- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

North Korea: Reform, Muddling Through, or Collapse?

Nicholas Eberstadt

From its founding in 1948 to the present day, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K.) has pursued a foreign policy distinct among nations in the modern world for its high and seemingly permanent state of tension. The observation that the D.P.R.K.'s relations with the international community are currently in a state of crisis may therefore seem unexceptional. Yet even for a government so accustomed to international confrontation, the level of tension in North Korean external relations today is extraodinary. Indeed, as Pyongyang pursues its nuclear showdown against virtually all other governments of the contemporary world, it approaches a terrain of extreme and incalucaulable danger-a terrain it has entered only once before, in 1950, when its invasion of South Korea prompted the United Nations "police action" that was to become a devastating three-year multinational war.

By comparison with the events that unleashed the Korean War, the ongoing drama of North Korea's quest to develop atomic weaponry appears plodding and civil. North Korea's now famous March 12 announcement of its formal intention to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)-the proximate focus of today's international alarms-came as a culmination to more than a year of detailed discussions and methodical deliberations involving the Republic of Korea (R.O.K.), the United States, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and other parties. Since the March 12 announcement, moreover, Pyongyang has actively promoted talks with foreign governments over possible formulae or procedures for defusing the crisis it had ignited. Pyongyang furthermore adhered to the letter of international law in acknowledging its obligation to remain a member of the NPT for another 90 days after tendering its withdrawal from the treaty. And in announcing a "temporary suspension" of its NPT withdrawal on June 11-the day before its scheduled departure from the treaty-North Korea chose continuing discussions over immediate conflict.