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Five myths about North Korea

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By Victor D. Cha
Friday, December 10, 2010; 11:00 AM

For years, experienced diplomats have referred to North Korea as the land of lousy options. That description has never been more apt than over the past month, as Pyongyang has made a series of deliberate escalations, first unveiling a vast new nuclear fuel plant, then shelling an island in South Korea, killing two civilians and a pair of South Korean marines. With tensions between North and South Korea running higher and higher, and America's options only getting lousier, it is worth taking a moment to look closely at what's happening on the Korean Peninsula -- and what isn't.

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1. The North Koreans are crazy.

They may be weird, but they are not crazy. Yes, the unpredictable, nuke-toting Kim Jong Il puppet in the 2004 movie "Team America" has come to define the real Kim Jong Il in many people's minds. But in truth, the country's diplomats are savvy and well-educated about the United States, and have an epicurean taste for California's red wines. In my negotiations with them as an official in President George W. Bush's administration, I always found them to be rational.

Of course, it is possible to be both rational and belligerent. In North Korea's case, belligerence is part of a calculated effort to win concessions of food, fuel and political recognition - an effort that has repeatedly paid off. A study I recently directed at the Center for Strategic and International Studies examined negotiations dating back to March 1984 and found that every North Korean provocation has been followed, sooner or later, by talks, many of which led to goodies for Pyongyang.

North Korea is behaving perfectly rationally, then - much in the manner of a losing gambler who increasingly takes on more risk. If you have "winnings" to protect (as do most countries), then you value the peaceful status quo. You don't fire off missiles every time you want attention, because you have too much to lose if the situation gets out of control. But if you have little to lose (like North Korea), you are more willing to double down (by taking risky actions such as lobbing missiles) to achieve some winnings. North Korean brinksmanship may be dangerous and escalatory, but from their perspective, it makes sense.

2. Kim Jong Eun is too young and inexperienced to successfully replace his father.

It's true that Kim Jong Eun, Kim Jong Il's son and heir apparent, is only in his mid-20s (we believe he is somewhere between 25 and 27, though we don't know for sure). But if the planned succession fails, it won't be because of his youth. Kim Il Sung, the first leader of North Korea, came to power in 1948, when he was only 36 years old. His son Kim Jong Il was anointed leader-in-waiting in 1980, when he was in his late 30s. In the North Korean system, where the Kim family is basically royalty, the idea is to pick leaders while they're still young, in hopes that they will rule for 40 to 50 years. Moreover, Kim Jong Eun appears to be surrounded by regents who will help ease him into place, including Kim Jong Il's sister, brother-in-law and a handful of loyal generals.

If the planned succession fails, it will be because the new regime is incapable of making the reforms it needs to survive. Despite Kim Jong Eun's Swiss education, there are indications that he is not progressive but rather a hard-liner who is associated with a revival of "juche," the ideology of self-reliance that dominated the country in the 1950s and 1960s, when the North was doing well relative to the South. Those who subscribe to this ideology blame the past 15 years of poor performance on a few piecemeal efforts at economic liberalization in the mid-1990s, reforms they regard as misguided and deviant.

3. Negotiations can get us out of this crisis.

Negotiations can contain the crisis, but only temporarily. Some pundits say that all North Korea wants is a return to the six-party talks (a suspended series of negotiations among China, the United States, North and South Korea, Japan and Russia over Pyongyang's nuclear program) or to bilateral negotiations with Washington over food, fuel and security. But having sat down with the North Koreans to negotiate exactly these things during the six-party talks, the prospect gives me deja vu. Such enticements have been part of every U.S. negotiating package dating back to the George H.W. Bush administration and have netted the regime $30 billion worth of assistance, most of it in the form of food and energy.

The dilemma for the Obama administration is that it knows Pyongyang wants to use negotiations to again extort assistance for its starving economy, but it also knows that Kim is not willing to give up his country's nuclear program verifiably and irreversibly. This is why U.S. diplomats often use the phrase "hold your nose and negotiate with them" in talking about the North Koreans - they know that discussions may bring an agreement and a temporary reprieve from the crisis at hand, but they also know that in time, that agreement will be broken by the North, only to be followed by another crisis.

So why do we keep renegotiating with North Korea? Mostly because we have no other options. A military response could ignite a war on the peninsula, resulting in hundreds of thousands of casualties. Trying to topple the regime by other means is difficult without Chinese support. And slapping more sanctions on a country that has been under U.S. sanctions for more than half a century may be a tactic, but it clearly isn't a solution.

4. China is the key to getting North Korea to cooperate.

China may have leverage over North Korea, but leverage doesn't work unless it's applied - and China has reason to be timid about exercising its muscle. The demise of the Soviet Union and, more recently, the end of South Korea's "sunshine policy" of unconditional engagement with the North have left the Chinese as Pyongyang's only supporters. President George W. Bush used to tell Beijing that it needed to step up and use its influence to push North Korea to denuclearize. The Obama administration has rightly continued that message.

But China's motives are frequently misunderstood. Many see its stance toward North Korea as deriving mostly from ideology ("China is supporting its little communist brother"), incompetence ("China does not know how to discipline its neighbor") or tactical maneuvering ("Beijing wants to keep the United States preoccupied with North Korea while China grows stronger" and "China likes having North Korea as a buffer between itself and South Korea").

While there is some truth to each of these perceptions, Beijing faces a deeper dilemma. Yes, China can cut off oil supplies to try to pressure Pyongyang. But because they are the only ones helping the North, China's leaders are afraid that such a move would collapse the regime and send millions of starving refugees flooding over its border. The Chinese have no easy way of determining how much pressure they should use, so they remain paralyzed, making ineffectual gestures (Chinese diplomat Dai Bingguo's visit to Pyongyang last week falls in this category) and issuing meaningless calls for calm.

5. Since Korean unification is not in any regional power's interests, the North will continue to muddle along.

For the past decade, the fear of chaos following a North Korean collapse led many experts and diplomats in Asia and the United States to conclude that unification was too dangerous to pursue. Instead, they supported gradual engagement, with the hope that reforms might lead to a "soft landing" that would eventually reintegrate the two Koreas. However, as North Korea grows more belligerent, as its nuclear ambitions advance and as Kim Jong Il's health deteriorates, more observers have started thinking seriously about unification as the only real long-term solution.

In South Korea, President Lee Myung-bak has lectured his nation on the need to be prepared for such an eventuality and has even proposed a unification tax, to be levied on South Korean income today to help cover the costs of future unification. Seoul's Unification Ministry, which used to be the designated agency for economic handouts to the North, is now using its funds to support Davos-style international conferences to educate Koreans and people around the world about the benefits of unification. Last year, President Obama and Lee issued a joint statement calling for a united Korea that is free and at peace. Japan and Russia, which traditionally had reservations about unification, have also come to see the North's current path as potentially more costly and threatening than unification.

As a result, China is increasingly alone in clinging to the idea of a divided peninsula.

Victor D. Cha is a professor at Georgetown University and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served on the National Security Council staff as director of Asian affairs during the George W. Bush administration.


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