Cracking the North Korea Puzzle

I want to thank Dr. Mel Gurtov for the following guest post:

Donald Trump inherits an intractable problem in Asia: North Korea’s determination to modernize its weapons arsenal and, absent a better deal from the United States, continue working toward an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. The North’s latest missile test—one with intermediate range of perhaps 2,000 miles—should be understood in the context of weapons modernization. According to the US Pentagon, the test represented progress for North Korea in several respects: it was a ground-based launch rather than a submarine launch; it used solid fuel technology; and it flew farther than other IRBM tests, the four most recent ones having all failed at launching.

Over the past year, North Korea has carried out over 25 ballistic missile tests and conducted its fifth nuclear-weapon test as well. All these tests are in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions that ban and condemn them. Each resolution has led to harsher sanctions, but sanctions have had little if any effect on Pyongyang’s behavior or rhetoric. Even China’s criticisms, which have grown more severe in recent years, have not moved North Korea to change course.

Adding to the North Korea puzzle is the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s elder half-brother at Malaysia’s international airport. While the investigation is only just underway, it appears that the murder of Kim Jong-nam was the culmination of several such attempts by North Korean agents to get rid of someone whom Kim Jong-un feared (exactly why is unclear). The act reflects the insecurity of the North Korean regime, especially under the third Kim, who has systematically eliminated quite a few people who have challenged his rule or his policies.

What we face in North Korea is a militantly nationalistic despotism that is fearful of its future, Stalinist in the breadth of its repression of its citizens, and without reliable allies. North Korean leaders want security assurances, meaningful economic development aid, and international recognition. By now they may also want acknowledgment as a nuclear-weapon state. China, North Korea’s principal outside source of food and oil, is a reluctant supporter of the North’s objectives, and consistently (as happened following the latest missile test) urges the United States to reengage with Pyongyang. Contrary to the long-prevailing view in Washington, however, the Chinese are neither capable of pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons nor willing to try. China recognizes that those weapons are for deterrence of the US and are not likely to be given up unless North Korea receives the assurances and recognition it covets.

At the moment any kind of positive engagement between the US and the DPRK seems highly unlikely. The Trump administration has said little about Korea policy other than to reaffirm the alliance with South Korea and vow that a North Korean ICBM “won’t happen.” But this US administration is not partial to diplomatic solutions anywhere, least of all on the Korean peninsula. Equally troubling is that the administration has virtually no experienced Asia hands among its top officials, and a tense relationship with China. Those are not ingredients for a creative response to North Korea’s weapons tests.

One development that might move Korean affairs in a positive direction is upcoming elections in South Korea. A liberal administration headed by Moon Jae-in is in line to replace the corrupt government of Park Geun-hye. Her hard-line approach to North Korea is likely to be discarded in favor of a return to something resembling the “Sunshine policy” of two previous presidents. How the Trump administration will react to that change is hard to say, but if it were wise, it would follow the South Koreans’ lead and offer to sit down with North Korean leaders for a new round of talks. The alternative to negotiating a new package deal is more North Korean nuclear weapons, and an ICBM capable of delivering them.


Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and Senior Editor of Asian Perspective. His foreign affairs blog, “In the Human Interest,” is at

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