CNN, 13 Feb, 2013
As the dust settles from a third – more effective and miniaturized – North Korean nuclear test, the question rings out: what do they want? What are the intentions of Kim Jung-un, the newest, and youngest version of the Dear Leader?
The timing is of course, everything. Setting the test for the day of President Obama’s State of the Union is not random luck. It puts pressure exactly where pressure is wanted: in Washington. As the Obama Whitehouse doubtless received the news in the early hours of the morning, they will have been scrambling to find out what ‘we do we know?’ They will also have been fending off calls from the Post, the New York Times, countless news agencies, along with more than a few concerned Senators and Congressmen. The message from the latter will no doubt have sounded something like the following, ‘what are you doing about this?’ The call will be to act, but how, what, and where? Doubtless the Obama team will be as stumped as the rest of the agitated diplomats rushing around the United Nations Security Council.
Of course, the Chinese diplomats in the UNSC will be concerned, but unlike their Japanese, South Korean, and American colleagues, they’ll probably remain seated. They’ll have firm orders from Beijing to keeping emotions from boiling over. They may even water the sanctions down. As if they needed to. Any sanctions imposed, would doubtless lose meaning, as the mornings trains began their daily shipment of goods and fuel across the DPRK/PRC border. Xi Jingping, China’s new leader, may want a ‘new relationship’ with the United States, but that doesn’t mean that Washington’s strategic concerns are China’s.
And if we didn’t already know what Pyongyang wants, the Obama team will no doubt call on DPRK-watchers from the CIA, the State Department, and the DOD, all of whom will say what they’ve been saying for years. North Korea wants (in order of importance): (1) regime survival (2) acceptance as a nuclear power by the US (3) a peace treaty between the US and North, (4) trade and economic growth on their terms, and hey, if we can (5) Korean unification under Pyongyang’s benign rule. Of course, Obama’s team will have been told about the ‘provocation cycle’, that unfortunate fact that the US and its allies will sit down to the table with North Korea within six months of any provocation. Why will they do it? Because of the heat generated within Washington, the demands to ‘do something’, and to allay regional fears that Uncle Sam’s security guarantees are fraying.
So what can the Obama team do, if sanctions are ineffective and if a military response is out of question? Well, they can learn the art of pressure from their opponents in this. But, of course, the question is what makes Pyongyang squirm? It clearly isn’t sanctions on luxury goods, as these have failed to deter endless missile tests. The answer to that riddle lies in the recent histories of the Cold War, in which we learnt the impact of free information on Soviet citizens behind the Iron Curtain. Information is the greatest weapon at the disposal of the Obama team and they should apply it liberally. The North Korean people are their greatest ally, and should be messaged accordingly. According to a 2011 Intermedia report on North Korean susceptibility to outside media, radio and DVDs are the most common way for normal North Koreans to hear media from the outside world. The Obama team should not look to its diplomats in New York for salvation, but rather to Langley, and to USFK’s best and brightest.
Each time Pyongyang ratchets up the pressure, Washington should reply in kind by smuggling in 150,000 DVDs about the free world outside North Korea’s humble borders. Radio stations should work overtime to bring impartial news about the world to the hapless citizens, who still live in the Cold War, while the rest of us move on. Let’s not let the pressure be one-way. American newspapers and senators may tremble about a North Korean nuclear-tipped bomb, but certainly young Kim must tremble too at the prospect of his citizens awash in the streets, their eyes open to the nature of their lot.