North Korea nuclear crisis
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North Korean military officials salute during a patriotic concert in the Pyongyang Arena, in May last year. Photo: Washington Post

Hostility simmers, keeping the North Korean nuclear threat alive

John Barry Kotch says Pyongyang’s latest warning of a missile test raises questions about its political goals and shows how its views remain shaped by the lens of America’s ‘hostile intent’

It didn’t take long after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Day speech vowing that the North was in the “final stage in preparations” for a test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile for US President-elect Donald Trump to tweet ominously, “It won’t happen!” Following that, the North doubled down, warning that the missile would be launched “anytime and anywhere”.

While we don’t know whether Kim has met his match, it’s a sure bet that with his latest threat, the North Korean weapon of mass destruction challenge has shot to the top of the incoming Trump administration’s policy agenda.

Watch: Experts say North Korea’s claim on missile test is plausible

Trump will need more than rhetoric to deal with North Korea and China

Still, Kim left himself some wiggle room with the caveat that North Korea would continue on its nuclear course unless the US abandoned its “hostile” policy towards the North. So-called US “hostile intent” has been a staple of North Korean propaganda for decades, although US officials, beginning with ambassador Robert Gallucci, who conducted negotiations for the 1994 US-North Korean Agreed Framework, assured their North Korean counterparts that this was not the case.

For a time, the matter was seemingly put to rest. In 2000, the North Korean No 2 Jo Myong-rok visited the White House, followed by a return sojourn to Pyongyang by secretary of state Madeleine Albright. A joint communiqué stated: “As the first important step, both sides declared that neither government would have hostile intent towards the other and affirmed the commitment of both governments to make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity.”

Watch: US secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s historic visit to Pyongyang

Subsequently reversing course, however, the next administration, of George W. Bush, called out Kim Jong-il as “a tyrant” who “starves his people” as well as scrubbing the agreed framework on the grounds that the North had embarked on uranium enrichment as a source for fissile material. “Hostile intent” was once again in vogue.

For ‘hostile intent’ to be put to rest permanently, the existing security architecture on the Korean peninsula would have to be reconfigured

Like beauty, often said to be in the eye of the beholder, what constitutes “hostile intent” is hard to pin down, both because Pyongyang has defined it differently over time, and abrupt changes in Korea policy by successive US presidents makes it impossible for the North to know whether any agreement is sustainable and will outlast an administration’s term in office.

Also unclear is how “hostile intent” relates to North Korean political goals in general and the nuclear programme in particular. Even after decades of negotiating with the North, its political goals on the Korean peninsula remain opaque. Does it still view itself as the “revolutionary base” from which to subjugate its neighbour to the south or is it reconciled to coexistence, albeit on its own terms? Does it view a nuclear deterrent as merely a bargaining chip or, as Stanford University professor Siegfried Hecker has suggested, a strategic force vital to its own survival and therefore an instrument for blackmail or retaliation?

Seen through a car windscreen, a North Korean man crosses a major road in Pyongyang as the sun sets at the end of a working day. The existing security architecture on the Korean peninsula has remained unchanged since the Korean war nearly 70 years ago. Photo: AP

To end North Korea’s nuclear push, we must first understand its fears

In the final analysis, for “hostile intent” to be put to rest permanently, the existing security architecture on the Korean peninsula – unchanged since the Korean war nearly 70 years ago – would have to be reconfigured by incorporating security assurances, diplomatic recognition and a permanent peace regime.

In the interim, “hostile intent” is a convenient justification for Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes, as well as a ploy for keeping the peninsula on a war footing. Thus, for example, when the opportunity to negotiate a peace treaty presented itself through four-party talks in Geneva in the 1990s, for which the North had been angling for decades, it walked out, citing the presence of US forces in South Korea as a barrier to reaching an agreement. However, at other times, North Korean officials have intimated that the presence of US forces in the South did not constitute “hostile intent”, and that their presence could be accepted “under the right circumstances”.

If world is united, why can’t it stop North Korea’s nuclear plans?

According to former State Department analyst Robert Carlin, the central consideration is the intended target of US troop deployment, that is, it must not be “pointed at” North Korea. Thus, the annual US-South Korea military exercise is viewed as provocative and prima facie evidence of “hostile intent”, although it is seen as defensive in nature by the US and South Korea.

One way of addressing the North’s concern and testing its sincerity regarding “hostile intent” would be to conduct the exercise under the rubric of the moribund 1991 North-South Basic Agreement, providing for prior notification and observation of military exercises as tension-reduction measures.

Carlin also noted in a recent blog post that soon after Kim Jong-un took power in 2012, North Korean officials conveyed to Americans that their new leader did not want to continue hostile relations with the US, albeit also blaming US policy for escalating tension. In fact, however, it has been Kim who has been doing the threatening of late.

John Barry Kotch is a political historian specialising in US policy towards Korea

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Hostility simmers, keeping North Korean threat alive