Pyongyang’s quixotic diplomacy

The tension that has made the Korean peninsula a global flashpoint for much of 2013 appears to have subsided  with the toning down  of North Korea’s nuclear rhetoric directed at the South and the US and Pyongyang’s call last week for “senior level” nuclear talks with Washington.

Still, the two states on the peninsula remain in a state of high military alert, that being a function of the quixotic nature of North Korea’s ‘diplomacy’ which is characterized by a propensity to adjust its posture with unnerving speed.

And yet the seemingly eccentric ‘diplomacy’ of the North is less of an enigma than might appear to be the case. The ratcheting up of tensions in the region has long been Pyongyang’s known way of communicating with the rest of the world, its isolationist posture compelling the regime to view most of the rest of the world with extreme suspicion.

What North Korea desires – perhaps more than anything else ‒ is the ‘breathing space’ to live in its own world of eccentricity and make believe and to govern by its own dictates. If North Korea is to survive in its present form it must have a clear understanding of how the rest of the world sees it. It must, from time to time, secure the full attention of an international community that usually pays more or less limited attention to what happens there. So that the noise of war that has been emanating from the North Korean capital for much of this year was altogether predictable; a signal from the country’s youthful leader, Kim Jong Un, that he represents ‘more of the same,’  that change in leadership should not be equated with regime change.

It was the first time too that the North has been able to throw its nuclear weapons into the affray; its nuclear threats in the first instance and now its call for “senior level” talks with Washington demonstrating what the conventional diplomat might describe as a pattern of erratic behaviour that points unerringly to what Pyongyang really wants ‒ international recognition as a major nuclear power, which would of course provide it with the security guarantee which it seeks.

Nor does it matter that North Korea’s nuclear capacity is, to say the least, largely untried and that its threat to ‘nuke’ the US is, to say the least, hollow.

And even if it were true that China may have wagged a disapproving finger in the direction of Pyongyang in the wake of its recent bellicose noises, the Kim Jong Un regime can hardly allow Beijing to be perceived as possessing a capacity either to restrain it or to direct the path that it pursues in terms of its relations with the rest of the international community. North Korea must either have its own way or live in permanent fear that its bubble will burst.

Like his grandfather and father before him, Kim Jong Un seeks to manage North Korea with the resources at its disposal and based on the path along which the three generations of Kims have chosen to take the country. Since it lacks the facility of ongoing and reliable diplomatic relations with the West, its place in the global kaleidoscope of states comprising the international community is uncertain.

It is precisely for this reason that Pyongyang’s recent public statement calling for “senior level” nuclear talks with the US alludes to “the legitimate status of the (North) as a nuclear weapons state.” That is the way in which it wishes to be seen.

If it is hardly feasible to suggest that North Korea is actively contemplating the use of nuclear weapons, the question as to why a poor country – with a recent history of disastrous famine – chooses to invest heavily in creating a nuclear capability remains valid. North Korea had long created a nexus between the acquisition of a nuclear capacity and a change in its status from what the US commonly describes as the world’s most isolated country to the world’s newest superpower. The fact that the established nuclear states are unlikely to grant Pyongyang its wish matters little. What matters is that the Kim Jong Un regime has drawn the attention of Washington, the Korean Peninsula and the global community as a whole to what it perceives to be its own relevance as a state within the international community. As the past few months have proven, eccentric as the international community – particularly the US, South Korea and Japan ‒ might find the behaviour of North Korea, the regime there can neither be ignored nor dismissed.

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