Whatever happened to North Korea?

Two months ago, writing about North Korea and its threats of nuclear aggression, I suggested that “it would probably help if the media shuffled this story down towards the bottom of the pile.” Not that I’m actually claiming credit for it, but it’s remarkable how quickly they did just that. The Korean peninsula war story faded from view, with only the occasional appearance since.

Now it’s back, but with a more optimistic slant. North and South Korea held low-level talks at Panmunjom on Sunday – the first since February 2011 – with a view to a meeting at ministerial level later this week. The initiative came from the North, which has evidently decided that it’s taken belligerence as far as was practical and it’s now time to see what it can get in return for a more peaceable stance.

This, of course, is the usual pattern, which any good blackmailer knows. Raise tension to a high, then offer to calm things down again in return for payment. The greater the threat, the greater the relief from having it removed and therefore the higher the price the other side might be willing to pay. North Korea has pursued this strategy with considerable success over at least two decades.

Plenty of experts pointed this out at the end of March, but they were largely drowned out by hysteria about the threat of war. It’s nice that the media are now being more sensible; it would be even better if it were accompanied by some sort of apology or even acknowledgement that their previous coverage was ridiculously overblown. Not much chance of that, though.

Meeting in California over the weekend, Barack Obama and China’s Xi Jinping probably had a lot to talk about regarding their common interest in electronic surveillance. But there was also room in the headlines for Korea, with both sides stressing that they are on the same page when it comes to dealing with the North’s nuclear program.

According to the American summary of the talks, “They agreed that North Korea has to denuclearize; that neither country will accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state; and that we would work together to deepen U.S.-China cooperation and dialogue to achieve denuclearization.”

The formal position here, however, isn’t really the point. No-one has ever doubted that China would be happier if North Korea didn’t have nuclear weapons. The question is how far China is willing to go in pushing Kim Jong-un to reach that objective. And that’s the sort of thing that’s unlikely to ever appear in a communiqué; it’s much more a matter of nuance and tone, and will depend quite a bit on the quality of the personal relationship between US and Chinese leaders.

Reports from the weekend suggest that side of things looks promising. Even so, denuclearisation doesn’t look like an immediate prospect: Kim’s nukes are a major point of prestige and, from his perspective, a vital deterrent against an Iraq-style invasion. It may happen one day but it will require a much bigger American carrot and a much bigger Chinese stick than either is yet willing to produce.

Which makes it all the more important that North and South Korea try to rebuild a working relationship. As I have argued before, the chance of the North deliberately using nuclear weapons unless threatened with imminent attack is negligible. But when tensions are high there is always a risk of accident or miscalculation; it’s in everyone’s interests to keep communications open.

Nobody likes paying a blackmailer. But in a context where both sides know that the blackmailer is fundamentally bluffing, a small regular payment for the purpose of keeping things civil might be the best available option.

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