nuclear ambition (North Korea recently admitted to violating the 1994 accord).
When the U.S. became embroiled in another Iraq crisis, North Korean rhetoric grew more extortionate again, demanding further concessions from the U.S. But the rapid toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime has forced North Korea to tone down its rhetoric. Combined with a resolute stance from the Bush administration, the situation led to Pyongyang’s recent acceptance of multilateral talks with other regional players and the U.S.
Thus, the North Korean pattern of behavior has been rather transparent and consistent: When the regime in Pyongyang perceives American weakness or preoccupation elsewhere in the world, it becomes menacing and demanding. Conversely, when the U.S. appears invincible and confident, North Korea becomes cautious and relatively conciliatory.
North Korea has grown extremely desperate since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Initially, the regime in Pyongyang was a creation of the Soviet Union, which liberated the northern half of Korea from the Japanese occupation in 1945. The Sino-Soviet breach in the 1960’s provided an opportunity for North Korea to exploit the rivalry to extract maximum military and economic aid from both countries. When the communist bloc dissolved, however, North Korea became isolated, leaving China as its only ally.
China continues to exercise considerable influence over Pyongyang, because it is the only country that still provides North Korea with significant aid. Moreover, senior figures in the People’s Liberation Army maintain ties with North Korea even as China’s more reformist civilian leaders show wariness about Pyongyang. Beijing’s influence was demonstrated graphically when, in March of this year, it interrupted oil supplies to North Korea for three days due to a “technical difficulty” after North Korea test-fired a missile that increased tension in the region. Of course, Pyongyang vigorously protested this interruption and has demonstrated displeasure at Beijing’s “betrayal.” The fact that Russia, rather than China, made the announcement of the multilateral talks involving North Korea indicates that Pyongyang remains piqued by Beijing’s actions. Nonetheless, the reality is that Pyongyang remains dependent on Beijing’s largess for much of its food and oil supplies, without which the regime most likely cannot survive.
In dealing with North Korea, therefore, China is a key piece of the puzzle. While China is occasionally willing to constrain North Korea to serve its own interests, it has not been fully cooperative with the U.S. in curbing North Korea’s provocations. The U.S., of course, cannot afford to be unduly confrontational with China in view of other security and economic considerations (including, for example, Taiwan, which is a wildcard in the Sino-American relationship). But the U.S. could convince China to be accommodating on the North Korea issue by an indirect approach through the other major player in the region — Japan.
There is growing concern in Japan about the threat posed by North Korea. In response, the Japanese public has increased its support for a stronger military capability and for a more active military policy. The Japanese Diet recently passed an authorization to send troops to Iraq to assist the U.S., which will be Japan’s first overseas deployment of combat-capable troops since World War II. Furthermore, there are mainstream discussions in Japan about acquiring a nuclear deterrence. These are clearly undesirable consequences of North Korea’s actions from the Chinese perspective, and may convince China to reassess its relationship with Pyongyang.
To tackle the problem of North Korea successfully, the U.S. should pursue two simultaneous tracks. First, it must conduct dialogue from a position of strength. Continuing American resolution has already yielded a less antagonistic North Korea that has agreed to multilateral talks. This policy of dialogue through strength should continue and be reinforced.
One element in fostering the perception of American strength is the successful conclusion of the Iraq campaign. Another element is maintaining an agile military presence in East Asia, ready to respond to any provocation. In particular, the ability to rapidly deploy air and naval assets to the region can demonstrate American resolve (this will necessitate an increase in such a capability by the construction of modern nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and supporting high performance naval strike forces).
At the same time, it would be beneficial to maintain a single point of contact — that has the confidence of U.S. President George W. Bush — to represent the U.S. during the multilateral talks involving North Korea. Such a contact can convey a more consistent and convincing message of strength during any dialogue with North Korea. The act of maintaining a single point of contact for the discussions can also serve as a carrot for Pyongyang, should it prove more amenable.
Second, the U.S. can exert pressure on China to cooperate further on the North Korean problem by encouraging Japan to assume a greater regional security role. If China is convinced the level of its cooperation in curbing North Korea’s threats inversely determines the extent Japan assumes a more active military role in East Asia, it will do more to encourage positive North Korean behavior.
These two policy tracks — conveying a message of strength to North Korea while pressuring China to provide cooperation — are integral to containing North Korea as a regional issue and preventing its proliferation activities from posing a threat to the world.
Rear Admiral Platt was a senior Navy Pentagon official and is author of “The Armament Tide — Rearming America” (www.armamenttide.com). Mr. Na is a Seattle-based writer and analyst of military and national security issues.