Agenda: North Korea Resumes Diplomatic Negotiations

6 MINS READJul 29, 2011 | 18:45 GMT
Vice President of Strategic Intelligence Rodger Baker examines the reasons behind why North Korea resumed diplomatic negotiations with the United States and South Korea.

Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

The North Koreans have unexpectedly re-entered diplomatic negotiations with the United States and with the South Koreans. This comes ahead of North Korea's special hundredth anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the country, and it also comes at a time it when Pyongyang is looking to take advantage of what they perceive as political problems in the United States and South Korea. The North Koreans restarted talks with the South Koreans on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Indonesia and followed up with the talks that are ongoing in New York right now with the United States. North Korea has been sitting outside of the six-party format, and in many ways has been sending signals that it has no interest to come back into negotiations for well over a year. Pyongyang's decision to come back into the talks has in some ways caught the other parties off guard. The question that many are asking is, why suddenly is North Korea doing this? Some of the ideas being postulated are that North Korea is facing serious internal crisis amongst its political leadership, that famine and economic problems are really reaching a peak in North Korea, but one of the main reasons that North Korea looks to be restarting things now is they're looking towards the future and they're looking particularly towards next year which is their anniversary year for Kim Il Sung's birth in the year they call Juche 100. They are also looking at solidifying North Korea's position prior to a more formalized transition of power from Kim Jong-Il to his son. The North also sees an opportunity right now, given the political situation the United States and South Korea. Their view of what's happening in Washington is that President Obama, who is heading into the beginnings of the next presidential election cycle, is mired in economic problems that the U.S. president really needs to have a foreign-policy action or a foreign-policy victory. Previous U.S. presidents from the North Korean perspective have at this moment of midterm elections used war; Clinton and Bush used the concept of war as a way to strengthen support for themselves. The North Koreans think that this is not going to be the way that's going go be benefit for Obama. If anything Obama has to go the opposite and they really only see two places that Obama could gain that victory. One would be bringing peace to the Middle East which seems somewhat unlikely, the other would be the potential to have a peace accord and resolve the North Korean issue, and the North Koreans are hoping to capitalize on what they see as perhaps a desire of Obama to act more quickly to gain this benefit. In South Korea the South Koreans are also entering their election cycle for 2012. The South Korean President Lee Myung Bak is not up for reelection, South Korean presidents can only run one term. As we've seen with previous South Korean presidents, and as the North Koreans perceive, there is an interest to make a lasting contribution to progress on the Korean Peninsula. The previous two South Korean presidents have both had meetings with Kim Jong-Il. We've already seen some feelers and quiet negotiations between the South and the North to try to arrange a similar meeting between Lee and Kim, and as the South Korean president looks at the end of his term, he's looking for a way to solidify his legacy. And in almost all cases that would likely involve North Korea and so these two political issues going on, the North Koreans think give them a bit more leverage, particularly over the next six months or so. The U.S. and the South Koreans are where North Korea's focusing their attention but everybody's keeping an eye on the Chinese as well. Most people view China as really the power that can, in many ways, turn on and turn off North Korea but ultimately, North Korea perceives China as more of a potential threat to its survival than the United States. China is a massive power, its always been a big population, it pushes up against the North Korean border, the Chinese have asserted their historical ownership what they claim over parts of what North Korea says is its precursor nation. There's a worry that in reality, if there was going to be trouble or conflict, it is more likely to come from China, it's more likely for China to try to dominate North Korea than for the United States to try to re-invade. For the Chinese, Korean reunification is not always even a good thing, because if the Koreans reunify, or in particular if the U.S. and the North Koreans sign a peace accord and maybe even move towards diplomatic relations, China loses its leverage and it potentially has the United States able to ultimately push right up to the Yalu River, something that originally brought the Chinese into the Korean War. So as we look at what North Korea is doing, China is going to be both wanting North Korea to reengage in talks and very concerned that the North Koreans have done this in a way that seems to circumvent China: they have gone directly to the South Koreans, have gone directly to the United States. The problem with the North Korean, U.S. talks, which is really the core of everything we are dealing with, is that neither side can fully trust each other and both sides have certain domestic audiences that they need to deal with. The North Koreans feel that they can't completely denuclearize unless they have full assurances from the United States that the United States is not going to be carrying out military action against North Korea - from the North Korean perspective that means beyond a peace accord ultimately to diplomatic relations. From the United States perspective, they certainly can't give diplomatic relations to North Korea without a verifiable resolution of the nuclear issue because it would backfire politically. And in many ways they may not even be able to give the peace accord without some substantial and verifiable progress by the North Koreans because again, it can lead to the president or the politicians being accused of falling, once again, for the North Korean's tricks. So we get stuck again at just how far the North Koreans have to go, how far the United States have to go; neither side trusts each other and it really always comes down to a question of: is one side willing to finally take a step that's a much bolder move than they've ever been willing to the past.

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