Last week, the United States and North Korea announced a breakthrough agreement permitting the United States access to North Korean nuclear reactors. The agreement appeared to signal a significant improvement in atmospherics in the region. Japan and South Korea, however, made it clear that they were not yet prepared to allow the atmosphere to improve. At a summit in Tokyo on Saturday, Japanese and South Korean leaders indicated that the level of distrust between them and Pyongyang was still extremely high. South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung told a news conference in Seoul that "We must tell the North that it would be the North which would suffer massive damage if it launched [a] provocation."
More important than atmospherics, Kim told reporters that he and Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi had agreed that Tokyo and Seoul should join with Washington to create a tripartite agreement on responses to any use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by North Korea. Obuchi softened Kim's statements somewhat by emphasizing that he endorsed Kim's "Sunshine Policy," which sought to shift North Korean behavior through a process of engagement, particularly focusing on bilateral economic arrangements, designed to make peaceful cooperation more attractive than isolation or war. At the same time, while taking a mildly different tone, Obuchi made it clear that he is prepared to join in a trilateral military alliance.
In an interesting related development, Japan's Asahi Shimbun reported that the United States would conduct evacuation drills in South Korea next week. A key problem facing the United States in Korea is the evacuation of tens of thousands of non-essential or non-military personnel in the event of war. Asahi has reported that a small-scale exercise testing the ability of the United States to rapidly evacuate these personnel in time of war will be tested. This report immediately triggered a North Korean warning that the United States was bringing the peninsula closer to war.
These odd crosscurrents are precisely what North Korea is hoping to generate. As we have stated before, we see North Korea as pursuing a consistent, rational foreign and defense policy ever since 1991. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the shift of China toward integration in the Western economic system left Pyongyang completely isolated in 1991. There was a general expectation that the North Korean regime could not survive and serious contingency planning was undertaken in South Korea and elsewhere to determine courses of action in the event of a North Korean collapse. North Korea was fully aware of this planning, fully aware of its isolation, and fully aware of its vulnerability. It designed a policy designed to avoid what appeared to be an inevitable fate.
This policy consisted of two parts. First, North Korea did everything possible to make it appear that it was economically in dire straits and therefore on the verge of internal collapse. North Korea took real problems in food supplies and food shortage and made them appear to be outright famine. There was method in their madness. By convincing South Korea and the United States that economic collapse was imminent, the North Koreans dissuaded both from taking direct steps to worsen the situation in the North. By painting the situation in the North as desperate, they convinced South Korea and the United States that no further tightening of the noose was needed. Thus, instead of tightening the economic noose around North Korea at a time when neither Russia nor China would raise a finger to come to their aid, North Korea convinced everyone that with collapse so close, further action was superfluous.
North Korea went one step further. When South Korea and the United States began to think through the consequences of a complete economic and political collapse in North Korea, they realized that a rapid, unexpected collapse would pose greater problems than might be imagined. Who, for example, would be responsible for North Korea's debts on the international markets? Who would be responsible for preventing starvation and disease? The North Koreans created an atmosphere in Seoul and Washington in which it was not only assumed that Pyongyang's collapse was inevitable, but also one in which contingency planners found that delaying North Korea's collapse until, if not a more opportune time, then certainly until more comprehensive plans were in place, would not be a bad idea. Seoul and Washington, thinking about a sudden and uncontrolled collapse, actually started to pursue policies designed to cushion the landing. This was perfect from Pyongyang's approach, buying time and more than a little resources.
If Pyongyang's first strategy was to convince everyone that pressure was not needed to cause North Korea to collapse, thereby buying North Korea desperately needed breathing room, then the second stage of the policy was to convince the world that North Korea retained the military capability to cause frightful problems if they were pressed too hard. This policy consisted of two discrete stages. In the first stage, running the first half of the 1991-1999 period, the emphasis was on North Korea's conventional threat to South. North Korea staged constant military exercises along the DMZ, many frightfully realistic. It carried out extensive special operations and generally maintained a level of military tension short of seriously threatening war but never leaving anyone in peace.
The second part of the strategy was to seriously pursue weapons of mass destruction. The goal was the same as with conventional warfare: to create a general sense of insecurity without triggering a response. Two valuable results flowed from this policy. First, fears arose in the region, and even in the United States, about North Korea's ability to unleash weapons of mass destruction. The goal was not necessarily to build these weapons (although that was desirable) but to create a general uncertainty as to whether these weapons had been built. That uncertainty would limit outside efforts to destabilize the regime and deter military operations. A second outcome was that it compelled South Korea, the United States and even Japan to try to find "carrots" with which to dissuade North Korea from developing and using those weapons.
In other words, if North Korea might have weapons of mass destruction, then using sticks on North Korea was extremely dangerous. This meant that only incentives could be used, which was precisely what North Korea wanted in the first place. The incentives helped stabilize North Korea's economy. In effect the two strategies flowed together. In schematic form, here is what happened:
1: North Korea finds itself isolated and vulnerable.
2: North Korea convinces the world that it is on the verge of collapse.
3: North Korea is believed and steps are taken to cushion the fall.
4: North Korea convinces the world that being on the brink of collapse and in the grip of an irrational ruling class willing to do anything to survive, any action by outsiders designed to hasten that decline could lead to dangerous and irrational behavior on North Korea's part.
5: North Korea convinces the world that it may have weapons of mass destruction capable of destroying Seoul, Tokyo and, who knows, Los Angeles.
6: North Korea bluffs adversaries into providing more resources.
As a result, rather than isolating and strangling the North Korean regime, South Korea, Japan and the United States become obsessed with persuading the North Korean regime from using its weapons of mass destruction. Since the North Koreans are irrational and desperate, nothing must be done to frighten them into action. The regime's survival must not be an issue. The only threats are made against North Korea are directed against their weapons of mass destruction. Sunshine Policies are pursued to stabilize the North Korean government and convince them that cooperation is more profitable than conflict. The three significant powers, the United States, Japan and South Korea, confine their threats to the use of WMD, while indicating that they are open to economic relations.
The winner is North Korea, game, set and match.
The only thing that North Korea wanted to do was to survive until the international climate shifted. Extensive Russian and North Korean talks were held last week. China and the United States are rapidly moving toward hostility. Suddenly, North Korea may not remain isolated. Certainly, no one is planning any longer on a sudden collapse in Pyongyang. Summit meetings are held to meet the North Korean threat and to continue the policy of constructive engagement. So long as the issue on the table is whether North Korea will or won't attack, North Korea has won, because the issue on the table is not whether North Korea will survive.
North Korea is a perfectly rational state that has no intention of using its weapons of mass destruction, assuming it has them. It has wanted to persuade the world that it was, sequentially, weak, crazy and deadly. It has done that. Now, as the world shifts from the post-cold war world to the post-post cold war world, the real issue on the North Korean agenda is developing good relations with Russia and China. Let South Korea, Japan and the United States obsess over North Korean weaponry. The real issue for North Korea is mutual defense agreements with Moscow and Beijing. North Korea liked the Cold War. Seoul, Tokyo and Washington are obsessing over the last era's issues. They are missing the emerging issue.