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Wikileaks Cables Show Nobody Knows What’s Going On With North Korea

The Obama Administration rejected emergency multiparty talks with North Korea after the Yeonpyeong artillery bombing, using that old chestnut about “rewarding bad behavior.” China called for the talks, but the US sees no need to negotiate without a pre-negotiation, not only on the incident at Yeonpyeong but the nuclear weapons issue. The South Koreans and the Japanese have also rejected the talks, and military exercises in the Yellow Sea, with US participation, continue, though without live-fire drills.

Against this backdrop, we have the revelations in the Wikileaks cables of… sorry, no revelations in the cables about North Korea. In fact, nobody seems to know what’s going on there.

This trove of cables ends in February, just before North Korea began a series of military actions that has thrown some of Asia’s most prosperous countries into crisis. A month after the lunch, the North is believed to have launched a torpedo attack on the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, that killed 46 sailors.

Three weeks ago it revealed the existence of a uranium enrichment plant, potentially giving it a new pathway to make nuclear bomb material. And last week it shelled a South Korean island, killing two civilians and two marines and injuring many more.

None of that was predicted in the dozens of State Department cables about North Korea obtained by WikiLeaks, and in fact even China, the North’s closest ally, has often been startlingly wrong, the cables show. But the documents help explain why some South Korean and American officials suspect that the military outbursts may be the last snarls of a dying dictatorship.

Basically, the cables consist of educated guessing about how the succession of Kim Jong-il would play out. Nobody really has a clue about whether North Korea is on the verge of disintegration or a strong nuclear power with unassailable rulers. Nobody knows much about the presumes successor, Kim Jong-un. Nobody understands the extent of their nuclear program, not even the Chinese. The cables align with significant events in Pyongyang, like nuclear tests and uranium enrichment, and the assessments are almost always wrong. About all we can get out of this is that Kim Jong-il is “quite a good drinker.” Everything else, including Kim’s role in a revaluation of North Korean currency, which destroyed personal savings, is speculative.

There couldn’t be a harder job in diplomacy than figuring out the state of play in North Korea. China’s so frazzled about it that they’re ready to give up and support reunification. But if the US thinks that Wikileaks revealed confidential secrets, that doesn’t look to be true in the case of the DPRK. It looks more like it revealed the bumbling of the international community when it comes to the secluded country.

In fact, we learned more today about North Korea than in years’ worth of cables.

Secretive North Korea detailed for the first time its expanded nuclear program on Tuesday, saying it had thousands of working centrifuges, as pressure built on China to rein in its ally amid tensions on the peninsula […]

“Currently construction of a light-water reactor is in progress actively and a modern uranium enrichment plant equipped with several thousands of centrifuges, to secure the supply of fuels, is operating,” the Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported.

“Nuclear energy development projects will become more active for peaceful purpose in the future,” added the paper, according the state news agency KCNA.

You don’t need cables to figure this out. The North Koreans are using artillery attacks and centrifuge revelations to raise awareness internationally and secure a better deal. They act like a child who wants their parents to let them know they want to leave the mall. This is all tied up with the imminent succession, putting Kim Jong-un in a stronger position. They’ve been at this racket for years, stoking tensions and activating confrontations to get notice.

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David Dayen

David Dayen