Tag: North Korea

North Korea’s Nuclear Challenge to the West and China

North Korea has grabbed international headlines. Again. Pyongyang staged its 4th nuclear test, supposedly a thermonuclear device.

Proposals for more sanctions and further isolation likely will grow. However, the test dramatically demonstrated that the U.S. attempt to build a cordon sanitaire around the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has failed.

Washington instead should develop a new policy focused on engagement, not denuclearization. The latter should remain an objective, but even if it remains out of reach the U.S. might be able to reduce military threats on the peninsula.

As always, North Korean foreign policy reflects domestic politics. The test also gives Pyongyang greater leverage in its attempt to engage both South Korea and the U.S.

Talks with the Republic of Korea recently ended without result. The North also long has sought to draw the U.S. into bilateral discussions. However, the Obama administration set as a precondition for any talks that Pyongyang take steps toward dismantling its nuclear program, a non-starter.

In dealing with the North there are only second-best options which might ameliorate the threat otherwise posed by a famously enigmatic, persistently paranoid, and potentially unstable nuclear-armed state viewing itself in a perpetual state of war with America and its allies, South Korea and Japan.

Did Top North Korean Official Die by Accident or Assassination?

Yet another top North Korean official has met a violent and untimely death. No one knows if it was a tragic accident or political assassination.

Kim Yang-gon was in charge of negotiations with South, where he was respected. He supposedly died in an early morning car accident. A surprising number of North Korea’s high officials appear to leave the world this way; yet defectors say accidents are common given the poor streets and tendency of top officials to drive drunk.

Still, it looks suspicious. But it doesn’t appear to be a state-sanctioned hit. Dictator Kim Jong-un praised his “close comrade-at-arms” and showed emotion at the state funeral. 

Perhaps a rival took out Kim Yang-gon. However, while he was well-connected, having served “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il too, it’s not apparent that he is the sort of rival worth killing.

Which leaves everyone outside again looking through the mirror darkly, as the Bible puts it.

The Korean status quo obviously is unsatisfactory. Indeed, it is positively dangerous. While everyone discounts North Korea’s endless threats against both South Korea and the U.S., as the North’s military capabilities grow people are more likely to treat them as warnings to be taken seriously. Proposals for military action against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea might enjoy a revival.

Of course, the more dangerous Pyongyang perceives the international environment, the more committed it likely will become to building a sizeable nuclear arsenal and missile force. And to the extent that the North can argue that it is responding defensively to America, the less likely Beijing will be to apply more pressure on the DPRK.

An intrepid few have forthrightly proposed military action. But that would be a wild gamble, risking thousands of lives, mostly Korean, on both sides.

Enhanced sanctions look pretty good compared to war. And tighter financial controls would make it much harder for the Kim regime to do business with the world. However, Sudan gets by despite strict financial controls.

Moreover, without Beijing’s acquiescence, the U.S. won’t be able to cut the North’s lifeline. Forcing a national implosion would have unpredictable and potentially violent consequences.

For some the People’s Republic of China is the preferred option. Just get the PRC to force the North into line. That presumes Beijing has the ability to do so.

Moreover, the PRC has good reason to choose the status quo over creating the possibility of chaos and war on China’s southern border. Moreover, Beijing is unlikely to do any favors for the U.S., which would use a united Korea as part of a containment strategy against China.

If none of these, then what?

Some form of engagement with the objectives of moderating regime behavior, easing the threat environment, constraining arms development, encouraging domestic reform, and improving human development. Not because the chances of success seem great, but because there is no better option.

That means the South should continue talks despite Kim Yang-gon’s death. In fact, in his New Year’s Day address, Kim Jong-un expressed his desire to improve bilateral relations.

And as I argue on National Interest online: “the U.S. should open a dialogue, with the objective of initiating official though low-key relations. A diplomatic presence in Pyongyang would provide a small keyhole for peering into this mysterious country. Although expectations should be low, tempering hostilities could lead to additional benefits, especially if Kim Jong-un uses next year’s party congress to modernize.”

Winston Churchill once said of the Soviet Union that it was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” That certainly describes the DPRK for the West. Kim Yang-gon’s death only makes the puzzle more complex. Increasing contact with Pyongyang is the best way to begin to understand the North and influence its future.

The Two Koreas Talk: Time for Thanksgiving?

Whenever North Korea heads to the negotiating table one remembers the traditional description of a second marriage: the triumph of hope over experience. We’ve been here before. Or, more accurately, the two Koreas have.

Still, as Winston Churchill famously said, better to jaw-jaw than war-war. The last Korean conflict left millions of casualties and refugees. Even a minor league war could be catastrophic.

Nevertheless, the Republic of Korea should have no illusions about the latest negotiations, scheduled for America’s Thanksgiving. Nothing much is likely to emerge from that gathering. And nothing that emerges is likely to survive very long.

China Must Push America to Solve the North Korean Crisis

Many U.S. policymakers see China as the answer to North Korean proliferation. If Beijing would just tell the North’s Kim Jong-un to behave, East Asia’s biggest problem would disappear.
 
Of course, it’s not that simple. To be sure, the People’s Republic of China has influence in Pyongyang, but the latter always has jealously guarded its independence.
 
Still, the current regime does not appear to be as stable as its predecessors. Powerful Chinese pressure, if backed by economic sanctions, might encourage now incipient opposition.
 
The China-North Korea relationship goes back to the Korean War. Although, Beijing no longer hides its dissatisfaction with the North, the PRC is not yet willing to abandon its sole ally.
 
Its reluctance is understandable. Violent conflict within the DPRK, mass refugee flows across the Yalu, loss of Chinese investments, and a united Korea hosting U.S. troops all are possibilities no PRC government desires. China’s interest is almost purely negative, avoiding what the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea could become.

U.S.-South Korea Alliance Treats Pentagon as Department of Foreign Welfare

As South and North Korea exchanged artillery fire in late August, the U.S. rushed three B-2 bombers to Guam. The Obama administration hoped to deter the North from taking military action, but why is Seoul still a helpless dependent 62 years after the Korean War ended?

Imagine a hostile relationship existing between the U.S. and Mexico. The Mexicans threaten America with war. Washington responds by begging Europe and Japan to send military aid.

America would face raucous laughter. After all, the U.S. has more than 2.5 times Mexico’s population. America’s GDP is an even more impressive 14 times that of Mexico’s.

Yet the disparity between the ROK and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is larger. The South enjoys a population edge of two-to-one and an economic advantage upwards of 40-to-one.

Seoul has stolen away the North’s chief military allies, China and Russia, which no longer would fight for the DPRK. On every measure of national power save military South Korea dominates. And it lags on the latter only out of choice.

North Korea Remembers Libya, So No Iranian-Style Deal

The Obama administration’s success in negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran has led to hope that a similar agreement might be reached with North Korea. Halt your program, dismantle some of your capabilities, and accept intrusive inspections in return for “coming in from the cold.”

Unfortunately, there’s virtually no chance of that happening. As I point out in National Interest online: “The North already has a nuclear capability and views preservation of a nuclear arsenal as critical for domestic politics as well as international policy. Moreover, the West’s ouster of Libya’s Moammar Khadafy is seen in Pyongyang as dispositive proof that only a fool would negotiate away missile and nuclear capabilities.”

In word and action the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has demonstrated its commitment to being a nuclear state. Moreover, even a good offer for denuclearization looks suspect in light of U.S. and European support for the ouster of Libya’s Khadafy, who negotiated away his nuclear, chemical, and long-range missile programs.

President George W. Bush promised that Libya’s “good faith will be returned.” Khadafy was feted in European capitals. Tripoli was cited as a model for Iran and North Korea to follow.

However, four years ago the U.S. and European governments saw their chance. Under the guise of humanitarianism, Washington and Brussels promoted low-cost (to them) regime change.

Alas, the self-satisfied celebration of Libya as a “good war” quickly dissipated after that nation suffered post-war atrocities, loosed weapons across the region, generated rogue militias, spawned two governments, descended into incipient civil war, and became another battleground for Islamic State forces. 

Now Libya also stands as a stark warning against nonproliferation, at least for any government believing itself to be in Washington’s gunsights. Had Khadafy possessed nukes, chemical weapons, and/or missiles, the allies almost certainly would have kept their planes and drones at home.

The North Koreans took immediate note. The Foreign Ministry observed:  “Libya’s nuclear dismantlement much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as ‘guarantee of security’ and ‘improvement of relations’ to disarm and then swallowed it up by force.”

Pyongyang has no reason to believe that the allies would not take advantage of a similar opening against the Kim dynasty.

Nevertheless, the Iranian negotiations have revived hopes that the DPRK might be enticed into following suit. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman suggested that implementation of the Iran agreement “might give North Korea second thoughts about the very dangerous path that it is pursuing.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the Iranian deal was an “active model” for the North.

Alas, Kim Jong-un took power only a couple months after Khadafy was killed in rather gruesome fashion. That event likely was imprinted upon his consciousness. Kim isn’t likely to give up his most important weapon to deter outside intervention.

After announcement of the Iranian agreement, the North Korean foreign ministry issued a statement explaining that the situation of the North was “quite different” from that of Iran and that Pyongyang was “not interested at all in the dialogue to discuss the issue of making it freeze or dismantle its nukes unilaterally first.”

After all, the DPRK was a nuclear state and faced ongoing threats from the U.S. Thus, its nuclear deterrent was not “a plaything to be put on the negotiating table.”

This should surprise no one. Author Mark Fitzpatrick contended that the Iranian deal showed that the U.S. “treated the Iranians as equal negotiating partners, according them respect and collegiality.” But Washington treated Libyans that way too. Which didn’t stop the U.S. and its allies from ousting the same government a few years later.

It never was likely that the DPRK would yield up its nuclear weapons. But the Obama administration’s Libyan misadventure makes that prospect even less likely. Washington may rue this precedent for years to come.

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.