North Korea’s public declaration of nuclear status does not definitively prove that it possesses nuclear weapons. What’s clear is that Pyongyang expects no changes in Bush administration policy. The nuclear announcement and North Korea’s decision to stop participating in the international negotiations with the U.S. and its neighbors known as "Six-Party Talks" was designed to shock Washington into a more conciliatory position. Don’t count on it.
Until recently, the Bush administration touted a new flexibility in relations with North Korea. The new State Department leadership, with Condoleeza Rice at the helm and Robert Zoellick and Christopher Hill as her deputies, was expected to temper the administration’s hard-line policy and attract North Korea back to the table.
The reality, however, was that the Bush administration wasn’t ready to shift strategy away from the half-hearted negotiations with North Korea, persistent faith that the regime in Pyongyang will collapse or a program to hasten that end through covert and non-governmental means.
"Muddling through" is how North Korea-watchers routinely describe Pyongyang’s approach to its economic and foreign policy predicament. "Muddling through" also describes U.S. attempts to resolve a deadly conflict.
The key to Washington’s "new" strategy is to portray North Korea as simultaneously more dangerous and more vulnerable than before. When Washington diplomatic circles began to murmur in late January about a possible breakthrough in the U.S. approach, the hardliners dusted off an older charge – that North Korea had provided Libya with processed uranium – and deployed it to nip any dÃ©tente in the bud.
This story actually broke in May after Libya turned over a cask of uranium hexafluoride to U.S. investigators as part of its own denuclearization deal. Scientists have since failed to identify the source so some administration officials concluded that it must have been North Korea. Since the United States lacks any sample of North Korean uranium, the link cannot definitively be made. Because North Korea hasn’t tested a nuclear weapon, we don’t even know if its recent announcement is a bluff or a statement of fact.
If the U.S. media is to be believed, North Korea is not only crossing red lines with its nuclear program, it is also on the verge of disintegration.
Late last year, the media was buzzing with news of upheaval in North Korea. Several visitors reported that the portraits of Kim Jong Il were missing from public places. A New York Times article cited the defection of 130 North Korean generals. Several journalists began to reinterpret the explosive train accident at Ryongchon in April as an assassination attempt on the North Korean leader. Then there have been reports of anti-government slogans on the walls of buildings, the first stirrings of a popular uprising.
Examined more carefully, however, this "evidence" of incipient regime change in North Korea turns out to be as speculative as the nuclear stories. According to South Korean intelligence, no hard evidence has surfaced concerning the defection of so many high-ranking North Korean military officers. The train disaster has not led to the purge that might be expected if the government had uncovered or suspected an assassination plot. Anti-government slogans have been reported on for more than ten years – they probably exist but don’t necessarily translate into imminent revolution. The missing portraits of Kim Jong Il, since they were removed from public places, may support earlier contentions that Kim Jong Il is trying to reduce his official personality cult.
It’s possible that these stories citing signs of North Korea’s imminent demise are misinformation, not simply misinterpretation. U.S., South Korean, and Japanese civic groups in northeast China are taking advantage of a porous border to encourage anti-government sentiment within North Korea. In 2003, with its draft Operational Plan 5030, the Pentagon signaled that it was considering ways to "sow enough confusion" within the North Korean military to turn it against the government leadership. Planting information about the defection of 130 generals would serve such a purpose. In November, according to USA Today, new CIA head Porter Goss recommended using undercover agents to penetrate the North Korean government (among other hostile countries) – perhaps to sow confusion more directly.
To retaliate against this misinformation campaign North Korea decided to shake things up. As with Pyongyang’s previous shock tactics such as launching rockets or kicking out nuclear inspectors, its declared entry into the nuclear club carries the risk of hardening Washington’s position rather than softening it.
The Bush administration wants regime change in North Korea but rightly fears that a military attack would lead to hundreds of thousands of dead. Instead of engaging North Korea and negotiating away its nuclear program, the Bush administration is taking the middle course of spinning its wheels. North Korea’s latest announcement reminds us that the country isn’t going anywhere. Deal with it, George.
John Feffer is a Foreign Policy In Focus scholar and the author of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis; www.johnfeffer.com.