What next with North Korea?
April 24th, 2013
11:28 AM ET

What next with North Korea?

By Jason Miks

After weeks of escalating rhetoric, tensions between North Korea and the United States appear to be easing. But what prompted Pyongyang’s recent provocative statements? How well did the U.S. handle the threats? And what role has China played? James Schoff (@SchoffJ), a senior associate on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program, answers readers’ questions:

Could Kim Jong Un's recent statements simply be an effort to save face with his own military before entering negotiations, asks “wjm”?

Perhaps to some extent, but there is no reason to think Kim’s idea of “negotiations” are anything close to what would be acceptable to South Korea or the United States. He seems to have gone “all in” with the further pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, which is prompting increased international pressure. So, North Korea's recent threats and military maneuvers are aimed more at bolstering its deterrence and pushing back against this pressure, rather than an opening gambit for talks. If an opportunity for talks emerges, Kim’s goal appears to be gaining some degree of international recognition for North Korea's nuclear status or reducing the bite of current sanctions.

When young Kim took over the leadership role after his father died in late 2011, there was some hope that he might steer the country toward more focus on economic modernization and away from emphasizing the nuclear program. That has proven to be a false hope.

The recent bellicose rhetoric seems to have died down since the celebration marking the 101st anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth, says “j. von hettlingen.” Do you think China been playing a part behind the scenes?

China is certainly active on this front, and a good example of this is the current Washington visit by Chinese special envoy Wu Dawei, his first trip to the United States since 2010. China is encouraging North Korean restraint, and even though Beijing's influence is limited, it might be contributing to a reduction in rhetoric from Pyongyang. China is also urging the United States to find some flexible way to enter discussions with the North. Even if the talks don't lead to denuclearization, they could provide Kim Jong Un with face-saving way to back down. But talks toward what end?

Even China is beginning to doubt Kim's potential willingness to freeze his nuclear and missile programs, which could threaten regional stability in the long run more significantly than confronting North Korea. China is not yet willing to use all of its leverage on North Korea to try to change its behavior, lest it provoke conflict or precipitate collapse on the Peninsula, but I sense that China’s patience is wearing thin. The question is whether or not this will manifest in concrete actions such as stronger enforcement of international sanctions against the North. Signs are limited on this front so far.

How well do you feel the Obama administration has managed recent tensions?

It has done a reasonably good job, but the administration needs to invest time in forging a more concrete and coordinated policy going forward. Current shuttle diplomacy efforts should be focused on this purpose.

The challenge for Washington is that it has competing goals. It wants to send a strong deterrence message to North Korea to prevent miscalculation, as well as reassure allies like South Korea and Japan that it won't forget about their interests or get soft on North Korea. At the same time, however, it wants to avoid escalating tensions while containing or freezing the North’s nuclear programs, if it can’t eliminate them altogether. The sometime contradictory steps it has taken – such as conducting bilateral exercises with South Korea including U.S. nuclear-capable bombers, while postponing a separate long-range missile test – reflect this dilemma. The messages delivered during Secretary of State Kerry's recent trip to the region should have been clearer. It danced awkwardly around the idea of offering talks to North Korea, and Kerry's team probably needed some additional preparation to coordinate messaging in advance. The Obama administration should stay patient and consistent with its policy of demanding North Korean denuclearization while opening the door for talks to discuss how that can be accomplished to mutual satisfaction. It is important to stay closely aligned with South Korea and Japan.

Do you expect to see another escalation in tensions in the near future, asks Matthew Tucker?

I do, unfortunately. The United States and its allies are not willing to move from their insistence for North Korean denuclearization, and Pyongyang does not look ready to budge either. Even if North Korea does not launch a direct military attack on South Korea, as it has done in the past, it could go ahead with more missile or nuclear tests, cyber-attacks, or some other provocation. The issue of the Kaesong Industrial Complex is still outstanding as well. The North has shut the North-South economic venture down for weeks, and many South Korean citizens are still there, hoping to be able to restart their businesses. If Kaesong restarts, then we are headed in a good direction, but the longer it stays closed, the more irreparable becomes the damage between North and South Korea.

Is there anything else, covertly or overtly, the U.S. and its allies can do to put pressure on the North Korean regime, asks H. Bruce Downs III on Facebook?

This has turned into a long-term struggle, so the United States and its allies should adopt a common long-range strategy. Their strategy must include continued pressure on the North (possibly new financial sanctions), but it cannot be too provocative, lest they alienate China and Russia and undermine the regional solidarity that has been so important in constraining North Korean actions.

North Korea has endured international sanctions in the belief that once it develops nuclear weapons, the world will have to back down and accept it as a nuclear power. The U.S. and its allies must strive to convince the North’s leadership that this will never happen and that nuclear weapons are actually harming its interests and the regime's viability. At the same time, it will need to help Kim and his cohorts envision an alternative future wherein they can follow the so-called China model and create a one-party government administering economic reform and openness. I’m skeptical that the North Korean military will recognize this opportunity, but the U.S. should lead collective work in the region to contain the North Korean military threat while trying to engage economically and undercut regime legitimacy from within. There should also be focus on getting more information about the outside world into North Korea, by whatever means possible.

What are your thoughts on the U.S. allowing South Korea to completely take over its own defense and lead the relationship with North Korea, asks Lorraine Alden on Facebook? Would it be possible, and would it be in our interests to do so?

Absolutely. South Korea has the financial, technical, and organizational means to deter North Korea and defend itself, as long as it continues a close alliance partnership with the United States. U.S. resolve to support South Korea will not waver – and the U.S. commitment of troops and resources to South Korean defense will continue – but it is time for South Korea to assume its rightful place as the primary lead for its own defense. North Korean propaganda thrives on the myth that South Korea is still some sort of puppet regime under the thumb of the Americans. Returning war-time operational control of South Korean forces to Seoul would demonstrate once and for all that the path to true peace on the Korean Peninsula runs through Seoul, not Washington. The Republic of Korea is an independent and influential global leader, and the North will get nowhere if it cannot understand this. On the flip side, North Korea is a morally bankrupt failing state that is deepening its own isolation. A cornered regime like this must be dealt with carefully but resolutely.

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Topics: Asia • North Korea • South Korea

soundoff (79 Responses)
  1. FromtheMoon

    This is far from over i believe this is just the start of tension between North Korea and the UN

    http://opinionfromthemoon.blogspot.com/

    April 26, 2013 at 3:39 am | Reply
    • giggig

      We can talk to them .They are not so bad.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:09 am | Reply
    • hishouseinc

      Agreed!

      April 29, 2013 at 4:02 am | Reply
  2. morpunkt

    Yawn.

    April 26, 2013 at 9:47 am | Reply
  3. David

    I'm so scared. Please God save me.

    April 26, 2013 at 10:22 am | Reply
  4. virginia

    North Korea would desagree 100% on this approached that's like asking for it...

    """"What are your thoughts on the U.S. allowing South Korea to completely take over its own defense and lead the relationship with North Korea, asks Lorraine Alden on Facebook? Would it be possible, and would it be in our interests to do so?"""

    April 26, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Reply
  5. virginia

    China contrary to believe has had nothing to do with the draw down of North Korea's rhetoric it more like North Korea is assessing its cards to see how to play them better this given the illusion that china is working behind the scenes but China is helpless to what North Korea decides to do about his matter...and it won't provide North Korea with sufficient $$$ support to deter North Korea of what it has in mind.

    South Korea isn't handling thing right- its using the logic that has work for South Korea in other matters but this technique don't work with North Korea who is in the opposition of logistics...the opposite works with North Korea...what the west is doing if provoking North Korea and not being aware of how this is happening...

    """The recent bellicose rhetoric seems to have died down since the celebration marking the 101st anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth, says “j. von hettlingen.” Do you think China been playing a part behind the scenes?"""""

    April 26, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Reply
    • giggig

      could be , could also have completely other reasons.e.g. Somebody has talked to KJU rom Bern , and me too,i could imagen me si down with him a few days ,go over all his opteions there.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:04 am | Reply
  6. virginia

    thinking about it some more the South Korean would be fools by provoking North Korea to change cause they only reason the South is getting so much attention and support is cause the difficulties of dealing with North Korea once the two Korea's are reunited then they be forgotten on not care for as they are care for at this time...so all the glory the South is getting is due to the hardship North Korea is enduring....so it to South Korea's disadvantage to struggle with North Korea in the attempts to change their reasoning.

    April 26, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Reply
    • giggig

      good thinking .Never forget Dr Rheeling ,60 yrs ago the massacre..and we were bystanders there. We may have missmaneuvered a little here and there with Gen McArthur and his processeder. We could have had it like Berlin
      The SK and the DMZ, further up , above Kaesong .

      April 28, 2013 at 10:22 pm | Reply
      • giggig

        Anyway ,now we got Gem Thurman,he sometimes gets the feeling ,he is protecting both sides ,averting them and encouraging both sides to hold the cease fire.

        April 28, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
  7. virginia

    how much the world fears North Korea is the real problem here...the suffering North Korea's people have endure comes from the west fear of not knowing them well...North Korea is a peaceful nation the most peaceful of them all to the point that has endure all just to keep the peace- even starvation of their people just to keep the world from turning upside down and with out rewards for their effort other then a bit of $$$ aid to stay alive...

    April 26, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  8. mnkracker

    Why doesn't the US just come out and say we have an advanced anti-missile defense system in place, it was actually done in the '80's. We built the system with the help of aliens from 3 different worlds and we are about 150 yrs ahead of N. Korea in terms of military technology. This way we can just kill 2 birds with one stone. Tell N. Korea that there is no way they can hit us with a missile and also tell the world we finally admits we have been in cahoots with Aliens for several decades.

    April 26, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Reply
  9. pnm9pnm

    all lifes so called wrights as in right as in >,.pnm,.

    April 27, 2013 at 1:09 am | Reply
  10. pnm9pnm

    good luck with ur right not to be hay that is the pass m,.pnm,./mowNOW MOW MOW MOW KIMMY KONGZS,.PNM,./

    April 27, 2013 at 1:18 am | Reply
  11. pw

    Well at least this article gave us the chance to trot out the ol "bellicose rhetoric" phrase again!

    April 27, 2013 at 2:56 am | Reply
  12. Anthony

    i say bomb there butts and get it over with.. neither of them are tall enough to push the button anyways!!!!!!!!

    April 28, 2013 at 7:10 am | Reply
  13. Mike

    next for N. Korea will be dancing with the stars

    April 28, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  14. hishouseinc

    The only way to end this would be a Naval blockade. They are still continuing threats, but it is not reported as much. I find it very difficult to understand such a closed country that has brainwashed a generation of its people to hate S.K. and the U.S.

    April 29, 2013 at 4:01 am | Reply
  15. vistar hornbill

    When the food and medical supplies run out, North Koreans will continue to starve to death in even bigger numbers. This time if that happens, the backbone of the Military regime would be broken. When hungry soldiers start a rebellion, it would quickly engulf the entire NK armed forces. All it takes is one brave company commander to start a revolt. Their target should be the chief of the Korean Army.

    South Korea Government must immediately offer food and military aid to the rebellion.

    I think an implosion is imminent. Hopefully the result is the reunification of the two Koreas, and millions of North Korean civilians being saved from an apocalyptic starvation.

    April 29, 2013 at 10:52 pm | Reply
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    November 27, 2013 at 11:35 pm | Reply
  17. Home Personal Training

    I don't know what to make about North Korea. I think that they have a young kid running a country through fear. It's sad because so many are caught up in this mess.

    I personal feel we should continue building up the south.

    April 13, 2014 at 5:00 pm | Reply
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