Why the U.S. Should Give Pyongyang Breathing Space

Apr 02, 2013
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Weeks of bellicose rhetoric from North Korea has given the impression that Pyongyang is seeking military confrontation with Seoul and Washington. Today’s announcement that Pyongyang intends to restart a nuclear reactor is especially unwelcome and unhelpful. In reality, however, the North’s provocative behavior may actually be part of a larger effort to break out of diplomatic isolation and economic dependency on China by pressuring Washington to return to the negotiating table.

Two announcements in the past 36 hours seem to support this interpretation. First, a meeting of the ruling party resulted in a statement placing equal emphasis on building both a stronger economy and a nuclear deterrent. Second, the parliamentary body appointed a new premier, Pak Pong Ju, who is largely viewed as an economic reformer. Taken together, these two developments suggest that Kim Jong-un is actually more interested in improving the national economy than in turning either Los Angeles or Seoul into a “sea of flames.”

If the North’s primary goals are largely economic, then why all of the “military adventurism” of the past few months? Most likely, the North was trying (in a ham-handed and reckless way) to convince Washington that Pyongyang is too dangerous to ignore. By ratcheting up tensions, the North may have been hoping the South would push  the United States to engage in dialogue with the North. Based on a 40-year-old pattern of using brinkmanship as a gateway to negotiations, the North's convoluted logic may be that this chain of events will lead to a constructive relationship with Washington that focuses on trade and aid.

There is, of course, an important domestic component to these latest developments. In particular, the announcement of an “equal emphasis policy”—which takes its name from a 1962 initiative and calls for the simultaneous development of the economy and defense capabilities—seems to be part of an increasing effort to attach Kim Jong-un to the legacy of his grandfather, the charismatic founder of the DPRK.

So what does this mean for the United States?  First, continued vigilance and caution—we must not let down our guard or be provoked into making a shortsighted move. But second, and equally important, we ought to recognize that North Korea may be looking for a way to step back from its bombastic rhetoric and dangerous behavior of recent weeks. If so, we should consider giving Pyongyang the breathing space to do the right thing. 

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • James Person // Deputy Director, History and Public Policy Program; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Charles Kraus // Program Assistant
  • Roy O. Kim // Program Assistant