N. Korea’s old tricks no longer work

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, left, is accompanied by Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao, right, during the opening ceremony of the Fatherland Liberation War Museum. Saturday, July 27, 2013. (Photo : AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

So, these days North Korea is now in the middle of waging a ‘charm offensive’, which has suddenly superseded their belligerence campaign they conducted in March and April.

In recent weeks, high-level North Korean envoys have reassured the world that North Korea is willing to return to the Six Party Talks and is also prepared to negotiate some ‘unspecified’ solution to nuclear program. They have proposed direct bilateral talks with the United States, and nearly had a ministerial-level meeting with the South Korean government. Then, on a lower-level meetings they expressed great interest in re-starting the Kaesong Industrial Complex immediately – and also suggested to resume the activities of the Kumgang Tourist Zone, frozen since 2008 (so far, the South Korean government is not particularly enthusiastic about the latter proposal).

This is all well and good, to be sure, but as recently as just three months ago, completely different noises emanated from Pyongyang. In early April, North Korean officials went so far as to state that war was imminent, and therefore they were ready to turn Seoul into a sea of fire while also threatening preemptive nuclear strikes the United States, Japan and South Korea. They even said they were going to launch a missile strike on Austin, Texas, ironically probably the most liberal city in that state. To show that they meant business, they even urged foreign embassies to leave Pyongyang.

Now, in the days of the sweat talk about cooperation it will not make any harm to re-mind that on the 9th of April, the Pyongyang spokesperson made clear that all foreign residents of South Korea (obviously, all 1.5 million of them) should leave in the next few days – before North Korean shells and nuclear warheads wipe the doomed country out.

As many observers, including my humble self, have said on many occasions, there is nothing particularly new in these bizarre-looking oscillations between belligerence and charm. In a nutshell, these are the tactics that Pyongyang has used since the early 1990s, sometimes with quite impressive results.

From their experiences, North Korean decision-makers have learnt that it pays to make their negotiation partners uneasy and nervous. These scare campaigns have usually helped to soften the partners before talks, and by doing so it has made the extraction of good conditions and aid from such talks all the more easier.

For example, in the early 1990s, when North Korea faced mounting economic problems and needed aid, the North Korean government began to leak information about its nuclear program as well as making provocative moves. As a matter of fact, this was the first such occasion when North Korea promised to turn Seoul into a sea of fire. Then the policy brought about a brilliant success: the US, South Korea and some other countries agreed to participate in the KEDO project that envisioned the building of two light-water reactors in North Korea, as well as the regular shipment of free heavy-fuel oil to the. This paved the way for a dramatic increase in foreign food assistance to North Korea. So, blackmail paid well in the early 1990s.

So, there is nothing completely new with the bellicose theatrics we saw few months ago (followed by the equally predictable sweat talk recently). However, something strange is seemingly present in North Korean behavior nowadays. This year they continued to play the old tune, but they played it much louder than they used to. While this time the threats did not differ dramatically from what we have heard before, North Korean propagandists have chosen to use an unusually high pitch, and their description of the coming apocalypse was unusually dramatic.

It seems that the current charm offensive is also being overdone to some extent. It is clear what the North Korean politicians want: first, aid from the South and, second, recognition as a de-facto nuclear state by the international community. However, the intensity of their charm offensive is also unusually high as that of the belligerence in March and April.

There might be two possible (and compatible) explanations for North Korea’s unusual behavioral pattern.

First, the unusually high pitch of North Korea’s diplomacy may reflect the leadership style of Kim Jong Un and his people. Kim Jong Un is young and inexperienced, but also fond of dramatic gestures.

However, it seems more likely that the intensity of the ongoing campaign largely reflects a growing sense of the diminishing returns from such diplomatic maneuvers. To be frank, this old strategy is becoming less and less effective because its target audience has seen it so many times and have learnt what to expect and how to respond.

When back in the 1990s, North Koreans promised to “turn Seoul into a sea of fire”, some Seoulites did really go to the shops to stock up on canned meat, rice and matches. In recent years, though, as Seoulites have heard the same threat repeated, they just kept sipping their cappuccinos. It has become common sense wisdom that North Koreans are highly unlikely to do anything that could lead to a serious escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula – although some minor skirmishes are seen as possible, indeed, even likely to occur from time to time. The same attitude is also quite widespread in the diplomatic world, too; diplomats are increasingly think that North Korea’s gothic rhetoric is empty and therefore best ignored.

On the other hand, there is also far less interest in striking a deal with Pyongyang. Back in 1994 – and for that matter in 2007 – a number of reasonable people seriously believed that a combination of generosity and sincerity might help to solve the North Korean nuclear problem. In other words, they believed that if North Korean leaders are treated fairly and also given sufficiently large amounts of money they will accept verified and irreversible denuclearization.

Such hopes are long gone. Even though diplomats continue to pay lip service to the need for denuclearization, it is widely and correctly understood that there is little chance of the North Korean government surrendering its nuclear program. Such assumptions are much supported by North Korea’s own statements: throughout the last couple of years, the North Korean media has never tired of repeating that their country will forever remain a nuclear country.

Indeed, in this particular case, North Korean officials are saying what they really mean. The major long-term goal of North Korea is not denuclearization, but a nuclear arms control deal. The North Koreans are willing to talk with the outside world, so long as they are accepted as a de-facto nuclear power. They are also willing to accept money for freezing their nuclear development program – but the irreversible and verifiable denuclearization is clearly not a part of their agenda.

There might be some valid reasons why Western powers should eventually enter arms control negotiations. However, people in Washington and other major capitals remain quite unenthusiastic about such a deal, and are clearly not in a great rush to reach one. As an American diplomat put it, they are not going to buy the same horse twice.

Therefore, North Korean decision-makers now face a rather unpleasant situation. They have discovered that their intended audience no longer takes their threats – however picturesque and high-pitched – seriously. The agenda that they wish to discuss is also of little interest to their potential negotiating partners. It seems that this time the North has tried to solve the problem by making the campaign of belligerence more intense and by being more charming in their charm offensive. This might still work out for them, but it seems more advisable for North Korean decision-makers to consider some new tactics. The old tricks are not working any more…

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