North Korea’s carrot-and-stick strategy

July is typically the time of year when North Korea makes peace overtures toward the United States. This is when it tries to rekindle expectations, reset deadlines and heal the previous year’s wounds. Last week, Pyongyang’s chief nuclear negotiator arrived in New York for talks with Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, calling for “reconciliation.” As if on cue, one day later, the Korean Central News Agency — the Kim Jong Il regime’s official news agency — called for a “peace agreement” with the U.S.

Just one year earlier, in July 2010, North Korea stated that it would “make consistent efforts for the conclusion of a peace treaty and the denuclearization through the six-party talks conducted on equal footing.” This announcement came the day after a U.N. Security Council statement that fell just short of directly blaming North Korea for the sinking of a South Korean naval ship that March. Four months later, when neither the U.S. nor South Korea took the bait to restart talks, Pyongyang ratcheted up the pressure by revealing a new uranium enrichment plant and shelling an inhabited South Korean island, its previous peace pledge notwithstanding.

So what to make of Pyongyang’s midyear peace ploy, consistently waged in one form or another since 2002 (save for 2006, when the Kim regime test-fired several rockets on July 4)?

In making these periodic propositions, Pyongyang is essentially asking U.S. policymakers to believe that its rhetorical peace trumps U.S. military deterrence, even in a volatile political arena like the Korean peninsula, where two starkly different systems have clashed over the last six decades in an existential contest for pan-Korean legitimacy.

North Korea’s latest peace offensive started July 27, the 58th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War armistice. Although this date is largely forgotten elsewhere, it is celebrated each year in North Korea as “Victory Day in the Fatherland Liberation War.” The Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, called for the replacement of the cease-fire agreement with a “peace agreement” with the U.S., “in order to put an end to the confrontation and conflicts and ensure durable peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.”

The annual “Victory Day” is a reminder of the unfinished business of the North Korean revolution, Pyongyang’s ultimate goal in starting the Korean War. In another article last week, the KCNA reported: “July 27 … was the day … when the army and the people of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] under the distinguished guidance of President Kim Il Sung defeated the U.S.-led imperialist aggressors to win the historic victory.”

History, of course, shows that Kim Il Sung, father of the current North Korean leader, recorded no such “historic victory” over the U.S. Yet North Korea still claims victory, and insists on a “peace agreement” with its “vanquished” foe. Why?

The answer is given in the July 27 KCNA commentary, if you read between the histrionic lines.

“The U.S. has so far interfered in the internal affairs of Korea as the direct party concerned of the AA [Armistice Agreement] and exercised the right to military control over south [sic] Korea.”

By characterizing the U.S. troop presence in South Korea as “military control” over “south” Korea, Pyongyang is implying that the U.S., despite “defeat” in war, is still unjustly occupying the southern part of North Korean territory. Moreover, Pyongyang is not-so-subtly blaming Washington for all contentious issues in inter-Korean relations as well as its bilateral relations with the U.S., while arguing that a peace treaty is the panacea that can cure all security problems on the Korean peninsula.

A peace treaty with Washington would dramatically advance Pyongyang’s long-held goal of irreversibly evicting U.S. troops from South Korea. Amid euphoria and political spin celebrating the dawn of a new era on the Korean peninsula, such a treaty would call into question the very raison d’etre of the U.S. forces in South Korea, leading to calls for their total withdrawal. In the short term, such developments would tilt the balance of power on the peninsula in North Korea’s favor, as Pyongyang would be far better positioned to maximize its leverage on political, military and economic issues vis-à-vis Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. In the long term, North Korea probably would be emboldened to carry out limited war against the South.

In the coming months, Pyongyang will continue to press for peace and aid by dangling the prospect of denuclearization. If history is any guide, Pyongyang is likely to resort to both “goodwill” theatrics and/or serious provocations to advance its long-term goals. The response by the U.S. and its allies should be to treat each dramatic “concession” by Pyongyang, such as cultural exchanges and family reunions between North and South Koreans, for what they are, theatrics, and to meet each provocation with tougher economic penalties. Above all, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo must stand firm in targeting and sanctioning Pyongyang on its multifaceted illicit activities — like money-laundering and counterfeiting — not to mention its egregious human rights violations.

By now, 20 years into the North Korean nuclear saga, it should be apparent that Pyongyang has persistently sought to gain the upper hand over its adversaries through periodic military provocations and peace ploys. It’s a strategy that North Korea will not abandon for short-term rewards such as aid or relaxed sanctions, and certainly not for the gift of a peace treaty.

Pyongyang’s idiosyncratic official statements, as incredible as they usually are, merit a close reading. For beneath the many false and outlandish claims often lie the Kim regime’s true intentions.

By Sung-Yoon Lee, who teaches Korean foreign relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He is also a research fellow with the National Asia Research Program, a joint initiative by the National Bureau of Asian Research and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholar.

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