27 March 2008

North Korea Tries to Stir the Pot... Again

North Korea has expelled the 11 South Korean government officials stationed at the Kaesong joint economic zone, sending them unceremoniously packing at around 1:00 AM March 27. The expulsion was accompanied by North Korean references to earlier comments by South Korea’s minister of Unification, Kim Ha Joong, who said expansion of the joint economic zone would be contingent upon a resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue. Pyongyang allowed five South Korean civilian managers to remain in the city.

The move by Pyongyang serves several purposes. First, it is a way for the north to show its displeasure with the comments coming out of the new South Korean government regarding North Korean policy, not only on the economic front, but also comments from South Korea's military that it would carry out a pre-emptive strike on North Korea if it thought Pyongyang was preparing a nuclear strike on south Korea. Pyongyang is also displeased with Seoul's very public reconciliation with Washington – the friction in the U.S.-South Korean relationship were a convenient tool for Pyongyang to exploit, and it appears to be fading.

But most importantly, North Korea is trying to create a sense of crisis – first to test the South Korean resolve and see how the Lee Myong Bak government reacts, and second to inject a sense of instability into the political and security situation on the Peninsula. North Korea has long relied upon crises – usually manufactured by Pyongyang – to extract concessions out of South Korea and the United States, but also China and Japan. The series of nuclear crises stretching from the early 1990s to today have been largely instigated by North Korea for the main purpose of negotiating things back to the status quo while gaining economic assistance and prolonging the regime.

With the North Korean nuclear test in 2006, North Korea pretty much shot its wad in creating crises, and lost one of its main negotiating tactics. Even the three month delay in delivering a report of North Korean nuclear sites has done little to rile the United States into giving in to North Korea's own special form of international coercion. So Pyongyang is trying to up the ante, creating a sense of tensions with South Korea and hinting that all the progress to date could be scrapped if something isn’t done soon.

In some ways, then, this may be less a sign of troubles than of North Korea's decision to finally come back to the table and make a deal with the united States (perhaps taking advantage of offers to provide one public list showing the plutonium program and one private list showing the uranium and proliferation activities). It is a longstanding pattern for North Korea since it lost its Cold war sponsors – always go into negotiations from a position of strength, and make sure people feel a sense of urgency and crisis so they make faster and bigger concessions than they would under more sedate negotiations.

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