South Koreans had just elected their legislature; meanwhile, North Korea was keen to make itself the subject of discussion, something that came as no surprise to observers of the region. Already the holder of a majority of posts inherited from his father, Kim Jong Eun became the head of the Chosun Worker’s Party, the only political party in North Korea. The date of his enthronement was not random: it coincided with the legislative election in South Korea and fell within the framework of the 100th anniversary celebrations for the birth of Kim Il Sung. The young Kim is now officially, no surprises, the strong man of the regime.
North Korea also stirred up the mix once again by reviving the nuclear menace, so much so that it completely overshadowed the South Korean election in the international media (which, with such a close result and just months out from the presidential election itself, would otherwise have been amply commented upon). This media gamble was clearly a victory for Pyongyang, and confirmed that the methods of the young Kim are going to be similar to those of his father. The April 13th ‘Gwangmyungsung-3’ launch was a failure, but the scope of attention given to its preparation showed again the North Korean capacity to menace its enemies, albeit by rudimentary means.
Since the formula had worked before, the new regime was never likely to hesitate to use it again. After the success (in the media, most certainly) of its first nuclear test in October 2006, North Korea had followed this same bargaining strategy to a second test in 2009. We should note the relevance of this second test, which verified that the first one really was a technical success. And since the second test was also a success of sorts, and if we are to judge from the restart of negotiations so soon after it then it certainly was, Pyongyang is now threatening to proceed with another nuclear test, which some analysts see as imminent (and which they believe the failure of Gwangmyungsung-3 might accelerate).
How, then, to negotiate anew with Pyongyang while taking into consideration the security threat which the regime poses to its neighbors and avoiding escalation at the same time? Facing this most perennial of challenges, several options have been selected down the years by the United States and others, but all with very mixed results.
However, among the real changes visible in Washington today is that the Obama administration now considers the North Korean regime’s actions to be rational, and excludes the possibility of it being any form of a fool’s strategy. This is a noteworthy evolution from the previous administration, especially in terms of the entourage that encircled President Bush and Vice-president Cheney, people who viewed Pyongyang as a mafia hardline state and never even tried to grasp its deeper meaning. On the contrary, the Obama administration does try to understand the sense of Pyongyang’s nuclear deterrent, an attempt in which it is now followed by the majority of experts, even the conservative ones. "(Kim Jong Il) is neither illuminated nor someone living in an illusion," judged Michael Breen, author of a biography of Kim Jong Il some years ago. He estimated that Kim was someone who had "proven that he could be very cunning."
In 2003, Colin Gray identified the problem in relations with North Korea as "not an irrational adversary, but more a perfectly rational enemy who searches with determination and great rationality to accomplish objectives that seem perfectly irrational. [The problem is] the enemy whose completely rational behavior deliberately allocates instruments of political action (for example suicidal attempts) to political objectives that are outrageous to our values, including norms of international law and morality."
Rational does not necessarily mean reasonable, of course; the North Korean example causes problems for the international community because it involves actions totally beyond reason in the service of an actual rationality that the regime does not appear to demonstrate. The Obama administration thus decided upon a North Korea policy oscillating between firmness and openness that matched the use of smart power the President desired.
The nomination of Stephen Bosworth, a former US ambassador to South Korea (1997-2000) and former executive director of KEDO, as negotiator was a clear sign that Washington did not desire to take a dogmatic position on the issue but did not intend to lower its guard, either. While at KEDO, Bosworth had advocated for a mostly positive line in relations with North Korea, estimating that dialogue was the best guarantee of significant security progress.
One of his most innovative positions was the suggestion that Washington not hold on to the idea of a hypothetical link between Pyongyang and Damascus, as had been done during the last year of the Bush administration. It was a line that Hillary Clinton seemed not to share, yet Bosworth’s appointment showed clearly the wish not to slow down agreement on the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Stephen Bosworth published his observations in Newsweek in May 2008, inviting the administration to adopt a clearer long-term strategy vis-a-vis North Korea despite the progress achieved in that year. In the article he asserted, "Unlike the United States, Pyongyang has both a short- and long-term policy toward its antagonist. It is willing to bargain away its nuclear-weapons programs piece by piece starting now, but only in return for a new, non-hostile relationship with Washington and more help for its economy. Washington, by contrast, focuses solely on the issue of denuclearization (and even on that Washington remains divided) and has no broader approach to North Korea." The posture adopted by the Obama administration could be summarized similarly: enlargement of the North Korea question to other issues besides the nuclear one in order to facilitate dialogue.
Journalist Bill Powell summed it up well after the second nuclear test: "Bargaining with the Kims is the last thing Obama wants to do, but the administration probably doesn't have a choice.” However, this strategy of openness eventually failed, as confirmed by the November, 2010 attack on Yeonpyeong Island following the sinking of the Cheonan in March the same year.
Facing an Obama administration willing to move on with the issue, the North Korean regime had quickly backed up and forged new schemes. That is how, in a position where we could reasonably have expected rapid progress, North Korea modified the incentives again, undoubtedly seeing the American attitude as a sign of easily exploitable weakness.
The current context is no different. Pyongyang’s demands are the same and the maneuvering margin of its partners remains equally limited. Add in the necessity for young Kim to assert his authority in front of the army and the Party and we have all the ingredients to explain this new regime rationale involving the use of a deterrent, no matter if it is a deterrent supported by real capacities or not. Under these conditions, we cannot speak of a fool’s strategy, because the "fool" is rational, nor the deterring of the strong by the weak, since the "weak" in question has not yet demonstrated that its arsenal, if there is any, is operational. It is more of a virtual deterrent, and one that imposes a disquieting idea and creates a dangerous precedent; that the most important thing is not to have the nuclear bomb per se, but to make everyone else believe that you do.