What little we know of the Hermit Kingdom suggests that the last few weeks have been full of instability. For the first time, anti-regime propaganda has been sighted within the country – an act that is punishable by death. There are persistent and credible rumors that North Korea’s government is in a state of disarray.
I’m inclined to believe that this is an act of desperation. The Christian Science Monitor has an excellent roundup of reactions on the subject that provides a good briefing into the implications of the DPRK’s announcement. It’s clear that the North Koreans believed that their official admission of having nuclear weapons would produce some kind of breakthrough with either the US or China, preferably both. Instead it’s clear that China is beginning to run out of patience with North Korea, and the US will not budge on the issue of bilateral negotiations.
The North Koreans plan may have been to get the US to agree to bilateral talks and then walk away from the table complaining loudly, giving them the ability to play victim and hopefully gain concessions from the Chinese. That’s why Kerry’s bilateral talk plan was so foolish – it would give the North Koreans exactly what they wanted.
The only viable option we have right now is paradoxically to do nothing. As the CSM piece makes clear, a military option is simply too devastating to consider. Giving into North Korean demands will only give the North Koreans what they want and weaken our position. Economic sanctions will be considered a provocation by the North Koreans, and the DPRK is already barely able to maintain itself as it is – sanctions wouldn’t be particularly effective.
Instead the best policy is to do what has been done before, let the Koreans scream and shout, then let them save face later by coming back to the table. North Korea knows that any attack against Japan, South Korea, or the United States would be met by full nuclear retaliation, and Kim Jung Il seems more of a megalomaniac than someone with a death wish. The North Koreans may not have the benefit of time, as their country continues its long slide into utter collapse. The North Koreans hope they can force the issue with us and make us work on their timetable – we’ve no need to oblige them.