The January 6 North Korean nuclear test is much in the news these days, even though so far the situation seems very much like a re-run of what we have seen three times already: tough talks, promises of retribution, threatening moves and a UN Security Council meeting in the near future. To be short, business as usual.
One can hardly say that the recent nuclear test was something unpredictable. Talks about tests have been around for more than a year, and throughout 2015 North Korean officials kept hinting that such test would happen in due time. The logic of the North Korean decision-making also appears to be quite straightforward and predictable. Nonetheless, there is a problem with the timing of the test, and this problem might be indicative of a new – and, seemingly, inexplicable – pattern in North Korean foreign policy.
To start with, there is nothing ‘irrational’ or ‘unpredictable’ in North Korean decision to pursue the nuclear weapons acquisition program
To start with, there is nothing “irrational” or “unpredictable” in North Korean decision to pursue the nuclear weapons acquisition program. Given the sorry fate of Saddam, a fellow member of the “Axis of Evil,” and the equally sorry fate of Gaddafi, the world’s only strongman to have swapped his nuclear program for promises of economic cooperation, the North Korean ruling elite have valid reasons to work hard on nuclear weapons, the ultimate deterrent. However, given the technical limitations, such work necessarily requires a great deal of testing, so even on purely technical grounds one should expect nuclear tests to happen once every few years (the same is applicable to long-range missile developments, too).
However, the timing seems odd. The last year, especially its final month, were marked by frantic diplomatic activity. It seems that the North Koreans finally repaired relations with China, which were frosty for two or three years. Impressed, the Chinese re-started some long-frozen assistance projects – like, say, the construction of a vitally important power line to Rason port.
North Korean diplomats also worked hard to improve relations with Southeast Asia and Europe, continued their (rather shallow) honeymoon with Russia and even began to show a less confrontational approach towards the South. So, they conducted a charm offensive, and began to reap some of the first benefits of this policy. And then the test came.
It will take a few weeks to estimate the scale of the damage, and one should not be misled by the over-dramatic talk we are going to hear this month. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that all the work of the North Korean diplomats was blown away hopelessly, and a great deal of the bad feelings left behind are likely to haunt the North Koreans for years to come. It is not good when one first talks peace and then has a nuclear test in blatant violation of all international rules.
This is not to say that North Korean government does not need the test. However, the diplomatic damage could be easily have been neutralized, had the North Korean diplomats been ordered to be less active last year. It would make much more sense to wait for the test which, as the North Korean government knew, was coming, to weather the predictable diplomatic storm and then start sending delegations across the globe with peaceful initiatives and sweet talks of cooperation and investment. Cynically speaking, a little nuclear test would probably help to advance the message of peace, love and aid. It is always advisable first look menacing and then talk sweet. But the North Koreans did exactly the opposite.
Worse still, it seems to be a pattern, since we have seen this before. In 2011-12 North Koreans negotiated the so-called “Leap Day Agreement” with the U.S. (signed on February 29, hence the name). This agreement implied that North Korea would receive regular shipments of the U.S. aid in exchange for its willingness to refrain from nuclear tests and missile launches. From the North Korean point of view, this was a good agreement, since the American diplomats, often working against the mood which at the time prevailed in Washington, essentially agreed to pay Pyongyang for temporarily freezing its nuclear and missile program.
However, the 2012 Leap Day Agreement survived for merely a fortnight. In mid-March the North Korean government told the world that soon North Korea would launch a “satellite,” essentially testing long-range missile technology, and the agreement collapsed, leaving much bad feeling behind. Even now, four years later, all talks in the U.S. State Department about negotiating with the North are bound to be met with a reminder about the failure of the “Leap Day Agreement.” Essentially, this debacle made negotiations impossible for years to come.
Once again, had North Koreans back then decided to wait, and have a missile launch first, only to negotiate later, they would probably secure a great supply of free food for a promise (admittedly, rather shallow) not to do this again. So, it was an easily avertable problem. The only reason why it happened was the inability or unwillingness of the North Korean top leadership to coordinate the actions of the diplomats with the plans of its military-industrial complex. Had Kim Jong Un or somebody with sufficient power just bothered to order diplomats to remain quiet for some time, the 2012 debacle would not have happened.
Back then, the situation could be explained by the hectic nature of the power transition period: The negotiations and launch coincided with sudden demise of Kim Jong Il. However, this time, when similar mistake happened again, such excuses are rather difficult to make: Kim Jong Un is in control of his realm.
The conclusion is not very encouraging. It is possible that, at least in some cases, North Korea might resemble a ship without rudder – or, perhaps, a ship whose captain spends too much time entertaining his guests. This is dangerous in many regards, but let’s hope that Kim Jong Un and his advisers eventually learn from their mistakes.
Photo: Rodong Sinmun
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