Tag: dprk

Talk to Kim Jong-un Even as He Kills His Way to Power in North Korea

Secretary of State John Kerry recently visited Seoul and South Korean President Park Geun-hye will head to Washington later this month. The main agenda item: what to do about North Korea.

As usual, no one knows what is going on in Pyongyang. Its internal politics appears to be bloodier than usual. Ironically, this might provide an opportunity for Washington to initiate talks over a more open bilateral relationship.

The latest rumor is that young dictator Kim Jong-un had his defense minister executed with anti-aircraft fire for disrespectful conduct. Hyon Yong-chol probably has been purged, though South Korea’s intelligence agency acknowledged that it could not confirm his gruesome death. If Hyon was executed, it probably was because the military man was plotting, or at least feared to be plotting, against the North’s leadership.

There has been striking turnover among party and military officials since Kim Jong-un took over after his father’s death in December 2011. Most dramatic was the arrest and execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, seen as the regime’s number two, in December 2013. Overall some 70 top apparatchiks and more than 400 lower level officials apparently have been killed this year.

This brutality towards the power elite sets Kim apart from his father and grandfather. While Kim Jong-un’s apparent penchant for executions may reflect a peculiarly sadistic nature, it more likely grows out of insecurity. Only 28 or maybe 27 when his father died, Kim’s succession was pushed extremely quickly after his father suffered a stroke in August 2008.

Although there is no sign of organized resistance to the latest Kim, continuing turnover suggests that Kim is not, or at least does not see himself, as yet secure. Instead of cowing resistance, promiscuous executions, even for acts short of actual rebellion, might make subordinates believe it is worth going for broke.

Repression is rising in other ways. For instance, the regime apparently has been employing “Patrol Teams” as press gangs to fill out its construction work force for projects to be finished by October, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party. The regime also has strengthened border controls with China.

If Kim retains control, none of this might matter. However, everyone is wary of something other than the usual predictable unpredictability in Pyongyang. South Korean President Park Geun-hye noted “growing concern” over “an extreme reign of terror within North Korea.”

Governance matters since the North continues to expand its nuclear capabilities. While nothing suggests that Kim is suicidal—members of the dynasty appear to prefer their virgins in this world rather than the next—Pyongyang’s decision-making process could become more unilateral, unpredictable, or both.

Unfortunately, there is little that the U.S. can do to directly influence events within the DPRK. War would be foolhardy, tougher sanctions aren’t likely to work, and the Kim regime is well beyond the reach of moral suasion.

Nor is negotiation likely to have much effect. While the North recently launched an international charm offensive, it continues to highlight weapons development and spout rehashed threats against America and the South. The Kim regime is not likely trade away the one factor causing the world to follow events in the DPRK.

Nevertheless, as I point out in Forbes, “the possibility of division and dissension in Pyongyang gives Washington a new reason to suggest direct discussions without preconditions, but with the prospect of benefits for a change in direction. If the regime is unsettled, those disaffected might benefit if Washington stood ready to reward a new approach.”

A peace treaty, diplomatic relations, and end of economic sanctions all should be on the table. It’s still a long-shot, but so is almost any other proposal to address the North.

Someday Pyongyang will change. Engagement is the best way to prepare for that day.

North Korea: Déjà Vu All Over Again!

North Korea wants to deal. Or, more likely, North Korea wants to be paid to deal. Washington has reached another agreement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The North promises to—again—halt nuclear tests and uranium enrichment, and the U.S. will—again—provide Pyongyang with food aid. The so-called Six Party talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, are—again—expected to resume.

It is better for the U.S. and Northeast Asia if North Korea is talking rather than shooting, as it was two years ago, when it sank a South Korean naval vessel and bombarded a South Korean island. However, Washington should have at most modest expectations: the DPRK has given no indication that it desires to yield the only weapons which allow it to command the world’s attention. Moreover, the ongoing leadership transition in Pyongyang makes it unlikely that anyone has either the desire or authority to challenge military priorities.

The U.S. should step back as it encourages resumption of negotiations. Other than following through with its promised food shipments, Washington should leave aid to private NGOs and the North’s neighbors. More important, American officials should inform both the Republic of Korea and Japan that the United States will be phasing out its forces in both countries, leaving them with responsibility for their own security. They should plan accordingly.

Removing America as the focus of regional attention would highlight the roles of other nations. Reaching a peaceful settlement on the peninsula would be primarily an issue between South and North Korea. Encouraging the DPRK to avoid confrontation would be primarily a responsibility of China. Supporting any new security and economic regimes that might result would be primarily a task for Japan and Russia, which are historically involved and geographically near.

The latest U.S.-North Korean agreement is more cause for skepticism than celebration. It could lead to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but is more likely to trigger a repeat of history: interminable talks with only minimal practical results. That would still be better than a war, but still would warrant only minimal effort by Washington.

North Korea: Kim Jong-il’s Death and the Coming Succession Struggle

North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il is dead. There is now no prospect of negotiating and implementing a new nuclear agreement with the North in the near future. The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is likely to be consumed with a power struggle which could turn violent. Washington’s best policy option is to step back and observe.

After his stroke three years ago, Kim anointed his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. However, the latter Kim has had little time to establish himself. The previous familial power transfer to Kim Jong-il took roughly two decades. There are several potential claimants to supreme authority in the North, and the military may play kingmaker.

Some observers hope for a “Korean Spring,” but the DPRK’s largely rural population is an unlikely vehicle for change. Urban elites may want reform, but not revolution. If a North Korean Mikhail Gorbachev is lurking in the background, he will have to move slowly to survive.

During this time of political uncertainty no official is likely to have the desire or ability to make a deal yielding up North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The leadership will be focused inward and no one is likely to challenge the military, which itself may fracture politically.

Nor is China likely to play a helpful role. Beijing views the status quo as being in its interest. Above all else, China is likely to emphasize stability, though it may very well attempt to influence the succession process outside of public view. But China does not want what America wants, preferring the DPRK’s survival, just with more responsible and pliable leadership.

Washington can do little during this process. The United States should maintain its willingness to talk with the North. American officials also should engage Beijing over the future of the peninsula, exploring Chinese concerns and searching for areas of compromise. For instance, Washington should pledge that there would be no American bases or troops in a reunited Korea, which might ease Beijing’s fears about the impact of a North Korean collapse.

Most important, the Obama administration should not rush to “strengthen” the alliance with South Korea in response to uncertainty in the North. The Republic of Korea is well able to defend itself. It should take the steps necessary to deter North Korean adventurism and develop its own strategies for dealing with Pyongyang. America should be withdrawing from an expensive security commitment which no longer serves U.S. interests.

Kim Jong-il imposed unimaginable hardship on the North Korean people. However, what follows him could be even worse if an uncertain power struggle breaks down into armed conflict. Other than encourage Beijing to use its influence to bring the Kim dynasty to a merciful end, the United States can—and should—do little more than watch developments in the North.