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DPRK softening? Hold your applause


Rory Medcalf


27 August 2009 14:02

What to make of North Korea’s conciliatory gestures in recent weeks? Releasing American journalists and a South Korean worker; talks between Kim Jong-Il and the head of Hyundai; talks between the North’s delegation to Kim Dae-Jung’s funeral and ROK President Lee; the possible revival of North-South family reunions; even an apparent invitation for bilateral nuclear talks with Washington. In the eyes of some media, this opens up a real possibility of progress in Korean and regional security.

Certainly, any positive movement is welcome, given that it has been such a troubled time of late, what with missile tests, a nuclear test and threats of war emanating from Pyongyang. But is far too early for optimism. Observers should neither be surprised nor especially heartened at the latest twists in North Korean diplomacy.

For all of this is quite consistent with the pattern of the past 15 years: the North alternates between periods of confrontation and apparent conciliation. This on-again, off-again approach is aimed – quite effectively — at preventing real progress in dismantling the North’s nuclear weapons program and, with diminishing success, at keeping its neighbours off balance, minimising scope for a united front among the US, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. It is all about buying time, and it looks like Pyongyang is in the process of buying a bit more.

The bottom line is that no concession has been offered on the nuclear front; there is no indication, for instance, that the North is willing to return to the Six-Party Talks.

Why the friendly gestures now? It could be that sanctions under USNCR 1874 are starting to bite and that China is proving less protective than Kim had hoped. It could be that sufficient progress has been made in securing military support for a planned leadership transition to young Kim Jong-Un, such that displays of martial assertiveness can be toned down. It could be that the Dear Leader’s health problems are in some sort of remission. It could be that Kim thinks he has at least a hint of some sort of fresh understanding with the US in the aftermath of the Bill Clinton visit.

But the familiar limits of diplomacy with North Korea will likely be felt before long. And the deep uncertainties about security on the Korean Peninsula remain, especially the risks surrounding regime transition within perhaps five years. For a compelling reality check, I recommend this new piece inThe National Interest by Michael Green, who holds the Japan Chair at CSIS and was formerly director of Asian affairs on the US National Security Council.

Incidentally, one lesson from recent developments is that the Lee Myung-Bak Government’s policy of taking a harder line against the North is proving a sound one. For instance, by joining the Proliferation Security Initiative (on which the Lowy Institute has recently published) Seoul called Pyongyang’s bluff that such a move would amount to an act of war.

Photo by Flickr user yeowatzup, used under a Creative Commons license.