For once, the Obama administration and its friends held the line and guess what: the adversary backed down. No, the North Koreans did not stop their efforts to develop nuclear weapons, but they were forced to back down on their many threats — actions that raised tensions on the Korean peninsula and, in the minds of many, brought the region close to war.
North Korean foreign policy over the past year has been aimed at using military threats to get the United States, and especially South Korea, to make concessions. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un wanted to force Seoul and Washington to accept it as a nuclear power and remove sanctions.
This approach worked in the past. We would come up with an agreement that tied economic aid to North Korean abandonment of its nuclear program. To show our good will, we would ship tons of food stuffs to the starving North Koreans. And then, to show their appreciation, North Koreans would continue to develop its nuclear program.
This time, however, Pyong-yang was not successful. First, consider how events have unfolded in recent years. In 2008 a North Korean guard shot and killed a South Korean tourist who had strayed off the beaten path. As a result, the South suspended tours to a North Korean mountain resort. Last Decem-ber, the North launched a long range missile. Then, to get the regional powers’ attention, the North ripped up the armistice that ended the Korean War.
In February it conducted its third nuclear test in defiance of U.N. sanctions. Pyongyang was throwing a tantrum. North Korea’s military was put on alert and all one heard form the north was that war was imminent.
To Western logic, such actions made little sense. It was clear that North Korea’s military could cause devastation — Seoul is only 36 miles from North Korea. However, it is also clear to military specialists that the North would lose the war in short order.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s military went on alert, and the United States took several actions to show that it was serious. Stealth bombers flew all the way from Missouri to the Korean Peninsula and a carrier task force showed up to make it very clear that the United States was prepared to respond.
Everyone was getting tired of North Korea and its “in your face” foreign policy. Even China, North’s only economic supporter, appears to have decided that it had had enough. After a North Korean envoy met with Chinese leader Xi in Beijing last month, the Chinese media announced that North Korea promised “to accept the suggestion of the Chinese side and launch a dialogue with all relevant parties.”
The heart of North-South cooperation was the Kaesong factory park, which had operated for eight years. It was a key source of revenue for the North and was the biggest contributor to inter-Korean trade. It employed 53,000 North Korean workers in a complex of 120 South Korean factories.
The supervisors were from the South. In April, at the height of recent tension, North Korea closed the factories. Workers did not show up and the factory managers soon returned to South Korea. This hurt the North Koreans more than the South.
Then on June 6, we were surprised to learn that the two sides were planning to hold talks in Panmunjon preliminary to ministerial level talks in Seoul on June 12.
According to media reports, the North proposed reopening Kaesong, resuming cross-border tours that were suspended since 2008 and reviving Red Cross programs that helped arrange temporary reunions of aging Korean families separated as a result of the Korean War. As it put it in a statement, “We hope the government-to-government talks will become an opportunity to build trust between the South and North.”
Unfortunately, the meeting was put off because the two sides could not agree on the level of the chief delegates.
More recently, North Korea offered to hold talks with the United States — an offer that was coolly received.
Just because the North proposed talks and will reopen Kaesong does not mean it will be any easier to deal with. The North will continue to make outrageous demands and charges. North Koreans has even been openly critical of its one-time savior — Russia.
It would be nice to think of foreign policy as an opportunity to compromise with the other side, and there are times that works. However, there are times when force must be countered by force. The interesting thing about this sequence is that Washington, Seoul and Beijing laid down the law.
Pyongyang had little choice but to back down. Sometimes, being tough is the proper course even if the North Koreans canceled this set of talks. They have been the supplicants.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.