FEATURE

Northern Exposure

What is North Korea’s game? Months of belligerent moves, then a series of conciliatory gestures over the summer, were capped off with the September announcement that Pyongyang was back to enriching plutonium. To find out what it all means, and what the U.S. should do, Columbia’s Michael B. Shavelson spoke to Charles K. Armstrong, the Korea Foundation Associate Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences and author of the forthcoming Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950–1990.

Interview by Michael B. Shavelson Published Fall 2009
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What is North Korea’s game? Months of belligerent moves, then a series of conciliatory gestures over the summer, were capped off with the September announcement that Pyongyang was back to enriching plutonium. To find out what it all means, and what the U.S. should do, Columbia’s Michael B. Shavelson spoke to Charles K. Armstrong, the Korea Foundation Associate Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences and author of the forthcoming Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950–1990.

Columbia: The nuclear test in May. The missiles fired in July. The arrests of journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling. Their release after Bill Clinton's intervention. The relaxing of some North-South travel restrictions in August. Are these events part of the same story? 

Charles K. Armstrong: They’re all connected inasmuch as they reflect the pattern of how North Korea has been dealing with the world, and particularly with South Korea and the United States, over several years. The North Koreans have learned that the best way to get the attention of the U.S. and the outside world is to rattle their sabers. Unfortunately, it has tended to work, because when North Korea isn’t instigating such provocations, it tends to be ignored.

Columbia: In June President Obama said, “There has been a pattern in the past where North Korea behaves in a belligerent fashion, and if it waits long enough is then rewarded. . . . [W]e are going to break that pattern.” Is Obama ready to break that pattern?

Armstrong: Obama has not said a lot about North Korean policy. He’s been understandably focused on other issues, and he has not made North Korea a priority. That’s unfortunate because it is an issue that warrants attention. Part of the problem is that the administration has not put the kind of focus on North Korea that it could have in order to continue the momentum that had been building since the last year or so of multiparty talks. The administration’s position is that North Korea has to come forth with verification of its nuclear program before Pyongyang can continue in the six-party talks, which is at the moment the sole venue for negotiating.

Columbia: Those talks ended last December. Why?

Armstrong: The North Koreans and the Americans have very different priorities. The U.S. wants nuclear disarmament and the prevention of proliferation. The North Koreans want a peace agreement with the U.S. and a guarantee of their security. It’s not clear how that can really be achieved, but those are the essential starting points. This leads to the issue of timing. The U.S. has said since the Bush administration that it wants verification that North Korea has shut down its nuclear program completely before it can move forward. But the North Koreans have argued that they’ve given the information that was expected of them about their nuclear program, and that the peace talks should move to the next stage of economic assistance and cooperation.

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