Pyongyang Has a Strategy--Do We?

For the past two decades, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) has followed a focused and abiding nuclear strategy. The objectives of that strategy are simple and straightforward, yet utterly revolutionary: 1) to develop and amass a credible North Korean nuclear arsenal; and 2) to normalize the idea within the "international community" of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.

Under a succession of American presidencies (Bush I, Clinton, Bush II) the North Korean government has made irrevocable--sometimes halting, but always irrevocable--progress toward these overarching objectives. Now, on President Obama's watch, it has just taken another momentous step toward consolidating its position as a permanent possessor of atomic weaponry.

Last weekend's atomic test--Pyongyang's second attempted nuclear explosion thus far--was an absolutely logical, and indeed a necessary, measure for a regime intent upon methodically perfecting the capability for a nuclear strike. For all of the predictable and by now familiar international dithering about "provocative" and "destabilizing" actions by the North Korean government, it could scarcely be clearer that the North Korean government itself regards its latest nuclear move as manifestly serving its own vital interests.

Taking North Korea's strategy seriously would require America and her allies to recognize a few unpleasant facts in our attempts to "engage" the Kim Jong Il regime.

What is not yet clear, however, is whether the new team in Washington recognizes that it is facing an actor in Pyongyang that is possessed of, and guided by, a strategy--or whether the Obama administration is ready to devise an effective strategy of its own for countering North Korean nuclear proliferation.

Without rehearsing every sorry misstep in the hapless saga of West's tragic-comic effort to prevent North Korea from satisfying its nuclear ambitions, we may observe one recurrent contribution to this 20-year failure: a seemingly overpowering desire to treat North Korea as the state we would like it to be, rather than as the state it actually is.

This diplomatic variant of condescension may at times have been engendered by high-minded motives. In practice, however, it has accounted for an almost unending series of miscalculations and blunders in our dealings with Pyongyang. Our performance against our North Korean adversaries is unlikely to improve appreciably until we do them the courtesy of taking them seriously: of understanding what they want from the world, rather than what we think they should want.

Taking the North Korean regime seriously means, for starters, recognizing two critical differences between the real existing DPRK and the imaginary North Korean state with which we would prefer to negotiate.

First: The real existing North Korean state is a revisionist state, that is to say, a regime deeply dissatisfied with the current configuration of the international chessboard and fundamentally committed to transforming it. The North Korean government has fundamental objections to the predominance of an "imperialist" world economy, to the "puppet" state [elsewhere known as the Republic of Korea] occupying the southern half of its peninsula and to the American security architecture that permits such outrages to continue. Second: The nuclear option stands as North Korea's best--and today, perhaps its only--hope for successfully pursuing any of its breathtaking revisionist objectives.

For its part, taking North Korea's strategy seriously would require America and her allies to recognize a few unpleasant facts in our attempts to "engage" the Kim Jong Il regime. The North Korean side, for example, does not want to "reconcile" with South Korea: It wants to annihilate South Korea's system and to absorb that territory unconditionally. Nor does the DPRK seek assistance from the outside world to "reform" or "open," China-style. In Pyongyang's own words, "reform" and "opening" are "honey-coated poison" for the North Korean system, potentially lethal dangers that could undo the entire DPRK edifice.

No less important, the North Korean side does not believe in "win-win" solutions with their designated enemies. Rather, they view offering any quarter to opponents in what they regard (perhaps not so unreasonably) as an international life-or-death struggle as essentially indistinguishable from treason.

It is all too apparent, unfortunately, that some of the key players in the Obama administration's new North Korea team--including some of its seasoned "Korea hands"--have yet to internalize these realities. Only last month, for example, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, the administration's special envoy for North Korea, was quoted in the South Korean press as stating "We ... believe strongly ... that everyone has a long-term interest--regardless of this short-term problem [i.e., the ballistic rocket launch], in getting back to the negotiations in the six-party process as expeditiously as possible."

That formulation was almost exquisitely wrong: Pyongyang's own interest is precisely in creating not just one "short-term problem," but an unending succession of them--and its "long-term interest" in the multilateral negotiation process will extend only as far as that vehicle can provide diplomatic cover for continuing North Korean proliferation.

Diplomatic interaction with Pyongyang, to be sure, can potentially serve the purposes of America and her allies--but only if such overtures fit within the context of a broader coherent strategy. When our diplomacy with Pyongyang has served as a substitute for strategy--as it did during the last several years of the George W. Bush administration--the results have been little short of disastrous.

Unless and until the Obama administration demonstrates it really has a plan for "change we can believe in" on the Korean Peninsula, look for further progress in North Korea's program of developing nuclear weapons that can reach the mainland of the United States.

Nicholas Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist and a demographer by training, is also a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research, a member of the visiting committee at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a member of the Global Leadership Council at the World Economic Forum. He researches and writes extensively on economic development, foreign aid, global health, demographics, and poverty. He is the author of numerous monographs and articles on North and South Korea, East Asia, and countries of the former Soviet Union. His books range from The End of North Korea (AEI Press, 1999) to The Poverty of the Poverty Rate (AEI Press, 2008).


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