What North Korea Wants

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Figuring out the thinking of the regime in Pyongyang is a full-time occupation for a small army of intelligence analysts and diplomats around the world. And among them, there are two primary — and competing — explanations for the North's pursuit of nuclear weapons and its strategy at the bargaining table.

The Six-Party Meetings: Analysis and Issues

•Washington: Limited Patience

•North Korea: What Pyongyang Wants

•China: Feeling the Heat

•South Korea: Use Carrots, Not Sticks

•Japan: Abductions Cloud the Issue

•Russia: Trying to Look Relevant

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The first scenario could be entitled Poor, Misunderstood, Rational North Korea: This narrative sees virtually everything the North has done since signing the so-called "Agreed Framework" nuclear deal with the Clinton Administration in 1994 as understandable — even predictable. Pyongyang signed away its plutonium reprocessing plant and in return was supposed to get a bunch of things in return, including diplomatic recognition from the United States, and two light water reactors for electric power generation from a U.S.-Japanese-South Korean–led consortium. But not much was delivered: The first of the reactors was supposed to have been finished by 2003, but by the year 2000 was nowhere close to being constructed. Only at the tail end of the Clinton Administration was there any real move toward a diplomatic warming, and the Bush Administration quickly made clear that it had interest in clinking champagne glasses with Kim Jong-il, as Madeline Albright had done in October of 2000.

Feeling that it had been deceived, the North began a secret uranium enrichment program that violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the '94 deal. Confronted with evidence of this in October 2002, Pyongyang angrily announced it was restarting its plutonium-based nuke program, which it had frozen under the Agreed Framework, and expelled inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Then, having been been named to President Bush's "Axis of Evil," and having watched the Bush Administration knock off Iraq, Kim Jong-il did the only thing he could do to guarantee no one would mess with him: he went ahead and developed a bomb and exploded it this past autumn.

In this scenario, the North will refuse to dismantle its plutonium program until the previously promised light-water reactors are actually constructed. The Bush Administration insists, by contrast, that Pyongyang must begin to dismantle the plutonium facilities "at an early stage."

But the second, competing explanation for North Korea's behavior might be called "Their Cheatin' Heart." Subscribers to this version like to point out that among the reasons for the Clinton Administration's dragging its heels on delivering on the benefits promised to Pyongyang in 1994 was the fact that North Korea had lobbed medium-range missiles into the Sea of Japan 1998 — not exactly a confidence-building measure for the other parties to the 1994 deal. When the Bush Administration came up with what it claims was solid intelligence about a secret uranium-enrichment program in late 2002, the jig was up, and many in Washington decided there was no way North Korea could be trusted.

Now, following the nuclear test in the autumn of 2006, the upper hand in the Bush Administration appears to be held by the pragmatists who believe that there is still a grand bargain to be struck with Pyongyang. They believe, despite the fact that the two sides have staked out such sharply different positions on the terms under which North Korea would dismantle its weapons, that the North seeks a deal. "The economic benefits for them are just too much to pass up; a deal is there to be had," says one Western diplomat. Kim Jong-il is the only one who can say whether that optimism is warranted. We'll find out soon enough.