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The Pyongyang Puzzle

AS President Clinton visited South Korea this week, all was quiet along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating it from North Korea.

That's a good sign after more than a week of increased tensions on the peninsula. Concern rose when North Korea denounced the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War and, in violation of it, moved small military units into the DMZ three nights in a row.

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Conventional wisdom says the North Koreans, beset by a looming famine and economic collapse, are trying to force the United States into direct peace negotiations, while at the same time excluding South Korea. The US has made clear time and again that any peace talks must include the government in Seoul, a position Mr. Clinton repeated this week.

What Washington does not know about North Korea is as important as what it does know, and renders Pyongyang's motives difficult to interpret. "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il, son of the late longtime "Paramount Leader" Kim Il Sung, appears to be in control, yet has not assumed several of the titles his father held and is often absent from important events. No other military activity took place along with the DMZ incursions; the North Korean Army's training level over the winter was the lowest in many years. Despite an avalanche of bellicose North Korean rhetoric, US intelligence has detected no military mobilization.

While it doesn't appear a power struggle is raging in Pyongyang, the US does detect an ongoing debate between those in the government who want to open up to the outside world to gain desperately needed economic and food aid, and those who fear the political contamination of outside ideas. Kim has to reconcile the conflicting perspectives, which often results in the sending of mixed messages to the international community.

If North Korea was trying to send the US a message, it chose the wrong way of doing it. Far from driving a wedge between Washington and Seoul, such saber rattling only pushes the two closer together. (Perhaps China has learned the same lesson in regard to Taiwan.) Pyongyang has already twice obligated itself to dealing with Seoul; once in the 1991 basic agreement on north-south relations and again in the 1994 agreed framework in which the US, South Korea, and others agreed to build nuclear power plants in North Korea in exchange for a halt to Pyongyang's dangerous nuclear program.

Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young Sam this week offered Pyongyang four-way talks, including China. Russia has proposed six-way talks, including Russia, China, and Japan. The world can live without North Korea, but North Korea cannot survive in isolation. Pyongyang should cease the military theatrics, tone down its rhetoric, and accept the hand that Washington and Seoul have long offered. Its own people will be the first beneficiaries.

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