The cold logic that drives N Korea

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 August, 2009, 12:00am

Given the ease with which North Korea vents its diplomatic spleen - Pyongyang just last week described US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as both a schoolgirl and a 'pensioner out shopping' - it is all too easy to dismiss its bellicose rhetoric.

That would be a mistake. At times, between the bluster and hostility, it is possible to see the cold logic that drives the strategic thinking in the Stalinist hermit state.

Its repeated insistence that the six-nation effort to denuclearise the North is dead is a case in point. As novel and well-intentioned as the six-party talks may be - asking Pyongyang to trade its nukes for aid and diplomatic inducements - their current format appears to have little future. In saying exactly what it means, the North is actually highlighting a basic flaw at the core of the discussions. It has not developed nuclear weapons as a mere bargaining chip, but wants to keep them for their own sake - the ultimate deterrent against invasion. It may be a tougher proposition, but it is more realistic.

That habitual anxiety was palpable in Pyongyang's latest statement on Monday as it again sought to trash the six-party concept while reasserting its interest in one-to-one talks with the United States.

'It became all the more clear that other parties are taking advantage of these six-party talks to disarm and incapacitate [North Korea] so that it can only subsist on the breadcrumbs thrown away by them,' it said.

Officially, the other six-party players - the US, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan - are clinging to the virtues of the grouping, but privately they are examining other options. At most, Washington has said it will consider bilateral talks only on the fringes of any future six-party meeting.

Mainland scholars have started to warn that North Korea has no intention of ever giving up its nuclear arsenal - a view now shared by Obama administration officials who, shortly after taking office in January, staged their own review of years of diplomatic failure.

From the perspective of North Korea's paranoia, the possession of nuclear weapons is entirely logical. The US has never invaded a nuclear armed state. And with 27,000 US soldiers stationed in South Korea, even its basic strategic assumptions have had to be rewritten following Pyongyang's tests.

There is a growing realisation that unless a way is found of seriously addressing North Korea's security concerns in any discussions, there is unlikely to be any progress. Expect a continued pattern of highly destabilising missile and even nuclear bomb tests in the meantime.

The difficulty for strategic planners is doing that without losing too much face or being seen to reward Pyongyang for its bad behaviour. That line of rhetoric has been consistent out of Washington since North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in October 2006.

UN Security Council sanctions have been tightened in the wake of the North's second nuclear test in May, but diplomats privately acknowledge exceptional practical difficulties in squeezing an already isolated state whose leaders are more than prepared to further impoverish their citizens.

Washington is particularly concerned not to cave in to North Korean demands for one-to-one talks that risk marginalising its closest Asian allies, Japan and South Korea. Both, of course, are well within range of North Korean missiles, along with 70,000 US military personnel.

North Korea wants desperately to be seen as part of the nuclear club; nobody wants to dignify their tests by cracking open the door.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon has been the first leader to try to inject some healthy realism by supporting North Korea-US talks, while at the same time still talking up the six-party process for the sake of form.

Expect more such suggestions in the coming weeks. The current situation is unsustainable. A new way has to be found, and, privately, the main players are starting to admit it.