By Zhiqun Zhu

North Korea has developed a dangerous habit of firing a missile (sometimes with a nuclear warhead) every once in a while. World leaders have scratched their heads and clenched their teeth, but no satisfactory solution has been found to end the North Korea quandary.

The leaders of the United States, Japan and South Korea have recently stated that they would never accept North Korea as a nuclear state.

This ''ostrich policy" is obviously not conducive to the resolution of the sticky issue. Let's call a spade a spade: North Korea is a ''de facto'' nuclear state. A solution to the North Korea problem must begin with recognizing this fact.

Foreign imperialists
North Korea's moves are all calculated and often well-timed to grab the world's attention, to squeeze more aid from other countries or to demonstrate to its own people the regime stands firm against foreign imperialists.

Depicted as aggressive and menacing to its neighbors and the United States, North Korea believes it is the United States that has been hostile and militant. The impoverished North Korea needs the nuclear program as a bargaining chip; it is also in dire need of energy, which the nuclear technology can provide.

It is highly unlikely that Pyongyang will actually use the nuclear weapons or missiles against its neighbors or the United States - the communist leaders are fully aware that it will be suicidal.

Having suffered from a stroke last summer, Kim Jong-il is apparently considering picking his successor now. Kim Jong-un, his youngest and favored son, has been rumored as the next leader of North Korea. If this proves true, there might be some hope for North Korea.

Educated in Switzerland
The younger Kim is reported to have been partially educated in Switzerland. At the International School of Berne, he learned English, German and French. He was introverted but friendly to his classmates.

Unlike his father and grandfather (Kim Il-sung), he has first-hand experience in a capitalist society of the West. It may be wishful thinking, but Kim Jong-un may possibly introduce political and economic reforms to North Korea after he consolidates his power.

Consider China: Mao Zedong, who only spent several months in Moscow and never ventured to the West, kept China in isolation and constant conflict with foreign powers while Deng Xiaoping, who studied and lived in France as a teenager, brought a sea of changes to post-Mao China.

When Deng emerged as China's leader after the Cultural Revolution, the United States and other Western countries welcomed him. Then-President Jimmy Carter invited him to Washington and praised his bold economic reform initiatives.

Working relationship
Why can't President Barack Obama do the same to North Korea and begin to establish a working relationship with Kim Jong-un? The West and North Korea's neighbors should reach out to Kim Jong-un as early as possible, to welcome him with caution and encouragement, and to help North Korea's peaceful leadership transition.

Kim Jong-il's recklessness has put North Korea's only ally, China, in a dilemma. China's fundamental policy toward North Korea are the ''3 No's" - no war on the Korean Peninsula, no sudden collapse of North Korea, and no American troops on China's borders.

Beijing finds itself between a rock and a hard place - severing supply lines to North Korea may lead to the collapse of the North Korean regime, but punishing it too lightly will not give North Korea a serious lesson.

North Korea's nuclearization may trigger an arms race and even military conflict in Northeast Asia; and North Korea's demise may usher in a speedy unification of a pro-West Korea and the deployment of U.S. troops along China's borders.

North Korean refugees
What China is concerned most about is not the flooding in of North Korean refugees as a result of the Pyongyang regime's sudden collapse - China would have little difficulty feeding these refugees.

It is the 1.1 million North Korean soldiers that worry China the most. These soldiers, equipped with the weapons and skills to kill, will create the biggest challenge to China's security and stability if they cross the border into China.

China has long lost confidence in Kim Jong-il. A change in Pyongyang's leadership, with the likelihood of policy changes within North Korea, is perhaps what China hopes for most.

North Korea is predictably unpredictable, but one thing is clear now: it is determined to acquire nuclear technology and develop nuclear weapons.

What North Korea needs most is not the two light water reactors promised to it under the collapsed 1994 Agreed Framework; it wants a security guarantee and diplomatic recognition.

The United States does not permit North Korea to possess nuclear weapons, but it is unclear what the United States wants from North Korea in the long-term.

Diplomatic relations
Nearly two decades after Russia and China established diplomatic relations with South Korea, neither the United States nor Japan has taken steps to recognize North Korea.

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. The future of North Korea is far from certain. Sanctions will not affect the lives of North Korean rulers and will only cause more suffering of the common people.

To acquire nuclear technology per se does not make North Korea more dangerous - how it will use it matters more. Since North Korea is already nuclear-capable, why don't we keep it closer by signing a nuclear cooperation deal with it and co-managing its nuclear program?

Ultimately, the United States and Japan - the two ''hostile external powers" - must be prepared to negotiate with Kim Jong-il's successor and seriously consider establishing diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

Meanwhile, the Western media should refrain from demonizing Pyongyang's new leader. After all, North Korea is a Confucian society where respect is a virtue. Show him some respect, and he is more likely to respond in kind.

Contact: Division of Communications

Posted July 15, 2009