The Way to Win the North Korean Nuclear Game

Hong Sung Ki, Professor at Ajou University  |  2009-02-04 18:25

Kim Jong Ils threats against South Korea are ever increasing. Although North Korean threats against South Korea do not make headlines, it is still necessary to plan out a careful and cautious policy by which to respond. Considering the fact that current threats against Korea are tied up with the future of the Six Party Talks, it is essential to look back and review why the Bush administrations efforts to denuclearize North Korea failed in order to avoid making the same errors again.

Resolving the North Korean nuclear issue is only possible if Chinas attitude changes or if a military solution can be used. However, a military solution is only possible when the exact location of North Koreas plutonium or nuclear weapons can be detected, which has not thus far been possible.

Hence, China holds one key to resolving the North Korea nuclear issue, not the Bush administration or Obama administrations. Unless China understands the importance of building a relationship with South Korea rather than the Kim Jong Il regime, the North Korea nuclear issue will never come to an end.

So, Why did the United States attempt to solve the issue with North Korea diplomatically? It is because diplomatic approach was the only effort, although unrealistic, that the U.S. could have made. The U.S., rather than confronting the limitations of diplomatic negotiations, held on to an unrealistic hope called the possibility of a diplomatic solution.

The U.S., with its unrealistic hope in hand, gave in again and again without being willing to try out a different strategy.

The Obama administration surely will be faced with the same problem. People may expect a sudden change as a new administration comes to office, but the fundamental problem will not change.

The Obama administration will attempt high level negotiations specifically focused on North Korea issues. However, the U.S. needs to remember that North Korea has been using the Six Party Talks to obtain what it needs to rebuild its regime. That is North Korean strategy: maintaining a safe distance, making others believe that they can negotiate while never negotiating. Many experts warn that the security of the peninsula remains in North Korean hands as long as North Korea remains a nuclear state.


The Obama administration is thought to be coming up with an alternative method for dealing with North Korea. That is most likely to include putting normalization of relations or a peace treaty down as a stake at the negotiating table. Although the future of the Obama administrations negotiating strategy is uncertain, one thing is for sure: the Obama administration will have to respond any time North Korea exhibits a conciliatory attitude.

For the Obama administration to be able to negotiate with North Korea effectively, the U.S. will have to utilize South Korean aid to the North. The Lee administration in South Korea has firmly clarified that there will be not any aid provided until North Korea shows a change in attitude. Now, North Korea is clearly using that idea to isolate South Korea while attempting to strengthen its relationship with the U.S.

Kim Jong Il has used South Korea as a loophole to discontinue the Six Party Talks. And now, in the context of the North-South conflict and a possible clash by the Northern Limit Line, North Korea will claim that denuclearization is not possible due to South Korean military aggression.

The Obama administration would then be in a dilemma. As much as the U.S. wants to halt North Korean proliferation of nuclear technology to terrorist groups through negotiations, the NLL issue has to be dealt with first in order to facilitate negotiations between the North and the South. Therefore what is important at this moment in order to minimize any possible chaos is for the U.S. and South Korea to cooperate and take steps together.

In order for the U.S. and South Korea to work together, it is essential to remember that both states have to avoid clashes of opinions and share a mutual understanding of each others national interest. Furthermore, the U.S. would have to understand that the North Korea nuclear issue will not be resolved just by giving, as history has taught us.

Then in what direction should the Obama administration and South Korea walk?

The U.S. and South Korea, while promoting the denuclearization of North Korea, would have to unofficially play on the merry-go-round with North Korea by tying denuclearization to the fall of Kim Jong Il regime. As much as North Korea has been making South Korea and the U.S. chase behind, the U.S. and South Korea needs to do the same to North Korea. In other words, the salami strategy or self-interpretation of agreements should be used discreetly to make the Six Party Talks ambiguous as to who is chasing who. It is an attempt to buy and use up some more time; Kim Jong Il is the only one that is running out of time, after all.


If we learned anything about North Korea from the history of the Korean War, we learned that North Korea does not give in easily and fights more aggressively when actually exceeding its true energy and power. During the Korean War, the U.N. gave up its military operations that could have brought the war to a victorious conclusion because the U.N. believed that North Korea was stronger than it actually was.

It was discovered later on that the North Korean military was at the brink of disintegration. Back then, U.S. officers just could not understand that ideologically empowered North Korean soldiers were not rational decision makers from their opponents perspective. At the present time, North Korea continues with that strategy. Therefore when Kim Jong Il strikes out aggressively because he is running out of time, South Korea and the U.S. need to make calculated decisions with their combined national interests in mind, and ignore the hyperbole.

The Lee and Obama administrations may have to play on the merry-go-round with North Korea. For example, let North Korea follow an isolating South Korea while strengthening relations with the U.S. strategy if it so wishes. Then, as the U.S. negotiates with North Korea, the U.S. will have to put the Norths better relationship with South Korea as a condition of progress.
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