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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Columbia: North Korea would prefer bilateral talks to the six-party talks.

Armstrong: Right. They’ve never been terribly enthusiastic about any kind of multiparty talks. They have stated repeatedly that the main problem is between themselves and the United States, and problems have to be solved at that level. When Obama was campaigning, he said that he would be willing to talk to anyone, including Kim Jong Il, face-to-face, to resolve pressing issues of foreign policy. The North Koreans seem to have taken him at his word and were expecting, rightly or wrongly, that the U.S. would engage in bilateral talks with North Korea. They have expressed disappointment that this hasn’t happened.

Columbia: Could Bill Clinton’s recent trip help in that regard?

Armstrong: I think the North Koreans are very pleased that Bill Clinton met with them, even though the release of the journalists was theoretically not related to the other issues. Clearly, this visit was a significant breakthrough in contact between the U.S. and North Korea.

Columbia: Do we know anything about Clinton’s debriefing?

Armstrong: The Obama administration said repeatedly that Bill Clinton was going as a private citizen, and that his visit had nothing to do with administration policy. But there is no way we can believe that Clinton’s conversations with Kim Jong Il stuck simply to the issue of the imprisoned journalists. What Clinton has said to the administration has been kept very quiet, but obviously he could bring back some useful information. Among the most important is about Kim Jong Il’s health and his hold on power.

Columbia: The North Koreans seem to feel comfortable with Bill Clinton.

Armstrong: Yes, Bill Clinton went the furthest toward developing a bilateral relationship with North Korea. Under Clinton, the U.S. and North Korea for a time reached an agreement over North Korea’s nuclear program in 1994 and again toward the very end of his second term, the U.S. and North Korea came very close to negotiating a deal on North Korea’s missile development. As the North Koreans see it, Clinton’s visit last month picked up where he left off at the end of his presidency.

Columbia: Kim Jong Il is portrayed in the West as being a bit mad. Is he?

Armstrong: There is a rationality to what he does, and there is a pattern that has developed over the last 15 years of North Korean provocation and brinksmanship. But the provocations get more intense, the stakes get higher each time, and there’s always a danger that circumstances could get out of control. It’s a very volatile situation on the Korean peninsula.

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