Is There Method in N.Korea's Diplomatic Madness?

      June 18, 2013 12:18

      North Korea's proposal of high-level talks with the U.S. was only the latest in a series of developments that have baffled North Korea watchers. The North's recent antics have given the impression of a desperately flailing foreign policy, whether brought about by new leader Kim Jong-un's inexperience or power struggles behind the scenes, but some believe there is a plan behind the chaos.

      The proposal on Sunday came not from the Foreign Ministry, which is the usual conduit of talks with Washington, but from the National Defense Commission, which came to excessive influence under former leader Kim Jong-il's "military first" doctrine. It also seemed to be fishing for mutual disarmament talks instead of discussion about ways to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, which North Korea knows the U.S. will not accept.

      Some pundits say the recent offers of talks with first South Korea and then the U.S. were never meant to be accepted but merely aimed to mollify China, which is growing tired of the North's histrionics.

      ◆ Blowing Hot and Cold

      North Korea had been ratcheting up tensions since early March, announcing it was scrapping the armistice that halted the 1950-53 Korean War, issuing threats of a nuclear attack against the South and the U.S. and shutting down the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex.

      Then in mid-May it was all suddenly over. Pyongyang welcomed Japanese cabinet adviser Isao Iijima, a key aide to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on May 14. Eight days later Kim dispatched senior military figure Choe Ryong-hae as a special envoy to China, where he was given a frosty reception.

      On June 6, North Korea proposed high-level government talks with South Korea, only to scrap them in a huff a few days later, and then on Sunday talks with senior U.S. officials.

      Some pundits believe this is all carefully thought out and designed to drive a wedge between South Korea, the U.S. and China, which have grown closer in condemning the North's belligerent antics and calling for it to abandon its nuclear weapons. But most agree that these tactics have been a resounding flop.

      North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watches children perform at a factory kindergarten in North Pyongan Province on Sunday. /Reuters-Newsis

      ◆ Baffling Tactics

      One researcher at a state-run think tank here said North Korea was clumsy in proposing talks with the U.S. "In the past, North Korea used to test waters through its UN office in New York and then propose talks with Washington through the Foreign Ministry," said Lee Soo-seok at the Institute for National Security Strategy. But this time there was no attempt to see if the U.S. would be amenable.

      Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk said it was "unprecedented" for the North's National Defense Commission to take the lead in offering talks with Washington.

      North Korea said the aim of the proposed talks was to "ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, establish regional peace and security and realize the U.S. vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, among other issues of mutual interest."

      Yet as recently as Jan. 23, the North Korean Foreign Ministry said it would no longer discuss denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. An intelligence source here said the U.S. would consider discussions with North Korea that do not cover scrapping Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program a waste of time.

      One former Unification Ministry official said North Korea is not genuinely interested in holding talks with the U.S. "North Korea probably just wanted to be seen to offer talks," he said. "Maybe it'll be Russia next."

      Some pundits believe North Korea is merely trying to mollify China after Choe was firmly told by Chinese President Xi Jinping that Beijing believes in "negotiations and dialogue." Choe obligingly told Beijing the North wants the same thing, but how sincere he was is anyone's guess.

      Koh Yoo-hwan at Dongguk University said, "North Korea is upset that China is joining hands with South Korea and the U.S. to pressure it, and is merely going through the motions of offering dialogue to extract some kind of reward from Beijing."

      North Korea is in many ways totally dependent on China, which in turn holds Pyongyang in an awkward embrace as a buffer against the U.S. sphere of influence.

      Chung Young-tae, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said the North Korean regime "may be intentionally fumbling its diplomatic approach." In other words, the North may be seeking to blame Seoul and Washington for rejecting its offers and turn to the provocations that usually resume when talks fail.

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