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What Kim Jong-un really wants hasn’t changed

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The Interpreter, with Jimmy Amedeo, 7 August, 2018

The news that US and North Korean generals met for talks for the first time in nine years to discuss the possible repatriation of 200 American soldiers lost during the Korean War was a step in the right direction. While it’s true it has the appearance of giving North Korea added leverage over the US in future negotiations, this is not, in itself, cause for concern.

First, such meetings institutionalise bilateral meetings more than brief interactions, such as that between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho at Singapore at the weekend, and help build working-level relations and trust. And there is much trust to build.

The ultimate question is whether Kim intends to really give up his weapons in exchange for a lifting of sanctions and an opening of the North’s economy to foreign investment, or whether he intends to have his cake and eat it too.

Second, the fact that North Korea is seeking to bolster its leverage could be read as a sign that it is serious about the upcoming negotiations.

Yet it is too soon to say whether Pyongyang is sincere in its stated intention of denuclearisation, or simply intent on getting optimum returns from empty promises. Understanding North Korea is in itself a cottage industry. However, there are a number of indications that understanding what Kim Jong-un wants is not so difficult after all.

If we look back over the past few years, there are strong signs of change to North Korea’s motivations. On 31 March 2013, Kim Jong-un announced the Byungjin policy, which set two national goals – to pursue a powerful nuclear deterrent, and create a vibrant economy. Five years later, in April, Kim was able to declare “victory” on nuclear deterrence – confident in his ability to reach targets on the continental US – and announce a shift in focus towards economic growth.

In 2015, North Korean media reported that Kim could not sleep for worry over his country’s poverty. In 2016, he announced his new “Five-Year Plan”. His emphasis on economic growth was repeated in his 2018 New Year’s Speech, when he highlighted ten industries he wanted to see expand: electric-power, metallurgy, chemical production, machine-building, natural resources, transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, tourism, and technology.

Kim has also expressed his desire for economic growth outside of North Korea. In the Panmunjom Declaration, he called for steps “to promote balanced economic growth and co-prosperity of the nation”. In Singapore, he remarked on the city’s “social and economic development”, noting its cleanliness and beauty. Both the remarks and the KCNA-filmed documentary  – showcasing the Singapore skyline, luxurious settings, and universal access to electricity, all unheard of in North Korea – were shown to North Koreans at home.

China has doubtless been pleased. President Xi Jinping said during his third meeting with Kim in Beijing:

We are happy to see that the DPRK made a major decision to shift the focus to economic construction, and the development of the DPRK’s socialist cause has entered a new stage in history … Comrade Chairman has made positive efforts for realising denuclearisation and maintaining peace on the Peninsula.

Xi’s praise to the young Chairman is highly relevant. After all, Xi might have been the catalyst for these changes.

The Chinese leaders seemingly successful attempts to build a technological surveillance state, while harnessing capital to strengthen the state and the military, might have persuaded Kim that reform needn’t mean giving up control. No doubt, Xi’s decision to scrap term limits in February had as much impact in Pyongyang as it did in the West.

Historically, North Korea’s leaders have criticised China’s post-Mao leaders for going soft. Now it looked as though the People’s Republic of China had pulled off a miracle: harnessing capitalism to fortify authoritarian rule.

As a result, Kim might feel that opening up North Korea economically is not only viable, but necessary. Rason and Sinuiju, special economic zones in North Korea, could become the next Shenzhen and Zhuhai. The main question is whether Kim wishes to get sanctions lifted, encourage foreign investment, and keep the first part of his Byungjin policy.

To some extent, the Trump administration still has options. Despite the recent loosening of sanctions by Moscow and Beijing, Pyongyang still craves recognition and investment from the US and its allies.

This is the leverage Trump needs. Pyongyang wants something he has. The conditions seem perfect for a “grand bargain”. The ultimate question is whether Kim intends to really give up his weapons in exchange for a lifting of sanctions and an opening of the North’s economy to foreign investment, or whether he intends to have his cake and eat it too.

So far, it is difficult to tell. Pyongyang’s current strategy seems to offer symbolic gains instead of denuclearisation – returning of remains, and site visits – in order to get the Trump administration to declare victory and loosen economic restrictions. It has also done a bait-and-switch with a peace treaty as the path to denuclearisation. The peace treaty option has traditionally had drawbacks from the US and South Korean side, as it would disband the UN mission in South Korea and perhaps lead to a bring-the-boys-home sentiment arising inside the US.

If Washington is able to exploit Kim’s desires for economic development, it could negotiate a denuclearised Korean Peninsula, partially stabilising the region, bolstering international norms, and removing at least one source of US–China friction. But if Trump is easily waylaid by Kim’s tactics, and allows Kim to win economic benefits without verifiably removing all of his nuclear capabilities, then once more we will see why policy wonks call the country the “impossible state”.

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Vice News, David Gilbert, July 2, 2018

“The recent allegations that the North Korea regime has increased its production of enriched uranium and the subsequent interview with the President by Fox show just how precarious the notion of a second Summit with Kim Jong Un is,” John Hemmings, Asia Director at the Henry Jackson Society, a British foreign policy think tank, told VICE News.

“The relationship dances on the tip of a needle, balancing the entirety of the relationship over a lack of trust,” Hemmings said. “It’s not clear to me how two countries can negotiate something without trust.”


Ambiguity the only certainty as the dust settles on the Singapore summit

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/06/17/ambiguity-the-only-certainty-as-the-dust-settles-on-the-singapore-summit/

East Asia Forum, with James Amedeo, 17 June, 2018

Since the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1948, no acting US president had met with a North Korean leader. Early on the morning of 12 June 2018 in Singapore, all that changed. In the historic meeting, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to ‘establish new US–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity’.

This line from the joint statement Trump and Kim released after the Singapore summit is a small example of the document’s larger theme: ambiguity. The only substantial part of the joint statement is the two leaders’ agreement that dialogue between the United States and the DPRK will continue into the future.

If we compare the Singapore summit joint statement to previous US–DPRK agreements, it is closer in nature to the 2000 Joint Communique than to the 1994 Agreed Framework. The Agreed Framework involved concrete steps to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula. It stated that North Korea would switch from using graphite-moderated reactors (which use unenriched uranium as fuel) to using light-water reactors (which use water as fuel).

The Joint Communique and the Singapore summit document, on the other hand, use highly diplomatic language that avoids stipulating concrete steps to denuclearisation. The only specific policy outcomes of the 2000 Communique and the Singapore joint statement are about the recovery and return of US soldiers’ remains from the Korean War. This endeavour requires little effort from the North Koreans while providing a small political victory for the United States.

The main push of the Singapore agreement is North Korea’s continued commitment to complete nuclear disarmament of the Peninsula as agreed in the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration. That’s a win, particularly for South Korean President Moon Jae-in who promised this to South Koreans.

But there is little else to commend the document. There is no mention of North Korea’s human rights transgressions, which could become a major stumbling block to passing future DPRK-related policies in the US Congress. There is a hint at establishing diplomatic relations, but it’s not clear whether this is merely a commitment to better relations or a commitment to formal diplomatic relations. Will a peace treaty be on the table? Again, it is not clear.

Even though the joint statement itself is ambiguous, there may be more going on behind the ink. Trump announced after the summit that he will suspend US military exercises with South Korea. He also mentioned that he expects Kim to dismantle his nuclear arsenal ‘very quickly’.

But spoken agreements tend to carry little weight in comparison with written ones. Trump could take back his decision to suspend military exercises at a moment’s notice just as Kim could decide to restart his nuclear program. The important mission in the future is to secure a more conclusive written deal instead of these loose spoken commitments.

The joint statement allocates the responsibility for ‘follow-on negotiations’ to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and ‘a relevant high-level DPRK official’ — a rather oblique reference to North Korea’s diplomatic team.

The main question going forward is: how can Pompeo secure a deal of substance without the North Koreans walking away? In 1994 US diplomat Robert Gallucci, the head of the US delegation that was sent to negotiate the Agreed Framework, faced the same question. His answer was to find out what the Kim Jong-il regime wanted.

Kim Jong-il’s desires and his son’s desires are the same. In his 2018 New Year’s speech, Kim Jong-un acknowledged that the successful development of North Korea’s nuclear weapon program is complete and that it is time to shift to focussing on economic development. Pompeo should use this information to achieve a deal with North Korea. Lifting economic sanctions, providing aid or including North Korea in China’s Belt and Road Initiative are concessions that could fulfil Kim’s economic development desires.

In return, the United States must request the closing of nuclear reactors like the one in Yongbyon. Evidence suggests that the Yongbyon site was operational and producing plutonium for North Korea’s nuclear weapon program as recently as April 2018. The closing of this plant along with others like it will be key to entering a ‘nuclear freeze’, which may be a compromise on denuclearisation that Trump is willing to agree to.

Had somebody said in 2017 that Kim and Trump would someday shake hands they most likely would have been laughed out of the room. US–DPRK relations have come a long way from the use of inflammatory language like ‘dotards’, ‘red buttons’ and ‘rocket men’ — but that does not mean that the hard work is over. There are still major question marks going forward, particularly around the area of North Korea’s human rights record.

While the US–DPRK joint statement from the Singapore meet has little substance, it is significant that Trump and Kim agreed to continue negotiations. Going forward Pompeo’s goal will be to turn this ambiguity into concrete guidelines that can be monitored and followed.


Just Denuclearization? What Trump Really Wants from Kim

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ISPI, 11 June, 2018

As we approach the US-North Korea summit in Singapore, there is much speculation about the potential outcome. Will the US persuade North Korea to lay down its nuclear weapons programme? Will North Korea use the negotiations to incrementally secure resources and gains from the US side while keeping its trump card to the very end? Much speculation on the outcome has also centred around thetwo men’s personalities, since so much of what has been different this time around seems to stem from their personal choices. Certainly, President Trump’s personal involvement in the North Korea issue seems unprecedented and was a major factor in the back-and-forth of pre-summit diplomacy that we saw.

Despite this, the US national interests and strategic objectives under President Trump have been broadly consistent with past administrations. Despite North Korea’s accusations that Washington’s “hostile policy” has meant that it desires regime change, the fact is that few American administrations have openly sought regime change on the Peninsula, perhaps realizing that it is too large a can of worms, and has subsequent repercussions for North-South reunification, and could lead to tensions with China. Instead, the US objective from every president since Bill Clinton to Donald Trump has been to push North Korea to denuclearize and in returnto help it develop economically.

A testimony to this can be found in every letter sent to the North by various American presidents. According to a senior official at the time, President George W. Bush promised in his 2007 letter that the US would normalize relations completely with the North if they carried through their disarmament. In his letter – according to then-special envoy Stephen Bosworth – President Barak Obama asserted that “the United States is prepared to work with allies [and] partners in the region to offer…North Korea a different future”. In addition to the promises of economic aid, it is highly likely that all US presidential letters to North Korea have made security guarantees to the North; or at least guarantees of the survival of the regime.

In all this, Trump has been no different. But how is he different, and how does this affect the US negotiating style, its normal objectives, and its possible outcomes? If we deal with these one-by-one, we can see that his negotiating style, coming from his background as a real estate mogul, leaves much to be desired in among practitioners of classical diplomacy. It is a maximum pressure approach, which combines close personal relations with disruptive and sudden tactical changes, designed to off-balance his opponent. Despite its unpopularity among many European and American diplomats, the style has a certain resonance with Kim Jong-un, because of the centrality of the leader-as-negotiator. One might say that the historical antecedent for the upcoming meeting in Singapore was the Treaty of Tilsit, where two men – in history France’s Emperor Napoleon and Russia’s Tsar Alexander – meet one-on-one in a raft on a river and decide the fate of nations. The centrality of the leader in this position has not been a popular one in the history of liberal democracies – for obvious reasons.

So how will this affect the US normal objectives? In The Art of the Deal, Trump argues that thinking big is key, “I like thinking big. I always have. To me, it’s very simple: if you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.” So, what does this mean? Does this mean that Trump is willing to throw normally-staid US positions to the wind? Is the US troop presence on the Korean peninsula a card? Does Taiwan play a part in persuading China to move behind his deal? Will he bargain away major pieces of the US position in Northeast Asia for the quick win? This is perhaps the most evident fear among both the US foreign policy establishment and among US allies and explains much of the back-and-forth shuttle diplomacy to Washington and Florida by US regional allies. The most famous example of a President nearly bargaining away the national security of his US allies must be that of President Reagan at Reykjavik, who nearly negotiated away US nuclear weapons with an enthusiastic Mikhail Gorbachev, with neither man really considering the fact that China would still be a nuclear weapons state.

If we must predict the outcome of US negotiations in Singapore, we must admit that they will be steered by US national interests – as interpreted by one man, Donald Trump. Obviously, he will have the support and expertise of his national security team, but he will ultimately decide on the US positioning. And the primary question will not be whether he goes for theeasy big win – that myth is dispelled by a reading of Art of the Deal which seeks the best deal – but whether he allows for the sort of long-term incremental disarming process that North Korea will undoubtedly request. The longer North Korea has weapons, the better its chances of survival are, and the better its negotiating leverage. And that does not sound like “thinking big”. To President Trump, that will sound like “thinking small”. And then where will we be?

And the answer to that, will come on June 12th.


Even if it fails, the North Korean peace summit is an incredible breakthrough

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The Telegraph, 26 April, 2018

What took place this morning in the Panmunjom Joint Security Area an incredible moment in Korean history. Even after years watching the ratcheting tensions between North and South Korea, I found myself a little awed.

In one clip doing the rounds this morning, both Northern and Southern leaders meet on a large screen, with journalists in the press pool watching. The ascending roar of surprise and acclamation when they stepped across the border, hand in hand, was moving in itself.

We watched Kim Jong-un, the leader of a murderous regime, smilingly step over a simple concrete marker and into South Korean territory. Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s progressive president, was in his element, with a welcoming and warm smile.

Then they even stepped back over into North Korea, to the amusement and pleasure of both. It was a testimony to the fact that all political walls are , in the end, only human.

Several months ago, denuclearisation was not even on the table. Today, however improbably, it is. Even if nothing comes of this meeting, it’s significant that we are even at this point.

But what are the actual prospects for a lasting peace? The opening point of the statement released by both leaders was a promise to re-open people-to-people links, and a number of steps were taken to institutionalise relations at certain flashpoints, such as the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea.

Most importantly, it agreed that a peace treaty between the two is on the cards, to be signed within a year, committing Moon to a visit to Pyongyang in the Autumn. Dr Ramon Pacheco Pardo, senior lecturer at Kings College London, said this was certainly the most consequential element of the agreement. It “would not only allow a formal end to the Korean War, but also allow for a new framework for inter-Korean relations”. The US and China would also have to be involved in this process, as two of the parties to the 1953 Armistice.

In terms of denuclearisation, both agree that this is a desirable goal and one that both sides want. But the term “disarmament” is also mentioned, perhaps indicating some hint of a reduction of ROK forces and US forces. Time will tell what this means, and we will have to see how this issue is framed during the Trump-Kim meeting, expected to take place in Singapore sometime in late June.

As some have argued, it was a necessary step, but not a sufficient one. Pardo stated that this cautious optimism was palpable in South Korea. “On the streets of Seoul, this is seen as a positive, hopeful and feasible agreement, but there is still caution about North Korea’s commitment to this process.”

As weary American diplomats have been known to say about North Korea in the past, “we’ve bought this horse before”. The Six Party Talks in the mid-Noughties came within a whisker of resolving the crisis, only to fail at North Korea’s refusal to have third party verification over their denuclearisation process.

Having said that, one need only think of where things stood this time four months ago to realize that progress is being made, and jaw-jaw is better than war-war.

Jeremy S. Maxie

Energy & Political Risk Consultant

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