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More recently, in early November 2010 when North Korea showed separate delegations from the United States evidence of construction on a new light water nuclear reactor and a surprisingly sophisticated uranium enrichment facility, calls for the United States to resume negotiations with North Korea were both immediate and predictable.

Even after North Korea shelled the South Korean coastal island of Yeonpyeong on November 23, 2010, in a drastic and highly provocative escalation of the long-standing inter-Korean tensions in the West Sea, some Americans persisted in interpreting this action in context of US- North Korean relations.

For example, former president Jimmy Carter authored a New York Times op-ed entitled “North Korea Wants to Make a Deal” following his August visit to Pyongyang. He again urged the US to listen to “North Korea’s Consistent Message to the US” in a Washington Post op-ed that described the North’s unprecedented provocation as “designed to remind the world that they deserve respect in negotiations” and repeated North Korea’s insistence on “direct talks with the United States.”

All Politics Is Local

Of course, there are alternate if equally improvable interpretations of North Korean intentions. Given the fact that North Korea has now repeatedly declared itself a nuclear power and declared its intent to develop nuclear deterrence as well as nuclear energy, its decision to test nuclear weapons and to construct both a light water nuclear reactor facility and a uranium enrichment facility might more logically be understood in the context of North Korea’ stated intentions and goals.

The notion that “all politics is local” is not only applicable to democracies. Herein lies the second factor related to the escalatory cycle – North Korean domestic developments. Pyongyang has made ample use of its nuclear tests and status in its internal propaganda. In fact, there is disturbing evidence suggesting that much of the current crisis in North Korea is related to internal disturbances. Following Kim Jong-Il’s apparent stroke in 2008, the process of succession planning in North Korea appears to have been rushed.

Given the multitude of economic, societal and security challenges faced by the current regime, the prospects for a smooth transition to a third generation of Kims appear daunting. And as recent events in the Middle East have demonstrated the limits of American influence, it simply may be beyond our control to affect domestic developments in North Korea that are fueling its recent provocations.

Changes In The Inter-Korean Relations

On a regional level, there are two factors most directly related to North Korea’s recent cycle of provocation. The first is the change in South Korea’s policy toward the North; the second, China’s increased support for Pyongyang despite North Korea’s egregious conduct.

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