Pyongbang!

Washington’s Korea Conundrum

On Sunday, North Korea launched a Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that went farther than any of its predecessors before falling harmlessly into the Pacific. What was the point of the exercise? Pyongyang claims the launch was designed to put a communications satellite into orbit and that it succeeded in doing so. Nobody else believes either assertion, with officials in the United States, Japan, and South Korea portraying the launch as a test of a long-range delivery system for a nuclear weapon.

Instant commentary in the West saw the launch as essentially a cry for help -- a bid to win attention from the Obama administration and start a new round of talks from a stronger bargaining position. The problem with this explanation is that Stephen Bosworth, Washington's newly appointed special envoy for North Korea, was just in Asia armed with a very clear message from President Obama about the administration's readiness to engage in immediate high-level bilateral negotiations -- and got no answer. 

In reality, the launch probably reflects two other dynamics. The first is a straightforward desire by North Korea to advance its ballistic missile technology. Countries do not pursue ICBMs or nuclear weapons simply to accumulate negotiating chips. Pyongyang's devotion of massive amounts of very scarce resources to such projects suggests it actually wants to acquire these capabilities and be accepted by the world as a nuclear weapons state. It is unlikely to be willing to trade them away in return for international acceptance and a peace treaty with the United States. 

The second dynamic apparently at work is turbulence inside the North Korean ruling elite provoked by the poor health of Kim Jong Il. The missile test, after all, represents only the latest in a string of bad behavior on North Korea's part over the last several months. At the end of 2008, Pyongyang walked away from previous understandings it had reached with U.S. negotiators regarding verification of its nuclear declaration. In early 2009, it spewed fiery rhetoric against South Korea and Japan. And in the month before the launch, it ejected U.S. food-donor teams and detained two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee. All these actions are likely external manifestations of political fluidity within Pyongyang sparked by Kim's debility. 

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