In an intimate gathering last night at the Carnegie Council, Dr. Victor Cha, former Director for Asian Affairs in the White House National Security Council and Director of the Asian Studies program at Georgetown University, addressed what he sees as one of the toughest negotiations in the world: the ongoing dispute with North Korea over its nuclear program. Parsing the discussion into three categories––causes, motivations, and ways forward––Cha attempted to shed some light on this unpredictable nation, where a recent series of muscle-flexing has pushed the DPRK to the top tier of U.S. security concerns.
With respect to potential causes of North Korea's recent behavior, Dr. Cha advocated the most simple explanation: North Korea is developing a nuclear weapons program because it wants a nuclear weapons program and part of the nuclear club. Blaming U.S. policy for North Korean hostilities is no longer valid, both in light of Bush's last minute deal with North Korea, and in light of the Obama administration's willingness to participate in high-level negotiations.
The question of "what North Korea wants" has confounded policy analysts for years. Problematically, Dr. Cha explained, many of the things people claim North Korea desires has already been offered them. And the two things that North Korea is really after, according to Cha, the United States can't give them.
More specifically, North Korea is set on being a nuclear state, and acquiring an agreement with the United States similar to the one India got in October 2008. Ironically, Cha speculated, once given that status, the DPRK would likely engage in mutual nuclear reduction negotiations.
The second and equally impossible item on North Korea's wish list, according to Dr. Cha, is an enhanced security agreement with the international community. The United States has already issued various negative security assurances to North Korea, one of which occurred during the Six-Party Talks, when the United States stated that it would not attack North Korea unless provoked.
Despite the significance of this overture, it does not address North Korea's concern over regime security. Namely, if North Korea were to open itself up for reform, it would still require international support in order to survive. In light of North Korea's human rights record, such external backing is unlikely. Given this deadlock, Dr. Cha struggled to find "good options." The proximity of North and South Korea rules out any military intervention. North Korea has stated that any transport sanctions or inspections of suspicious cargo at sea would constitute an act of war.
The remaining possibilities are neither comprehensive nor guaranteed to work. In the past, financial sanctions has proven somewhat effective in penalizing the North Korean elite. The United States could also work with various port countries to increase customs inspections, or persuade China and Russia to restrict their airspace.
With respect to China, Beijing claims to have little influence on the peninsula. Yet, in reality, it has both material influence and access to the leadership, making it the most critical player moving forward. Any pressure from China would have to be exerted covertly as to avoid appearing a lackey of the West, as Dr. Cha has overheard North Koreans previously say of Beijing.
In the end, Dr. Cha bleakly stated "nuclear non-proliferation is under assault." The recent emergence of North Korea's potential alliances with Syria only makes the threat more dire. In significant language, Secretary Gates has recently said that "the transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States and our allies."
The current leadership transition occurring between Kim Jong-il and his youngest son leaves the future even more uncertain. On paper, this instability is the perfect condition for radical change. However, as Dr. Cha stated, internal "fluidity" often manifests in external belligerence.
As a testament to how little we know about the DPRK, the international community is still unclear about where we are in this leader transition–– whether it is "smoke before or after a fire," as Cha so eloquently put it. The same could be said about North Korea's erratic behavior. Signs of more to come or the last cries of a faltering dictator?