SEOUL — I have given a series of lectures on U.S. Asia policy in the weeks since the revelation about North Korea’s secret nuclear weapons program. While the audiences and locations in South Korea, Japan and the United States have varied widely, the questions have been remarkably similar. Along with everyone else, I can only guess at the answers.

The third most frequently asked question has been, “Why did North Korea decide to confess?” This is usually a two-part question (especially in South Korea) — the remainder being “is this part of a broader “confess and move on” plan that signals their true intention once and for all to come clean and break with the past?” While one would fervently like to believe this to be the case, I suspect that the truth lies elsewhere.

My guess is that the real reason the North confessed was because it got caught red-handed in the act of cheating and, realizing that the Agreed Framework was all but dead and that the prospects of future cooperation with Washington were now less than zero, decided to arrogantly confront Washington in hopes that they could get another deal — not necessarily a better deal, just a new one that would somehow make a virtue out of their latest vice.

In short, they were trying to make the best of a (self-inflicted) bad situation by reverting to their old confrontational form. The “fresh start” idea seems to have been born in the South, not the North, although Pyongyang is now playing variations of this theme, if not to actually get a new deal then at least to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul.

The second most frequently asked question is, “Why did the U.S. choose this moment to break the story?” This is a favorite of conspiracy theorists, who often add “Isn’t it because Washington was afraid that Seoul and Tokyo were getting too close to Pyongyang and wanted to derail this progress?”

The truth, of course, is that neither Seoul nor Tokyo needs Washington’s help in derailing their respective talks with Pyongyang; North Korea has done a great job of taking care of this without outside help. Remember that by the time Washington revealed the details of Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly’s ill-fated visit to Pyongyang, the public backlash in Japan against North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s Sept. 17 confession regarding the abducted Japanese citizens had pretty well ensured that no real progress would be made on that front.

The North’s track record since the June 2000 North-South Summit also suggests that little sustained progress would occur in this relationship either, especially with the impending leadership transition in the South.

One should also remember that the Bush administration initially chose quiet diplomacy, laying out the evidence to Pyongyang directly and secretly, rather than via a press conference or through leaks to sympathetic newspapers. It was only after rumors started spreading about the Kelly meeting — and after Pyongyang clearly signaled it was not interested in quietly resolving the issue, by publicly branding Kelly “arrogant” and “high-handed” — that Washington went public. Even since then, it has attempted to address the issue quietly through diplomatic channels — the only sabers one hears rattling nowadays are the ones from North Korea.

The best way to answer this second question is with another question: “Should Washington have pretended, despite obtaining what appears to be irrefutable proof of North Korean cheating in August of this year, that everything was fine and entered into negotiations with Pyongyang while allowing the secret nuclear weapons program to continue unimpeded?” I think not!

The most popular question is “why is Washington intent on using diplomacy vis-a-vis North Korea when it appears so eager to go to war with Iraq?”

Admittedly, this is aimed more at criticizing President George W. Bush’s Middle East policy than his handling of the North Korea situation thus far. But it is nonetheless ironic that many of the same people who criticized Bush for lumping Iraq and North Korea together as members (with Iran) of an “axis of evil” now appear to be criticizing him for understanding the difference between the two.

Regrettably, the question itself reveals just how badly the administration has mishandled Iraq. The truth, of course, is that Bush is also attempting to pursue a diplomatic solution in Iraq; his administration has spent untold hours trying to deal with the solution through the United Nations, albeit while waving a large baseball bat to remind Iraqi President Saddam Hussein of the consequences, should diplomacy fail.

Waving a big stick in the case of North Korea is not yet appropriate, or necessary, and could even provide counterproductive (as some would argue it has in making Washington’s case with the United Nations. But it is useful to remember that military force has not been ruled out in this case either, and it may yet come to that, especially if Pyongyang’s actions start matching its inflammatory words.

While we continue to struggle for answers, it is interesting to note one question that seldom seems to be asked: “Why was North Korea cheating in the first place, and what does this say about the need for verification and reciprocity in any and all future dealings with Pyongyang?”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.