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Making Sense of the North Korea Moratorium

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According to the State Department yesterday, North Korea agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment program, nuclear weapons tests and long-range missile launches in return for 240,000 metric tons of food aid from the United States. That represents the first major diplomatic breakthrough between Washington and Pyongyang since 2007.

For those who are excited about potential change in North Korean behavior, it is worth noting that US officials were in fact close to announcing a similar deal before Kim Jong-Il’s death last year, as I’ve previously noted. They were also nearing some sort of agreement after talks late last week in Beijing. So the moratorium should be read more as an evidence of continuity rather than change: a signal that that the new leader Kim Jong-Un is willing to continue the policies of his father at least for now since Pyongyang needs food aid and a peaceful environment for its transition. In fact, the main negotiators on the North Korean side are the same ones that have been at the table for decades. This is what former special envoy to North Korea (and my dean) Stephen Bosworth had to say:

This is what we had been trying to do for the last year…It’s a sign that the North Koreans want to have continuity. … It’s important to keep in mind that this is not one individual acting and that they’ve done this for their own reasons. First, they need the food aid, and I think they probably want a relatively quiet political environment to carry on the transition.

Those hoping for change would also do well to look at the historical record, which is hardly encouraging. North Korea is infamous for reneging on previous promises and pocketing concessions – most famously under the Agreed Framework in the Clinton administration but also several times under the six-party talks during the Bush administration. In fact, experts are all too familiar with the pattern of North Korean behavior: a provocative act followed by a conciliatory gesture that triggers a rush to either aid or negotiations, with the former often lining the pockets of the regime and the latter being subsequently disrupted by a transgression or tantrum of some sort.

At the same time, simply dismissing North Korean overtures offhand now just because of actions in the past doesn’t make much sense when there are few better options that exist. This is particularly true since there may be a chance that North Korea’s new leadership will institute incremental changes that gradually open up the country. That premise may seem farfetched to some, but it may be worth paying a small price to test it. As Victor Cha, the top advisor to the Bush administration on North Korea said:

On one hand, you could say with the food aid that they’re buying the same horse for the third time… On the other hand, it means getting a handle on what has been a runaway nuclear program that’s continued unabated for more than three years. For that, a bit of food isn’t that high of a price.

The wise policy option given this delicate balance is to react cautiously to the announcement, play down expectations, and wait. The Obama administration has done a good job of this so far. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in her congressional testimony on Wednesday:

On the occasion of Kim Jong Il’s death, I said that it is our hope that the new leadership will choose to guide their nation onto the path of peace by living up to its obligations. Today’s announcement represents a modest first step in the right direction. We, of course, will be watching closely and judging North Korea’s new leaders by their actions.

If North Korea reverts back to its previous brinkmanship, then US policy can always shift back to one of pure containment – cutting off access to financing, preventing proliferation and so on. Such flexibility is important because, as Bosworth likes to say, while Americans are used to thinking about problems as things that must be solved, North Korea is one problem that may need to be managed for some time to come.

US Talks With North Korea: Baby Steps, Not Breakthroughs

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US and North Korean officials completed negotiations in Beijing on Friday, ending their third meeting in the last eight months and the first since the death last December of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-Un.

Any progress? Here’s Glyn Davies, the US special representative for North Korea policy:

I think the word ‘breakthrough’ goes too far, folks. I wouldn’t want anybody using the word ‘breakthrough’…The talks were serious and substantive…I think we made a little bit of progress…We have been able to illuminate the issues a little bit better, gain a better understanding of their point of view, their rationale and their position.

So, incremental progress in terms of sitting down and talking about key issues, but no real breakthroughs. There were reportedly some discussions on resuming food aid to Pyongyang, which was something that was discussed as part of a deal closed to being forged between the two sides before elder Kim’s death. Apparently the sticking points are still largely what they were before: monitoring of food-aid distribution and the type of aid provided. For instance, the US has placed a greater focus on providing vitamin supplements and high-protein biscuits for malnourished people, but Pyongyang wants food aid to contain more rice and other grains, which Washington is more reluctant to do since it is routinely siphoned off to the regime’s loyal backers in the cities. The New York Times also notes that “both sides had almost reached the goal of suspension of activities at the uranium enrichment plant but narrowly failed to bridge differences”.

Movement on the food aid question could be a critical first step in tackling the relationship’s tougher issues such as North Korea’s nuclear program. The idea would be to get some progress on the disarmament question from Pyongyang to then restart the six-party talks guided by an aid-for-denuclearization agreement reached in September 2005.

What about the near future? North Korea will have to show concrete steps toward suspending its nuclear program before six-party talks can resume. Former special representative to North Korea and my dean Stephen Bosworth thinks that while there is a possibility of talks resuming sometime this year, the fact that we are (believe it or not) seeing either elections or transitions in all members of the six party talks in 2012 – the US, Russia, Japan, South Korea, China and North Korea – means that various parties may not take the necessary strategic risk necessary to make talks productive. Here’s Bosworth:

I think that there is a good possibility that we may see a resumption of talks sometime in 2012. But I certainly wouldn’t bet on it….I think it’s unlikely – but not impossible – that the North Koreans are going to be prepared to take the sort of strategic risk that they would have to take in order to make talks with us productive. Neither do I think that it’s likely in an election year that we’re going to take the sort of public relations and strategic risk that would be required if we are going to make the talks productive. So I hope that we can do more than just manage to maintain stability over the current year, but I’m not all that optimistic.

But as with anything related to North Korea (and I’m sure Dean Bosworth would agree) the future is anyone’s guess.

North Korea After Kim Jong-il

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In his life as much as after his death, the only thing certain about Kim Jong-il and his legacy is uncertainty.

According to state media, the North Korean leader died on a train on December 17th “from a great mental and physical strain” (later clarified as a heart attack). With his oversized sunglasses, wacky hairdo, and love for cognac and NBA cheerleaders, Mr. Kim always looked the part of the stereotypically eccentric dictator. And yet the son of the nation’s founder Kim Il-sung presided over one of the world’s most closed societies for almost two decades, craftily arming it with nuclear weapons even as millions of people starved to death in his hermit kingdom.

Mr. Kim’s death means he will miss the grand celebrations in 2012 that will follow the 100th year anniversary of the birth of his father. But what now for North Korea? If a planned transition goes smoothly, power will be handed over to the House of Kim in the form of Mr. Kim’s 27 year old third son Kim Jong-un, who state media has generously described as “a great person born of heaven” and the holy Mount Paektu, where his father was also reportedly birthed (accompanied, of course, by a bright star in the sky and a double rainbow that touched the earth).

There are enough reasons to question this flowery scenario. Whereas Kim Jong-Il had two decades to consolidate his power before taking the reins, his son has only had two years. Despite being named to various posts over the last few years by his father, the Swiss-educated Kim Jong-Un has an almost complete lack of military service in a near-totalitarian police state with the world’s fifth largest military. It may be true that the House of Kim will be managed as more of a triumvirate, with Kim’s son receiving significant assistance from Kim Jong Il’s cunning sister and her husband Chang Sung-taek, a powerful general within top military circles. Nevertheless, with North Korea’s fragmented structure of power and atrophying institutions (but for its military), a system designed to allow only the ‘Dear Leader’ to exercise control could quickly fracture after this new vacuum due to bureaucratic infighting.

The response from North Korean society will also be interesting to watch. It is certainly true that the country maintains a tight system of surveillance control backed by brutality, which has thus far prevented any real discontent from cohering into organized opposition. But, as others have argued before, things are slowly changing in North Korea. Newly established private markets have opened up the world of commerce to hundreds of thousands of North Koreans, with many visiting China as the trade between the two countries blossoms. These markets were at the center of riots which broke out in December 2009 over a hasty currency reform plan by the government. More than 800,000 North Koreans now also have cell phones, an astronomical growth from just tens of thousands just a few years ago which makes state control more difficult. Whether and when currency and technology loosen the shackles of ideology  are at least questions worth pondering.

Even the hermit kingdom cannot completely isolate itself from external forces, and how the world reacts to the ongoing transition will be important. China, as Pyongyang’s main backer, has been quick to offer its condolences and will nervously hope for continued stability. Sorry is a harder word for South Korea given North Korea’s recent transgressions, but not saying it could dampen inter-Korean relations, much like Kim Young-sam’s refusal to offer condolences in 1994 did after Kim Il-sung’s death. For now, Seoul has its military on alert. For the United States, the timing of Mr. Kim’s death may delay the Obama administration’s decision whether to re-engage North Korea and provide it with food aid, and disrupt positive momentum that seemed to be building.

The longer term is fuzzier still, and one can only hope for the best and plan for the worst. The doomsday scenario of regime collapse, with massive refugee outflows across the border, loose nuclear warheads in the hands of terrorists, and military confrontations between North Korea, South Korea and other countries, is always on the back of the minds of Korea watchers. Even if the new Kim does ultimately take the helm, he may either be overly cautious, focusing on domestic affairs and hugging China ever closer while putting off tough decisions like transforming relations with the United States, or be too reckless in order to prove his heretofore untested mettle.

But there is also the possibility that Kim Jong-un, detecting rising discontent at home and recognizing the need for links abroad, may partner with more reform-minded and well-traveled members in various ministries and the military, and institute incremental changes that will gradually open up North Korea to the world. As someone who was schooled overseas, is said to have studied computer science, and advocated the introduction of cell phones into North Korea, he surely understands the importance of openness and technology. If he brings that to bear in his country, he will be a truly ‘Great Leader’ not just on the lips of the state media, but in the hearts and minds of the North Korean people.

Making Sense of the Korean Shelling

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Like most foreign policy geeks, I’ve been trying to figure out what motivated North Korea to trigger one of the most dramatic confrontations since the end of the Korean War in 1953 a few days ago.

Here is my short analysis of the situation thus far, with two caveats: 1) I don’t claim to have any special knowledge of North Korea beyond what I’ve read, studied and heard others say; 2) the extent to which one can make sense of the actions of a hermetic and unpredictable regime like Pyongyang, needless to say, is quite limited.

It is tempting to read the skirmish as simply a response by an irritated North Korea. According to most press reports, North Korea warned South Korea to halt military drills near their sea border, and only began shelling when Seoul refused and began firing artillery into disputed waters (but away from the North Korean shore). I don’t think this argument holds up though. South Korea holds such exercises four times every year, and confrontations have not occurred on such a level previously. Why did they occur this time?

Furthermore, most analysts who have studied North Korean behavior for years insist that Pyongyang is a remarkably strategic actor, and thus tend to ascribe more strategic motivations to the incident beyond just a reaction to alleged South Korean provocations (see here for commentary from experts Victor Cha and the Fletcher School’s own Professor Sung-Yoon Lee).

In this vein, I think the first North Korean motive was to use the incident as part of an effort to burnish the credentials of Kim Jong Il’s youngest son and heir-apparent, Kim Jong Un, who is still in his mid-20s amidst an ongoing succession process. From this perspective, the  revelation of a new, surprisingly advanced uranium enrichment plant a few days ago, combined with the brazen shelling, could be central to building a personality cult of a futuristic and brave leader committed to strengthening the nation’s technological and military prowess. After all, the untested and inexperienced Kim Junior no doubt needs something to earn the respect of the country’s military.

But the particular timing of the incident suggests to me that the succession explanation alone is insufficient. The provocation occurred just as U.S. special envoy for North Korea (and my current dean) Stephen Bosworth was planning to visit the region, days after the unveiling of a new uranium enrichment program, and a week after the North Korean government told a team of visiting experts that it was willing to effectively dismantle one of its nuclear weapons programs if Washington again pledged that it had “no hostile intent” toward the current government.

Piece all those things together and I think this is partly Pyongyang’s way of telling the United States that it is interested in bilateral talks, and that the status quo of ‘containing’ the North Korean threat will not work since it will otherwise continue to bolster its nuclear program and destabilize the Korean Peninsula through its traditional path of brinkmanship. While this mixture of intimidation, revelations and airing of new deals may fall right in line with the pattern of North Korean behavior as others have suggested, U.S. officials have indicated that this North Korean offer was “unusually explicit”.

Of course, the fact that North Korea is simply ‘interested’ in talks alone may not in and of itself inspire a lot of enthusiasm about the situation in the Korean Peninsula given the regime’s history of duplicity. What is clear to me though is that there are few good options going forward to deal with a nation that escalates provocations to the most dangerous levels if ignored and extracts concessions with a sketchy record of honoring its side of the bargain if engaged (as a South Korean report concluded a week ago). I’m guessing the Obama administration will continue to urge all sides to exercise restraint, demonstrate solidarity with its South Korean ally, attempt to lean on China to pressure North Korea, and perhaps at least consider Pyongyang’s proposals for talks.  I wouldn’t expect sunshine anytime soon.

Photo: BBC News

Written by Prashanth Parameswaran

November 25, 2010 at 7:21 am

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