Chun Yung-Woo, South Korea's "chief nuclear envoy" has an interesting take on the recent talks and agreement with North Korea
I think they may have exhausted all the cards they had with the nuclear test. . .Considering how difficult the North's economy and its energy situation are, they would have to think long and hard before giving up on this scale of benefits
When North Korea conducted its nuclear test last year, I took it as their peculiar brand of invitation to the international community to meet for talks. It certainly fit their pattern of using military belligerence to extract concessions from the usual suspects: China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the US. Far from being crazy and unpredictable, North Korea's leadership has become very skilled at brinksmanship, using nuclear tests, missile firings and even small battles with South Korea to round the gang up, again, and get the food, fuel, medical and economic aid they want and need in order to stay in power.
They know that no one is going to seek a military end to their rule. South Korea will not endanger their own citizens, nor will they seek to harm their literal brothers and sisters in the north. Japan isn't a military power, Russia simply doesn't care enough, and China and the US will not do anything to provoke one another in North Korea.
Mr. Chun seems to get this, recognizing the nuclear test as a "card" they played in order to resume talks and get the aid they wanted. I would imagine that the various diplomats and governments involved in this recognize the situation for what it is, that we're all being held hostage to North Korea's whims and desires. It must be frustrating.
The difference that I saw in the late 1990's and Kim Dae-Jung's "Sunshine Policy" was that North Korea started to allow people to visit as tourists and increased the number of family reunion visits between North and South Korean citizens. That last in particular was highly significant, far more so than most Westerners would understand. Letting their citizens get in contact with family members in the South would reinforce the racial ties that bind the two nations together far more than a political boundary can separate them. It would also expose North Korean citizens to the standard of living in the South, a very dangerous idea.
In the 1990's, China was really gearing up its economy and allowing its citizens greater freedom. Western companies were investing in Chinese markets like never before and Chinese citizens were becoming exposed to the outside world greater amounts. Yet the Chinese government was still firmly in control, and this example could not have been lost on Kim Jong-Il. Add to this the most desperate situation the routinely desperate country had ever seen and we get a serious effort to engage the outside world.
The situation in North Korea was so bad that some estimates counted the dead by starvation at higher than 10% of the population. There was a growing consensus that the North Korean citizens were on the brink of a mass exodus that the military would not be able to stop. South Korea and even China started to build infrastructure so that when the refugees started to arrive they would not become too much of a strain on the two countries.
Then Bush takes office, petulantly does the opposite of whatever Clinton did, and here we are, 6 years later with a nuclear North Korea once again extracting what it needs to keep its population alive yet subservient.