December 07, 2023

Taking North Korea at its word

Why we should take more seriously what North Korea tells its own people

When the North Koreans test another nuclear device or launch another missile, the question I am most often asked is, “Why now?” Why February and not May, in other words; why 2016 and not 2017? Rather than grasping these events as stations in a linear project, one being carried out as fast as technology and weather conditions will allow, the world regards them as isolated demands for attention, each timed for maximum impact.

The point of these presumed publicity stunts, according to an increasingly insecure consensus, is to force America to talk with the North Koreans on their own terms. Just how much — if anything — they would then be ready to give up is a matter of dispute. And the grand prize they are after? In roughly chronological order since the 1990s, we have attributed to them an obsession with: a self-reliant energy supply, a massive aid package, the normalization of relations with Washington, and formal acknowledgment of the right to a nuclear deterrent.