By Ron Huisken (East Asia Forum, 6 June 2009)
In a fit of calculated fury, North Korea has undone the fruits of several years of negotiations, declared the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953 to be null and void, and promised ‘merciless’ retaliation against anyone that violates its unilateral definition of sovereign rights.
Subtlety and imagination are among the many things in short supply in Pyongyang . Policy setbacks lead the regime to press the only button on the console: belligerence. Even so, the latest phase of ill-humour is strikingly fierce. Why? Has one or more of the other five participants in the Six-party talks done something so aggressive or insulting that Pyongyang was left without a choice?
If not, then perhaps Pyongyang wants to be where it currently is, and has inflated lesser policy setbacks to the point where it believes they can serve the constructed appearance that the DPRK has responded to extreme provocation.
Back in October 2008, the Bush administration removed the DPRK from its list of state sponsors of terror and from the provisions of the Trading with the Enemy Act. This was done in response to Pyongyang having begun the process of disabling its Yongbyon reactor and reprocessing facility, and providing its comprehensive declaration on all its nuclear facilities (although the declaration had some significant shortcomings).
A popular line of speculation is that since that time, Pyongyang has felt increasingly sidelined and resentful of Washington ’s preoccupation with changing administrations, the GFC, relations with Russia , China and Cuba and so on. The DPRK, it is suggested, is simply demanding to be re-instated as the first priority. I don’t find this persuasive.
We also have a new government in Seoul that has dropped the (Sunshine) policy of unconditional engagement in favour of linking aid and economic cooperation to developments in the political relationship and, specifically, progress on denuclearisation in the Six-party talks. Pyongyang has reacted adversely to this development, not least by putting in jeopardy the joint venture in Kaesong . Again, this is hardly an adequate explanation for scrapping the Six-party talks, conducting a second nuclear test and threatening war.
An explanation begins to emerge when one recalls that in February/March this year, Pyongyang announced that it intended to launch a satellite. Pyongyang would have been aware of how provocative this would appear to the US and Japan in particular, and how close it was to being a violation of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1718, passed after its first nuclear test in October 2006.
It is certain that Beijing used its connections to stress the same points. Not only did Pyongyang proceed with the launch, it threatened beforehand that even a hint of protest from the UNSC would elicit strong retaliation. This introduces the possibility that Pyongyang was seeking to create the circumstances in which it could present the second test and its other actions as a response to provocation, that is, the fault of the hostile attitudes amongst its negotiating partners. The UNSC statement condemning the satellite launch-cum-ballistic missile test was precisely what Pyongyang expected, and sought.
The final piece of the jigsaw puzzle is Kim Jung Il’s stroke and, presumably, diminished confidence in his longevity. Many have speculated about a leadership struggle and portrayed the latest developments as part of shoring up support among factions of the elite, especially, one imagines, the military. An equally plausible explanation is that Kim’s ill health has already produced a new configuration of power at the top of the DPRK government.
Further, it may be that the consensus among this new group that the 6-party process would deliver too little to the DPRK, and thus needed to be derailed. It is even possible that the new consensus is that it was a mistake to agree that the Bomb could be negotiated away, that there was no imaginable deal that would leave the regime in Pyongyang better off than retaining the Bomb.
This line of speculation is reinforced by the thought that Pyongyang has a very limited stock of plutonium, perhaps 30-50 kilograms, and that the two tests have probably consumed 10-15 kilograms. The military may have agreed to the second test on the condition that the reprocessing facility be reopened to replenish the stockpile.
The task now is to discover whether Pyongyang still wants to negotiate and, if so, whether those negotiations will be about denuclearisation or some lesser objectives linked to coexisting with a nuclear-armed DPRK….
* Ron Huisken works at Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University