Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How to tango with Pyongyang

New evidence unearthed by the North Korea International Documentation Project suggests that the 1968 hijacking of the USS Pueblo and the dramatic increase in violence between 1967 and 1968 were motivated by Pyongyang's desires to mend ties with Beijing. According to Romanian sources, Kim Il Sung believed that following Mao's anti-US strategy of opening a "second front" on the Korean Peninsula would bring much needed aid and supplies to the DPRK from the PRC.

This new interpretation of the Pueblo Crisis would remain consistent with how North Korea suddenly changed its behavior towards South Korea (despite maintaining hostile intentions) when China began its rapprochement with the US.

The new narrative of the Pueblo Crisis characterizes Pyongyang as malleable and responding to international conditions, running counter to how many have implicitly portrayed the state.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Jennifer Lind forwarded three elements that facilitate North Korea's deterrent capabilities:
  • unpredictability 
  • the catastrophic consequences of North Korea’s collapse
  • the regime’s nuclear capabilities.
While Professor Lind is correct to pin point North Korea's strengths, she provides no policy recommendation for Washington in the article because she is unconvinced of Pyongyang's responsiveness to external pressures. From Lind's perspective North Korea's history of provocations from USS Pueblo to the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 is a single narrative of a state acting without a long-term strategy.

However, the new Romanian evidence on the Pueblo Crisis challenges this view.

If North Korea does indeed react to outside forces, then it is likely to want, first and foremost, to reduce its overwhelming insecurity. This may create an opportunity for Washington to work with - Ambassador Morton Abramowitz suggested dispatching a senior-level politician (like the VP) to negotiate trading security, recognition, etc. for Pyongyang's missiles and nukes.

Alternatively the US could do nothing and see the entire region descend into paranoia and North Korean children starve to death. Washington ought to take the step to change the region for good.

Read my slightly less hyperbolic article on Asia Times Online

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