Robert Carlin and John Lewis write an op-ed in today's Washington Post that looks at what they think North Korea really wants from the United States. And both men might be right, they both have serious credentials in the field. Carlin is a former State Department analyst who was involved in most of the U.S.-North Korea negotiations between 1993 and 2000. John Lewis is a professor emeritus at Stanford University who directs projects on Asia at the university's Center for International Security and Cooperation. They say the North Korean government wants a long-term strategic alliance with the US.
This is hard for Americans to understand, having read or heard nothing from North Korea except its propaganda, which for years seems to have called for weakening, not maintaining, the U.S. presence on the Korean Peninsula. But in fact an American departure is the last thing the North wants. Because of their pride and fear of appearing weak, however, explicitly requesting that the United States stay is one of the most difficult things for the North Koreans to do.
If the United States has leverage, it is not in its ability to supply fuel oil or grain or paper promises of nonhostility. The leverage rests in Washington's ability to convince Pyongyang of its commitment to coexist with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, accept its system and leadership, and make room for the DPRK in an American vision of the future of Northeast Asia. Quite simply, the North Koreans believe they could be useful to the United States in a longer, larger balance-of-power game against China and Japan. The Chinese know this and say so in private.
The fundamental problem for North Korea is that the six-party talks in which it has been engaged — and which may reconvene soon — are a microcosm of the strategic world it most fears. Three strategic foes — China, Japan and Russia — sit in judgment, apply pressure and (to Pyongyang's mind) insist on the North's permanent weakness.
Denuclearization, if still achievable, can come only when North Korea sees its strategic problem solved, and that, in its view, can happen only when relations with the United States improve. For Pyongyang, that is the essence of the joint statement out of the six-party talks on Sept. 19, 2005, which included this sentence: "The DPRK and the United States undertook to respect each other's sovereignty, exist peacefully together, and take steps to normalize their relations subject to their respective bilateral policies."
But read the whole thing, because it also details why this is not working out for North Korea. Even if the two authors are correct about North Korea's long range goals, the tactics they are applying to reach these supposed strategic goals are completely counter-productive. If Carlin and Lewis are 100% correct, there still seems to be no way to get there with North Korea blocking at every turn. I'm not sure the analysis matters at all unless North Korea drops a lot of their behaviors – including apparently helping Iran with its nuclear and missile programs.