The puzzle of Pyongyang

October 23, 2002|By Richard Halloran

HONOLULU -- In the three weeks since the North Koreans gummed up the Bush administration's foreign policy machinery, a great mystery has been why they did it, what they expected to gain from it, and, particularly, why now.

Truth be told, no one really knows because Pyongyang is not among the world's more transparent capitals and the government-controlled North Korean press has given only a few clues. Even so, U.S. intelligence analysts, South Korean and Japanese political observers and scholars who specialize in Korean affairs, who asked not to be identified, have provided different pieces of the puzzle.

The consternation started when Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly was in Pyongyang early this month and confronted North Korean leaders with evidence that they had violated a 1994 pact to abstain from nuclear weapons. The North Koreans admitted the violation but asserted that they had to fend off the United States.

The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said leaders in Pyongyang struck back after Mr. Kelly had made it clear "that the U.S. is working hard to bring the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] to its knees by force and high-handed practice, not wanting dialogue with the latter."

The KCNA asserted that "the hostile policy escalated by the U.S. toward the DPRK after listing the DPRK as part of the `axis of evil' and singling it out as a target of nuclear pre-emptive attack" was the biggest obstacle to improved U.S.-North Korean relations.

As for timing, the North Koreans evidently thought the United States was preoccupied with Iraq and could not handle more than one crisis at a time.

Moreover, the North Koreans, with their well-practiced brinkmanship, have for years negotiated more to obtain concessions than to reach agreements. Thus this was seen as a bargaining ploy to get new concessions from the United States and its allies as the price of a new pledge to forgo their nuclear program.

They have demanded that they be stricken from the "axis of evil" and have sought a promise that, no matter what happens with Iraq, North Korea would be spared.

Negotiating a reduction or withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea has long been a top North Korean priority.

North Korea's weapons program is of marginal military importance since the United States could take it out with a nuclear or conventional assault. More significant was the bold hostility of the North Koreans, who had earlier indicated they were ready to begin negotiating toward diplomatic relations with the United States.

When Mr. Kelly reported North Korea's defiance, the administration, caught off guard, instructed him not to say anything publicly until he had returned to Washington. He canceled press briefings in Seoul and Tokyo, where he stopped to tell South Korean and Japanese leaders what had happened.

Despite the administration's efforts to avoid distracting American voters and U.S. allies from what it has claimed is an immediate threat from Iraq, the news started to leak after nearly two weeks and the administration had to go public to retain credibility.

In addition, Mr. Kelly and Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton were sent to Beijing to urge the Chinese, North Korea's leading allies, to get the North Koreans to desist. Then Mr. Bolton headed for Russia and Europe while Mr. Kelly went back to Seoul and Tokyo on the same mission of damage control.

The "Dear Leader" of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, however, has been mending fences with Russia, China, Japan and South Korea. Indeed, some analysts believe the North Koreans thought they could thumb their noses at the United States because they have cultivated new relations with their neighbors.

Mr. Kim may have miscalculated, though, because South Korea and Japan have mounted vigorous protests against North Korea's nuclear news.

In addition, the Japanese public is in an uproar over North Korea's kidnapping of Japanese citizens, throwing into question the opening of negotiations at the end of this month intended to lead to diplomatic relations.

More tests of Mr. Kim's calculus will come later this month during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Mexico, when President Bush is to meet with President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan. The president is also scheduled to meet Friday with President Jiang Zemin of China at his ranch in Crawford.

Richard Halloran is a journalist and free-lance writer who specializes in U.S. military and Asian affairs. He lives in Honolulu.

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