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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:04 03/09/2007
November 13, 2006

North Korea: The Next Step in the Aftermath of US Election

Chadwick I. Smith (Consultant based in Japan)

After the much anticipated US election on November 7, the Democratic Party has finally regained control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Although many feel that the American people have grown weary of the Iraq war and sought new leadership, it is important to note what effects this may have on the North Korean issue. North Korea was quick to comment and referred to the elections as a "crushing defeat" for the Republican Party.

Recently, North Korea has once again been the center of attention with its offer to rejoin the defunct Six Party Talks. As diplomatic means are the preferred method of conflict resolution and although this offer may sound genuine, however, it is important to analyze Pyongyang's strategic motives. North Korea has in the past skillfully created a divisive atmosphere among the participants in the hope that it will benefit regardless of the outcome. Any type of genuine cooperation would be a threat to North Korea.

One reason for the sudden offer may have been the upcoming US mid term elections. Over the last few weeks, there has been considerable diplomatic activity in regards to North Korea. There has been cooperation between China and the US on a number of issues such as money controls and brief interruption of Chinese oil. Although China still does not exert the amount of pressure that is needed due to fears of a state collapse. It does indicate a positive step. There was even an alleged report that Kim Jong Il apologized to a Chinese envoy.

However, the results of the midterm election may slow down momentum if the Democrats wish to pursue bilateral negotiations. Pyongyang may have anticipated this and offered to return to the Six Party Talks knowing that they may once again falter. In addition, a major platform on which many leading Democrats were elected was the issue of trade with China.

Most notably, Ohio's newest Senator elect, Sherrod Brown has long been opposed to the trade policy with China and has called for the ban of sweatshop imports and a review of all US trade polices. Brown has been a frequent critic of the trade policy with China and campaigned heavily on this issue in the recent election, on one occasion he stated that American workers cannot compete with "prison labor, child labor and forced labor" in reference to China. This type of rhetoric would not garner any support from China in pressing North Korea on financial issues.

Although the Democratic Party was more pro-China during the Clinton years, this has changed due to the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs and anger among the middle class over the apparent mismanagement of the economy. Anti-China sentiment would only benefit Pyongyang as it would create divisions that would hinder any concerted pressure during the Six Party Talks.

Pyongyang needs this type of conflict to maintain its isolation and ultimately justify its continued weapons development. If cooperation is evident, it will create some diversionary tactic such as threats of another test, continued missile development or even attempts to ban certain states from participating, as was the case with Japan. The lack of common interest in an end resolution by all parties involved makes it all the more difficult. What is the end goal and how will it be achieved?

One could say that it is disarmament, but North Korea will demand even more concessions as it may consider itself a nuclear power. However, recently, the US, South Korea and Japan have stated that they would not recognize Pyongyang as a nuclear state. Perhaps if China and Russia adamantly denounce any type state of nuclear status, progress will be made but most likely they will both be hesitant to take such direct action.

How long will this stalemate continue to persist? There is already evidence of growing domestic turmoil within North Korea. Recent news of a protest in North Hamkyong Province by market vendors demonstrates possible growing dissatisfaction with the government at the very best and willingness to even gather and state such opinions publicly at the very least. This is a very promising step as such a protest is almost unheard of in North Korea.

Also reports of an increased business presence in North Korea are further indication of change. Foreign business personnel state the North Korea is "hungry for business" and the state has been slowly yet cautiously opening up its business sector since the 2002 reforms. Yet the sanctions following the nuclear test will most likely hinder future efforts. It is already evident that the North Korean regime can survive if isolated and will skillfully negotiate for benefits in exchange for any type of nuclear disarmament deal, but the real test will be if the regime can survive in the face of increased business and legitimate trade. The history of communism has already demonstrated that this is a near impossible task.

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