North Korea has the world’s attention this week with a planned satellite launch and a possible nuclear test. Given North Korea’s fascination with symbolic dates (launching several missiles on July 4, 2006), it is no surprise that the satellite launch, set for Thursday through Monday, along with the nuclear test, comes during the week of the 100th birthday celebration of the nation’s founding father, Kim Il Sung. North Korea seems to want to paint a bold image of itself during this year when it has defined itself as a “strong and prosperous nation.”
These plans have secured North Korea’s goal of remaining relevant in the world spotlight — especially on the same weekend that the international community will be busy holding denuclearization talks with Iran. While North Korea wants to be seen as a world power, it also uses this as a propaganda tool to achieve its second goal: solidify its image before its people.
However, a byproduct of North Korea’s provocative behavior is further isolation from the world.
Interestingly, isolation may be North Korea’s third objective. It affords North Korea time to focus on regime stability and to assess the changing political landscape in the U.S. and South Korea. Both the U.S. and South Korea will have presidential elections this year, and just as the world has scrutinized Kim Jong Un as he assumes his new leadership role, North Korea will also be watching for shifts in U.S. and South Korean policy under any new leadership. In addition, North Korea will be able to take careful notes on how the international community approaches denuclearization talks with Iran. So, perhaps warnings of isolation may be just the response North Korea wants during a sensitive transitional period for its untested young leader.
Although the goal of isolation risks desperately needed U.S. food aid, the intended recipients of that aid (the vulnerable and oppressed populations) are not at the negotiating table. So it is no surprise that when President Barack Obama and U.S. officials warned North Korea about the repercussions of a satellite launch, those most affected by a potential food shortage did not hear those messages. Media and information are controlled by the North Korean government. But even if the most vulnerable knew that the government’s recalcitrant plans were jeopardizing their food aid, the regime is well-aware that this unarmed population does not pose a threat and does not have a collective voice to demand change.
Meanwhile, the government and elite remain unmoved. Why? In short, threats of isolation or the cancellation of a food aid deal with the U.S. do not affect them; they are the small percentage of people who control North Korea, live comfortably by North Korean standards and enjoy a coveted place in the stringent hierarchy of society. Perhaps the elite’s main concern is maintaining membership in this privileged group, while the government is concerned with solidifying power after Kim Jong Il’s sudden death. Toeing the party line may take precedence, especially during a time of political transition. So for now, there may be more incentive for regime loyalists to rally around and carry out this satellite launch than to worry about a starving population that they have no personal or familial connection to.
So it appears that North Korea may, once again, be heading exactly where it wants — down a long, lonely road toward further isolation.
But is the international community somehow complicit in allowing North Korea to achieve this goal? On the one hand, it must respond to any threat of regional instability from North Korea. But perhaps a satellite launch should not justify, by itself, the cancellation of a negotiated U.S. food aid program. The U.S. now claims that the satellite launch purportedly demonstrates North Korea’s inability to allow food aid monitoring. America maintains this position in spite of the United Nations World Food Program’s successful food aid program in North Korea as well as the improved standards that the U.S. reached with North Korea under their recent food aid agreement. What people should not lose sight of is that these types of programs have the proven track record of forcing North Korea to remain engaged and leave its comfort zone of isolation.
Perhaps what the international community may want to consider is North Korea’s third goal: isolation. What does further isolating the isolated achieve? Given North Korea’s status quo, isolation is not really punishment for those in charge. Nor is withholding food aid. Instead, it only buys the North Korean government time to strategize, while prolonging the suffering of its vulnerable citizens.
Dorothy Stuehmke was a former U.S. Agency for International Development senior adviser to the U.S.-North Korea food aid program and served in the Office of Korean Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. She has traveled to North Korea nine times for the U.S. government.