Can North Korea, U.S. escape cycle of crises?

Current threats, penalties follow familiar pattern

AFP-JIJI, Bloomberg

With tensions on the Korean Peninsula soaring to include threats of nuclear war, frustration is mounting at what U.S. policy experts see as the failure of all efforts to rein in North Korea.

Decades of threats have waxed and waned despite myriad attempts to reach out for talks or punish Pyongyang, as seen recently in the tightening of U.N. sanctions against its regime.

North Korea watchers see a familiar pattern in which the communist state ramps up threats or takes actions such as missile launches or nuclear tests in a bid to show anger and force concessions from the United States.

Observers saw parallels between the latest crisis and 1994, when Pyongyang took on a bellicose tone as it faced pressure over its nuclear program at a time of political transitions in both North and South Korea. The 1994 crisis ended when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang, setting the stage for a joint energy project that has been the inspiration for several initiatives since.

“I still don’t find any of the latest North Korean rhetoric that shocking. It’s perfectly predictable,” said Joel Wit, a former U.S. State Department official who was in charge of implementing the 1994 energy agreement. “The difference this time is that they have nuclear weapons.”

North Korea has displayed a formidable arsenal of rhetoric, threats and symbolic moves, threatening to attack the United States with nuclear weapons, although experts doubt it is actually able to. The U.S., in turn, carried out runs by its nuclear-capable B-2 bombers as part of exercises with South Korea.

Pyongyang remains incapable of hitting the mainland U.S. with a nuclear missile, and its chances of winning — or even surviving — a second war with South Korean and American forces are poor, according to military analysts who have studied North Korea’s strengths and weaknesses.

The North “cannot effectively strike the United States with a nuclear weapon,” said Joseph Bermudez, a Denver-based scholar on Pyongyang who publishes the KPA Journal. The country’s only long-range missile, the Unha 3, is unreliable, and there’s no evidence it can be armed with a nuclear warhead, he said in an interview.

Other new factors in the latest crisis include question marks over North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, and growing unhappiness from China over its smaller ally’s insolence.

Bruce Cumings, chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago and the author of several books on North Korea, said the 24-hour news environment has also changed the dynamics behind Pyongyang’s threats.

“You get instant attention on the World Wide Web, which is so different than when I used to read their (Korean) Central News Agency reports in the early ’90s that would come a week late through Tokyo and you never knew if anyone would pay attention,” he said.

But Cumings said that the North’s tactics followed a pattern dating to even before the 1950-53 Korean War, when the communist leadership would regularly threaten to destroy the South’s army. “It is always the case with North Korea that when its back is put to the wall, it lashes out and it creates problems. It says, ‘If you want to sanction us, this is what you’re going to get,’ ” he said.

Tensions “are inevitable as long as the United States and South Korea are not willing to engage with North Korea,” Cumings warned. “The North Koreans go about things in the worst way — they are their own worst enemy — but they keep saying that they want to talk to the United States, in particular.”

But U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has ruled out what is widely considered North Korea’s main aim — its symbolic recognition as a nuclear weapons state, seen by Kim’s regime as critical to ensure its survival.

The previous administration of George W. Bush similarly swung widely in its approach to Pyongyang. Bush famously grouped North Korea as part of an “axis of evil,” and under his watch Pyongyang tested its first nuclear device.

But Bush, like Bill Clinton before him, tried late in his term to seal a historic far-reaching agreement with the North.

Some U.S. conservatives criticized the Bush administration’s outreach and have called for an entirely new strategy.

Among them, Republican Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has called on the Obama administration to avoid any future deals with North Korea and to instead aim at toppling its regime.