There's a Method to Pyongyang's Madness

Times Staff Writer

The last three weeks have seen threats, verbal abuse and posturing by North Korea as foreign envoys scrambled between Seoul, Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo and Washington trying to force Pyongyang's nuclear weapons genie back in its bottle.

Behind the North's fuss and apparent irrationality, however, is a well-honed negotiating strategy, experts say. In the quest for security, aid and prestige, its first order of business has been getting the world's attention.

"They believe, to have any kind of breakthrough, you must have a great crisis," a senior U.S. military official said.

That's meant raising its nuclear threat to such a boiling point that the Bush administration is forced to engage, despite Washington's overwhelming desire to focus on Iraq and ignore Pyongyang until the regime behaves.

Its latest step, to pull out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, prompted near-universal hand-wringing Friday.

Along the way, North Korea has all but refused to deal with South Korea and Japan except when they can be used as messengers or pressure points against the United States.

Washington is North Korea's focus because the U.S. is the country most capable of deposing the Pyongyang government, and because it holds the purse strings.

North Korea is ultimately more comfortable near the brink than the U.S. or other members of the international community and uses this to its advantage, knowing that its adversaries don't have the same stomach for brinkmanship.

The isolated communist state is better suited to this role because its citizens have long been steeled by propaganda to expect hostility from outsiders. Its leadership is also far freer to act decisively, without pressure or criticism from voters, stock markets, Congress, the press or opposition parties.

"That's a weakness democracies have," said Scott Snyder, the Seoul-based representative of the Asia Foundation and author of a book on North Korean negotiating strategy.

By drawing its foe into high-stakes territory, North Korea begins to blunt the overwhelming advantage held by its richer, stronger and technologically superior adversary.

Communist countries "create 'incidents' calculated to provide advantages for their negotiating efforts or for their basic propaganda objectives, or for both," C. Turner Joy wrote in his 1955 book, "How Communists Negotiate."

The Bush administration has repeatedly said it won't succumb to blackmail; it has accused the Clinton administration of caving in to the regime by signing the so-called framework agreement in 1994. That deal, reached after a similar crisis, gave North Korea fuel oil and assistance in building two light-water nuclear reactors in exchange for a promise to end its nuclear weapons program.

The Bush administration has tried to downplay the standoff -- injecting as many intermediaries as possible, insisting that the U.S. will "talk but not negotiate" and terming Pyongyang's treaty pullout an expected development -- all in a bid to avoid being arm-twisted into concessions.

Another major tool North Korea relies on is the effective use of time. Pyongyang created the crisis and can largely decide when to raise or lower the heat.

North Korea's admission of a secret uranium-enrichment program lighted the flame, while subsequent decisions -- to expel international nuclear inspectors, disable monitoring devices, threaten a pullout from the nonproliferation treaty and, most recently, act on that threat -- turned up the temperature.

"They'll ponder their next step for a long time and wait for the right opportunity," said Kim Young Soo, a political science professor at Sogang University in Seoul.

Pyongyang has chosen this narrow window because it ensures a less focused adversary and a greater opportunity to drive a wedge between the United States and its key allies in the region. North Korea is aware that the U.S. is not likely to launch two preemptive strikes at once and, with Iraq the clear priority, is therefore far more inclined to settle with Pyongyang.

This period immediately after South Korea's presidential election also is ideal given that communication between Washington and Seoul is poor, with many of the South's players in transition. A further bonus is the rising tide of anti-Americanism in the South stemming from the election and the accidental deaths in June of two teenagers who were hit by a U.S. military vehicle.

"North Korea has limited time," said Yoo Ho Yeol, a professor at Korea University here.

Nonetheless, North Korea likes to pause at key junctures for effect. Sometimes this is designed to let Pyongyang take stock, study the reaction it's getting and make sure that it hasn't missed something. At other times, it's designed to let its adversaries stew at bit or to allow global outrage to build.

"It can be very slow-moving," said the senior U.S. military official. "It's not a game of checkers. It's a game of chess."

The on-again, off-again approach may also add to the regime's reputation for unpredictability, fueling the impression that Pyongyang may be irrational enough to do something stupid.

And it may add to the air of mystery surrounding the regime, experts say. The Pyongyang leadership has access to CNN and other news outlets, giving it insight into the pressure its adversaries face and the rationale behind their moves. The outside world has little parallel information on North Korea.

"We know probably less about North Korea," a U.S. diplomat said, "than any other place in the world."


Staff writer Barbara Demick in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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