North Korea's Treacherous New Course

Pyongyang is done playing nice with Washington.

“There they go again.” That was the Washington’s reaction to North Korea’s recent rocket launch and renunciation of its February 29 commitment not to conduct a nuclear test. Yet this time looks different—and more dangerous. These actions suggest Pyongyang no longer cares about improving relations with the United States, the premise of its willingness to restrain its nuclear and missile efforts.

Unbounded nuclear and missile development by Pyongyang would gradually erode the security of all of its neighbors and the world at large. The only prudent course is a robust strategy of containment: denial of its weapons-related trade by tougher inspections of suspect cargo and tighter overflight restrictions.

A Mixed History

For years, North Korean officials have been saying they want to improve relations with the United States and were prepared to restrain their nuclear and missile programs in return. An end to enmity—what the North called U.S. “hostile policy”—would improve North Korean security and provide a counterweight to China. It would also facilitate aid and investment from South Korea and Japan, thereby reducing its economic dependence on China.

Given the lack of trust between the two countries, however, Pyongyang insisted on reciprocal steps by Washington—action for action—to build confidence. Pyongyang’s decision to conduct last week’s test launch, by contrast, destroyed confidence.

Until now, there had been some evidence the North meant what it said about action for action. In the 1990s, the only way the North could make the explosive ingredient for nuclear weapons was to remove spent fuel from its reactor at Yongbyon and reprocess it to extract plutonium, but it had stopped reprocessing in late 1991 and did not resume until 2003, denying itself dozens of bombs’ worth of plutonium. It shut down its reactor at Yongbyon from 1994 to 2003 under the 1994 Agreed Framework and did so again in 2007 under an October 2007 six-party accord. The reactor has yet to restart. And it has conducted very few test launches of medium- and long-range ballistic missiles over the past two decades. As a consequence, it has just a handful of nuclear devices and no reliable missiles to deliver them.

North Korea began to acquire the means to enrich uranium in 1997, reprocessed some five or six bombs’ worth of plutonium in 2003, conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, and test launched missiles in 1993, 1998, 2006 and 2009. But each time, with some justification, it cited U.S. failure to fulfill its commitments as the reason—or pretext—for its actions and offered to revive talks.

February 29 seemed like a case in point. Pyongyang committed itself, among other things, to a moratorium on nuclear- and longer-range missile tests and a suspension of uranium enrichment at Yongbyon under international monitoring. Washington, in turn, committed itself to improve relations and provide food aid, which the North asked for as a “confidence-building measure.”

So why did Pyongyang test launch its rocket so soon after February 29?

Shadow of Kim Jong-il

Washington and Seoul see the launch as a test of Kim Jong-un’s mettle. In a fit of wishful thinking, some even speculate that its failure could prove to be the young leader’s downfall. Yet in announcing the launch, North Korea’s media referred repeatedly to his father, Kim Jong-il, not him. North Korean officials have been even more explicit, saying Kim Jong-il made both the decision to suspend some of the North’s nuclear activities and the decision to go ahead with the launch.

North Korean references to Kim Jong-il’s military-first legacy suggest he may have made the decision to conduct a nuclear test as well. A successful test of a new warhead for delivery by missile that North Korea officials say it has—not whether it is fueled by uranium rather than plutonium—could alter the regional balance of power.

Unlike the past, Kim Jong-il’s two-faced decision was taken with negotiations underway and no reason for him to conclude that Washington would not keep its commitments. If the North goes ahead with the nuclear test, it would suggest that Pyongyang is pursuing a strategic alternative to improving relations with Washington.

The first sign of Kim Jong-il’s change of strategy came in a widely publicized trip to Russia last year, when the elder Kim opened the way to playing Russia against China, much as his father did during the Cold War. He also may have anticipated deeper economic engagement with Seoul after a new president comes to power there in elections this December.

North Korean officials insist that the “new generation” now in power in Pyongyang still wants better relations with the United States. If so, the North should suspend all its nuclear and missile activities, starting with an authoritative indication that it is prepared to implement its commitments of February 29 as well as forgo future satellite launches.

Without such constructive steps, nuclear diplomacy with North Korea is at a dead end. Containing Pyongyang is Washington’s only realistic option.

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