(Commentary) North Korea: Where Do We Go From Here?

Date: 07-14-2006

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(This commentary was written by Charles E. Morrison, president of the East-West Center. It first appeared in the "Honolulu Advertiser".)

HONOLULU (July 14) - North Korea's recent missile tests dramatically illustrated the technical ability of U.S. intelligence to foresee and track missile tests as well as the enormous analytical gaps in understanding the basic political dynamics, motivations and worldviews underlying the North Korean actions.

Why does the Kim Jong-il regime, which rules one of the world's most destitute societies, seek nuclear weapons and delivery systems when this seems so at odds with North Korea's economic, diplomatic and security needs? Do North Koreans want nuclear weapons at any cost, as some analysts believe, or are their weapons programs designed as bargaining chips to gain leverage and to be sold for the right price, as others suggest? Why would Kim Jong-il make a special effort to personally visit successful Chinese economic zones early this year, but then order or at least acquiesce to missile tests that may result in economic sanctions? What do such contradictions say about the positions and relationships of various power holders in Pyongyang?

Why did North Koreans launch so many missiles and on the July 4th U.S. holiday? To send a powerful statement to the United States and try to muscle the United States into bilateral negotiations, as many observers believe? Because they really do fear a preemptive U.S. attack, as North Korean propaganda continues to assert? Or because they believed the United States might try to destroy their long-range Taepodong-2 missile prior to launch or in flight, thus requiring decoy tests and taking advantage of presumed U.S. preoccupation with the Independence Day holiday and the space shuttle Discovery launch?

There is much speculation but no definitive answers to such questions. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice probably put it best in saying that she would not presume to judge North Korea's motivations.

Whatever the motives, the results were a failure from many perspectives, North Korean and international. Most obviously, the Taepodong-2, designed as an intercontinental missile, failed less than a minute into launch. This confirms what the wisest North Korean observers, such as Ralph Cossa, president of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum-CSIS, suspected all along - that North Korea has hardly mastered multi-stage rocket technology. North Korea can present a significant thereat to its neighbors, but is not yet a direct military threat to the United States.

A second failure was for North Korea's bargaining strategy. If the missile launches were intended to pressure the United States into direct negotiations or changed policies, they have been counterproductive. The Pyongyang government also embarrassed friendlier countries such as China and South Korea, which had also urged it to forego the missile tests. We should not expect either government to radically change their policies toward the North. Their reluctance to take a tougher line is rooted in their own national interests, which would like to see an end to the nuclear weapons program but favor the survival of the northern regime, at least for the time being. They are also partly in competition, both seeking economic and political advantage from the weak Pyongyang government occupying the space lying between them.

The missile test represents a third failure - that of the international community, including the United States, Japan, China, and South Korea, to deter North Korea from conducting tests that the international community regarded as provocative.

Where might Washington go from here? The Administration did not over-react. It wisely refused to be drawn into another harsh round of bilateral confrontation, emphasizing that the North Korean nuclear program is a regional and global issue and initiating a new round of consultations with partner countries in the Six Party Talks.

Second, a quiet internal reassessment of U.S. strategy toward North Korea is in order, refocusing on the most strategic interests, which are to eliminate the nuclear weapons program and potential delivery systems, and how these can best be pursued in partnership with other key countries, notably China.

Even without a long-range missile capable of delivering a weapon to the United States, the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs remain dangerous to U.S. interests. They undermine the non-proliferation regime, accentuate arms rivalries in Northeast Asia, and increase the world's supply of fissile material. When the North Korean regime eventually fails, as it surely will, it also presents a "loose nukes" program. Given these dangers, the North Korean issue deserves a well-defined policy and higher, consistent level of attention in Washington.

Third, it may well be time for the U.S. to step back a little from the Six Party Talks, as repeated demands that North Korea return to the negotiating table only encourage North Korea demands for concessions to even talk.

Fourth, the dire humanitarian and human rights problems in the North are an affront to the world. They deserve separate, but important consideration in U.S. policy.

Finally, continue to engage at every opportunity. As isolated as the North is, it is also increasingly subject to foreign influences and by all accounts is changing. It has always been to the U.S.' advantage to encourage openness and change.


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