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Thursday, 2 January, 2003, 11:52 GMT
What is North Korea's game?
Poster of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il
Will Kim Jong-il's moves earn more aid, or a US attack?
As tensions mount over North Korea's nuclear threats, Korea expert Aidan Foster-Carter asks why the hermit state has chosen to ratchet up the pressure now, and what it hopes to gain.

Do they know it's Christmas?

North Korea's unseasonable gift to the world was to unleash a new nuclear crisis, swiftly and alarmingly ratcheting up tension.

Creating a crisis could be a bid to stave off unrest at home, as hunger continues to bite

As the US, South Korea and others in the region struggle to find a shared or effective response, one key question is motive.

Decoding North Korea is not easy at the best of times. That in itself is a Pyongyang ploy. An aura of mystery and a reputation for unpredictability are useful - they keep the world guessing, and nervous of provoking such a maverick state.

Blood-curdling rhetoric too is par for the course, making it hard to know when the North Koreans really mean it.

Brinkmanship is also a tried and tested tactic. North Korea tends to take an extreme stance before entering talks, so that that any slight concession is seized on by its interlocutors as a sign of progress.

Domestic factors

Nor, despite appearances, should we view Pyongyang as united behind the will of its leader, Kim Jong-il.

Earlier this year, North Korea showed signs of reaching out to the outside world.

But now North Korean diplomats are seeing those efforts in tatters - the EU is suspending aid and Australia has shelved plans to open an embassy.

This suggests that, as indeed they whisper, the real power lies with a benighted and inbred military, who have much to lose if peace breaks out.

For that matter, Kim Jong-il may himself be in thrall to his generals. Or again, creating a crisis could be a bid to stave off unrest at home, as hunger continues to bite.

Feeling the chill

Domestic factors apart, North Korea's nuclear gambit has mixed motives.

There is no reason to doubt North Korea feels threatened - in general by its own weakness and isolation, and in particular by a Bush administration which calls it names ("axis of evil"), has an avowed doctrine of pre-emption, and has shown in Afghanistan that it means business.

1992 photo of the Yongbyon reactor
Work has restarted at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor

Hence it seems logical to Kim Jong-il to amass a vast arsenal, by fair means or foul, to ensure he avoids the fate of the Taleban, Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein.

The truly safer alternative, collective security and mutual phased arms reduction, seems quite beyond his ken.

Equally, North Korea is desperately short of resources and has no other chips to bargain with, either to contain the US threat, or to win much needed economic assistance and aid.

So at least some of this arsenal is negotiable, as happened with the 1994 Agreed Framework (which froze the Yongbyon nuclear site, now being reactivated) and a similar deal on missiles which the US sought under former President Bill Clinton but George W Bush chose not to pursue.


But paying off Pyongyang is politically impossible for the US, even if it remains cheaper and arguably less risky than other options.

Provoking the US in its current mood... is risky at best

However, it is not clear that Kim Jong-il has grasped this fact.

Whatever lies behind his thinking, the timing is tactically astute. The US is obsessed with Iraq, while South Korea's new President-elect, Roh Moo-hyun, supports engagement and mistrusts President Bush.

Ratcheting the pressure

If the aim is to get US attention, Pyongyang has yet more cards to play.

One is to end its self-imposed ban on testing long-range missiles, or actually fire one, as it did in 1998, or prepare to do so, as it did in 1999, which led the Clinton administration into missile talks.

All this, needless to add, is alarming and perilous.

Provoking the US in its current mood - like a puppy knowing no fear of a tiger, to quote a favourite Pyongyang proverb - is risky, at best.

And it would be unwise to assume that South Korean and other regional opposition to the US' hardline approach is guaranteed to stop Washington from acting.

Time for talking

Meanwhile, those who favour dialogue have a brief window to prove it still works.

In 1994 an earlier North Korean nuclear crisis was defused when Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang for talks with Kim Jong-il's late father, Kim Il-sung.

Now, as then, a mediator might help ease tensions. This time at least three candidates share a clear interest in breaking the deadlock.

A summit with Kim Jong-il would get Roh Moo-hyun's presidency off to a flying start. Vladimir Putin has met Kim Jong-il three times and is keen to build Russia's role as honest broker in Korea. China too wants the crisis reined in, and covets the US role as the peninsula's hegemon.

China's new party leader, Hu Jintao, could prove his mettle in Korea, or might send President Jiang Zemin as an elder statesman.

But all this hinges on North Korea playing ball.

This time around, nothing less than full and verified nuclear disarmament will satisfy the US, plus probably a package deal covering Pyongyang's long list of other threats - chemical and biological warfare and the danger presented by its one million-strong army.

Is Kim Jong-il ready to deal, for real, at last? If not, Korea could be in for a frighteningly unhappy new year.

Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University

Nuclear tensions

Inside North Korea

Divided peninsula

See also:

01 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
31 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
31 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
30 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
29 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
29 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
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