Tag Archive | "Kim Jong-un"

How Might Joe Biden as President Deal with Korea?

By Robert R. King

In 2001, Senator Joe Biden became Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  At the time, I was Chief of Staff for Congressman Tom Lantos of California, who had just became Ranking Democratic Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier that same year.  Before Lantos’ election to Congress, he had spent a few years in the late 1970s as a senior foreign policy advisor to Biden, and the two of them had become close friends.  They had traveled together internationally on many occasions, and after 1981 when both were serving in Congress, they worked together on a number of international projects.

Lantos set up a meeting in 2001 to talk with Biden about how the two might work together on a number of fractious foreign affairs issues since both were the leading Democrats of the foreign policy committees of the House and the Senate.  We met in Biden’s personal office in the Russel Senate Office Building, and as Democratic Staff Director Lantos invited me to join the meeting with Biden and his committee chief of staff.

We arrived just as Biden got back from a vote in the Senate chamber, and we were together for an hour or so before Lantos had to hurry back for a vote in the House of Representatives.  The meeting began with Biden discussing in great detail the previous evening’s episode of The West Wing—the American serial political drama (1999-2006) which was widely praised by critics, political science professors, former White House staffers, and which received 26 Prime Time Emmy awards including four awards for Outstanding Drama Series.

Biden was deeply into the issues raised in that television episode.  He had been a presidential candidate for a time during the 1988 campaign, and he was known to have presidential ambitions.  After hearing his analysis of The West Wing it was clear to me that he was still interested.  Biden’s interest in The West Wing episode focused on two issues:  how do you define what is the right decision on a public policy issue and how carry it out within a democratic system that requires approval of a fractious Congress and everything is done in the media spotlight.  His analysis convinced me he understood the political process and he had the right values.

With Joe Biden now President-elect Biden, pundits and astrologers are beginning the parlor game “What will President Biden do about _____ [insert your favorite issue].”  Unlike the election of Donald Trump four years ago, we have a much better idea of what Biden is likely to do.  He has a long track record in the realm of public policy, while Trump’s previous experience was limited to being a reality television personality and selling his name on properties whose mortgages were held by Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes.

Biden was a United States Senator for 36 years, and he was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for that time.  He was chair of the committee for 3½ years and it’s Ranking Democratic Member for 8½ years.   Most recently he served 8 years as Vice President, where he was involved in the highest level discussions, particularly on foreign affairs.  The principal reason Biden was chosen to be President Obama’s running mate in 2008 was his foreign policy experience, which Obama lacked.

What could we expect President-elect Biden to do with regard to policy on Korea when he moves into the Oval Office?  What might be different than what we have seen over the last four years?

Likely Policies toward South Korea

Biden gave a “Special contribution” to Yonhap, a principal South Korean news agency, that provides some indication of the President-elect’s thoughts on Korea policy.  The piece entitled “Hope for Our Better Future” was principally focused on issues that Korean-Americans would be most concerned about—immigration to the United States, the failure of President Trump to deal with the Covid pandemic, and economic recovery.  He also emphasized the South Korean and United States cooperation and sacrifice in the Korean War.

A couple of sentences were particularly forward-looking:  “As President, I’ll stand with South Korea, strengthening our alliance to safeguard peace in East Asia and beyond, rather than extorting Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops.  I’ll engage in principled diplomacy and keep pressing toward a denuclearized North Korea and a unified Korean Peninsula, while working to reunite Korean Americans separated from loved ones in North Korea for decades.”

Biden has been a particularly vocal advocate of United States allies, and he has supported international cooperation to deal with common international problems.  Trump, on the other hand, has disengaged with the international community.  It is been not just “America first,” but America alone.  Trump has demanded that South Korea (and Japan) pay considerably more to maintain U.S. troops there, and his belligerent pressure tactics reflect his background as a brash real estate mogul rather than a diplomatic approach to a common national security problem for both the U.S. and South Korea.  This is very much like pulling out of the World Health Organization and defaulting on a $62 million obligation to the UN agency in the midst of an international pandemic.

United States relations with South Korea are impacted by the U.S.-China relationship, and even under Biden there are likely to be issues that will require diplomatic effort to navigate.  Biden, however, will be more sophisticated in diplomacy.  Trump thinks in terms of his real estate tycoon Art of the Deal mentality, whereas Biden understands the importance of careful diplomatic negotiation.

Likely Policies Toward North Korea

Look for less focus on summit meetings with the North Korean leader from President Biden.  In less than two years President Trump has met three times with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.  Despite international media frenzy for all three meetings, the President has little to show for his effort.  The Singapore summit (June 2018) received international attention, the United States received 55 sets of remains, some of which may be U.S. military servicemen.  The Hanoi summit (February 2019) ended abruptly and before final meetings were held with recriminations for the failure.  The third meeting was a hand-shake at the DMZ border with nothing of substance accomplished.

The principal reason for the failure of the meetings was that senior staff were not given the mandate to pull together agreements that both sides were willing to accept.  The two leaders exchanged “beautiful letters,” “love letters,” but nothing of substance resulted.  As one Biden advisor said “There’s no question that the era of love letters will be over.”  Look for Biden to meet with Kim only if a meeting has been thoroughly prepared in advance.  A photo op will not be enough to justify a meeting with the President of the United States.

North Korea seems to have missed the possibility that Vice President Biden might become the U.S. President, because they have been especially negative in name calling the United States’ new leader.  A year ago in November 2019, the North Korean news agency KCNA was particularly critical of Joe Biden, then one of several Democratic candidates for President.  (Keep in mind that in North Korea KCNA is the official voice of the government—the equivalent of the White House spokesperson, not something like The Washington Post or CNN expressing a point of view.)

Biden was repeatedly called a dog—“a rabid dog only keen on getting at other’s throats. . . . wandering about like a starving field dog. . . . No wonder, even the Americans call him ‘1% Biden’ with low I.Q. . . . ‘mad Biden’”  He “had the temerity to dare slander the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK,” and this “was the last-ditch efforts of the rabid dog expecting his death.”

The era of “love letters” with North Korea may be over, but that does not mean that the United States will end its efforts to engage North Korea and reach a deal on denuclearization. But it will take a different approach, one that is less personal and more professional. A more professional approach to North Korea and a focus on restoring trust in the U.S.-Korea alliance are two key changes that we should expect from President-elect Biden.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.  He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.   

Image from Gage Skidmore’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Obituary: The Death of North Korean Ideology

By Mark Tokola

On October 10, 2020, North Korea celebrated the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP).  The Pyongyang event featured a military parade and a speech by Kim Jong-un.  The parade had been years in the making and featured everything from matching white horses (reportedly imported from Russia) to a gigantic new mobile ICBM, the star of the show.  It also provided the stage for Kim Jong-un’s big anniversary speech.

Commentary has focused on Kim Jong-un’s tears as he apologized for having sometimes “failed.”  They also noted the speech’s shortage of bellicosity.  But the most remarkable aspect of the entire commemoration event was that it was almost non-ideological. This was the 75th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s founding of the Party.  If there was ever a time to extol the victories and future triumphs of Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism, this would have been it.  But, especially in comparison with earlier speeches by North Korean leaders, there was a sharp departure from traditional ideology.  There was, in fact, hardly any ideology.

For readers unfamiliar with North Korean rhetoric, Kim Jong-un’s October 10 references to the peoples’ party and the victory of socialism may have looked like communist boilerplate.  But, numbers tell the tale.  Kim Jong-un in his speech made 15 references to the pandemic, used the word ‘revolution’ only nine times, referred to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il twice, and never used the word ‘Juche’ (North Korea’s ideological theory of self-reliance).  Contrast that to his 2017 New Year’s address (almost the same length), in which he referred to the ‘revolution’ 23 times, mentioned Kim Il-sung 7 times, and invoked Juche 11 times.  His father, Kim Jong-il, made few if any speeches, but he did issue a message marking the 50th anniversary of the KWP in 1995.  In that address, Kim Jong-il used the word revolution 147 times, Kim Il-sung 55 times, and Juche 46 times.  It was a longer text, but even at that, it burned brightly throughout with a North Korean ideology that was lacking in Kim Jong-un’s speech.

The difference is not only quantitative.  Kim Jong-il’s 1995 message, issued in the midst of North Korea’s great famine, never mentioned it.  There are only a couple of vague references to the Party successfully overcoming ‘adversities.’  In contrast, Kim Jung-un in 2020 claims that the pandemic has not cost a single North Korean life, but he does not downplay its seriousness.  He refers to the “heroic efforts and sacrifices” being made by ‘service personnel’ to cope with the grave threat posed by COVID-19.  He also refers to the natural disasters visited upon North Korea in 2020.  “All of these hardships are undoubtedly a heavy burden and pain for every family and every citizen in our country.”  His speech was about real life, intended to show his link to the North Korean peoples’ lives, rather than exhorting them, as in earlier times, to adhere more closely to the state ideology.

It’s even possible to discern within Kim Jong-un’s 2020 speech a contradiction to earlier North Korean dogma.  Listen to Kim Jong-il in 1995: “In the driving force of revolution the leader is the brain and the center of unity and the party is a political organization that materializes the leader’s idea and guidance.”  “The working-class party must have ideological purity, being dyed in the leader’s idea and moving as one under his unified leadership.”  Kim Jong-il’s 1995 address is full of tedious, revolutionary claptrap but it absolutely clear that obedience to the North Korean leader’s monolithic, infallible will is all that matters.  What is the role of the people?  “Our Party is a motherly party, which takes care of the destiny of the popular masses under its charge.”

Kim Jong-un is no democrat, but he talks about the North Korean people differently.  “Our people firmly support the country with their sincere sweat and efforts.”  “It is none other than they themselves who surely deserve a bow of gratitude.”  “Our people have placed trust on me, but I have failed to always live up to it satisfactorily.”  The implication is that the North Korean people have agency and have chosen Kim Jong-un and the KWP to promote their interest—in the absence of competition, of course.

For Kim Jong-il, the great objective was ‘independence.’ “Independence is man’s intrinsic desire.”  Fortunately for North Koreans, “Our socialism defends and ensures independence for the popular masses and satisfies their demand for independence to the full.”  One might wonder what independence has to do with unblinking devotion to a single ruler, but that would be a counter-revolutionary thought.  At some point, Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism collapses under its own sodden weight.  For example, what on earth does this, from Kim Jong-il’s anniversary address, even mean? “Maintaining the revolutionary principle means defending the revolutionary interest of the revolution.”

Kim Jong-un is offering something more tangible in 2020: “What is left now is to ensure that our people enjoy a sufficient and civilized life to the full free from difficulties any longer.”

What does this change indicate?  First, it shows that Kim Jong-un is not in thrall to the old North Korean ideology.  North Korea is changing.  Second, it sets a new standard.  The question now is not whether the North Korea public continues to display adequate revolutionary zeal, but whether the North Korean regime can, through its authoritarian means, improve the lives of North Koreans.  That actually is a new thought.

Kim Jong-un is no less brutal than his predecessors and the “civilized life free from difficulties” doesn’t apply to those he has put in political prison camps, but it is no longer true to say that the Kim regime is ideologically driven.  His motivations and behaviors are now the same as any dictator trying to stay in power.

North Korean ideology: 1945-2020.  RIP.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Prachatai’s photostream on flickr Creative Common.

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Why Did Kim Jong-un Call for a Party Congress?

By Stephan Haggard

How are we to interpret Kim Jong-un’s surprising decision to call a Party Congress for early 2021? The regime held ad-hoc Party Conferences in September 2010 and April 2012—before and after Kim Jong-il’s death—in order to cement the succession. But Party Congresses are still rare: the one held in May 2016 was the first since 1980, despite the fact that they are nominally to be held every five years and stand at the organizational apex of the Party’s formal structure.

The Announcement was made at the 6th Plenary (of the 7th Central Committee), and indirectly referenced the external shocks the country has faced not only from sanctions and the unexpected failure at Hanoi but from the COVID border shutdown (the “unexpected and inevitable challenges,” including those in “the region surrounding the Korean peninsula.”)

What got attention, however, was the blunt mea culpa in the formal decision to convene the Congress that was splashed across the front page of Rodong Sinmun: that

“…the economy was not improved in the face of sustaining severe internal and external situations and unexpected manifold challenges, thereby planned attainment of the goals for improving the national economy has been seriously delayed and the people’s living standard not been improved remarkably.”

Picking through the small shards of information we have suggests a number of hypotheses for an all-party gathering, including an effort to strengthen institutions and taking the weight off of anniversaries in the fall to extend the time horizon of recovery. But the most obvious interpretation follows a plain reading of the announcement: that the North Korean economy is in worse shape than we—or the leadership—had thought.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

If the Congress is being held for the reasons the announcement suggests–to try to right the economic ship–what does that ultimately portend? Could the current shock actually generate a real about-face and more wide-reaching reforms? Hope springs eternal, but there is little evidence to support such a fundamental shift. Rather, the Congress is more likely to engage in blame-shifting purges while simultaneously outlining new economic plans not fundamentally different than those that have just failed.

Kim Jong-un’s response to progress on the Pyongyang General Hospital can be read as a microcosm of how the Congress could go. A prestige project nonetheless designed to showcase populist policy priorities, the effort is not going well. In July, Kim offered up a scathing assessment of the state bodies tasked with implementing construction. According to KCNA coverage and analysis by Ben Silberstein, Kim Jong-un claimed that the construction coordination commission had failed to carry out the instructions of the Party. It would therefore need to be held to account by the relevant departments of the Central Committee, including through sacking the commission as a whole and making “strict referral of them.”

As Silberstein points out, this shadow dance is now virtually an institutional feature of the socialist sector of the North Korean economy, in which the party makes plans that are unrealistic then blames lower level officials for subsequent failures. There are already open hints that the Five Year Plan has been running well-behind schedule: at Party Plenum in December and indirectly confirmed in the agendas of the Politburo and SPA meetings in April. And mentions of corruption suggest that the de facto mixed economy model is a disability when resources are scarce and private entrepreneurs and households are hoarding. The Congress could thus be a wider forum for shaking up the economic ministries, launching a crackdown on corruption—in short, a resort to controls–while not fundamentally shifting course.

Meetings, Meetings, Meetings: It’s About the Party and Appointments

A second hypothesis that is complementary to the first is that Kim Jongunn is in fact seeking to use institutions more effectively. A number of analysts have noted the uptick in meetings. Setting aside Central Military Commission meetings, these include an “emergency” Politburo gathering at the end of July, and another one in mid-August; a Workers Party of Korea “Executive Policy Council” meeting; and the Central Committee (CC) plenum that rendered the decision to convene the Congress.

A charitable interpretation would see Kim Jong-un seeking to institutionalize his rule; for example, there was explicit mention in the announcement that the Congress should in fact convene every five years that is worth citing at length:

“Calling for regularly convening the congresses of the Party, the supreme guidance organ of the Party, in order to confirm the line, strategic and tactical measures for steering the development of the times and the revolution and adjust and reinforce the leadership body for guaranteeing their execution, he advanced the important guidelines for the operation of the congress. “

If Kim does in fact have health problems, then such institutionalization could even be in anticipation of a succession, as was the ad hoc Party Conference in 2010.

Yet another possibility is that the regime might undertake more fundamental institutional changes. Instead of simply re-arranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship, the leadership could move toward a more deliberative policy-making model along the lines of the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee (which has itself been weakened by the accretion of power in the hands of Xi Jinping).

But there is little evidence of any deviation from the system’s highly centralized, leader-oriented structure. Rather than moving toward a more institutionalized, consultative or deliberative model, the Party Congress will probably be used to exhort, cajole, monitor and ultimately to threaten and instill fear. The run-up to the Congress could—in line with the observations above—be preceded by a substantial shakeup of personnel, again for blame shifting reasons; Martin Weiser among others has picked up on this theme and provided detail on recent moves in this regard.

Timing is Everything

A final cluster of hypotheses center on timing. As we are seeing in spades in the U.S. elections, the timing of key political events is consequential. In this regard, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump face quite similar challenges: will the economy rebound on a schedule that permits them to claim credit in advance of elections (in the U.S.) or the usual round of fall anniversaries (in North Korea).

Moreover, the U.S. elections themselves may warrant hosting a major party meeting after November, as knowing who is in the White House would add some clarity to North Korean planning.  Kim Yo-jong’s recent comments likely signal as much and that there is little expectation of an October surprise in Pyongyang.,

Yet if we are expecting some fundamentally new departure in North Korean foreign or domestic policy, the Congress is almost certain to disappoint. What evidence do we have that the fine tacking between strategies in Pyongyang that analysts have been forced to pore over the last nine years really have had much enduring consequence on where the regime is going?

Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy University of California San Diego. 

Photo from Wikimedia commons.

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Bottom-Up Diplomacy with North Korea Hits a Roadblock

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • North Korea’s state-sanctioned Korean Christian Federation (KCF) has not commented on its South Korean counterpart’s draft of a joint prayer for peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula, raising the possibility that this ceremony might be canceled for the first time in more than 30 years.
  • Many observers were caught by surprise as the KCF had traditionally maintained close ties with both South Korean and international religious organizations even during periods of heightened tensions.
  • The communication freeze by the KCF follows the announcement by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification on May 26 that it will revise the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act to ease grassroots exchanges with North Korea.

Implications: Any approach to North Korea, whether top-down or bottom-up, ultimately rests on Pyongyang’s receptiveness. Therefore, Kim Jong-un’s unwillingness to engage may forestall President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to maintain momentum around inter-Korean engagement through exchanges between grassroots and civic organizations. The lack of response from the North Korean christian organization is indicative of this challenge. Seoul had hoped that these non-governmental exchanges would sustain interest in state-led projects like inter-Korean tourism and reconnecting railways that are currently immobilized because of the diplomatic impasse.

Context: South Korea’s Korean Conference of Religions and Peace has been a consistent advocate of engagement with Pyongyang even as relations between the Koreas began to deteriorate in 2019. As a pan-religious consultative body, KCRP has long championed interfaith cooperation as a means for engaging the two Koreas. In 2017, members of the group discussed matters related to inter-Korean exchange with President Moon Jae-in during his first month in office.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of James Constant and Sonia Kim.

Picture from Universal Peace Federation

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John Bolton on the Summits 2: Hanoi

By Stephan Haggard

Whatever we think of John Bolton’s motives or policy approach, The Room Where It Happened adds detail to our understanding of the Singapore (Ch. 4) and Hanoi (Ch. 11) summits. In a previous post, I discussed the Singapore summit (and linked to a review of Bolton’s Surrender is Not an Option). Today, a look at the Hanoi summit.

As with the Singapore summit, Bolton was implacably opposed to a second meeting; he thus portrays his primary role as one of damage control. Yet the source of his concern now included not only Trump but Stephen Biegun, who is mentioned over a dozen times in the Hanoi chapter and even Pompeo comes in for rough treatment at several points. As Bolton was on his way to Hanoi, Biegun had produced a draft U.S-.North Korea statement that the National Security Advisor read as pure capitulation. Bolton does not share the details of the draft, but the memoir notes in passing a number of sources of concern: that the U.S. negotiating team had bought into an incremental “action for action” approach; that serious negotiations would require a baseline declaration of the nuclear program; and that Biegun was making concessions rather than laying out American objectives. As always throughout The Room Where It Happened, Bolton raises an additional concern about process: that Pompeo was giving Biegun too much latitude and that whatever Biegun was proposing was not worked through the interagency process, i.e. through him.

Bolton portrays the president as completely absorbed with the Michael Cohen testimony unfolding in Washington after he arrived in Hanoi, cancelling preparatory briefings the day of the summit as a result. But the President had gotten comfortable with the repeated suggestion that walking away from the summit would involve less of a political cost than accepting a deal that lacked substance.

The book confirms in broad strokes the deal that Kim Jong-un had brought to the table: “that the North give up its Yongbyon nuclear facilities, in exchange for lifting of all post-2016 UN Security Council sanctions (p. 325).” What Bolton does not detail—but we know from Biegun’s subsequent comments on the summit—are two crucial facts about this offer. First, the post-2016 UNSC resolutions were precisely those four—UNSC 2321, 2371, 2375 and 2379—in which China had finally agreed to get tough on its client by going after commercial exports and placing a cap on the import of petroleum products. North Korea was thus not asking not for “total” sanctions relief, as Trump later argued. But that claim was not too far from the mark and certainly more accurate than Ri Yong-ho’s explanation for the breakdown, in which North Korea was simply seeking to minimize the humanitarian damage from the sanctions. It is clear from Bolton’s book that Kim Jong-un strongly believed that he could score a big hit against the multilateral sanctions regime, which would have largely unraveled if the North Korean offer was accepted.

And second, the memoir does not make clear that the Yongbyon offer itself was squishy. Contrary to the language just cited, it does not appear that North Korea had the intention of “giving up Yongbyon,” but something more akin to a freeze, inspections and then drawn out process to shut down certain facilities at Yongbyon, including the reprocessing and enrichment facilities. This could have been the foundation for a structured process to get at least something from the North Koreans, but the offer as communicated was pretty thin gruel. It was not based on a fuller statement, did not address the hundreds of other structures in Yongbyon, did not propose any detailed means for monitoring the agreement, nor mention other sites and the stocks of fissile material or weapons. Nor did the North Korean delegation appear to include anyone with the expertise—and authority—to negotiate or even brief on these issues.

Perhaps the two most interesting facts to emerge from the Bolton memoir about Hanoi was how upset Kim Jong-un was that his proposal had failed and the fact that he did not appear to have the inclination—or latitude—to sweeten the deal that he had come in with. This second point, in particular, has been missed. The assumption behind the Trump-style summits was that the two leaders could unlock deals that were blocked in process and by vested interests. What does it say that Kim Jong-un could not even modify this proposal at the margin when pressed (p.328)?

The memoir details the messy end of the second and last meeting of the day, during which Kim Jong-un tried one last time to get a joint statement that would put a rosy gloss on the failure. Against Bolton’s advice, Trump conceded to allow Kim Yong-chol and Pompeo to work on a joint statement, but negotiations on it quickly broke down and no statement was forthcoming.

By now, the freeze that followed Hanoi is well known. Choe Son-hui was assigned the task of targeting Pompeo and Bolton as the villains of the Hanoi drama. On the home front, Bolton continued to fight rear-guard actions against Trump’s efforts to limit the use of secondary sanctions against China (pp. 336-338). A subsequent visit by President Moon to Washington in April anticipated the events of 2020: the summit had also taken a toll on North-South relations. Bolton also shows that Moon Jae-in was still angling for a third summit on the grounds of a striking admission: that lower-level negotiators had no authority to make any concessions. If true, what is the point in even staging working-level talks?

It is a testimony to the challenges of the Trump presidency that Bolton devotes more than 15 pages (pp. 338-355) to the events leading up to the “handshake” meeting at the DMZ in June 2019, a PR event Bolton made the decision to skip. As he summarizes, “I understood what conclusions might be drawn from my not being at the DMZ, but I was past caring at that point.” Needless to say, the meeting had no substantive significance beyond opening more rifts in the American policy process over what steps might be appropriate.

Despite the fact that working-level meetings were going nowhere, on August 1 President Trump fired off three tweets downplaying the North’s short-run missile tests. The last said “Chairman Kim has a great and beautiful vision for his country, and only the United States, with me as President, can make that vision come true. He will do the right thing because he is far too smart not to, and he does not want to disappoint his friend, President Trump.” In a conclusion that sums up Bolton’s view of the Trump presidency, he appends his parting shot: “That was our North Korea policy.”

Could Hanoi have gone differently? It is doubtful unless the Trump administration insisted that the summit would be canceled in the absence of some deliverables negotiated in advance. As the drama actually played out, it is clear from Bolton’s memoir that both the United States and North Korea overreached. Trump exaggerated his ability to close a deal and thus banked too much on a summit with no negotiated deliverables, and on either side. Kim Jong-un exaggerated his ability to roll the presidency, and came in with no Plan B.

If the offer was serious, and some interim agreement had been negotiated in advance of the summit, then a leaders meeting could at least set a more serious framework and timetable in motion. But from reading Bolton, we are reminded that while Biegun’s wings may have been clipped, the North Koreans had little interest in pursuing serious working-level talks either; Bolton is right that the Biegun approach was clearly more forthcoming. The Yongbyon focus pursued during the endgame of the Six Party Talks still remains the most plausible path forward, but everyone watching North Korea knows that the prospects for an agreement are slim. With the election looming, the test of the proposition that such a focus might yield results will have to await a second Trump or Biden administration.

Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy University of California San Diego. 

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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John Bolton on the Summits 1: Singapore

By Stephan Haggard

Whatever we think of John Bolton’s motives or policy approach, The Room Where It Happened provides detail to our understanding of the Singapore (Ch. 4) and Hanoi (Ch. 11) summits. Bolton starts with an interesting claim about the very origins of the first meeting between Kim and Trump. Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s Director of National Security, appeared to only be carrying a message from Kim Jong-un when he proposed the summit idea to Trump in his Oval Office visit in March 2018. Bolton claims, however, that the very idea of issuing the invitation had actually come from the South Korean side (p. 78 and fn. 3, p. 503).

Chung repeatedly tried to assure a deeply-skeptical Bolton that President Moon had been pushing for a public North Korean commitment to “complete verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” Bolton’s favored language dating to his time in the Bush administration. Although Chung claimed that Kim Jong-un had “seemed amenable,” North Korea had no interest in making commitments to Moon on the nuclear front, using that channel to develop North-South relations and drive wedges between Washington and Seoul. The Panmunjom declaration does little more than characterize denuclearization as a common goal, and pats Pyongyang on the back for what it had already done on the issue (such as the media stunt at Punggye-ri):

“The two sides confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

The two sides shared the view that the measures being initiated by the north side are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and agreed to fulfill their respective responsibility and role.”

As we will see, however, that language actually anticipates the Singapore outcome to a surprising extent.

The central theme of Bolton’s analysis of Singapore is simple: that Trump’s eagerness permitted Kim Jong-un to structure the summit outcome to his advantage. The only substantive issue effectively resolved by the leaders’ meeting itself was the concession Kim Jong-un sought on exercises (p. 110), which played perfectly on Trump’s skepticism about the alliances.

But the real action—or inaction to be more precise–was occurring at the working level talks at Panmunjom. Summits do not typically resolve issues; rather, leaders present what has already been negotiated by the sherpas. Although Bolton expresses his animus toward the State Department negotiators, whom he saw as soft, it was precisely at this level that the North Koreans proved most masterful. The risk of North Korean stonewalling was that if absolutely nothing happened in the working level talks, political pressure would mount for Trump to cancel, or at least postpone, the summit. Bolton details several such near-death cycles (for example, around Choe Son-hui’s attack on the Vice President); as he admits openly, each raised his hopes. However as the President was meeting with Kim Yong-chol as late as June 1—crowing about the meeting and the letter from Kim Jong-un—North Korean negotiators at the DMZ were rejecting the draft U.S. approach at the Panmunjom negotiations. By this time, Trump was already openly stating that Singapore would be little more than a photo-op, the beginning of a “process” that would involve incremental steps. This outcome was precisely what hawks like Bolton feared.

As we now know, the outcome was worse than Bolton either feared or even admits in The Room Where It Happened. Despite Bolton’s attention to detail throughout the book, there is barely a mention of the summit statement itself and certainly no sustained analysis of it. Yet as I have detailed elsewhere, the joint statement contained pretty much everything North Korea could have wanted, starting with a weak and ambiguous commitment to denuclearization (“…reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panumunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”). More significant was the priority given to improving bilateral relations and working toward a peace regime ahead of denuclearization, and above all the step-by-step approach that was implicit as a result.

Bolton also is largely silent about the biggest shock of the summit, which came in President Trump’s press conference following the leaders’ meeting. The president not only promised to pause exercises but described them as provocative, costly and unnecessary. He even suggested that U.S. troops might even be withdrawn altogether. What more could Kim Jong-un ask for?

In fact, the problem with the summit was not in accepting the inevitability of some kind of step-by-step process. Bolton is misguided in thinking that the United States could hold out for a deal in which complete denuclearization would be achieved absent any concessions. Why would the North Koreans commit to a negotiation of that sort? The problem with the summit was the complete dissipation of leverage once it had been wrapped up. Bolton is completely right that the United States needed to get something concrete beyond a freeze, and that a baseline declaration of their capabilities was a reasonable place to start; how can you have negotiations if there is no agreement about what is even up for discussion? (p. 117). Yet Trump’s misguided belief that he and Kim could resolve things at the leaders’ meeting meant inadequate focus on progress in the working level talks.

In early July, Pompeo was learning that the North had walked out of Singapore with a very different picture of what had occurred; Pyongyang was in no mood for concessions (p. 117-118). In five hours of negotiation with Kim Yong-chol, Pompeo got precisely nothing. Trump was effectively forced to cancel a second Pompeo trip when told that he would not meet with Kim Jong-un (which he had failed to do in the July meeting as well).

At the same time, Kim Jong-un continued to ply President Trump with love letters, dangling the prospect of another summit (which Moon Jae-in also urged), while insisting that the U.S. come up with new proposals. Bolton closes the chapter on Singapore with a surprisingly blunt assessment of how the bar had been lowered in the second half of 2018: “But we had at least survived past the November congressional elections without any major disasters and could now face the next round of Trump enthusiasm to meet with Kim Jong Un.”

In the next post, a discussion of Bolton’s chapter on Hanoi. A review of Bolton’s Surrender is Not an Option can be found here.

Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy University of California San Diego. 

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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Moon Jae-in Urges Trump-Kim Summit before U.S. Election

By Robert R. King

During a video conference between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and European Council President Charles Michel on June 20, the South Korean leader said “I believe there’s a need for North Korea and the United States to try dialogue one more time before the U.S. presidential election. The issues of nuclear programmes and sanctions will ultimately have to be resolved through North Korea-U.S. talks.”  A South Korean presidential aide said that President Moon’s office had conveyed these views to the White House.

It seems a bit unusual that President Moon’s interest in midwifing another Trump-Kim summit was made public after a conversation with the head of the European Union.  President Moon has played a key role in the U.S.-North Korean summitry that has taken place thus far, but making the proposal for a new summit public after a video conversation with the leaders of the European Union seemed inconsistent.

President Moon played a very visible role as the intermediary who brought a summit proposal to Trump in March 2018.  That effort led to the Singapore summit three months later.  It is not clear what role President Moon played in the second summit in Hanoi in February 2019.  That meeting ended prematurely when the final dinner, the signing of a joint statement, and other planned concluding events were abruptly cancelled after failed initial meetings.

The third of the three Trump-Kim meetings took place one year ago in June 2019.  This was the briefest and least formal of the meetings.  On an official visit by President Trump to South Korea, the two leaders traveled to Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) where the three leaders met informally.  Trump and Kim had a brief private meeting.  Despite the friendly handshake and Trump’s much photographed footstep onto North Korean soil, the U.S.-North Korea relationship has languished.

Is Trump Interested in Another Summit? 

The U.S. President seems a bit preoccupied with the resurgent COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.  Also, a new media frenzy has questioned “what did the President know and when did he know it” regarding reports that Russian intelligence were offering Taliban insurgents generous cash bounties for killing American soldiers in Afghanistan.

And looming over everything else for President Trump is the upcoming U.S. presidential election in November.  At this point, the outlook for Trump does not appear to be so promising.  The latest polling numbers suggest that Trump is lagging behind Joseph Biden by a significant margin, and in the last couple of months Biden has outraised Trump in campaign cash.

In a normal election year, Trump would be frantically crisscrossing the country from one mass rally to another.  His first effort to get into campaign rally mode in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20, however, was a disappointment.  Preliminary publicity raised expectations with talk of millions seeking tickets, but the audience filled only a third of the seats at the arena.  Trump campaign staff were found infected with COVID-19 virus just before the rally began, and public health specialists publicly criticized the President for holding such a rally in the face of the intensifying pandemic.

Under these circumstances, President Trump may well be looking for a shiny bauble to dangle before the press to focus attention on him and draw attention away from the current domestic news stories that are less flattering.  Another summit with Kim Jong-un could give him a new opportunity to change the news focus and let him play the role of global statesman.

On the other hand, with two previous summits and the meeting in the DMZ with Kim Jong-un from June 2018 to June 2019, the novelty and press-worthiness of another North Korea summit is certainly gone.  Furthermore, there is a distinct risk that the erratic Kim Jong-un might not give Trump the diplomatic triumph he seeks, and another Hanoi-style diplomatic flop before massed media cameras and microphones could contribute to an electoral disaster at home.  The risk-reward scale seems to be tilting heavily toward caution.

One straw in the wind, however, is that Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun is visiting Seoul and Tokyo for meetings on July 6.  Before being elevated to his current position, Biegun was Senior Representative for North Korea Policy, and he negotiated with North Korean officials in connection with previous summits.  Also traveling with Biegun is Allison Hooker, senior National Security Council staffer on North Korea, who is one of the most experienced U.S. government officials on this issue.

Where is Kim Jong-un?

A key unanswered question is whether Supreme Leader Kim is interested in hand holding in front of the cameras with President Trump.  Over the last year North Korea has shown little interest in actually reaching an agreement with the United States.  The North Koreans walked away from senior-level diplomatic meetings in Stockholm in the fall of 2019 and called the session “sickening.”

In January of 2020 one of Pyongyang’s most senior and most experienced diplomats said “Although Chairman Kim Jong-un has good personal feelings about President Trump, they are, in the true sense of the word, ‘personal’.”  He then added that North Korea has “been deceived by the United States, being caught in the dialogue with it for over one year and a half, and that was lost time for us.”  Just last month, North Korean marked the second anniversary of the Singapore Summit with the United States.  On that commemorative occasion, the North Korean Foreign Minister asked, “Do we need to keep holding hands with the United States?”

Another question is whether Kim Jong-un is in a position to be seen up close by western news media, which would be an essential part of any summit for Trump.  Questions about Kim’s health surfaced in April when he failed to appear at the birthday commemoration of his grandfather Kim Il-sung.  This is the most important national holiday in North Korea, and Kim Jong-un’s presence has been the high point of the commemoration in the past.  Kim did not reappear until the festive opening of a new fertilizer factory after being absent from public view for over three weeks—the longest such gap in his public appearances since he assumed the leadership.

The appointment of Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong as an alternate member of the Party Politburo has raised questions about his health.  His sister has increasingly played a leading role in verbal attacks on the United States and South Korea.  She was the author of a harsh attack on South Korea for permitting defector organizations to launch balloons with leaflets from the South to float into the North.  She blasted South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and ordered the picture-worthy explosion that destroyed the liaison office where the two Koreas had contact offices on the North Korean side of the DMZ.

Kim Jong-un’s unexplained absences, the expanded role his sister is playing, and the harsh attacks on the United States and South Korea suggest some uncertainty regarding what might be going on behind the curtain with the North Korean leadership.  This may not be the time for a close-up inspection of the Supreme Leader.

The other question is whether the North Korean leader wants to make a deal with Donald Trump at this time.  North Korean diplomats and foreign policy analysts are reading the tea leaves regarding the upcoming United States election.  They are likely questioning whether a high-level meeting with an American president whose reelection in four months is not a foregone conclusion.  As Donald Trump has demonstrated since becoming U.S. President, changes in leadership can result in significant changes in policies.  A Biden administration will have little interest in following through on Trump commitments to North Korea.  Why risk making an agreement with a president who might not be around much longer?  If Trump is reelected, another summit certainly could be in the cards.  But there is little benefit for the North in rushing to meet before the election.

“As Sands through the Hourglass”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has his own logic for pushing a summit.  He is acutely aware that he has passed the mid-point of his presidency, and the South Korean constitution limits its chief executive to a single term.  He has a strong working majority in the National Assembly, and his focus is his legacy.  As a senior advisor to former president Roh Moo-hyun, he saw Roh hold a summit with Kim Jong-il, but it came at the end of his presidential term and he was not able to follow up with programs to cement the Sunshine policy.  Moon rushed for a North-South summit early in his term, and he is now anxious to consolidate the progress made with the North.  First and foremost that means getting the United States and North Korea together.

Moon sees Trump as a risk-taker, willing to break barriers and ignore foreign policy experts.  He met three times with Kim Jong-un, although those summits produced meager results.  Moon is also acutely aware of the United States political timetable.  He fears that a Biden presidency will not be make quick progress with North Korea.

President Moon is likely to be a lame duck or even a former President before a new Biden administration has personnel in place and has completed necessary policy reviews to undertake innovative policies toward Pyongyang.  Even if Trump wins reelection in November, Moon sees the sand spilling through the hourglass.

The North has taken a breath after its tantrum over the balloon crisis and after exploding the liaison office.  South Korea responded to these outbursts by abjectly bowing to the North’s demands to stop the sending of balloons.  Now there is a very small window to make progress in relations with the North, and the President is determined to act quickly.

Is There Time for a Summit?

North Koreas have seen the waning hours of a U.S. presidential administration and watched last ditch efforts to accomplish a particular goal before a new administration takes office.  At the end of the Clinton Administration on October 24, 2000—just days before the American election—Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang and negotiated with Kim Jong-il in an effort to make a breakthrough on denuclearization.  She also held out the promise of a visit by U.S. President Bill Clinton if it were successful.  The American diplomat was warmly welcomed and feted at one of Pyongyang’s spectacular synchronized performances in the Pyongyang stadium, but no meaningful agreement was reached.  North Korea wanted to deal with the new president.

After North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006, the George W. Bush Administration worked to the very end of the administration in an effort to reach a denuclearization agreement with North Korea.  In June 2008 agreement was reached on the first steps with North Korea declaring fifteen nuclear sites in the Six Party Talks.  Running against the clock, the Bush administration rescinded trade restrictions and began the process of removing the North from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.  In October, agreement was reached on what would be included in verification protocol, and about that same time the United States announced it would provide North Korea with significant humanitarian assistance through the UN World Food Programme and some private American humanitarian organizations.  By December, however, efforts to reach arrangement on verification of the nuclear agreement had broken down, and shortly after the Obama Administration took office food assistance was suspended because monitoring of distribution could not be assured, and North Korea tested its second nuclear weapon.

The bottom line is that North Korea has previous experience with urgent last ditch efforts to reach agreement with the United States to beat an election deadline.  In the case of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, there was no question that this was the end of their tenure in office.  There is no expectation that Trump will be that much better in dealing with their interests than Biden might be, so North Korea feels little urgency to rush into another summit.  President Moon is the one participant who feels the greatest urgency to move quickly.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.  He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.  

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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What Is Behind North Korea’s Latest Broadside Against Balloons?

By Robert R. King

In a tough statement, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, issued a particularly vicious attack on North Korean defectors, particularly those who send leaflets across the border from the South. She referred to the refugees in the South as “human scum, hardly worth their value as human beings” and “human scum, little short of wild animals who betrayed their own homeland, are engrossed in such unbecoming acts to imitate men. They are sure to be called mongrel dogs as they bark in where they should not.” [The quoted text is from the official English translation of the statement; the Republic of Korea is always referred to as “south Korea” without a capital “S”.]

The statement also includes a threat: “Now that the mongrel dogs are doing others harm, it is time to bring their owners to account. I would like to ask the south Korean authorities if they are ready to take care of the consequences of evil conduct done by the ruggish-like mongrel dogs who took no scrupple to slander us while faulting the ‘nuclear issue’ in the meanest way at the most untimely time.”

The repetition of vicious phrases such as “human scum” and “mongrel dogs” seems to go beyond the usual vituperation and venom that is reserved by the North for defectors who have illegally fled the paradise that is North Korea in order to live in the South.

Why has one of the most senior North Korean officials, the sister of the Supreme Leader, issued such a blistering denunciation of refugees from the North now in the South?

Are Leaflets Really Having an Impact in North Korea?

The statement begins with reference to sending “hundreds of thousands of anti-DPRK leaflets into the areas of our side from the frontline area.” Sending leaflets across the DMZ via balloons or other means of physically delivering the papers has been done for decades. In recent years this has been a publicized effort of some human rights and defector organizations in the South for publicity and fund-raising. The effort is visible and photo-worthy. It irritates officials in the North, and the media blasts from the North are used by human rights groups in the South as evidence of their effectiveness. (See, for example, the North Korean threats against the South in 2016 when tens of thousands of leaflets were sent across the border by balloon.)

Leaflets sent by balloon, however, have limited impact. They usually land not far from the DMZ border and seldom if ever reach Pyongyang, and soldiers are ordered to pick up and destroy such propaganda materials. Far more significant information is reaching North Korea via radio—government-sponsored and religious broadcasts from South Korea, U.S. radio from Voice of America and Radio Free Asia in Korean, and Korean-language broadcasts from Chinese border areas intended for the Korean population in Northeast China, but with a significant listenership in North Korea. In Cold War Europe in the 1950s, the United States conducted major sophisticated balloon drops of leaflets directed toward Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and other countries in Central Europe, but such efforts were abandoned in 1956 in large part because they were less effective than radio in reaching these areas.

Uncertainty in the North and Defector Influence in the South

Another factor that may have motivated Kim Yo-jong to release her broadside against North Korean defectors in South Korea is because there is growing uncertainty in the North. Kim Jong-un was missing from the public eye for three weeks before he made a public appearance for the grand opening of a fertilizer factory, then he was out of sight again for a notable period of time. The Supreme Leader smokes too much, is overweight, and he had health problems—not a healthy prognosis for someone in his 30s. The recent promotion of the Supreme Leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong to alternate membership in the Politburo and her recent prominence in making important public statements, such as this recent blast against defector leaflets, may be a further indication of uncertainty about the future.

Another factor that may be raising concerns in the North is what appears to be the growing influence of defectors in South Korea. In elections six weeks ago, two prominent defectors were elected to the National Assembly. Although both are members of the minority party in the Assembly, it shows the growing credibility, acceptability, and influence of defectors in the South. Defectors traditionally have taken the toughest position against the North in South Korea’s political discourse. In the past defectors have been on the margins of South Korean society, but now two prominent defectors sit in the National Assembly.

Pressing South Korea for Progress on Rapprochement

Another explanation for the “nastygram” from Kim Yo-jong is that Pyongyang is getting impatient with the slow progress by President Moon Jae-in for improving relations between the North and South. Moon just marked the third full year of his five-year term in office, and under the South Korean constitution, a president can serve only a single term. Time is running out to redefine the relationship with the North under Moon Jae-in. Furthermore, Moon’s Democratic Party just won some 60 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. If he wants to make progress with the North, he now has the votes in the Assembly to get it done. Mme. Kim’s blast may be intended to encourage President Moon to move more quickly.

The threats in the tough message from Pyongyang target initiatives that President Moon supports in the search for better relations with the North. Kim Yo-Jong referenced the upcoming 20th anniversary of the June 15, 2000 summit between leaders of the North and South, and their declaration marking the beginning of Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine” Policy which led to improved relations, divided family visits, and economic cooperation.

Kim Yo-jong’s warning to the South Korean president followed another blast of vicious invective: “The south Korean authorities must be aware of the articles of the Panmunjom Declaration and the agreement in the military field in which both sides agreed to ban all hostile acts including leaflet-scattering in areas along the Military Demarcation Line. . . . It is hard to understand how such sordid and wicked act of hostility is tolerated in the south at a time as now.”

Mme. Kim then spelled out the threats: “south Korean authorities will be forced to pay a dear price if they let this situation go on while making sort of excuses.” If Seoul does not take steps Pyongyang is demanding “they had better get themselves ready for possibility of the complete withdrawal of the already desolate Kaesong Industrial Park following the stop to tour of Mt. Kumgang, or shutdown of the north-south joint liaison office whose existence only adds to trouble, or the scrapping of the north-south agreement in military field which is hardly of any value.”

Considering the modest impact of the leaflet balloons and the vicious voice in which they are attacked, it seems quite clear that the North is simply trying to move Seoul into making important concessions now. Political uncertainty, the possible strain on the North Korean economy from United Nations sanctions, and the worldwide Covid-19 economic downturn are likely the most important factors behind the vehemence of the statement, which indicates its urgency.

Denouncing U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo and Defending China

Another interesting and probably related media missive was a statement released by the International Department of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea. The statement said that Secretary of State Pompeo “reeled off rubbish” that the U.S. would work with its partners in the West to ensure that “liberal democracy” rules in this century. It continued to note that Pompeo “said nonsense about China over the issues of Hong Kong, Taiwan, human rights and trade disputes,” and “he slandered the leadership of the Communist Party of China over socialism.” The statement then included another malicious comment about the Secretary of State: “Pompeo, who has been deeply engrossed in espionage and plot-breeding against other countries, has become too ignorant to discern where the sun rises and where it sets.”

The last phrase is probably the key to the blast at Pompeo. North Korea clearly has cast its lot with China and wants to make sure that Beijing will have no doubt that Pyongyang sees its future with its socialist neighbor China as relations deteriorate between the U.S. and China.

Increasingly dependent on China as its economy worsens, thanks to UN sanctions and now the Covid-19 economic downturn, North Korea appears to be increasingly concerned about its future. The blast at South Korea and the tightening embrace of China appear to show a North Korea increasingly fearful about the future in a very difficult time.

South Korea’s Immediate Response Risks Emboldening the North

In less than 24 hours after Mme. Kim Yo-jong issued her demeaning and intemperate screed against the flier balloons, the South Korean government responded that it would take immediate action to prohibit the sending of fliers via balloon because they caused “tension” with the North. Mayors of some of the towns along the border reportedly called for strong government action to halt the balloon launch. The spokesperson of the Ministry of Unification said “most leaflets have been found in our territory, causing environmental pollution and increasing burden on local people to get rid of them.”

Defectors and human rights activists were equally adamant that they would not stop their launch activities. One rights group said it had no plans to stop sending fliers across the border, and in fact had ordered another one million leaflets. Advocates were quick to denounce the restrictions as a violation of the right of freedom of speech, and others denounced buckling under Pyongyang’s demands.

The real risk of for the Moon Jae-in government is that by responding so quickly and so publicly to the demeaning dressing down from Mme. Kim Yo-jong gives the administration the appearance of being overly eager to accede to Pyongyang’s demands. It looks particularly obsequious to respond so quickly and so totally to such an arrogant ultimatum from the North.

Such a response only weakens Seoul’s ability to negotiate with the North.  The quick and total capitulation by the South will only encourage Pyongyang to take a tougher position in any negotiations that may come up in the future.  There was not even a hint that the South might drive a bargain with the North to get something in return for ending the sending of fliers.

I am personally skeptical of the value of balloons. Getting information into the North is better done with radio broadcasts and thumb drives than with fliers. How Seoul is responding, however, will have a major impact on future negotiations with the North.  Unfortunately, the pattern does not bode well. The South Korean government’s immediate capitulation on balloons will only encourage the North to make unreasonable demands. The real danger is that Moon Jae-in administration will be so eager to show success in improving relations with the North in the final two years of its tenure in office that there will be an incentive to cave to demands from the North.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.  He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.  

Picture sources from Wikimedia commons

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The Kim Regimes: Two Disappearances and a Funeral

By Mark Tokola

As of April 27, Kim Jung-un has not been seen in public since April 11. His absence has created speculation regarding his whereabouts and the status of his health. CNN has reported that the U.S. government is taking Kim’s absence seriously. It is taken as significant that Kim Jong-un was not present for the April 15 “Day of the Sun” ceremonies making the birthday of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s most important holiday.  He also failed to appear on April 25 at the 88th anniversary commemoration of the founding of the Korean People’s Army.

There have been reports that South Korean authorities have not detected any unusual activity in North Korea, which is an interesting but not definitive data point.  If Kim Jong-un were convalescing but in charge, there would be no particular reason for unusual activity.  Even if he were seriously ill, that might be kept secret within top circles while they were making decisions regarding succession. If troops were being moved, or confined to quarters, that would be notable, but that seems not to be the case.  We are in the dark.

Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un have all had their periods of absence, so it’s possible that we’ve seen this play before. But, would it be a repeat of Kim Jong-il’s 2008 long absence, Kim Jong-un’s 2014 disappearance, or Kim Jong-il’s 2011 death? It is hard to know, and it may take time for the truth to emerge.

In 2008, Kim Jong-il went missing.  He failed to appear for the April Olympic torch ceremony and, like Kim Jong-un, did not attend an important anniversary commemoration, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK.  After months of absence, and speculation about whether he was alive, the North Korean government denied reports of Kim Jong-ils death, saying that he had been ill but his condition was not life-threatening.

In March 2009, North Korean news outlets reported that Kim Jong-il had participated in national elections and had been reelected (unanimously) to the Supreme People’s Assembly.  In April 2009, the North Korean government released a video showing Kim Jong-il visiting factories, apparently from November and December of 2008.  If it seems surprising that Kim Jong-il could have been out of public view for so long, it is partly because we have become accustomed to Kim Jong-un’s much more public persona.  Kim Jong-il was habitually secluded and secretive.  He did not even speak in public.

It seemed apparent from Kim Jong-il’s weakened condition after he reappeared that he had probably suffered a stroke in 2008 and had undergone a long convalescence.  From 2009 on, the state of his health was followed closely by observers.  North Korean state media reported, two days after the fact, that he had died of a heart attack on December 17, 2011.  Even with Kim Jong-un having been prepared to step into the leadership, it took days for the North Korean government to acknowledge that Kim Jong-il had died.  This led some observers to question whether it might have taken that long for Kim Jong-un to take the controls of power.

The North Korean government said that Kim Jong-il had died on his private train, exhausted from having worked himself to death on behalf of the state.  This is a common trope in North Korean propaganda: the Kims sacrifice themselves for the good of the nation.  South Korean analysts have questioned the entire episode, pointing out that the train had been stationary at the reported time of death, and that the weather was too cold for Kim Jong-il in his weakened state to be out travelling.  They consider it likely that he died at home, but the story about the train was concocted to better support the narrative of Kim Jong-il’s having died “on the job.”

Kim Jong-un has had his own periods of absence.  On September 3, 2014, he was seen at a concert in Pyongyang, and then he disappeared, not reappearing until October 14.  His absence from the October 10 anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party led observers to question whether he was gravely ill.  It was recalled that he had walked with a distinct limp during the July 8, 2014 memorial service commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of Kim Il-sung.

North Korea does not have a rules-based system for succession.  Having one would be to admit that was an alternative to the supreme ruler.  The system depends upon the appearance of absolute, personal control even though governing functions are necessarily delegated in ways that are not clear to outsiders.

Kim Jong-il’s long illness, starting in 2008, made it necessary to provide for a succession.  Although Kim Jong-un’s emergence seemed surprising at the time, it is clear in retrospect that he was being groomed to rule during years of increasing responsibilities and conferred titles.

Although Kim Jong-un has now ruled for ten years, he is still young (probably 36) and his children are very young.  Far from having planned a succession, he almost certainly has resisted doing so lest he create a situation in which he could be replaced.  Although there is speculation regarding who might succeed Kim Jong-un, those are only educated guesses.

If the rumors prove accurate, and Kim Jon-un is incapacitated or dead, South Korea and the United States may face a difficult decision in how to treat whichever successor emerges.  Someone may claim to be the new ruler, but that person may or may not be firmly in charge.  Would it be prudent to quickly acknowledge that person as the new ruler in order to facilitate a rapid diplomatic outreach, or would it be better to wait and see whether the purported successor is able to consolidate power?

A delay in acknowledging a succession might be taken by the new ruler as a hostile act, making diplomacy more difficult to start.  Too much early support might alienate the successor’s successor, or might even tip the balance against a potentially better outcome such as a rule by committee rather than a single personality. Accurate intelligence about the inner workings of Pyongyang would help the South Korean and American governments make such a decision, but if an uncertain situation emerges in the coming days, weeks or months, it may end up being a gamble.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Mario Micklisch’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Ardor Fades between Trump and Kim, but U.S. President Continues the Courtship

By Robert R. King

The relationship between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump has been surprisingly cordial and positive since March 2018, when Trump impulsively agreed to a summit with Kim.  Since that time, however, the political results of their initial cordial relationship have been very limited.  Little progress has been made on improving ties between the two countries, and there is no success on denuclearization or on lifting United Nations sanctions against North Korea.

President Trump has met with Kim Jong-un in two full-scale summits (Singapore in June 2018 and Hanoi in February 2019) and one friendly hand-holding stroll across the DMZ in June 2019, which gave the U.S. President the right to he is the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in North Korea.  (Former President Bill Clinton was in Pyongyang in August 2009, and former President Jimmy Carter was there in June 1994, August 2010 and April 2011.)  Periodically since the first Trump-Kim summit in June 2018, President Trump has verbally reaffirmed his “very, very good relationship” with Kim, and Trump famously said, Kim “wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters. . . .We fell in love.”

But lovers can also fall out of love.  A policy that is dependent on the personal relationship between the U.S. President and the North Korean leader could be upended quickly.  Just as Trump has shown delight in singlehandedly reversing policies of his predecessor, his successor could just as quickly reverse the American president’s cordial relationship with the North Korean leader if it is based only on the personal relationship.

Furthermore, a change in policy does not even require a change in leadership as President Trump has shown with his erratic policy flip flops.  Kim Jong-un certainly remembers the abrupt about-face from Trump’s UN General Assembly speech in September 2017 taunting Kim as “little rocket man” and threatening “fire and fury” against the North.  A few months later Trump agreed to the summit in Singapore where the President “gushed with praise for North Korea’s dictator, even as he ignored the country’s human-rights abuses and scolded democratically elected allies.”

Trump is Trying Harder to Maintain the Relationship with Kim

Since the very public failure of the Hanoi Summit last February, the two leaders have not moved forward on their relationship or on the significant policy issues which divide them.  Trump, however, has made a much more concerted effort for better ties than has his North Korean counterpart.

This is completely out of character for Trump.  When personal relationships deteriorate, Trump usually is quick to denounce and defame former friends and allies.  Think of his former attorney Michael Cohen, former chief political strategist Steve Bannon, and former Attorney General and first major campaign endorser Senator Jeff Sessions.  Even friendships with important foreign leaders have deteriorated when minor differences irritate the U.S. President, such as the souring of his once flourishing friendship with French President Emmanuel Macron.

It is surprising in light of the lack of success in the effort to make progress on improving relations between the United States and North Korea that President Trump has been slow to criticize Kim.  The U.S. President continues to make positive affirmations about the less-than-cooperative North Korean leader.

In June the two met briefly at Panmunjom on the North-South Korean border with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.  This was during an official visit by President Trump to South Korea.  The meeting was a photo-op, although the two leaders did agree in Panmunjom to resume negotiations.  That agreement has failed.

A working-level meeting between U.S. and North Korean diplomats in Stockholm four months later in October was the first follow-up effort to revive negotiations and prepare for senior level meetings.  The Stockholm talks failed.  The U.S. delegation, headed by Senior Representative for North Korea Policy Steve Biegun, was prepared for substantive discussions.  The senior North Korean diplomat, however, clearly was not authorized to negotiate.  At the end of the discussions, the North Korean official called the talks “very bad and sickening” and said that the U.S. was unprepared to negotiate seriously.

President Trump periodically continues to emphasize his “great” personal relationship with Kim Jong-un, but he has personally done little more since devoting an hour or two to the brief photo-op with Kim at the DMZ in June.  Since then, Chairman Kim has taken a hostile stance toward the United States.  Most recently, in his seven-hour speech at the North Korean party’s Central Committee plenary meeting on December 31, Kim said North Korea would resume long-range missile tests and would unveil a new strategic weapon “in the near future.”  Kim also said the North is no longer bound by the moratorium on missile testing.  Although he did not announce the timing of new testing, he certainly opened that door.  Kim also denounced U.S.-South Korean military cooperation, even though joint military training has been scaled back by Trump.

After the failure of the Hanoi Summit, Trump publicly down-played Kim Jong-un’s threatening behavior.  On a state visit to Japan in May, he denied that North Korea had tested “ballistic” missiles or violated UN Security Council sanctions resolutions.  This was totally opposite of the views of his own national security advisor, then John Bolton, and of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan.

In December, a few weeks before delivering his marathon speech on December 31, Kim Jong-un threatened that he would send the United States a “Christmas present.”  The North frequently takes provocative anti-American actions by conducting nuclear or missile tests on U.S. holidays.  Just a week or so earlier, the North conducted a series of missile tests on the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday.  President Trump did not respond with bluster or even a warning about the “Christmas present” threat.  He tepidly expressed the hope that Kim would send a “beautiful vase” rather than a military provocation for Christmas.

Washington Urges Resumption of Talks, but North Says “No”

Even after Kim Jong-un’s threats in his December 31 speech, Trump made a point of sending friendly birthday greetings to the North Korean leader, whose birthday is January 8.  South Korean National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong met with Trump in early January, and the President asked Chung to convey his birthday message to the North Korean leader.  The message was also sent through regular Washington-Pyongyang communication channels.

Reflecting the current surly mood in Pyongyang, Kim Kye-gwan—former Deputy Foreign Minister, currently senior advisor to the North Korean Foreign Ministry, and a leading voice in U.S. relations for the last quarter century—brusquely noted that North Korea communicates directly with the United States, and does not need South Korea to deliver its mail.

Just a few days ago President Trump’s National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, said that Washington has reached out to Pyongyang indicating that it was prepared to resume discussions with the North.  He noted that Christmas has come and gone without a hostile North Korean “Christmas present,” and he suggested that was a positive indication that the time was appropriate to resume talks.  The North Korean response came quickly and publicly from Kim Kye-gwan: a birthday greeting is not a basis to resume discussions.

The former Deputy Foreign Minister went even further, stating that Kim Jong-un separates his “personal” friendly relationship with Trump from North Korean policy toward the United States.  Regarding the North Korean leader’s personal relationship, Kim Kye-gwan said:  “Although Chairman Kim Jong Un has good personal feelings about President Trump, they are, in the true sense of the word, ‘personal.’  We have been deceived by the United States, being caught in the dialogue with it for over one year and a half, and that was lost time for us.”

Impeachment and the Upcoming U.S. Election

Current events may be an important element causing the North to be more cautious about seeking to make progress with the United States at this time.  The impeachment of the President and the upcoming U.S. Senate vote about whether to remove the President from office is a cause for uncertainty, even though removal of the President from office does not appear likely at this point.  But more importantly, in less than ten months, the United States will hold its next presidential election.  The outcome of that contest up in the air at this point.

North Koreans pride themselves on their awareness of U.S. politics and its implications for how the U.S. deals with North Korea.  Pyongyang is wary of changes of leadership in the United States.  The Clinton Administration made a last minute effort in 2000 effort to make progress with North Korea by sending then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang for a much publicized visit.  No final agreement was reached, and the George W. Bush Administration was initially much more hostile to cooperation with the North.

At the end of the George W. Bush Administration a similar last minute effort involved U.S. agreement to provide food aid to the North, but when the Obama Administration assumed office, the North cancelled the agreements made with the previous administration.  Near the end of a U.S. president’s term, Pyongyang tends to be very cautious about reaching significant new agreements with Washington.

These internal events in the United States have raised uncertainties for the North Korean leader.  America watchers in North Korea are unlikely to fully grasp the nuances of the upcoming election or the potential for changes in policy toward North Korea.  The result is that Kim Jong-un is likely to continue being very cautious about serious negotiations with Donald Trump.  In light of the uncertain future, suspicion and caution about U.S. intentions will likely continue.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own. 

Photo from the White House Photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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