Regardless of rhetoric, there is little doubt that North Korea is not prepared to give up its nuclear capability any time soon. Although it might simply be a bargaining position, Pyongyang has even made it clear that there can be no such outcome until the whole world becomes free of nuclear weapons. That creates a new strategic reality – even if we do not recognize North Korea as a nuclear power, we will have to live side by side with it as a de-facto nuclear possessing state for a considerable period of time. While the United States is separated from it by an ocean, for Russia, China and South Korea there is just a river or a border. How are all the parties concerned going to deal with this country?
Although the risk of conflict has probably not increased with the DPRK becoming a de-facto nuclear power, a further escalation of tensions is a serious threat. Nuclear proliferation and the emergence of new regional nuclear powers also constitute serious threats. To avert such threats, the diplomatic process, even when seemingly fruitless, must be maintained. Additional pressure on North Korea would only be likely to result in further provocative actions by Pyongyang, including new WMD programs, increased risk of proliferation, and even military actions near the southern border (although probably limited) meant to discourage its opponents from stepping up the pressure. Such spiraling tensions, with the potential of leading to open conflict, should be avoided by re-engagement of the de-facto nuclear North Korea. The choice is between a hostile and cornered nuclear North Korea and a nuclear North Korea engaged in a search for compromise and acting responsibly.
The current cycle of tensions leading to the emergence of the DPRK as a de-facto nuclear weapons state started when North Korea became disappointed concerning the lame-duck Bush administration’s true intentions in the Six Party talks. North Koreans grew frustrated as their actual gains from the diplomatic process were marginal – they did not come much closer to obtaining substantial security guarantees. Even a largely symbolic (and easily reversible) “delisting” of DPRK as a terrorist state caused much controversy in the US and abroad, and when the US demanded new concessions in exchange from North Korea, they saw this as a breach of trust. As to the modest economic assistance promised when the accord was sealed, only the US and Russia actually fulfilled their obligations (200,000 tons of heavy oil), while other countries either totally abstained (Japan) or dragged their feet (ROK). For its part, the DPRK felt that its concessions were not fully recognized and valued.
“Hawks” in Pyongyang might have suspected that these concessions were perceived in the West as a sign of weakness and testimony to its pressing need to normalize relations. Kim Jong Il probably considered that the incoming Obama administration would not take North Korea seriously enough and that he would not get the regime sustainability guarantees he needed by continuing tit-for-tat bargaining. Pyongyang therefore decided to “tame” the new US leaders and “teach them a lesson”. The new message was that Obama would have to talk to an established nuclear state. The strategy of increasing tensions to raise the stakes was adopted…
Georgy Toloraya is Director of Korean Programs, Institute of Economy, Russian Academy of Science.
Recommended citation: Georgy Toloraya, “Engaging the DPRK: A ‘Deferred Delivery’ Option?” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 47-3-09, November 23, 2009.