What Does North Korea Want?

Bruce Cumings is a professor of history at the University of Chicago. Meredith Jung-En Woo is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan. (NEW YORK TIMES, 07/07/06):

NORTH Korea's July 4 fireworks display had a desperate quality to it, even by the standards of a regime that specializes in self-defeating provocation.

Whatever the original purpose may have been, it took exactly 42 seconds for this spectacle to backfire as the first stage of the long-range Taepodong 2 missile exploded and fell harmlessly into the Pacific. It is a telling metaphor for a regime that hasn't had a successful initiative in two decades.

Since mid-June the Taepodong had been sitting on its launching pad, a premonitory bird waiting to take wing — and hiding in plain sight. For half a century North Korea has known that anything above ground can be seen by American spy satellites; that's why the world's most remarkable garrison state has some 15,000 underground security sites. The missile was there for us to see.

Why were the Taepodong and the handful of other smaller rockets fired on Tuesday? Probably because it seemed like apt payback for the timing of the Pentagon's warfare exercises in the Pacific, which the North Koreans have taken as an insult and which they have been hyperventilating about for weeks.

The scope of the exercises certainly annoyed the North Koreans: eight nations, 19,000 American troops. But so, too, did the timing. The North Koreans claim that the maneuvers started on June 25 — the 56th anniversary of the day the Korean War began. (The Pentagon says that they started on June 26.)

For the North Koreans, only symbolism can fight symbolism. In the past, however, these symbolic conflicts have led to new negotiations.

Sound strange? Well, Pyongyang has operated this way before. Nothing was more provocative, after all, than North Korea's decision to kick out United Nations inspectors and, in May 1994, withdraw enough plutonium from its reactor to make five or six atomic bombs. After putting the United States and North Korea on what seemed to be the road to war, the reactor crisis took the sort of bizarre turn one can expect from engagement with the North Koreans: Mid-crisis, Pyongyang agreed to a complete freeze on the reactor complex.

The framework agreement of October 1994 codified this, and for eight years — until it crumbled in the wake of the administration's pre-emption doctrine and charges that a second nuclear program was up and running — the complex was sealed and immobilized with United Nations inspectors on the ground at all times.

What we also tend to forget is that the United States and North Korea almost had an agreement concerning intercontinental missiles.

Nearly six years ago, wearing a bright violet dress with a matching floppy hat, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright deplaned in Pyongyang to greet North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, and to, well, say nice things about him. What was she doing there? She was there to negotiate a missile deal, one that had been set in motion a couple of weeks earlier when President Clinton had met at the White House with Jo Myong Rok, a top deputy to Mr. Kim and the man who runs the conglomerate that builds and sells North Korea's missiles.

The agreement, which had the support of President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea, would have mandated the cessation of testing, production and deployment of missiles exceeding the parameters of the Missile Technology Control Regime — that is, missiles with a range of more than 180 miles. It would also have required the end of North Korea's export sales of missiles.

In return the United States would have provided some $1 billion in food aid to North Korea and moved the two countries toward normalized relations. Secretary Albright got the North Koreans to agree to stop selling missiles abroad and to give up their medium and long-range missiles, but they would not agree to enter the missile control regime unless President Clinton came to Pyongyang for a summit meeting with Mr. Kim.

While Mr. Clinton said he wanted to go, the drawn-out 2000 presidential election eventually made such a meeting impossible. North Korea joined the axis of evil. And the deal was dead. Since then, the situation has gone from bad to worse.

So what led the North Koreans to remind the West of its missiles? Perhaps it was President Bush's announcement in May that the administration would negotiate directly with Iran over its nuclear program — a move that led the North Koreans to call for talks of their own with the United States. In this light, North Korea's missile brinkmanship is not intended to scare us. Rather, in the ham-handed way that is Pyongyang's specialty, it is meant to invite Washington to make a deal.