What North Korea Wants
Author: Maurice Strong
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 10/27/2006
The most surprising thing to me about world reaction to the announcement by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that it had carried out an underground nuclear test is that it has invoked such surprise. While North Korea has been unpredictable and, in Western eyes, eccentric in its negotiating tactics, it has been very focused and relentless in pursuing its objectives.
I am no advocate for the North Koreans but I believe it is important, indeed essential, that the world, and particularly their many adversaries, understand the basis for their actions as they perceive it. As they have insisted in their discussions with me and in public announcements, they, too, want to see a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and are prepared to co-operate in achieving this — but only if the threat they perceive from the world’s superpower, the United States, and its hostile policies toward them are also removed. This would include sanctions and impediments that deny membership to North Korea in international development institutions and access to the international trade, investment and assistance it requires to rebuild its shattered economy.
An a priori requirement for this would be the establishment of diplomatic relations with Washington, which refuses to engage in any but the most marginal direct discussions with Pyongyang. The U.S. has insisted that North Korea commit to the dismantling of its nuclear facilities as a precondition to negotiating other key issues. North Korea’s objection to this has contributed to the impasse that has enabled it to develop its nuclear capacity to the point of testing of it.
Pyongyang gives the highest priority to ensuring its security. It would not be realistic to expect it to abandon its nuclear weapons program and leave it at the mercy of the Americans and their allies until its security concerns have been addressed. North Korea has no doubt weighed the issue carefully and is prepared to accept the risks it takes in conducting this nuclear test over the objections of its closest allies, China and South Korea.
Nevertheless, North Korea has crossed the Rubicon. The quiet frustration that China has long had with its neighbour has now been brought out in the open. Support for South Korea’s “sunshine policy” and engagement with the North have also been dealt a severe setback. Though both Beijing and Seoul joined with Washington, Tokyo, Moscow and others in condemning the nuclear test, neither is likely to support military action or any of the extreme measures that could precipitate internal chaos in North Korea or military action on its part.
It’s also not plausible to expect that regime change would lead to the abandonment of the positions that have been deeply entrenched in the attitudes and structures of North Korea. And military action could unleash a vast and destructive conflict that would be difficult, if not impossible, to contain and would make Iraq look like a picnic.
What, then, is the answer? It is difficult to know whether North Korea anticipated the harsh response of the world community through the UN with the support of usually more friendly regimes. Equally, the effectiveness of the sanctions is unknown. If there is any good that can come out of the world community’s reaction to North Korea’s nuclear test, it is that it could provide the basis for a new approach to resolving the ominous cloud that has threatened the region’s peace and security for more than half a century.
Negotiations will be long and difficult, and will require a degree of engagement that has not yet occurred. Consistency of purposes by the parties to these negotiations will also require much more flexibility in the tactics and means for achieving these purposes. The U.S. has already shown some flexibility in its approach but more will be needed by all parties to ensure the kind of serious engagement necessary to resolve this festering conflict peacefully. Indeed, I would suggest that greater flexibility in tactics and means will be immensely helpful, even imperative, to achieve success in negotiations, particularly as it is in the larger interest of all parties to attain peace and security in the Korean peninsula. The ultimate objective must be to reach agreement on a peace treaty, which was envisaged when the armistice was signed in 1953 but has never been achieved or even seriously negotiated.
The Korean War is the only one that has been conducted explicitly under a United Nations mandate. The troops deployed south of the demilitarized zone under U.S. command continue to operate under the UN’s blue flag, although it exercises no control over them. The unresolved crisis on the Korean peninsula is thus of special importance to the UN. This is why Secretary-General Kofi Annan took the initiative to support continuing efforts for a peaceful settlement of the dispute. It included extensive research into developing the economic capacities and alternative means of providing the energy supplies so essential to the revitalization of North Korea’s economy and a necessary component of any peaceful settlement. South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, who, as the newly elected UN Secretary-General, brings a deep interest in and knowledge of these issues, has already indicated that he will give high priority to them. This in itself is a reason for hope and encouragement.
Bio: Maurice Strong, the former special envoy of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan for North Korea, is currently residing in China and working on the Korea issue at the recently established Institute for Security and Sustainability in Northeast Asia at Peking University.