What Does North Korea Want?

COMMENTARY Homeland Security

What Does North Korea Want?

May 7th, 2003 3 min read
Peter Brookes

Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs

Peter helps develop and communicate The Heritage Foundation's stance on foreign and defense policy through his research and writing.
North Korea's leaders spent months demanding the United States sit down for talks. Then, when the United States did so, they acted like schoolyard bullies.

        They told us they have nuclear weapons and threatened to demonstrate as much. They demanded to know what we're going to do about it. Only later do we hear from Beijing that the North Koreans didn't mean all this and that they want to deal. They'll abandon their nuclear weapons program and missiles, we're told, for unreasonable amounts of food and energy and a promise we won't attack them.

        It makes one wonder whether "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il learned anything from the fate of Saddam Hussein. In Iraq, we proved that brinksmanship doesn't wash with this administration. Saddam may or may not be alive, but his reign of terror in Iraq is over. 

        Then, too, perhaps the North Koreans did learn from Iraq. Perhaps the Dear Leader has become convinced he and his regime are next on the United States' Axis of Evil hit list. Bone-rattling fear would explain a lot of the recent craziness. Perhaps the Dear Leader's ploy is to try to convince the United States he might unleash a nuke against the United States or South Korea if we don't give into his demands.

        He may be panicking, but we don't have to. Why not?

        North Korea has two nuclear bombs -- maybe. The United States has 6,000. North Korea has a million-man army outfitted with a veritable military museum of aged Soviet (yes, Soviet) equipment. Along with our allies in South Korea, we have 2 million soldiers and the world's most advanced weaponry. It would be an ugly fight, and one that we would rather avoid. But we would prevail -- and Kim knows it.

        Moreover, in Iraq, we conquered a reasonably stable country that was far from destitute, even by the standards of its region. North Korea, considered the worst national economy in the world, can't feed its 22 million people or provide them electricity. In the last eight years, 2 million North Koreans have starved to death, and millions more would've if not for international food aid -- half of which comes from the United States. Kim Jong Il's regime is on the edge of the abyss. North Korea needs the world far more than the world needs North Korea.

        We should encourage the Chinese to continue to pressure North Korea to behave. Arm-twisting from Beijing probably led to the recent announcement that the North Koreans are ready to deal. The Chinese didn't like the way Kim's crowd conducted itself during the talks and almost certainly let the North Koreans know this after the meeting. Beijing doesn't want trouble on its border, and it doesn't want to be made to choose between Pyongyang and the world's lone superpower. News of what happened in Iraq spread to China as well.

        Furthermore, we should continue to multilateralize the North Korean problem and begin isolating Pyongyang. The Dear Leader must understand his nukes will have consequences. In fact, we ought to give the United Nations a shot at redemption after the Iraqi debacle and urge the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution calling on North Korea to rejoin the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and halt its nuclear weapons program.

        On top of that, we should urge countries that have recently opened diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, such as Italy, Australia and the Philippines, to close them or lower the level of diplomatic representation. Washington should encourage these countries -- and others -- to base relations with Pyongyang on the status of its nuclear program. 

        The North Korean problem is a nettlesome one at best. It is going to take some time -- as well as close cooperation with Japan and South Korea -- to resolve. North Korea likely will continue to act provocatively and simultaneously make conciliatory gestures. The key for us is to be patient.

        Washington should continue to talk with North Korea, if only to justify a tougher approach later on. We should seek a peaceful resolution, but we should keep all options open. After all, we're the ones with the leverage.

-Peter Brookes is director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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