North Korea has announced it is preparing for a new round of underground nuclear testing, and is ready to take “strong physical countermeasures” against the United States and its southern counterpart in retaliation to new United Nations Security Council sanctions.
At a meeting with top security and foreign ministry officials recently, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un also warned he would take “high-profile important state measures” against the country’s adversaries, according to state media.
As this developed, the US and South Korea have announced the start of a long-planned naval exercise in the East Sea off the southeastern port of Pohang, which the North condemned as “warmongering.”
But if there is a time for the US and its partners to further step up diplomacy, it is now, according to some Korea watchers.
Veteran diplomat Kantathi Suphamongkhon had been to Pyongyang several times, and dealt with top officials there. He told Al Jazeera that the last thing the country needs is an an all-out armed conflict.
In one of his trips to Pyongyang as Thai foreign minister a few years ago, Suphamongkhon recalled asking top officials how they would react to a complete withdrawal of US troops from the border with South Korea.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding going on, if one look into their mind [North Korea’s] , they see themselves as victims. So their behaviour is logical from that standpoint.”
-Kantathi Suphamongkhon, veteran Thai diplomat
The answer surprised him. Pyongyang, he said, saw the idea as an “act of destabilisation” instead of a peaceful overture – a sign that the US is getting ready for a missile strike.
The incident, Suphamongkhon said, illustrates North Korea’s “gap of perception” and level of suspicion, which in turn fuels its antagonistic behaviour towards the US and the world.
‘Cat with no claw’
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding going on,” Suphamongkhon told Al Jazeera. “If one looks into their mind, they see themselves as victims. So their behaviour is logical from that standpoint.”
“There is an extreme fear from their side,” said the former Thai diplomat, adding that this sense of insecurity has fueled the country’s “tendency to be provocative” with its actions.He said that with the latest threats, Kim Jong-un is trying to project his power and assert his leadership after his father Kim Jong-il died in late 2011.
There have been reports that the underground test would occur on or before February 16, to coincide with the late leader Kim Jong-il’s birthday.
Although these repeated acts of “belligerence” may frustrate many, Soomin Seo, a South Korean journalist and a scholar, said they are North Korea’s attempts to capture the attention of the world, particularly the US.
“They know that just about the only card that they can use to grab the outside world’s attention, specifically the US, is nuclear weapons,” said Seo, who visited the North numerous times during Kim Jong-il’s regime.
Like Suphamongkhon, Seo is also calling for more diplomacy, particularly from the US.
North Korea’s past misdeeds should not preempt engagement, said Seo, whose grandmother, alongside her then two-week-old mother, fled the North at the height of winter in 1950 and settled in the South. She never saw her family again.
Last week, China’s new leader Xi Jinping proposed just that, calling for the the resumption of the six-party talks, which had collapsed in April 2009 after North Korea pulled out and later resumed missile tests and nuclear development.
Aside from China, the US and North Korea, other parties involved in the on-again-off-again talks are South Korea, Japan and Russia.
North Korea ‘plans to conduct nuclear test’
Of all the major players, China remains the North’s biggest financial and geopolitical ally. But more recently, it has also made its frustrations clear towards its impoverished neighbour. Just last week, China voted alongside the US on a UN Security Council resolution condemning the North’s latest rocket launch.
In a recent Brookings Institute memo prepared for President Obama, East Asia specialist Jonathan Pollack wrote that: “US and China have a compelling shared interest” to prevent the crisis from turning “into something far worse.”
“The unraveling of the North is no longer a hypothetical possibility,” Pollack wrote.
Part of the challenge the US and other negotiators face is that the North has already decided, that it wants to go ahead with its plan despite global opposition, James Hoare, a former British diplomat to North Korea said in an interview with Al Jazeera.
“I think that’s the basic problem that North Korea is determined to acquire a nuclear capability for defense purposes, for prestige reasons, for arguing that all the states have the right to do this,” said Hoare.
Hard and soft diplomacy
Whether or not the North is willing to talk, is not the relevant question, but how, said Seo.
Seo pointed out that there have been “genuine attempts” by the North to engage South Korea and the US. She cited the historic meetings betwen Kim Jong-il and South Korea’s Kim Dae-jung, as well as President Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
But the North quickly retreated, when President George W Bush said it was part of an “axis of evil” with Iran and Iraq, she said, erasing the trust that took years to build.
“I don’t think they really got over it, and they could not understand why a country as big as the United States would break its promise,” Seo said. “North Korea bet on that. That’s the only possible future of their economy.”
Since then the North Koreans have initiated steps to develop its nuclear program, said Hoare, who now teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
Hoare recalled then US Vice President Dick Cheney as saying that the US does not negotiate with “evil”.
Then North Korea saw what happened in Iraq in 2004 and got even more scared. Thus, accelerating its nuclear weapons program as an act of deterrence, Suphamongkhon added.
But it is not impossible to coax North Korea back into the negotiating table, he added, emphasizing the need for a third party go-between to overturn the degree of mistrust after years of isolation.
“One thing that is clearly lacking is effective communication between the world and North Korea.“
– Kantathi Suphamongkhon
“I see the UN Security Council resolution and all those things as public diplomacy,” Suphamongkhon said. “But you need that more private diplomacy with a credible person that’s acceptable to all sides, to try to bridge that gap. I think that is crucial.”
While strengthening its cooperation with China to continue to monitor North Korea’s nuclear activities, in the public diplomacy sphere, the Obama administration should also try a parallel soft-power approach with Pyongyang, he said.
Suphamongkhon said the US had some “degree of success” in such kind of diplomacy when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra performed in the North Korean capital in 2008.
Unofficial visits similar to Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson made recently, should be also be encouraged, Suphamongkhon added.
“The US can always say that it is not officially sending these people in. But the communication that takes place, I think is something useful,” he said, before specifically suggesting music legend Eric Clapton, who is actually an Englishman, to perform in Pyongyang, apparently hinting at Kim Jong-un’s fondness for Western music.
“One thing that is clearly lacking is effective communication between the world and North Korea,” he said.
Hoare, on the other hand, said that there is no need for the US to use intermediaries.
“I don’t think it’s the problem with the the mechanics of how you get message, but how you decide what message to send and what to do,” he said. “But there’s nobody really has any idea what to do.”
Hoare also said that if the US is “willing to pay enough” it can stop the North’s nuclear program. “But you’ve got to pay a lot, there’s not doubt about it.”
The alternative would be a nuclear-armed North Korea, which could pose an even greater headache to the region and the world.
“Somehow, you have to grit your teeth and get in there keep the conversation going,” Hoare said.