When diplomacy is stalled, North Korea escalates tension to break the deadlock. The latest example is its missile tests on July 4. Firing a barrage of short, medium and long-range test missiles on America's Independence Day is a rather unconventional way to seek dialogue, but the North Koreans have reasons to believe it will work.
In 1994, when its nuclear negotiations with the US hit a snag, North Korea threatened to re-process plutonium. This pushed the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war, but the two sides soon resumed talks and signed the Geneva Agreed Framework. North Korea agreed to the phased dismantlement of its nuclear program in exchange for multilateral energy assistance and the normalisation of relations with the US.
In 1998, when US concerns about North Korea's missile program and underground facilities at Kumchangri delayed the implementation of the Agreed Framework, North Korea launched a multi-stage rocket and shocked the world. This prompted an extensive review of the US policy towards North Korea (known as the Perry Process), and led to a series of bilateral talks and meetings to speed up and broaden engagement, including negotiations to stop North Korea's missile development.
Starting in 2001, under the motto of "anything but Clinton", the Bush Administration tried a new policy of "malign neglect" towards North Korea, but Pyongyang made sure it could not be ignored. When the Agreed Framework collapsed over the allegations of North Korea's highly enriched uranium program in late 2002, Pyongyang kicked out international monitors and restarted its plutonium program.
This precipitated a crisis, but soon led to the establishment of a diplomatic process known as the six-party talks. When these talks stalled in early 2005, North Korea declared it had nuclear weapons, retracted its self-imposed moratorium on missile tests, and de-loaded its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon to produce more fissile material. Contrary to the expectations of many casual observers, this provocative action resulted in the first serious bilateral talks between the US and North Korea under the Bush Administration.
In sum, as twisted as the North Koreans' logic may be, it is based on their negotiating experience with the Americans. North Korea's brinkmanship is the evil twin of America's half-hearted engagement.
This time is no different. Last September, after producing a joint statement of principles on de-nuclearisation, normalisation, co-operation and peace-building, the six-party talks went into a holding pattern as sharp disagreements re-emerged over the sequencing of concrete actions to be taken by the US and North Korea.
Whereas the US wants North Korea to abandon all its nuclear programs first, North Korea insists on "simultaneous action", as its foreign ministry made clear on June 1. The ministry openly invited the chief US negotiator to Pyongyang to resume bilateral talks, but when this invitation was rebuffed, North Korea went back to its old playbook and proceeded with the missile tests.
How should the US respond this time? One option is to take a pre-emptive strike before North Korea's threat matures. Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry, two highly respected former defence officials, justify such a military strike under the notion of preventive defence (Washington Post, June 22). They add that given the military balance on the Korean Peninsula, it would be suicidal for North Korea to retaliate.
But there are two problems with this argument. First, if it would be suicidal for North Korea to attack South Korea, it would be even more suicidal for North Korea to deliver a mortal payload to the US. The logic of deterrence should keep the situation in check just like in the days of the Cold War.
Second, how could the US convince North Korea that its pre-emptive strike would not be followed by a decapitation campaign or a full-blown offensive? Send a special envoy to Pyongyang? Again, according to the logic of deterrence, it would be suicidal for Kim Jong Il to attack first, but it would make sense for him to fire away in response to a pre-emptive strike and take out American, Japanese and Korean lives with his own.
Another option is to ignore North Korea's brinkmanship and bide time until Pyongyang does "something really stupid" so that multilateral sanctions could be imposed. This would be in line with the current policy of making life difficult for Kim Jong Il and hoping for his downfall - what may be called "Cubanisation of North Korea".