National Security

Missile Launch Is Just North Korea's Latest Bait and Switch

Of course the regime is not willing to negotiate away its nuclear potential. But it will happily accept the West's concessions.


Source: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

There are two ways to understand North Korea's missile test Tuesday after two months without such provocations.

The first is through the lens of masochism. President Donald Trump has taunted North Korea's leader, tweeting recently that he was fat, calling him "little rocket man." Trump's government just added the Hermit Kingdom to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, 10 years after President George W. Bush removed the regime during negotiations.

We pressure. They escalate.

This was what Hillary Clinton was driving at this week when the former secretary of state told a conference in Beijing by video that both Trump and China's leader, Xi Jinping, should refrain from tempting the North Korean tiger.

The other way to understand the missile tests is that they are North Korea's way of extracting ever more from the West, while giving only moments of hope in return. The kingdom has done this before. Bush famously removed sanctions on the eve of negotiations with the North in 2007. Despite Trump's rhetoric, it's been clear his diplomats were looking for an opening. As the Washington Post reported this month, the U.S. special envoy to North Korea, Joseph Yun, told experts at the Council on Foreign Relations that the U.S. was looking for a 60-day pause in missile tests as a sign to restart direct talks with Pyongyang. Is it surprising that North Korea strung us along?

The missile test is a part of a North Korean dance. The U.S. quietly pursues negotiations, until it gets close. Then North Korea pulls out at the last minute. Classic Lucy and the football. The regime has been doing this for more than 20 years. The North agreed to a partial deal on plutonium in the late 1990s. It hinted at a willingness to discuss missiles too. A few years later the U.S. discovers a parallel uranium enrichment program.

In 2007 the North went down the road again with the six-party talks. The U.S. lifted sanctions and removed it from the terrorism list. Then the talks fell apart. Add to this that the Israelis and the U.S. discovered a secret Syrian nuclear facility where North Korean engineers had provided technical assistance.

The fact is that North Korea has no intention of negotiating away its nuclear deterrent. It never has. It does however have an interest in extracting concessions and removing penalties by appearing willing to negotiate. That may sound crazy, but it's been working for a quarter century.

(Corrects time span between Korean tests in first paragraph.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Eli Lake at

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