Last week, Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory was invited to visit the North Korean nuclear research center in Yongbyon. He was shown a uranium enrichment plant whose sophistication and likely output is well in excess of what most experts suspected about the North Korean uranium program. Then on Tuesday, North Korean artillery shelled a South Korean island, inflicting heavy damage.
The world is likely to say that the North Koreans are again acting “irrationally.” But this is not the case — they are a very rational regime, actually the world’s most Machiavellian.
North Korean leaders are sending a message. For the last two years, both Washington and Seoul have tried to ignore them, so now they use both artillery and centrifuges to say: “We are here, we are dangerous, and we cannot be ignored. We can make a lot of trouble, but also we behave reasonably if rewarded generously enough.”
Since 1994, U.S. policy toward Pyongyang has been based most of the time on the assumption that North Korea can be persuaded and bribed into surrendering its nuclear program.
It is an illusion, of course: The survival of the North Korean regime depends to a large extent on its blackmail diplomacy.
There has never been a chance that it would surrender its nuclear program, which alone makes it possible to extract sufficient aid from the outside world. Finally, after two nuclear tests and a number of broken agreements, Washington has realized that no amount of engagement is going to produce a nuclear-free North Korea.
So nowadays the major hope is sanctions. Many in Washington still entertain the idea that a tough sanctions regime would make North Korea surrender its nukes — or, perhaps, bring about regime collapse.
It might take a few years before it becomes clear that sanctions will not work either. The major — but by no means only — reason is that sanctions are quietly sabotaged by China. China believes that domestic instability in North Korea constitutes a greater threat to its interest than the North Korean nuclear program, so it does not want to see Pyongyang cornered.
The news from North Korea confirms that sanctions are not successful. Dr. Hecker was impressed by the scale and sophistication of the enrichment plant, and the general economic situation — albeit very bad by the normal standards — has clearly improved in the last years.
However, the stubborn refusal of the United States and South Korea to provide aid and concessions makes Pyongyang leaders uneasy — not because they are facing an immediate threat of collapse, but because sanctions make them increasingly dependent on China, their only sponsor.
And this goes against Pyongyang’s basic diplomatic principle: Since the times of the Sino-Soviet quarrel of the 1960s, it has always relied on two or three sponsors, preferably antagonistic and hence easier to manipulate.
So the North Korean leaders decided that this was the time to remind the world of their existence. They chose soft spots of their adversaries (and potential sponsors).
The Americans were reminded that sanctions or not, the North Korean nuclear program is steadily advancing, thus increasing the likelihood of proliferation.
The South Koreans were reminded that their major city lies within the shooting range of North Korean artillery (and also that their economy is dependent on international markets, which do not take news of shelling favorably).
North Korean leaders know that they are safe from military retaliation — a large-scale war against the North is winnable but prohibitively costly, while small-scale strikes against their military installations would only kill common soldiers, whose lives are expendable.
So what can be done? The easiest reply is to hold steadfast, and do not bow to the pressure.
This may sound great, but this policy is actually quite dangerous. A few more years of doing nothing will mean not only more provocations, but also a considerable increase in North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, missile technology and, perhaps, proliferation. In other words, waiting is not a solution.
In the short term, the answer would seem to be negotiations aimed at freezing the North Korean nuclear program — for a price, of course.
It should be done with a clear understanding that negotiations, even if a deal is reached, will merely buy time and make the problems less acute.
So long as the Kim family stays in power — and it could be around for a long time — North Korea will remain a problem with no diplomatic solution. It survives by making trouble, since it has to make trouble just to stay afloat.
Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and the author of several books on North Korea.