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 may happen, if there is a change in North Korea, is that the two sides might come together to increase cooperation, and eventually achieve unity. That was the hope of South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, who recently passed away. He tried to encourage cooperation between the two Koreas, and economic reform within North Korea.

I’m confident that there will be unification, and it might happen quite suddenly and unexpectedly, but we really can’t predict when or how that will take place.

Columbia: On September 3, after a month of conciliatory gestures, North Korea announced that it was in the final stages of enriching uranium and that “plutonium is being weaponized.”

Armstrong: If the Obama administration wants to put a stop to North Korea’s nuclear program, both plutonium production and uranium enrichment, it had better take advantage of the window of opportunity opened up by the Clinton visit and begin intensive negotiations with Pyongyang. Past experience has shown that threats and sanctions only push North Korea toward more aggressive behavior, whereas focused negotiations have led to positive outcomes.

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