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Not the same old North Korea?

North Korea appears to be reneging on a nuclear deal with the U.S., but the agreement could still pave the way for a new American strategy: targeted social change.

March 21, 2012|By Michael J. Mazarr
  • North Korean soldiers are shown at Kumsusan Memorial Palace before a parade commemorating the 70th birthday of the country's late leader Kim Jong Il. Not even a month after North Korea agreed to halt long-range missile testing, Pyongyang announced its intention to launch a satellite -- with a long-range missile
North Korean soldiers are shown at Kumsusan Memorial Palace before a parade… (David Guttenfelder / Associated…)

Well, that didn't take long. Not even a month after the much-heralded accord in which North Korea agreed, among other things, to halt long-range missile testing, Pyongyang announced its intention to launch a satellite — with a long-range missile.

This is, if nothing else, clever. The United States has put a lot of eggs into the basket of a denuclearization process and of improved relations supposedly inaugurated by the February nuclear deal. But if Washington stands by its position that this proposed satellite launch — a transparent ploy to test powerful rocket technology — would be a deal breaker, we'll be right back at square one.

Pyongyang has us right where it wants us, in a sense, which shows again the bankruptcy of a policy designed to bargain for nuclear and missile concessions that the North is never going to provide. The nuclear agreement was never likely to get Pyongyang to halt nuclear or missile research. But it could offer a gateway to a new strategy, one that transfers our main emphasis to using dramatic economic and social changes underway in the North to promote long-term U.S. and allied interests.

This is not, of course, the official line on the deal, in which the North promised a moratorium on new nuclear and missile tests and suspension of uranium enrichment at its main Yongbyon nuclear site. Washington, as one U.S. official said, saw this as the beginning of "credible negotiations leading to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula." Such an outcome is almost unimaginable. The nuclear program was a core achievement of the late Kim Jong Il. His son and the North's new ruler, Kim Jong Un, is not going to hand it over to the country's sworn enemies. Seeing Moammar Kadafi disarm and be thrown from power appears to have solidified Pyongyang's view that nukes remain an essential shield.

Instead, North Korea has likely signed up for what it views as a very typical process of negotiating ploys: give away some disposable assets while promoting its long-term interests. Some believe, for example, that the Yongbyon uranium site is a distraction while the regime builds secret enrichment facilities elsewhere. Making a deal directly with Washington allowed North Korea to cut South Korea out of the process, and driving a wedge between Washington and Seoul is among the North's most cherished objectives.

Almost any chance to constrain the North's nuclear work and reassert long-term denuclearization principles makes sense. But the real significance of the deal could be in opening the way to a new U.S. strategy toward North Korea.

North Korea has changed dramatically since the 1990s under the influence of two key forces: markets and information. With its post-Cold War economic crisis and the collapse of its public distribution system for food, Pyongyang had to free up its citizens to engage in far more private trading to make ends meet. Thousands of official and unofficial markets emerged, selling everything from food to electronics to pirated South Korean videotapes. Today, estimates from defectors and outside visitors suggest that many North Koreans get 80% or more of their daily needs from these markets.

This trend has helped to produce a "market class," people who earn money and social standing through the burgeoning capitalist activity. From grandmothers and housewives who buy and sell fish or small textiles to bureaucrats who oversee large-scale networks of transportation and supply, people engaged in markets are gaining wealth and power and changing the character of society.

Meantime, North Koreans, especially among the elite classes, have unprecedented access to outside information — from visitors, the Internet, smuggled South Korean DVDs and magazines, and many other sources.

None of this suggests that a "Pyongyang Spring" is just around the corner. But it does point to a possible new strategy using the twin forces — markets and information — to alter the system.

The fundamental U.S. goals would be peace, stability and a gradual process of reform and evolution in the North that could eventually change the character of the regime. Unlike traditional proposals for engagement, this approach would not try to use trade and economic benefits to change the North's behavior. Instead, it would use targeted direct foreign investment, people-to-people contacts, training programs for North Korean technocrats and more to accelerate the rise of alternative power centers in the North.

Pursuing such a strategy would be complicated; North Korea is suspicious of contacts and investments, especially with a U.S. label. But by working with regional and global partners and thinking creatively, Washington could assemble a meaningful package of initiatives.

The barrier to such expanded contacts with the North has been Pyongyang's nuclear intransigence. Although the nuclear deal may not lead to denuclearization, it could create a fleeting opportunity to shift strategies. The North's satellite announcement last week makes clear that Washington will need to overlook misbehavior on the edges of the accord as it remains focused on its main objective: targeted social change. Such change in the character of its system, gradual and incremental as it may be, is the only authentic means to achieve U.S. and allied interests in the long run.

Michael Mazarr is a professor at the U.S. National War College in Washington. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

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