What North Korea Wants From the Nuke Standoff

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Il inspects a Korean People's Army Unit.

To be sure, the world is now speaking with one voice in condemning Pyongyang's nuclear test. But that's no surprise: nobody likes North Korea, and universal condemnation is the standard response when any nation joins the nuclear club, as India and Pakistan discovered in 1998. There's little surprise, either, in a gathering U.N. consensus on rebuking North Korea, with China likely to sign off on some symbolic sanctions to punish it.

Yet the international consensus does not disguise the fact that six years of tough talk and grudging diplomacy by the Bush Administration failed to stop North Korea from reaching the point that it is now being treated as a nuclear weapons state. Indeed, President Bush appeared to acknowledge the reality of Pyongyang's new status in his remarks following the test announcement, warning that any attempt by North Korea to share its new toys with others would bring harsh consequences. That, of course, is a prudent position in dealing with a nuclear-armed state. The international community would like every nuclear-armed state to disarm, but barring that, it must try to lock such states into arrangements that prevent nuclear weapons from actually being used, or from being exported.

Whatever sanctions are agreed on, their purpose will not be to punish and isolate North Korea as an end in itself, but instead to modify North Korea's behavior — to persuade it to disarm and refrain from proliferating. As incensed as they are by North Korea's behavior, China and South Korea have long resisted imposing sanctions that would bring down the regime by cutting off food and energy supplies, and that's unlikely to change. They fear that a collapse of the regime would send millions of refugees across their borders, and probably cause a heavily armed and unpredictable regime to lash out militarily. Fear of provoking military escalation from the North Korean side may even make Beijing and Seoul think twice about U.S. calls for the interdiction of ships sailing into and out of North Korean ports. And nuclear weapons only increases those perils.

Common sense, and classic diplomacy, dictates against leaving a reckless nuclear-armed regime to stew in its own juices. So, after the flurry of condemnation, the Security Council will look to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table, with a view to seeking its disarmament. And the negotiating table is exactly where North Korea wants to be — on its own terms.

Pyongyang has continually demanded direct talks with the United States, leading to some form of non-aggression treaty — it wants full recognition from Washington and a normalization of relations. But the idea of recognizing a tyrannical regime that starves its own people and violently suppresses any dissent obviously sticks in the craw of President Bush. That may be why Administration hawks who favor "regime change" appear to have had effective veto power over North Korea policy, pushing back against concessions to Pyongyang or any suggestion of direct talks. The White House on Tuesday reiterated its rejection of direct talks.

The problem with the hard line, however, is that the U.S. has always lacked the backing of South Korea and China for a regime-change strategy, and without their cooperation it was a non-starter. Instead, Washington was eventually forced to accept the six-party process aimed at persuading North Korea to renounce nukes in exchange for concessions — although the U.S. stopped short of the direct talks and security guarantees demanded by Pyongyang, and continued to push for actions such as financial sanctions to punish North Korean counterfeiting. The Bush Administration's unresolved internal debate, however, left its own position suspended between engagement and confrontation, while the six-party process remained stalled for the past year as North Korea refused to rejoin the talks in protest against the financial sanctions.

Now, North Korea may have broken the stalemate. Even as the hawks claim that the nuclear test has somehow vindicated their position, the reality is that there will be little appetite among the players that count — mainly China and South Korea — for trying to blockade Pyongyang into submission. But they will want to press North Korea into getting rid of its nukes. If Pyongyang eventually offers verifiable disarmament in exchange for recognition and security guarantees — and it continues to stress its desire to negotiate "denuclearization of the Korean peninsula" directly with the U.S. — there would be overwhelming international pressure to accept such a deal. In other words, once the dust settles, it will become clear that North Korea's nuclear defiance may have made the prospects for a U.S. policy of regime-change even more remote. And if security guarantees from the U.S. eventually become the price for North Korea giving up its nukes, Pyongyang's brinkmanship would have arguably achieved its diplomatic goal.