What is Motivating Pyongyang This Week?

North Korea’s statement yesterday that it intended to restart its dormant nuclear program and withdraw from the Six-Party Talks is fairly unambiguous:

Second, there would be no need to hold six-party talks which the DPRK has attended.

Now that the six-party talks have turned into a platform for infringing upon the sovereignty of the DPRK and seeking to force the DPRK to disarm itself and bring down the system in it the DPRK will never participate in the talks any longer nor it will be bound to any agreement of the six-party talks.

Third, the DPRK will bolster its nuclear deterrent for self-defence in every way.

It will take the measure for restoring to their original state the nuclear facilities which had been disabled under the agreement of the six-party talks and putting their operation on a normal track and fully reprocess the spent fuel rods churned out from the pilot atomic power plant as part of it.

These guys know how to play hardball. All of this is the fall-out from a rather mild presidential statement from the UNSC, condemning the recent missile launch but imposing no new punitive actions against the North for the action.

Over the last few weeks I’ve thought it pretty peculiar that Pyongyang went to such great lengths to present the latest missile test as a routine launch of a space vehicle. After all, they’ve never been shy in the past about their more nefarious activities; the 2006 nuclear test was announced in advance and the missile test earlier that year was undertaken, in Pyongyang’s words, to “increase the nation’s military capacity for self-defence.” No kabuki dance there.

I’m speculating, but maybe North Korea knew its launch would prompt the US to turn to the UNSC for retaliatory action, which it could then use as a pretext to jettison the Six-Party Talks and related accords it was no longer interested in adhering to. If that’s the case, it raises larger questions about Pyongyang’s motivations, specifically why they have periodically agreed to cap or halt illicit weapons programs (as it did under the 1994 Agreed Framework, the moratorium on ballistic missiles in the late 1990s, and the more recent accords under the Six-Party Talks) but later reversed course so defiantly. Nevertheless, they’re getting just what they want: IAEA inspectors have been forced out of the country, and North Korea is intent on separating the remaining plutonium and reviving its weapons efforts.

The larger question – and one that will again go unanswered – is what North Korea’s motivations are this week. If I were a betting man, I’d say much of this is the internal succession issue playing itself out in North Korean external policy. And if that’s the case, and the isolationist shift to the right is any indication, hardliners are winning out.

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