The pursuit of international relations is hardly a rational undertaking, as North Korea illustrates. I am not talking about the Stalinist methods with which North Korea oppresses its population. Based on recent material about North Korea’s gulags (“Escape from Camp 14”), I would argue that the North Koreans have even outdone Stalin at his most evil.
There are clearly ties between North Korea’s internal and external behavior. In that regard, I think of colleagues in the Department of State who seek answers to our presidents’ questions: What is happening in North Korea? What do they want? What should we do to deal with them?
Presidents ask similar questions about other countries every day. With North Korea, however, no one quite knows what is going on or what to expect. Take our recent go-round with Pyongyang. We made clear to the North Koreans that we would provide them with food aid so they could feed their starving population. The majority of the people (with the exception of the party elite) go to bed hungry each night. That’s because Pyongyang considers it more important to spend money on the military — one of the largest, albeit antiquated, militaries in the world.
All we asked North Koreans to do was to stop work on its nuclear weapons program. That included a halt to firing inter-continental missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Surprisingly, the North Koreans agreed. Many observers thought that perhaps the country’s new 29-year-old leader, Kim Jong-Un, who went to school in Switzerland and spent a lot of time in the West, would conduct a more humane and interactive policy regarding the rest of the world. That was short-lived.
The United States and other countries reacted strongly when North Korea announced plans to launch a “weather” satellite to help commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the current leader’s grandfather; Kim il-Sung, who is considered a deity in North Korea. But this missile was not intended to harm any one — so North Korea said. Forget that it was a three-stage rocket that could possibly reach the United States. No, North Korea insisted, the goal was science, even though the satellite could easily be replaced with a warhead.
The outcry from around the world was deafening. Nations asked the North Koreans not to launch the missile. The Obama administration made clear that it would not provide the food aid if North Korea proceeded with the launch.
North Korea, however, went ahead, and it leaders must have been crushed when the launch failed. In contrast to previous denials, North Korea admitted that it had failed but claimed to have learned much from the failure. For once, the Obama administration made good on its promise and canceled U.S. aid.
If that were not enough, young Kim dispelled any hope that he might introduce a new more domestic-oriented policy. In his anniversary speech d, he said, “We should concentrate our efforts more and more toward strengthening and developing the Korean People’s Army.”
This was a reaffirmation of the “Military First” policy North Korean leaders have followed in the past. One can only feel for the millions of North Koreans who heard the new leader and realized that they would continue to go hungry while the leadership continued to focus on military and nuclear weapons.
The military parade on the 100th anniversary raised a number of eyebrows. It featured what appeared to be a three-stage missile mounted on the back of a missile carrier, thereby making it mobile. The sight left Western analysts puzzled, wondering whether it was similar to the intercontinental missile North Korea had tried and failed to send it into orbit.
Meanwhile, the world awaits North Korea’s underground nuclear test. No one knows what to do with Pyongyang. The Chinese appear to have no love for the North Koreans and are primarily concerned that if they push North Korea too hard, the country will collapse. Beijing does not want the accompanying chaos on its border near South Korean and Japan.
If you have North Korea figured out and know the answers to our presidents’ questions, you’re one step ahead of the specialists trying to make sense out of the situation.
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.