Responding to North Korea's Surprises

By Feffer, John | Foreign Policy in Focus, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Responding to North Korea's Surprises


Feffer, John, Foreign Policy in Focus


For a supposedly changeless, monolithic state, North Korea shakes up the staid world of diplomacy with surprising frequency. In the last four months, Pyongyang has initiated dramatic economic changes, stunned Japan with its confession of abductions, appointed a Chinese-born tycoon to oversee its newest free trade zone, and sent its first-ever boatload of athletes, musicians, and cheerleaders to South Korea to participate in the 2002 Asian games. In its latest stunner, North Korea revealed in early October to a visiting U.S. delegation that it has violated international agreements by pursuing a secret uranium enrichment program.

So often on the receiving end of carrot-and-stick policies, North Korea has been trying its own alternation of sweet and sour. The summer began on a sour note. At the end of June, in what has become a semi-annual clash during the lucrative crab harvesting season, North and South Korean boats exchanged fire in a disputed area of the West Sea, leaving four Republic of Korea (ROK--South Korea) sailors and an estimated thirty Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea (DPRK--North Korea) sailors dead. Planned negotiations with the U.S. immediately evaporated. Given North Korea's refusal to acknowledge dispatching a spy boat sunk by Japanese self-defense forces in December 2001, relations with Japan also reached an impasse.

By the end of the summer, however, North Korea added some sweetener to its foreign policy. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to Pyongyang in September prompted North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to make the dramatic admission that his country had abducted 13 Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s in order to advance its espionage efforts. This burst of glasnost, followed by the visit of five surviving abductees to their Japanese families, represented a painful but necessary step forward in the normalization of relations between the two countries.

Meanwhile, after North Korea expressed its regret for the naval clash, exchanges between North and South accelerated, capped by the joint procession of athletes at the opening ceremony of the Asian Games in Pusan. In the fall, work resumed on the stalled inter-Korean railroad. A permanent center for reunions of families divided by the Korean War is being negotiated, and inter-Korean trade is up 11% over last year. South Korean firms are pouring money into telecommunications and software development in the North, and plans for a joint economic zone in the North Korean border town of Kaesong have nearly been finalized.

These promising developments are now in jeopardy after Pyongyang's admission that its nuclear program is not frozen, as promised in the 1994 Agreed Framework. With the help of Pakistan, North Korea has apparently been trying to produce fissionable material for several years--opting for a centrifuge to refine uranium rather than a nuclear reactor to accumulate plutonium--though it will take several more years before such a process yields a nuclear arsenal.

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