Sunday, July 27, 2008

Is America Responsible for North Korea's Bad Behavior?

North Korea experienced a moment of ignominy when President Bush declared them to be part of the “axis of evil” during his State of the Union in 2002. Following the attacks of 9/11/2001, the world expected that the United States would be mostly concerned with hunting Middle East terrorists, but the US signaled that North Korea was still a pressing concern. American attention was potentially worrisome given the political bias in the US in favor of attacking perceived enemies. However, the DPRK gauged that President Bush’s signal meant North Korea still had leverage in negotiations with the US. Pyongyang had the attention they wanted from Washington but that attention was of the most menacing kind. North Korea was engaged in a delicate balancing act, wanting to improve their negotiations posture as they always had through brinkmanship and intransigence, but wary of overly provoking a newly enraged America. Although the international context had changed, North Korea still sought to put the West into the same old dilemma: “wanting to respond punitively to DPRK misbehavior, but being forced into negotiations to minimize the risks of a costly larger conflict.”(Cha and Kang, pg 88)

While it is true that the US toughened the diplomatic tone in exchanges with North Korea following 9/11, there was no substantive change in the behaviors of American forces on the ground. For 50 years along the DMZ, there had been periodic swings in aggression and conciliation, and yet a familiar stasis has prevailed. What had changed was the US’s newfound willingness to overtly overthrow hostile regimes, and the North’s avowed pursuit of a nuclear weapon. The rhetoric and tension on the peninsula during this period should be evaluated in the context of the other contemporary crises confronting the US and previous North Korean actions. As always, for North Korea to command the attention of the US, it was necessary for them to be provocative. Both sides engaged in posturing, but no one ever made an overt move that would have disadvantaged North Korea and forced them into “doing anything, even if it is high-risk, to arrest such losses.” (Cha and Kang, pg 71) The US was belligerent in other areas of the world, and this seemed to spill-over into relations with North Korea, but relations on the Peninsula were essentially as they had ever been. 

When the crisis of 2003 is viewed in the light of the nuclear test of 2006, and the eventual dismantling of the cooling tower of 2008, it seems that the crisis was less an event onto itself, and more part of the overall negotiating strategy of the North Koreans. Trying to evaluate the crisis of 2003 is like evaluating any negotiation in medias res. It is not until after the end-game that one can evaluate the effectiveness of a particular intermediate tactic. American actions in the run-up to 2003 may have seemed reckless but with the apparent dismantling of the DPRK nuclear program, those actions can now be seen as measured and prudent.