Tag Archive | "Kim Jong-un"

The Koreas, Together Alone

By Andray Abrahamian

It is difficult to recall a moment where the two Koreas were simultaneously more isolated from the other countries of the region. What does this mean for the coming years?

For both, relations with China have been tricky in recent years. Beijing, has after all sanctioned both Koreas since 2017. When Seoul installed the American THAAD anti-missile defense system in mid-2017, Beijing sanctioned several Korean companies and sectors. This was executed informally and was thus deniable, such as the unofficial ban on group travel to South Korea: no public edict was given and news agencies only learned of it through leaks or comments by Chinese tour operators. Seoul made some commitments to Beijing in October of that year, but 2017 was difficult.

North Korea was meanwhile also subject to several rounds of UN sanctions in 2016 and 2017, as they pursued a robust schedule of nuclear and missile testing. This included punishing sectoral sanctions that covered all of the DPRK’s major exports, including laborers abroad, textiles, seafood, coal, and other extractives. China signed on to all of these, exacerbating the sense of mistrust Pyongyang has regarding its huge neighbor.

Since then, Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping have managed to have five (five!) summits and clearly some sort of cooperative agreement has been put in place, even if the details are unknown. Still, after years of tensions, bilateral relations remain tense. North Koreans have distrusted the Chinese for decades and more than generally assumed by many observers. A handful of summits hasn’t erased this. Moreover, the huge increase in Chinese tourism to North Korea  – something of an economic lifeline that has developed in the past year – has to give Kim Jong-un pause: he saw how Beijing choked off tourism to the other Korea. (It has also happened with Taiwan and Palau, to varying degrees.)

The quixotic leadership of Donald Trump has opened new opportunities and created new challenges for both Koreas, also. He has heaped pressure on South Korea through forcing a renegotiation of the 2012 Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, while slapping tariffs on some exports. This year, he has demanded a five-fold increase in the cost that Seoul pays for stationing U.S. troops in Korea.

Meanwhile, from the North Korean perspective, Trump has failed to come up with a new kind of solution to the post-Hanoi doldrums, even though Pyongyang’s own decision-making bears much responsibility for the lack of progress this year. Still, it seems as if Kim Jong-un has concluded that Trump has gone from wanting a deal to being disinterested. If the door to dialogue is currently barely open, Kim’s suggestion that he will go “a new way” in 2020 will probably see it slammed shut.

Japan is more irrelevant to North Korea than ever. Once the DPRK’s largest trading partner, interactions are now minimal. Shinzo Abe is the only leader in the region not to have had a summit with Kim Jong-un, so little is there to discuss, apparently.

Following South Korea’s 2018 Supreme Court order that two Japanese companies must compensate 14 forced labor victims for unpaid work during World War II and the Moon Administration’s dissolution of a foundation for “comfort women” under a 2015 agreement, Japan started a trade war. By taking South Korea off a trading white list, Tokyo threatened inputs into Korea’s semiconductor industry. South Korea responded with a consumer boycott and its own whitelist removal.

Crucially, Seoul also announced it was leaving GSOMIA, an intelligence sharing agreement brokered by Washington. Seoul has just postponed that decision after U.S. pressure in the past few weeks. This must also feel to Seoul as if it has less sway with the Americans than Tokyo has.

As for Russia, it will continue to take a backseat in the region. Moscow will not be a decisive economic or political player for either Korea.

This is a moment for extreme uncertainty for both Pyongyang and Seoul. If President Trump is in power another five years, one suspects Seoul might be inclined to pursue greater autonomy and move further from the United States. Yet rushing into the arms of China is hardly appealing. Rapprochement with Japan in the coming years seems unlikely: the South Korean body-politic is moving towards a fundamental reshaping of Japan-Korea relations, moving beyond the 1965 treaty that has hitherto defined bilateral ties.

For North Korea, whatever arrangement they have with China will allow for continued survival, but absent a breakthrough with the United States, economic growth will be limited. Major Chinese companies will stay away from North Korea so long as secondary sanctions risks remain. Russian investment and trade will remain small.

Inter-Korean relations will also deteriorate: even if Seoul’s trust in and dependence on the United States for security is gradually reduced, domestic politics and the structure of inter-Korean competition will remain huge fetters on how much the two Koreas could turn to each other. In the near term, Moon’s outreach will appear invalidated in domestic politics.

The extent to which uncertainty in Northeast Asia persists is partly related to how long Trump is in office, though not entirely. Regardless, both Koreas will find themselves navigating waters even more lonely and ambiguous than ever.

Andray Abrahamian is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and Visiting Scholar at George Mason University Korea and Senior Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Missile Testing – What is North Korea Signaling and to Whom?

By Mark Tokola

On Thursday, July 25, North Korea launched two, (reportedly) short-range, missiles into the sea west of Japanese waters. News reports say that they traveled to distances of 430 and 690 kilometers, and flew low, no higher than 50 kilometers in altitude. Some analysts believe that the projectiles were part of North Korea’s newly-developed KN-23 arsenal, a short-range ballistic missile that resembles Russian-designed Iskander system. The weapon was also tested in May ahead of President Trump and Kim Jong-un’s meeting at the Demilitarized Zone on June 30.

Although these missiles do not have the same range as the ICBMs that North Korea tested in 2017, the KN-23 is sophisticated. The KN-23 reportedly can change direction and its low trajectory can help evade missile defense systems.  It apparently is designed to strike with accuracy. They may not threaten the U.S. homeland, but they certainly threaten South Korea and Japan.

What is North Korea signaling with this test, if anything?* In retrospect, North Korean missile testing in 2017 seemed to have adhered more to a weapons development and engineering timetable than to any diplomatic maneuvering or special anniversaries. They tested when they were ready to test. North Korea’s stepped-up testing schedule enabled Kim Jong-un to announce in his 2018 New Year’s speech that the program had been completed.

However, diplomacy has come to the fore in 2018 and 2019 and it seems more probable that North Korea’s May 9 and July 25 missile tests were intended to message something to someone. It also may not be coincidental that these missile test came just days after photographs were released of Kim Jong-un standing next to a new North Korean submarine under construction. It is just not clear what the message is, or to whom it is directed.

American commentators tend to assume that the North Korean missile tests were a message to the United States, perhaps to urge a resumption of negotiations or to increase North Korean leverage for the talks to come. Conversely, it could be argued that the missile tests are intended to message the opposite, that North Korea does not mind if its behavior leads to a delayed resumption of talks. They may want to show that sanctions are not having that much effect and time is on their side.

There are several possible interpretations of the message. Might it be directed towards South Korea rather than towards the United States? “The U.S. dismisses short-range missiles as unimportant but they can hit you. You should deal with us.” Or the message may be meant for Japan. “Our missiles tests are aimed in your direction for a reason. Ease up on your hardline policies towards us, or else.” Or maybe China? “You want stability in Northeast Asia? Then get the U.S. to make a serious offer to ease sanctions.” Kim Jong-un’s missile test messaging might even be directed towards his hardline domestic constituency. “You can stop worrying about diplomacy leading to North Korean weakness.  Support me.  We’re developing new and deadly North Korean weapons.” Or it could be some combination of the above.

There is no way to be sure what North Korea is signaling. Pyongyang may be frustrated that we are not interpreting their signals correctly and are not responding to them as they would wish. What the United States can do is to interpret the possible signals in ways that advance U.S. and South Korean interests.  If we want talks to resume, we should not interpret the missile tests in ways that would derail them. Whatever the intended message is, U.S. and South Korea policymakers should see the short-range missile tests and think: “Note to self: North Korean nuclear weapons and long-range missiles are not the only threats North Korea poses.”

What does North Korea mean by the tests?  When movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn was asked about messages conveyed in movies, he reportedly said: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”  It would be helpful if North Korea would be more explicit about its wants and what it is offering.


*The day after this was posted, Kim Jong-un made a public statement that the missile test was meant as a warning to South Korea to stop joint military exercises with the U.S. and to stop modernizing its military forces.

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

Picture from Korea Central News Agency

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Reflecting on Face-to-Face Diplomacy with Kim Jong-un

By Olga Krasnyak

What do summits mean?

Summit or face-to-face diplomacy with Kim Jong-un was a feature and a shift in Northeast Asian politics in 2018. This trend has continued in 2019 with a recent brief interpersonal encounter with President Donald Trump at DMZ on June 30th. While there is often a certain portion of criticism whether or not face-to-face diplomacy is necessary or transformative in world politics, or it’s just photo-ops for mainstream media and talking points for countless commentators, I suggest not to jump to conclusions right away but to consider face-to-face diplomacy as phenomenon in maintaining inter-state relations.

Inter-state relations are foremost relations between people who represent their states. It means that in order to operate productively, those individuals have to respect each other and treat each other like equals. Otherwise, if, for some reasons, one side is pressured by the other, then there is always will be the desire to make things fair and right for the pressured state.

However, the assumption that we should treat North Korea as equal is the hardest thing to accept when keeping in mind the mostly negative image of an ‘impossible state’ as one of North Korea specialists put it some time ago. This helps to explain the current strategy in dealings with North Korea that includes both maximum pressure and a waiting game until Pyongyang accepts all of the conditions imposed by the international community.

Such strategy is not entirely new in diplomatic history and was well practiced by Soviet diplomats upon third-world countries during the Cold War. The Soviets pressed other countries until they gave up and accepted everything the Soviet Union offered. When, however, diplomatic negotiations stuck – as often happened – the direct involvement of the Soviet leadership could change the direction of diplomatic talks making them more flexible.

On one hand, this top-down approach made diplomacy very much dependent on politics which is natural for an authoritarian state. On the other hand, the top-down approach made interpersonal encounters between state leaders, which was face-to-face diplomacy in fact, groundbreaking and transformative.

As the U.S.-Soviet relations also showed, face-to-face diplomacy between national leaders might be necessary to find immediate solutions to negotiating deadlocks and easing tensions. The summits between Nixon and Brezhnev, and Reagan and Gorbachev proved this.

Importantly, the absence of notable signed agreements should not be ever taken as a failure of summitry because the most useful summit meetings would not produce agreements, but would concentrate on disagreements and ways to reduce them. A ‘no-agreement’ of Trump-Kim summitry is certainly not a failure.

Making it personal

The top-down projection and the extension from interpersonal to the international system is a working strategy when dealing with Kim. To understand what is happening or might happen in inter-state relations, it is reasonable to go into the micro-level of personal dynamic between state leaders.

If state leaders have psychological problems or biases against each other such as suspicion, fear, mistrust, or annoyance, then logically solutions for these problems would be interpersonal communications where they have an opportunity to identify and, perhaps, overcome these problems and biases. Through face-to-face interactions, state leaders can get knowledge about each other, and recognize behavioral indicators and behavioral patterns in their counterparts.

When observing the summitry with Kim, the link between international and interpersonal is considered the most prominent. It means that improvement in relations with Kim might potentially improve relations with North Korea. On Twitter, Trump has repeatedly mentioned his mostly positive personal attitude towards Kim. Moreover, as for now, summit diplomacy with Kim seems the only way to normalize the political climate in the region. North Korea’s sensibility to its security means that keeping open a direct line of diplomatic communication with Kim is a fundamentally important part of a strategy in dealing with the country.

Summits with Kim are yet to be fully evaluated by academics and practitioners of international relations and diplomacy. The outcomes of the summitry will be visible in the years or even decades ahead as for U.S.-Soviet relations. If we assume that Kim is a rational leader which is less likely to seek confrontation and escalation, then an accurate interpretation of his intensions might be the foundation of building better relations with the country.

Are the pre-existing conditions more important?

Summit diplomacy also should be looked at through the pre-existing conditions – the power of states, state behavior, a state’s security dilemma sensibility, political and ideological differences, economic constraints, etc. In this case, increased diplomatic efforts in order to manage inter-state relations is an obvious answer to help to promote and develop international cooperation, shared norms, rules, social institutions, a sense of friendship. Reducing mutual distrust and suspicion, however, might be problematic with countries of different societal and political organizations, as with North Korea.

North Korea’s intensions are modest and primarily focus on international recognition and getting out of international isolation. North Korea faces obstacles in achieving these objectives – an adversarial image of a hostile, backward-oriented, and authoritarian country is not going to disappear any time soon. North Korea’s previous dangerous and provocative behaviors have strongly shaped negative perceptions and stereotypes. But there is always a possibility that situation can be changed at a glance as happened when the Soviet Union collapsed.

For the international community, summit diplomacy is a rational strategy to further shape the geopolitical architecture of Northeast Asia. Kim’s willingness to engage diplomatically with regional and international partners is worth noting as a positive step because interpersonal relations in world politics matter – relations between states are not static but changeable, they can rise and fall.

To comply with the change in inter-state relations, face-to-face diplomacy is first and foremost a mechanism to follow the change in world politics. Kim’s encounters with Xi, Moon, Trump, and Putin are evidence that summitry has a significant potential and may be transformative in world politics, while the world is passionately watching.

Dr. Olga Krasnyak is a researcher in diplomatic studies. She is the author of National Styles in Science, Diplomacy, and Science Diplomacy (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2018). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the White House photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Trump-Kim DMZ Meeting was a Solution to a Problem

By Mark Tokola

The breakdown of the February Hanoi summit meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un left the problem of how and when to restart the negotiation process.  One drawback to a ‘top down’ approach is that there is no assurance that the two sides will meet again without a change of circumstances, i.e. without someone making a concession.  What would have to happen to make a third Trump-Kim meeting possible?

Following the Hanoi summit, the question has been, would the U.S. or North Korea make the first move to restart talks?  It seemed unlikely that the U.S. would relax sanctions just to restart the negotiations.  It seemed equally improbable that North Korea would make a unilateral concession regarding its nuclear program: it will want to keep all of those bargaining chips for the real denuclearization negotiations.

The June 30 “spontaneous” meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un at the DMZ provided a clean solution to the problem created by the Hanoi breakdown.  The President happened to be in the neighborhood.  For Kim Jong-un, it’s a short jaunt from Pyongyang down to the DMZ.  Why not meet up?  It was a way to restart the talks without requiring a concession from either side.

The U.S. President stepping into North Korea may have looked like a gift to North Korea, but for President Trump it was equally a historic opportunity for a U.S. President to go where no President had gone before.  Call that a win-win.  Whether Xi Jinping orchestrated the DMZ meeting by carrying a message from Kim to Trump at the Osaka G20 or whether Trump and Kim adroitly used Xi Jinping as cover to avoid being seen as making the first step hardly matters.  It worked.

The June 30 meeting has been criticized for being substance-free and merely symbolic.  The main point, however, is that President Trump and Kim Jong-un have gotten past the Hanoi logjam and have apparently empowered their negotiators to resume talks.  Special Envoy Steve Biegun was conspicuously present at the DMZ, a strong signal that he has President Trump’s approval to move ahead.  It probably was a plus, not a minus, that the June 30 meeting did not provide specifics.  Those might have limited the negotiators’ room for maneuver.  They can get down to substance without having to spend time interpreting whatever the June 30 meeting might have produced by way of agreement.  And, don’t underestimate symbolism.  Symbolism can help progress happen.

This is no guarantee that the U.S. and North Korea will be able to find a middle ground when they do resume talks, but following the vague Singapore summit agreement and the breakdown in Hanoi, at least a negotiating process seems underway.  That could make the June 30 DMZ meeting more important in retrospect than it might seem now.

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

Photo from the White House Photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Assessing the Singapore Summit One Year Later

By Robert R. King

One year ago on June 12, 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met in a historic summit in Singapore.  Unlike most of Trump’s other “historic” claims, the Singapore summit actually was a historic first.  It was the first time ever that a sitting President of the United States met with the leader of North Korea.

The meeting certainly was “historic” in that it was the very first time ever that a U.S. President while in office met with the North Korean leader.  But the question is was it “historic” in the sense of having great and lasting importance; was it momentous, consequential, or groundbreaking?  Are we talking about a real turning point or is this simply a bragging point?  At this point in time, any assessment of the summit is premature, but it is useful to assess the event one year later.

The Outcome of Singapore and the Joint Statement

Both President Trump and Kim Jong-un claimed the Singapore meeting was a great success.  Trump returned to the United States touting his diplomatic prowess with an announcement via Twitter, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat” from Pyongyang.  North Korean news media gave Chairman Kim the usual effusive praise for his brilliant diplomacy and glorious success upon his return from Singapore.

In fact, the results of Singapore were limited.  One of the highlights was an American-produced video touting North Korea’s economic and development potential.  It was the type of message that looked like it was produced by the North Korean propaganda machine.  The video suggested that North Korea had vast economic potential, with the subtext that the United States could help unlock that promise.  It was sufficiently pro-North Korean that it was shown without edits on North Korean television, and a number of Americans who saw the video without knowing its origins, thought it was in fact produced by the North.

The highlight of Singapore was a Joint Statement signed with much fanfare and pomp.  The statement’s rhetoric was positive on the thorny issue of denuclearization, and promises were made about the potential and desire for significantly improved relations between the two countries.  The agreement, however, listed vague commitments to achieve broad goals but no concrete, specific actions were agreed upon by either side.  The entire text is brief, consisting of only a few short paragraphs.

Status of Diplomatic Engagement

In the Joint Agreement, the two countries committed to “new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.”  This first of the four numbered points in the Statement involved a willingness to engage diplomatically, something the North Koreans had been unwilling to do earlier.

During the first eight months since Singapore, a series of important senior level meetings have taken place.  In October 2018 (four months after Singapore) U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo met in Pyongyang with Kim Jong-un and other North Korean officials.  Agreement was reached that a second summit should take place “as soon as possible.”  In January, former North Korean intelligence chief and currently senior deputy to Kim Jong-un, Kim Yong-chol, visited Washington, where he met in the Oval Office with President Trump and with other senior U.S. government officials.  Kim Yong-chol had been designated to be North Korea’s counterpart to Secretary of State Pompeo on issues involving the United States.

During this same time period, U.S. Senior Representative for North Korea Policy at the Department of State, Steve Biegun, held a number of other meetings with his North Korean counterparts in Pyongyang, Stockholm, and elsewhere.  The major achievement of these meetings was to agree upon a second summit to be held in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February 2019.

This period of diplomatic engagement was short lived.  The follow-on summit held eight held months after Singapore in February 2019 collapsed abruptly without any progress or agreement on any issues, and both leaders departed Vietnam earlier than planned.  Since the failure of Hanoi, North Korean government officials have shown little willingness to engage with their American counterparts.  U.S. diplomats have reached out, but there has been no response.

There was one curious press comment from the North that could well have been a wink and a nod to President Trump, however.  Pyongyang news media condemned criticism of North Korea by former Vice President Joe Biden, but the critical language used clearly echoed Trump.  Biden was criticized as “a fool of low IQ.”  Strange as this may seem, it may well be a subtle hint that Chairman Kim is still interested in engagement.

Another cloud over diplomatic engagement was the disappearance of Kim Yong-chol, North Korean counterpart of Secretary of State Pompeo, and Kim Hyok-chol, counterpart of U.S. Representative for North Korea Policy, Steve Biegun.  The disappearance, and now the reappearance of Kim Hyok-chol, raises questions about the prospects for serious future engagement.  Kim Hyok-chol has still not been seen in public, but “sources” say his is alive.

Korean Peninsula “Peace Regime” and Denuclearization

Point two of the Joint Agreement called for the U.S. and the North to “build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”  Action thus far on this point has been limited and unilateral by the United States.  In Singapore, President Trump announced that he was unilaterally ending large-scale joint military exercises involving U.S. and South Korean troops.  The action was taken without advance consultation with the South Korean government, and the North Koreans were apparently not asked and thus far have not ended or altered their own regular large-scale military exercises.

This termination of military exercises has been further codified by an announcement just a few days after the failed Hanoi Summit that the U.S. was permanently ending the major U.S.-South Korea spring training exercises “Foal Eagle” and “Key Resolve,” though these large-scale exercises will eventually be replaced by smaller exercises tailored to specific missions.

In contrast, Kim Jong-un engaged in sabre rattling.  He conducted a series of missile test launches in early May in defiance of his moratorium on test launches—and this came after the United States announced permanent ending of large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea following the Hanoi Summit failure.  President Trump has sought to play down the missile testing, tweeting from Tokyo “North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me.”  Those “disturbed” included the Prime Minister of Japan, Secretary of State Pompeo, and his national Security Advisor John Bolton.

The third point of the Joint Statement signed in Singapore commits the two countries “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”  Since Singapore, the U.S. and North Korea have made little or no progress on denuclearization.  At the Hanoi summit, Kim Jong-un apparently was intransigent in his offer to make only limited concessions on denuclearization.  He was willing to close the Yongbyan nuclear facility, but no other nuclear facilities, in return for the U.S. working to lift UN economic sanctions against the North.

There were differences as to what sanctions were to be lifted.  At his press conference after the summit ended early, Trump said “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety and we couldn’t do that.”  North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong-ho said the North sought only “partial relief from sanctions” that hurt “people’s livelihoods.”  Nevertheless, those sanctions are the key UN sanctions that have had the most impact.

One year after the Singapore Summit, the commitment to establish a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula and move to complete denuclearization of the Peninsula has made little progress.  There was some progress in diplomatic engagement—the two sides were talking.  Now, however, even engagement seems to have dwindled.  The Singapore Summit represents more a hopeful wish than a fundamental shift in the policies or attitudes on either side.  The failure of the Hanoi Summit eight months later to make any progress on the tradeoffs between denuclearization and lifting sanctions is a serious, though not yet a fatal blow.

One Brief Bright Spot—Remains Recovery

The very brief positive exception to the results thus far of the Singapore Summit is the commitment made in point 4 of the Singapore Joint Statement.  Both countries agreed to cooperate in recovering POW/MIA remains from the Korean War.  This has been an important issue for Washington.  For decades, the U.S. military has sought to recover remains of soldiers who fought and died in the Korean War.  During brief periods of improved relations in the past, a few U.S. recovery missions have been permitted to seek remains of U.S. servicemen in North Korea.

In July 2018 just two months after the Singapore Summit and consistent with the Joint Statement, North Korea handed over 55 sets of American military remains from the Korean War era.  Over the last year, a number of those 55 have been identified and the remains have been reinterred with appropriate military honors, and this has given family members an opportunity to find closure.

It is now one full year since the Joint Statement was signed and eleven months since the one group of remains were handed over.  Despite U.S. military efforts to engage with North Korean counterparts to arrange for additional recovery missions to North Korea, no positive steps have emerged.  After the failure of the Hanoi Summit earlier this year, U.S. military officials report that North Korean People’s Army officials stopped all communication.  The Pentagon has abandoned the effort to organize joint recovery operations with the North until conditions change.  The Pentagon estimates that some 7,800 U.S. soldiers remain unidentified and unaccounted for in North Korea.  This issue is a matter of great importance to the United States government, which remains committed to bringing home the remains of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

For Pyongyang, on the other hand, this issue is simply one that gives it leverage with Washington.  Within a matter of weeks of the Singapore Summit, the 55 sets of remains were transferred.  These were probably remains that had been discovered, collected, and held in storage some time previously and were pulled out at an important political moment to win favor with the United States.  The cynical use of soldiers’ remains has been typical of North Korea.  More progress on remains recovery is unlikely unless and until there is political progress on other issues.

The Outlook for Progress after Hanoi 

One year after President Trump and Kim Jong-un made the “historic” decision for the first time to meet face-to-face in Singapore, it is still much too early to determine whether this is a truly “historic” event, an event that marks a significant turning point in U.S.-North Korea relations.   At this point, the United States has stopped holding large-scale military exercises with South Korean military forces.  North Korea had stopped missile and nuclear testing, though some missile tests in violation of U.N. sanctions have been resumed.  A small number of remains of American service members have been returned to the United States, but further progress has ceased.

One element is potentially significant.  Since the Singapore Summit, for some periods of time—certainly not all of the time—there has been significant and serious diplomatic engagement between the United States and North Korea.  That does represent a change in the relationship between Pyongyang and Washington.  At times, Pyongyang has played hard to get or it may be that the North Korean government is simply not geared up or equipped for serious on-going high-level diplomatic engagement.

Chairman Kim appears to be facing or provoking internal turmoil since the failure of Hanoi based on recent news stories that his most senior aide/advisor on the Hanoi Summit, Kim Jong-chol, was executed or sent to a reeducation camp (because he has since been photographed in public).  It is not clear whether Kim is sincere in his effort to engage with the United States and move toward denuclearization or whether he is playing the kind of games he and his father played in their effort to develop a nuclear weapons capacity in the North.  If Pyongyang resumes engagement with Washington, there is a possibility that Singapore could represent an important breakthrough.

President Trump, however, also is facing issues that could limit his ability or willingness to follow-up on diplomatic engagement with the North.  He faces significant domestic political issues that will increasingly require his attention.  He is facing renewed calls for his impeachment and congressional investigations.  At the same time, he is gearing-up for what will be a difficult and hard-fought reelection campaign in 2020.  Because the President insists in personally being involved on North Korea decisions, domestic political distractions could get in the way of his being able to make progress with the North even if Kim Jong-un is ready and able to deal.

If there is to be another summit, both leaders need to be assured of success because failure would be costly to the image of both, particularly after both were tainted by the humiliating failure at Hanoi.  Kim may be unlikely to push for a quick follow-up summit in light of the upcoming U.S. election.  He will not want to make an agreement with a lame-duck American president, and until the outcome of the next election is clear, Kim may well move cautiously on any serious decisions he must make that might lead to real change and improvement.

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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South Korea’s Lonely Task: Jumpstarting Denuclearization Talks, Again

By Yonho Kim

The recent North Korea-Russia summit in Vladivostok drew keen attention from the international society in the sense that it was North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s first summit diplomacy in the two months since his failed Hanoi summit with President Donald Trump. Obviously, Kim had chance to send a strong signal to Washington that he has alternatives to Trump’s ‘big deal or no deal’ formula by meeting with President Vladimir Putin for the first time. To Kim’s favor, Putin supported North Korea’s phased approach to denuclearization based on confidence-building measures. Another gift for Kim was Putin’s emphasis on multilateral security guarantees, which seems unrealistic for now, for Pyongyang in return for its nuclear disarmament. It is true that Putin failed to provide any public commitment to substantial economic aid and sanctions relief. However, Kim’s overture to Putin put South Korea in a very difficult position when Seoul tries to revive inter-Korean ties and jumpstart the stalled denuclearization talks.

First of all, the timing of Kim-Putin summit was discouraging to South Korea. South Korea hosted an event to celebrate the first anniversary of the summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in right after the Kim-Putin summit. To the Moon government’s disappointment, Pyongyang did not respond to Seoul’s invitation. Without North Korea’s participation, the event was held in a modest and quiet tone with Moon joining via video message.

The Kim-Putin summit also reconfirmed that Pyongyang has lost its interest in having Seoul as a mediator for denuclearization negotiations with Washington. Kim basically asked Putin to take over, at least for now, the role of mediator by encouraging him to deliver Pyongyang’s message to Trump. Indeed, in his April 13 speech at the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim called on South Korea to act as a stakeholder rather than a mediator in the denuclearization talks for the interests of the people of the two Koreas. As long as Seoul is unable to persuade Washington to ease the sanctions blocking inter-Korean economic cooperation, Pyongyang seems unwilling to consider reengaging with its southern neighbor.

Observers in Seoul are paying keen attention to the fact that the issue of security guarantee instead of sanctions relief was publicly raised at the Vladivostok summit. This may indicate that Pyongyang would focus on the most fundamental sticking point, including the presence of U.S. forces in South Korea and U.S. nuclear umbrella, in denuclearization talks instead of demanding sanctions relief which exposed one of their weakest links. If this turns out to be true, the room for the Moon government to play a proactive role will dramatically shrink and the denuclearization negotiations will become a long game.

The Trump administration is persisting with its own version of strategic patience leaving little chance for sanctions relief until North Korea’s denuclearization. Although Trump derided Obama’s strategic patience for allowing the North Korea problem fester, the current stalemate involves no military tension or rhetorical wars. Trump and Kim are even claiming that they are willing to return to diplomacy if the other side would give up and emerge from its own strategic patience. Neither China nor Russia seem to be willing to change the status quo or nuclear stalemate in part because it mitigates their concerns about exclusion from the denuclearization talks. Although Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered to meet Kim without conditions to “break the current mutual distrust,” it is unclear whether his conciliatory gestures will be welcomed by Kim.

Moon successfully brokered the historic 2018 Singapore summit and then helped jumpstart the stalled denuclearization talks between the U.S. and North Korea by announcing the Pyongyang Declaration at his third summit with Kim. However, given the tense tug of war between Trump and Kim and the unbearable risks of failed third Trump-Kim summit, it is less likely to see any time soon past pattern of Moon’s constructive role in facilitating U.S.-North Korea negotiations than before. The Moon government has been promoting a comprehensive nuclear deal with a roadmap to an end state involving phased implementations. However, North Korea has yet to respond to Moon’s call for fourth summit with Kim. Indeed, liberals in Seoul reluctantly agree that it might take a considerable amount of time and efforts before starting to see a closing of gap between Washington and Pyongyang. They hope that even while playing the long game, the two sides will stop bickering outside the negotiations and start talks at the working level.

North Korea’s launch of short-range projectiles last week was a slap in the face to a South Korea that has been trying to reduce military tensions and prevent accidental military clashes with the North. The Blue House immediately condemned Pyongyang, arguing that its launch was contrary to the purpose of inter-Korean military accords agreed in the Pyongyang Declaration last year. The launch was also a clear signal that Kim is willing to maximize pressure on Trump to undermine his strategic patience toward North Korea. Kim might be calculating that with the 2020 elections in the U.S. approaching, the last thing Trump wants to see on cable news is derisive news reports on the end of Trump-Kim bromance. It remains to see whether the new developments over the last weekend will provide Seoul with any opening to a renewed role of jumpstarting the denuclearization talks.

Yonho Kim is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Understanding Putin-Kim Summit from Russia’s Perspective

By Olga Krasnyak

In the wake of Putin-Kim summit, which was held in Vladivostok on April 25, in order to understand the meaning of the summit and its possible further implications for Northeast Asia, I suggest a Russian perspective.

Given the historical circumstances and pre-conditions in which Russia and North Korea operate, by no means should the Putin-Kim summit be considered groundbreaking or the tables turning. The summit was a meeting between the two state leaders of the two neighboring countries that share common objectives in preserving peace and stability in the region and are interested in maintaining economic relations. Russia-North Korea inter-state relations first were established in 1948 and have been  continuously maintained since then. Of course, the caliber of both countries and their geopolitical postures are contrasting, yet bilateral relations can be characterized as amicable.

In the beginning of the summit, in his welcoming remarks, Kim thanked Putin for traveling thousands of kilometers from Moscow (in Russian and Korean) to meet with him. Kim would be very flattered if that would be the case. However, Vladivostok and the summit with Kim weren’t Putin’s main destination: the summit took place between Putin’s inspection of Russia’s Chita city (about 1700 kilometers from Vladivostok) where he monitored the situation with forest fires in Siberia, and Beijing where he attended the 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation on the next day.

Even the invitation to visit Russia was given to Kim a year ago and then was extended, according to Russian sources, actual diplomatic preparations for the summit started in November 2018. At a working level, mutual diplomatic and political exchanges and consultations were regular and naturally ended up in the summit. In the contrast of the crisis summit diplomacy—the diplomacy of interaction between states under a heightened threat of systemic change or conflict as with South Korea’s Moon, for instance,—the summit between Putin and Kim has been well prepared to exclude any risk of unpredictable or undesirable outcomes.

Thus, an assumption that Kim agreed to meet with Putin after a ‘no-deal’ summit in Hanoi in order to extend his political leverage is merely a speculation. The outcome of Hanoi summit could only encourage Kim to meet with Putin at their earliest convenience. The summit was literally squeezed into Putin’s schedule. Even though, and perhaps for the security reasons, the exact place and time wasn’t announced long in advance, local Vladivostok-based observers reported that actual preparations at the venue—Far Eastern Federal University—proceeded beforehand and not in secrecy. Interestingly, despite the summit, lectures weren’t cancelled and all classes were taking place at a regular basis.

Another moment should be noticed—the simultaneously 8th annual Moscow Conference on International Security, organized by the Ministry of Defense (23-25 April 2019). This conference traditionally attracts high ranking military personnel at a level of ministers or deputies from the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and might be considered as alternative to Singapore-based IISS Shangri-La Dialogue. What’s important to note regarding Putin-Kim Summit is that at the Moscow conference North Korea wasn’t even mentioned once in the key-speeches delivered by Russia’s top officials: the director of FSB, the Defense Minister and the Foreign Minister. The absence of North Korea in the security agenda means that the whole Korean Peninsula has never been a priority for Russia’s foreign policy. But the post-Soviet space; the Middle East; partly South Asia, Africa, and Latin America are a source for geopolitical interest.

Russia’s foreign policy priorities indicate that the country wouldn’t push too much whether to ensure North Korea’s security guarantees or to severely clash with the position of the United States. Moreover, Russia agrees with the U.S. on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but suggests a more realistic scenario of a gradual, step-by-step denuclearization in the exchange for easing economic sanctions.

On the other hand, the complete denuclearization might pose another problem for North Korea and Northeast Asia and this problem is well acknowledged by Moscow: If North Korea would eventually be cleaned up from nukes and missiles, who would provide the country with security guarantees? Russia or China? Obviously, the U.S. and its ally South Korea would not be welcomed to the North for such purposes. This question should not be neglected and remains open for further consideration by state leaders, policy-makers, strategists, analysts, and scholars of great and regional powers.

Final remark here: during a brief 19-minute press-conference (in Russian) given by Putin, alongside the questions on Kim and North Korea that consumed around 10 minutes, the other 9 minutes were entirely devoted to an internal issue—Putin’s initiative to simplify the scheme in providing people in the East Ukraine (currently controlled by separatist forces) with Russian citizenship. All that showcases once again that Kim and North Korea are not the first priority for Russian foreign policy. Russia is pragmatically interested in sustaining good bilateral relations with its neighbor and to potentially deepen economic ties (including keeping North Korean workers who are presumed ideal in a proportion of price-quality-safety&security) but wouldn’t be proactive in backing North Korea.

Olga Krasnyak is a Lecturer in International Studies at Underwood International College, Yonsei University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

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What did Kim Jong-un Mean by “Dealing a Telling Blow to Hostile Forces”?

By Mark Tokola

Reporting on the April 10, 2019 meeting of the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, the North Korean state media headline was: “N. Korea must deal a ‘blow’ against hostile forces, Kim Jung-un tells the ruling party.” The Central Committee meeting was held in advance of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) that was held on April 11. Particular attention was paid to the belligerent headline in the U.S. media because commentators were waiting to see how Kim would react to the failure to reach an agreement with President Trump at the February 27-28 Hanoi Summit.  In context, however, Kim’s remarks were not as alarming as they appeared to be in the headline.

Kim Jong-un’s presentation to the Central Committee was mostly noteworthy for its heavy emphasis on the North Korean economy and for its lack of any direct criticism of the United States.  There were some references to defending the DPRK, but mostly in terms of what North Koreans need to do to advance their own country rather than about the evil intentions of hostile outsiders.

What Kim said about a “telling blow” as reported in the North Korean media beyond the headline was, “[North Korea] should vigorously advance socialist construction…to deal a telling blow to hostile forces who with bloodshot eyes miscalculate that sanctions can bring the DPRK to its knees.”  In other words, the “telling blow” would be that North Korea would be able to confound its enemies by withstanding economic sanctions.

The North Korean media reported that Kim Jong-un in his report to the Central Committee had “made a scientific analysis of the changed international landscape and the peculiarities of the present situation becoming daily acute and clarified the main tenor of the recent DPRK-U.S. summit talks and the Party’s stance towards it.”  Kim’s prescription to deal with the ”peculiarities of the present situation,” is to “more vigorously advance socialist construction by dint of self-supporting national economy… Self-reliance and self-supporting national economy are the bedrock of the existence of our own style socialism.”

Kim’s appeals for more efforts to advance the North Korean economy came close to admitting that it has underperformed in the past, “[there is a need to] put the national economy on a new phase of growth by expanding and reinforcing the foundation of the economy.”  North Korea has “reserved strength…and tremendous potential” — words which imply that its strength is not being exercised and its potential is not being met.  One difference between Kim Jong-un and his predecessors is his willingness to admit that everything is not perfect in North Korea.

What can be drawn from Kim Jong-un’s comments to the Central Committee?  Two main points are: (1) sanctions must be having an effect on the North Korean economy or he wouldn’t be so vociferous about the need to mobilize the country to resist them; and (2) he is continuing to stake his legitimacy on a promise to improve the North Korean economy.  Kim called on “the entire party, the whole country, and all the people [to] courageously wage an all-out, death-defying campaign to bring about a great surge in socialist construction.  Building an economic power is the main political task.”  That doesn’t sound like a man who is satisfied with the way things are going.

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

Photo from user MarsmanRom on Wikimedia Commons.

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How Might a Putin-Kim Summit Impact Efforts to Denuclearize North Korea?

By Troy Stangarone

What began as a round of speculation has now been confirmed. Kim Jong-un will hold his first summit meeting with Vladimir Putin on April 25.

The summit will naturally raise questions for the ongoing denuclearization talks with North Korea, as well as North Korea’s evolving role in the region as Pyongyang has sought to increase pressure and regain negotiating leverage vis-à-vis the United States since the no-deal summit in Hanoi.

On a basic level, a Putin-Kim summit would signal to the United States, and to a lesser extent China, that North Korea has other options should talks with the Trump administration not proceed along a path amenable to Pyongyang. This fits in the context of North Korea’s post-Hanoi decisions to rebuild the launch facility at Sohae, test a tactical weapon, and announce that the United States only has until the end of the year to agree to a negotiating strategy Pyongyang would find acceptable. Each action is designed to slowly raise the pressure on Washington and demonstrate that North Korea is not negotiating under pressure, but also not go so far as to permanently sever the talks with the United States. A meeting with Putin would add to this narrative.

A Kim-Putin summit would also suggest that North Korea is growing less isolated. Prior to last year, Kim had not met with any foreign leader since coming to power, but with his turn to diplomacy at the beginning of 2018 he has had more active relations with states in the region. Meeting with Putin would expand that narrative and leave Mongolia and Japan as the only countries he has not engaged.

However, a Putin-Kim summit would also suggest that North Korea’s options are limited if talks with the United States do not go well. While Russian firms have been behind some of the ship-to-ship transfers that have allowed North Korea to gain access to refined fuel, it is unclear how much support the Russian state could or would provide North Korea if talks with the United States fail.

While Kim has now held multiple summits with Xi Jinping and Moon Jae-in, it is unclear if the summits with Xi provided more than political support at a time North Korea was increasingly looking for sanctions relief to boost its economy. The meetings with Moon laid out a series of tangible economic benefits for Kim, but he has not been able to realize any of those gains in the absence of a deal with the United States to provide sanctions relief.

The early summits with Xi and Moon aided Kim by relieving the pressure that had been building diplomatically and militarily, but seem to have had less of an impact on the economic pressure on the regime. As long as South Korea and China generally enforce the existing UN sanctions, North Korea faces limited options in regard to relieving economic pressure. It seems unlikely that Russia could be the solution to its economic problems in the absence of a broader deal on its weapons programs.

While the Soviet Union was an important trading partner for North Korea during the Cold War, trade between the Russian Federation and North Korea has been relatively small in recent years. In 2016, the most recent year for which goods and services trade data are available, total goods trade between Russia and North Korea was only $77 million and services trade another $73 million. Put into perspective, North Korea was earning over $100 million a year in hard currency from the Kaesong Industrial Complex before it was closed. In addition, Russia has reportedly sent back two-thirds of the overseas laborers that North Korea has sent to Russia.

At the same time, Russia may be constrained by the U.S. sanctions it is under and its efforts to maintain the Assad regime in Syria, the Maduro regime in Venezuela, and the breakaway eastern provinces in the Ukraine. While Russia could help maintain the Kim regime if the situation turned desperate, it is unlikely that Russia could provide the resources needed to allow Kim Jong-un to grow the economy in the absence of UN sanctions being lifted. For Kim to go all in with either Russia or China to get around continuing international sanctions would only reinforce his dependence on either or both states, a situation he would wish to avoid.

For Putin, however, there may be more interesting opportunities from the summit. While the most likely result from the summit is a largely neutral outcome where both sides send mildly positive signals about the prospects for denuclearization if the United States adjusts is policy, and perhaps recommit to economic projects such as a Russian gas pipeline when the time is appropriate, Putin could seek to maneuver in either a more helpful or complicating fashion for the United States.

If Putin merely wished to continue playing the role of a disruptive power complicating matters abroad for the United States, he could use the summit to present a joint front with North Korea against the use of sanctions by the U.S. and to announce limited economic agreements with North Korea within the confines of Russia’s carve out in the UN sanctions or other unprohibited areas. While this might have limited economic utility for North Korea, it would signal to the United States that Russia can complicate matters for the United States on the Korean Peninsula. As for Kim’s hopes that Russia might more explicitly break with sanctions and allow more North Korean workers, a slackening of enforcement seems the best that Kim could hope for from even a Russia looking to make mischief.

The summit chiefly presents Putin with an opportunity to deal Russia into talks regarding the Korean Peninsula. If Putin were to strike a deal with Kim to take positive steps, such as to again dismantle the Sohae test facility in exchange for Russia putting North Korean satellites in orbit, it would take the prospect of a North Korean satellite launch off the table and show Putin to be player who can help to bridge issues in the talks, and perhaps allow Russia to carve out a larger role going forward.  Up to this point, Russia has been peripheral. The question is whether Putin wants to change that.

As a Putin-Kim summit becomes more likely, the challenge that Kim Jong-un faces is that meeting with Vladimir Putin is a stronger step towards relieving diplomatic and military pressure rather than economic pressure. If Kim truly wants to pursue economic reforms he needs to either abandon hopes of sanctions relief and push for deep ties with China, or find a way get sanctions relief from the United States which would provide him with opportunity to pursue reform while minimizing dependence on China or any one state.  Putin may have more to gain but his calculation will be based on the kind of relationship he wants with the United States and China, not with North Korea.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the authors alone.

Photo from Jonathan Davis’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Attention on DPRK and China Policies that Result in Sex Trafficking

By Robert R. King

BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) has just released an excellent report on the trafficking of North Korean defectors:  “The North Korean women who had to escape twice” by BBC Korea editor Su-Min Hwang.  The report gives first-hand details of North Korean defectors in China who were trafficked and provides an account of their heart-wrenching experiences.

This tragedy is the consequence of DPRK policies to prevent and severely punish individuals who attempt to leave.  But the Chinese government is also complicit because North Koreans who are apprehended by Chinese officials are returned to the North with total disregard for the brutal abuse they will assuredly receive when they are forced back across the border.  The Chinese have other options because South Korea is quite willing to take defectors, and most defectors want to go to the South.  This BBC report provides an eloquent image of the horrific humanitarian consequences of these North Korean and Chinese policies.

Since the North Korean famine of the 1990s over 32,000 North Koreans have fled their homeland to seek a better life in South Korea, initially going through China. Most are individuals seeking opportunities to provide for themselves and their families because repressive discrimination based on family connections or presumed political leanings severely limit economic and educational opportunities for the majority of the population who are arbitrarily categorized as part of the so-called “hostile” or “wavering” classes.

In the six years Kim Jong-un has led the DPRK, the number of defectors who have chosen to leave North Korea and have gone to South Korea has declined by more than half from a high of 2,706 in 2011 to only 1,127 in 2017 according to South Korean government statistics.  This is partly the result of tightening border control.  The inter-Korean border—the Demilitarized Zone—is so heavily guarded that it is virtually impossible to cross.  Areas adjacent to the border with China, the only other option for escape, are off-limits to anyone who does not live in the immediate border zone.  North Korean border guards are trained to be tough on defectors, and reports appear frequently of border guards killing would-be defectors. Family members who remain in the North when relatives defect are severely punished and even executed.

Shortly after coming to power, Kim Jong-un sought to make the South appear less attractive to citizens from the North to discourage defections.  Pyongyang media highly publicized “re-defections” by North Koreans who returned from the South with tales about the awful life there.  The major media campaign against defection in 2012-2013 highlighted “re-defectors” giving extended reports about difficult conditions in the South and obsequious praise for Kim Jong-un welcoming them back.  By raising questions about life in the South, regime intended to make Northerners more cautious about the tough choice of abandoning friends and family for an uncertain life in the South.

Those who decide to leave the North and succeed in getting into China still have a very difficult road.  Chinese policy considers all refugees from North Korea to be economic migrants.  Very occasionally China has allowed defectors to go to South Korea in order to punish or pressure the North Korean regime.  The default Chinese position is that all North Koreans are to be returned to the North, although the Chinese know that they will receive harsh punishment, including imprisonment and brutal physical abuse.

North Koreans in China are in a very vulnerable position and subject to exploitation by unscrupulous locals.  In this situation many women defectors—and over two-thirds of all defectors are women—are exploited and trafficked through forced “marriages” to rural Chinese peasants or pressed into the sex trade.

The excellent BBC report gives personal details of the experiences of two defectors who successfully left North Korea with the help of brokers, but were then sold to a sexcam operator just across the border in China. Imprisoned in a tiny apartment where they were guarded twenty-four hours a day, the defectors were forced to work long hours performing pornographic acts daily on a live webcam.  One survived five years and another eight years before they were able to escape and make the precarious journey from northeast China to the Chinese border with Southeast Asia where they were finally able to escape with the help of South Korean non-government organizations and the South Korean government.  Their story is grim, and the defectors’ willingness to share them gives first-hand insight into the brutality of the Kim regime toward its own people and highlights the China’s willing complicity in the inhumane treatment of these victims.

Other accounts by defectors confirm the scope and nature of these abuses.  See reports in the South China Morning Post, Washington Post, Reuters, and The Irish Times.

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 from user Ceosad on Wikimedia Commons

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