One of the most interesting pieces of news to come out of North Korea in recent times was the official announcement that the regime has no plans to conduct a third nuclear test. More important than the fact that the government has decided not to go ahead with a nuclear test is the fact that it chose to make this clear to the outside world. The announcement is a signal that the North Korean leadership hopes to restart external dialogue.
On its own, confirmation that there is to be no nuclear test is surprising, more so when you consider that missile launches and nuclear tests seemed to come as package deal in both 2006 and 2009. Indeed, it was based on these precedents that when North Korea launched the long-range rocket Unha-3 on April 13th, experts immediately began warning of a nuclear test.
Just after the missile launch, signs of preparations for a nuclear test were observed via satellite imagery. Predictions of an imminent nuclear test seemed convincing. But what appears to have happened is that the government, after continually postponing the test, at some point decided to abandon it altogether.
It isn’t easy to understand the motives behind this move just yet. There are rumors that China strongly objected to a third nuclear experiment and threatened the North Korean leadership in no uncertain terms with dramatic cuts in aid if it went ahead; however, such rumors are impossible to verify. There is also some chance that the cancellation of the test was necessitated by a shortage of enriched uranium or some other technological difficulty.
Whatever the real reason was, we must regard the decision to announce the abandonment of the test as an important sign in itself. Conducting a test or not conducting a test was entirely Pyongyang’s own business, and it had no responsibility to convey that intelligence to the outside world. Viewed from that angle, the announcement reads like a sign that North Korea intends to seek a more moderate position of dialogue and compromise with the outside world, and primarily the United States.
But, and there is always a “but” with these things, North Korea will find it hard to turn these hopes into reality. For a start, there is no reason to believe that the United States would even play along with a volte face from Kim Jong Eun. Kim may be looking to re-engage Washington with talks, leading to the taps of aid being turned back on, but the U.S. presidential election race and Pyongyang’s violation of the February 29th agreement are both considerable obstacles that need to be dealt with first.
An ocean away, the political mainstream in Washington mostly regards the violation of the February 29th agreement as confirmation, in case anybody had forgotten, that North Korea is a partner which breaks its promises and cannot be trusted. The Obama administration already had a negative perception of Pyongyang when it took office, one which began to congeal after the second nuclear test in 2009 and reached its peak with the latest launch of a long-range missile, breaching an agreement signed only weeks earlier.
There are still figures within the U.S. State Department and elsewhere who cite the need to negotiate with North Korea, but their protestations carry little traction.
In the current climate, the Obama administration would regard any prospect of sitting down at the negotiating table with North Korea as a needless fancy. President Obama is aware that making any positive noises about talks would be seized upon by the Republicans as a soft policy proving that the President stands for nothing. Even if Obama was feeling game enough to risk it, there would be little chance of achieving any diplomatic results to show the voting public before November’s election anyway.
Then of course there are the financial woes of Europe, winds of revolution in the Middle East and the rise of China, all of which the Obama administration is already dealing with, so with no obvious solution in sight for the North Korean nuclear issue, it seems easier to let it simmer on the backburner for the time being, out of sight and mind. The White House recognizes that there is more to lose than gain by engaging with North Korea, and with November etched in their minds already, why start kicking goals for the Republicans now?
It was not so long ago that the North Korean elite had a nifty diplomatic lever to manipulate their counterparts in Washington; a golden opportunity to get economic aid in exchange for making a merely symbolic concession. The leadership failed to predict how the sands of political time would shift, and instead gambled on blowing its nose with the February 29th agreement. As things stand, there hasn’t been an opportunity since then to get back to the footing Pyongyang was on before launching Kwangmyungsung-3 on April 13th, and nobody knows when the next one will come.
Whatever Kim Jong Eun decides to proceed with now, be it a siren song for President Obama or going back down the path of threats and military provocations, even an optimist would blush at forecasting any compromise with the U.S. to happen before the start of next year at the earliest. Kim Jong Eun and his political advisors now have to come to terms with the fact that their handling of the February 29th agreement will go down in history as the first major diplomatic mistake of their time in power.