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Victor Cha -- What North Korea Really Wants

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By Victor Cha
Sunday, June 14, 2009

"The Americans are serious," the head of the Russian delegation told the North Koreans in a meeting in Beijing in September 2005. "You see this? This is called a negative security assurance. We tried to get this from them throughout the Cold War and were unsuccessful."

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We'd been negotiating since 2004 -- the famous "six-party" talks featuring the United States, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and, of course, the North -- trying to hammer out an agreement that would end Pyongyang's nuclear program. The issue of the moment was a clause that had just been approved in Washington, stating that the United States "would not attack North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons."

It was a big step for the Americans, and the Russians, at least, recognized that. It meant that Kim Jong Il had finally received the security guarantee -- and the end to alleged American hostility -- that he'd always sought. But when the North Korean delegates later brushed off the clause as a mere piece of paper that did nothing to truly assure North Korean security, it dawned on me that things that seem exquisitely important to the North Koreans at one moment can suddenly become unimportant the next. Their demands and their desires can diverge considerably.

For years we've debated whether North Korea is willing to trade nukes for security, or whether it considers nuclear weapons the ultimate security guarantee. But that misses the point. North Korea's aims, as I've come to understand them through my years studying the country and negotiating with its diplomats, are much bigger than that. We need to grasp them if we're going to break through the current crisis.

Take the regime's nuclear ambitions. Even after long insisting that their nuclear program was ultimately peaceful and intended for energy, the North Koreans would tell Amb. Christopher Hill, our lead negotiator, that the United States should accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, like India or Pakistan. When we told them that this was not likely to happen, one official countered that denuclearizing North Korea unilaterally was tantamount to "stripping us naked." Real talks, the official told us, should focus on mutual nuclear arms reductions between two established nuclear powers, "you know, like you used to have with the Soviet Union during the Cold War."

North Korea doesn't just want the bomb. It wants to be accorded the status and prestige of a nuclear power. And it doesn't just want a security guarantee against a U.S. attack. It wants a promise that Washington will help prop up the current regime -- even in a post-Kim Jong Il incarnation -- should it start to crumble.

These goals help explain North Korea's rhetoric and provocations, which have culminated in a recent second nuclear test and last week's sentencing of two American journalists. But understanding North Korea's core goals also reveals how spectacularly unsuccessful Kim has been as he prepares to step down and transfer power to his son. And finally, it highlights the challenge and the opportunity facing the Obama administration. What the world sees as Kim's successful second nuclear test -- and our failure to stop him -- are actually the last gasps of a dying regime, materially and ideologically bankrupt.

It is easy for analysts to blame North Korea's belligerence on U.S. inconsistency. Pyongyang has dealt with wild swings from Washington, from Bill Clinton's affinity for bilateral negotiations in 1994 to George W. Bush's wholesale rejection of them in his first term to the hard-charging dealmaking of his second term. Sure, a consistent U.S. approach would help, but shifts from Washington are not what drive Kim to take the peninsula periodically to the brink of war.

Other observers consider Pyongyang's recent nuclear and missile tests to be an effort by the ailing Dear Leader (who suffered a stroke last year) to establish the North's nuclear status before he transfers power to his son and to secure his own place in Korean history, bequeathing to the nation the ultimate weapon against future enemies. Even dictators need to polish their legacies.

Yet I don't think that Kim's recent actions represent the final jewels in the crown he will hand his son. Instead, they reflect a desperate attempt to achieve a greatly scaled-back version of more ambitious objectives. Diplomatically, Kim's true goal may indeed be a deal with the West, not through six-party talks, but through a bilateral U.S.-North Korean agreement in which Pyongyang is treated as a nuclear weapons state.

The ideal outcome of this negotiation, in the North's view, is a situation similar to India's; that is, an agreement in which North Korea accepts safeguards and monitoring under the International Atomic Energy Agency but is also assured of a civilian nuclear energy program. Most important, Pyongyang would want to keep part of its nuclear program beyond the reach of international inspectors, serving, in the North's eyes, as a nuclear deterrent. The regime would certainly also want energy and economic assistance, normalized relations with the United States and a treaty ending the Korean war. But on the nuclear side of the equation, they want the global rules rewritten for them, much as they were for India.

If this is the Dear Leader's goal, as I believe it is, then he has fallen far short. Like a student who rushes through the exam before time runs out, Kim is racing against his own mortality to achieve the minimum he can for his son, rather than the maximum possible for his legacy.

Similarly, I believe the reason North Korea was uninterested in the "negative security assurance" Washington offered in 2005 was that Kim is focused on a more fundamental guarantee -- his regime's survival. North Korea recognizes its dilemma: It needs to open up to survive, but the process of opening can lead to the regime's demise. Thus, what Pyongyang wants is an assurance that the United States will offer support as the Kim Jong Il regime (or a post-Kim Jong Il regime) goes through the dangerous and destabilizing effects of reform.

Here, too, Kim has failed. He leaves his son with a regime that has neither reformed economically nor gained an ounce of international goodwill. Moreover, the sentencing of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling to 12 years of hard labor in a prison camp have put North Korea's human rights abuses squarely in the sights of many Americans who might otherwise care less about the quirky dictator.

One of the biggest obstacles the Bush administration faced was that every time Kim acted up, other members of the six-party talks would say that Washington shared the blame because it lacked the will to negotiate. Thanks to the Obama administration's initial overtures to North Korea, no one is blaming the new president for Kim's antics, and the administration is well positioned diplomatically to deal with these provocations -- as evident in the tough U.N. Security Council resolution passed on Friday.

But what ultimately are the choices for Obama should Pyongyang express interest in returning to the talks?

I have no confidence that the North will give up all its nuclear weapons in a complete and irreversible manner, nor do I think that Obama or any other U.S. president will treat North Korea like India or backstop the Kim clan and its offspring. That, however, should not mean abandoning the opportunity to negotiate. If the choice is between dealing with a dictator with a runaway nuclear weapons program or one with a program capped and under international monitoring, the latter surely serves U.S. and Asian interests. Freezing, disabling and degrading North Korea's nuclear capabilities is an important object of the negotiations, even if the stated goal remains total denuclearization.

So that's the playbook for the president. Since the talks will never achieve what either Washington or Pyongyang wants, they serve as a way to manage the problem, contain the proliferation threat and run out the clock on the regime. There will definitely be a mess on the back end when the Kims fall from grace. But planning for that eventuality with Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo today could help tidy things up.

Victor Cha is Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor of government at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He was deputy chief of the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks on North Korea during the Bush administration.

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