The North Korean “Threat”

22 September 2005

The North Korean “Threat”

By Gwynne Dyer

If you want to understand why they have all been so worried about North Korea, you have to imagine the Doomsday scenario that haunts them.

Kim Jong Il wakes up early, because it’s The Day, but it takes him ages to get ready. The hairdresser alone takes half an hour every morning to get his hair to stand up like that, then they have to tighten the corset that contains his bulging tummy, and finally he has to decide which shade of light tan Mao jacket he’ll wear today. But eventually he slips into his platform shoes and clops downstairs to meet his assembled generals.

“Are our nuclear missiles ready to fly?” he asks General Number One. “Yes, Dear Leader, they are both ready. One will strike Seoul, and the other will strike a large American base in Japan,” the general replies.

Then, mustering up all his courage, he adds: “But are you sure this is a good idea? The Americans will know where they came from, and their retaliation will be terrible. By lunchtime our country will be destroyed and we will all be dead.”

A single shot rings out and the impudent general falls to the floor. “Thus to all cowards and weaklings,” cries Kim Jong Il, and then continues, in a more conversational tone: “We must destroy the nests of the capitalist imperialist vipers. It is our destiny, and we will dwell with Marx forever. Launch the missiles!” General Number Two salutes and says “Yes, sir! At once, sir!”

Having a little trouble with this scenario? Doesn’t quite ring true? Good, because I have trouble with it too. But this is approximately the scenario that the panic-mongers have been asking us to believe in, and if it isn’t true then there never was a crisis.

There wasn’t. Last week was especially silly, with the members of the six-party talks on getting Pyongyang back within the nuclear non-proliferation regime (China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia and the United States) declaring a dramatic success on Monday, 19 September, and North Korea apparently reneging on the deal on Tuesday. but the failure is only apparent.

The North Korean negotiating style certainly leaves a good deal to be desired. They make dramatic announcements (“We have nuclear weapons!”), they flounce out of treaties they have signed (like the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in 2002), and they try to change the meaning of deals they have signed before the ink is dry on the paper (like last week). But there are reasons for this.

Partly, it is just the normal behaviour of people who have no experience of negotiations between equals — and indeed, people raised in the authoritarian, almost Orwellian system that prevails in North Korea are very unlikely to have that experience. But these are also shrewd negotiating tactics for people who are so weak that they have practically no cards in their hand. If you have no other way to make other parties pay attention to your concerns, then threatening to be unreasonable and cause a lot of damage is a good way to get them to listen. Even teenagers know that.

North Korea has no real cards in its hand. With half as many people as South Korea, it has an economy around one-tenth the size, and much of that goes to maintaining a military establishment that is more or less capable of matching the South Korean and American forces that confront it in the Korean peninsula. Its people live on the brink of starvation (although Kim Jong Il clearly eats very well), and its ability to threaten the United States directly is precisely zero.

When the Bush administration designated North Korea as part of the “axis of evil”, perhaps next for the treatment after Iraq, Pyongyang panicked. It had long been working on nuclear weapons secretly (and cheating on an earlier agreement to stop doing so), because it believed that they would deter an American attack even if they could only reach nearby targets. Suddenly it pulled out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and announced that it actually had operational nukes — though it may well have been bluffing.

That unleashed the so-called crisis of the past few years, but all North Korea was really looking for was a guarantee that it would not be attacked, and some foreign aid. That was essentially what it got in the agreement of 19 November — North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for economic aid, security assurances and improved ties with the United States — so the “crisis” should be over.

It is, really, but old reflexes die hard: North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, Choe Su Hon, immediately cast doubt on the validity of the deal. In a UN speech on Tuesday, he said: “What is most essential at this stage is for the United States to provide light-water nuclear reactors to North Korea as soon as possible as evidence proving the former’s substantial recognition of the latter’s right to peaceful nuclear activities.” All the US had actually said was that it would discuss providing reactors “at an appropriate time,” but Pyongyang could not resist pushing for more.

It doesn’t matter. The US, China and Russia all responded by saying that the agreement stands as signed, and Kim Jong Il will not pursue this demand. He has played a bad hand very well and got most of what he wanted. He is not crazy, and he won’t throw it away.


To shorten to 725 word, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“It is…zero”)