Tag Archive | "Six Party Talks"

Is the Surprise Move by North Korea an Opportunity to Improve Inter-Korean Relations?

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

In a surprising move, North and South Korea held a high level meeting shortly before the closing of the Asian Games. While Kim Jong-un’s whereabouts are still unknown, the perceived number two official in North Korea, a closely connected leader with Kim Jong-un, and the person in charge of North Korean relations with South Korea, all made their way to Incheon. The two sides agreed to meet again in a few weeks, and the slight changes in tone and tactics on both sides might be enough to bring about the sustained interaction necessary for better inter-Korean relations.

Reportedly, the word came on Friday, October 3 to South Korea that North Korea wanted to send Hwang Pyong-so, Choe Ryong-hae, and Kim Yang-gon to the closing ceremonies of the Incheon Asian Games on Saturday, October 4. The South Korean government accepted the request for the delegation to attend and was able to arrange high-level meetings with them throughout Saturday before the closing ceremonies.

The three main members of the North Korean delegation have major responsibilities in the North Korean leadership structure. Hwang Pyong-so has quickly moved up the ranks in North Korea and is thought to be in the number two position as he now holds the rank of Vice Marshal in the North Korean army, is director of the General Political Bureau for the North Korean military, and is a Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission. Choe Ryong-hae, who was recently removed from his position as a Vice Chairman on the National Defense Commission, still is a Secretary in the Workers’ Party of Korea and is Chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission. Kim Yang-gon is a Secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and is in charge of the inter-Korean relations for North Korea as head of the United Front Department. All three have important roles and connections with Kim Jong-un, making the trip a significant symbol and opportunity for better inter-Korean relations.

While North Korea probably would have sent someone to the closing ceremonies of the Incheon Asian Games, the rarity of this high-level of North Korean leaders visiting South Korea raises questions about why they were sent at this time. Inter-Korean relations were tense and struggling up until Saturday. Multiple motivations likely impacted the decision to send Hwang Pyong-so, Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Yang-gon. In the last few months, North Korea had been calling for South Korea to remove the May 24th sanctions, stop South Korean citizens from sending balloons with anti-Kim regime information into North Korea, and cease military exercises with the United States. The closing ceremony of the Incheon Games provided the regime with a unique opportunity to send high level officials in the regime to discuss these and other issues with South Korea under the pretext of the closing ceremony. This allowed both sides to reduce the pressure for any breakthroughs and provided a face saving cover for both sides to meet.

South Korea had its own conditions for talks; however, a slight change in the positioning of South Korea could have also provided an impetus for North Korea to reach out to its neighbor. Recently, South Korea’s Minister of Unification, Ryoo Kihl-jae, said that South Korea could talk about all issues, including the lifting of the May 24th sanctions, at the negotiation table with North Korea. Previously, the Park Geun-hye administration said those measures were not up for discussion. Removing or reducing the May 24th sanctions would help bring in more possible investment and aid into North Korea from South Korea. Moreover, with South Korea suggesting all issues are on the table, North Korea could push for reviving tours to Mount Kumgang at the next meeting. In addition to bringing in significant amounts of hard currency, the Mount Kumgang project also fits into the regime’s efforts to enhance North Korea as a tourist destination.

The China factor looms large in North Korea’s economy and North Korea has a strong interest in finding ways to reduce the economic influence of China. However, North Korea can reach out to South Korea, (or Japan, the U.S., or Russia), to offset China and doesn’t necessarily need a big event like the Incheon Asian Games as a catalyst for inter-Korean talks. With the Asian Games in Incheon and North Korea having some decent success at the Games, it created a potential opening to discuss investment opportunities with South Korea.

Lastly, there is likely some impulse for North Korea to alleviate some of the concerns and focus on Kim Jong-un’s health. The speculation over Kim Jong-un’s absence and unhealthy lifestyle quickly leads to questions about the stability of the overall regime in North Korea. The North Korean leadership’s fear of an attack and an attempt at regime change causes it to find ways, like developing nuclear weapons, to emphasize that it will not be threatened and deterred.  South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo stated that he asked North Korea’s Kim Yang-gon about Kim Jong-un’s health, and Kim Yang-gon responded that there was “no problem” with Kim Jong-un. There is some analysis that the delegation was too high level to be organized if there was trouble behind the scenes with Kim Jong-un. However, others felt the delegation was a sign that Kim Jong-un is being pushed to the side. A big piece of evidence that could end the speculation or fuel it further will be if Kim Jong-un attends ceremonies for the anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea on October 10. Whatever the situation with Kim Jong-un is, trying to dissuade thinking about internal instability inside North Korea could possibly be another smaller motivation for meeting with South Korea at the Incheon Asian Games.

The surprise visit and agreement for a future inter-Korean meeting could quickly raise expectations for possible U.S.-North Korea talks. The Obama administration has consistently told the North Koreans that improving inter-Korean relations would improve the chances for better U.S.-North Korea relations. If things progress between the two Koreas, North Korea could try to put more pressure on the U.S. for bilateral talks.  Last week, North Korea’s Ambassador to the United Nations So Se-pyong said North Korea is ready to restart the six party talks on North Korean nuclear weapons and that denuclearization was “the party’s policy.” These statements seemed to suggest there could be room for North Korea and the U.S. to agree to talks on denuclearization. However, the Obama administration has felt it has been burned by North Korea backing away from deals before with the collapse of the 2012 Leap Day agreement after North Korea tested a missile that they claimed was a rocket for launching into space and reversing an earlier understanding to have Ambassador Robert King, the U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, visit North Korea to bring back detained U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae. Moreover, recent analysis of satellite images suggesting North Korea has improved its facilities where it could launch long-range ballistic missiles also reduces the flexibility of the Obama administration to talk with North Korea. It looks like the U.S. and North Korea will still need more time and work in order to develop an arrangement for talks about the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

With the possibility of U.S.-North Korea bilateral talks uncertain, North Korea and South Korea are scheduled to meet again in late October or early November. The excitement needs to be tempered as the two sides have often previously failed to capitalize on initial understandings for inter-Korean dialogue and successfully move forward in reducing tensions. As mentioned, North Korea will likely be looking for the removal of the May 24th sanctions and reopening inter-Korean tourism to Mount Kumgang. For South Korea, the Park Geun-hye administration seems to be initially pushing for a reunion of the separated families. Thus, it seems the two Koreas will still have some negotiation to do on the parameters of this next meeting. However, part of the interest this time is the high-level nature of the North Korean delegation in Incheon. Presumably, these individuals have the positions and the statures to help make decisions in North Korea. It would be interesting to see if these three remain heavily involved in these inter-Korean talks, and if that involvement would help improve the possibility for better North Korean cooperation during these inter-Korean dialogues. This noteworthy delegation from North Korea to the Incheon Asian Games could serve as a catalyst for future inter-Korean talks; however, sustaining that commitment and cordial atmosphere seen on October 4 in Incheon has always been a factor in keeping inter-Korean relations at a distance.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America.  The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from ninjawil’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Why Perceptions Matter in Addressing the North Korean Nuclear Crisis

By Troy Stangarone

In the aftermath of Pyongyang’s third nuclear test the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, issued a story on the needs to address the root causes of North Korea’s nuclear concerns. According to the story in Xinhua:

“At a superficial level, it was Pyongyang that has repeatedly breached UN resolutions and used its nuclear program as a weapon to challenge the world community, which was considered to be unwise and regrettable.

In reality, the DPRK’s defiance was deeply rooted in its strong sense of insecurity after years of confrontation with South Korea, Japan and a militarily more superior United States.

In the eyes of the DPRK, Washington has spared no efforts to contain it and flexed its military muscle time and again by holding joint military drills with South Korea and Japan in the region.

The latest nuclear test is apparently another manifestation of the attempt of a desperate DPRK to keep threat at bay.”

Perceptions matter. If one party misperceives the actions of another, it can lead to policy miscalculation. By trying to play both sides of the issue, China potentially adds to the problem of misperception.

If North Korea’s actions are driven by a shared leadership perception that North Korea is under threat from the United States, South Korea, and Japan rather than by the necessities of internal political dynamics, reaching a resolution to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs is unlikely.

Pyongyang’s prior use of calculated brinksmanship to extract aid from its neighbors would seem to indicate that North Korea’s actions are not wrapped in a perceived threat from the United States, which it no doubt believes to exist, but rather from internal dynamics at play in the transition or a new attempt to elicit aid for the regime.

While joint military drills do have political purpose, they are also a normal function of any group of allies’ preparedness and take place on a regularized basis. Those that have not taken place in regularized fashion have been in response to a provocation by North Korea.

While downplaying perceptions of North Korea’s culpability in its actions may serve immediate purposes, such as lessoning international response to Pyongyang’s actions, it does little to create a narrative that can lead to China’s ultimate policy goal – “for all parties concerned to think and act rationally to create favorable conditions to revive the long-stalled six-party talks and avoid a disastrous fallout” – as creating the environment necessary for a rational solution to the issues at hand requires for all parties to have similar perceptions of the challenges faced.

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

Photo from freiheitsfreund’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Land of Bad Policy Options Just Got Worse, But Denuclearization Remains a Critical Goal

By Chad O’Carroll

The DPRK’s nuclear weapons test today appears to act as a bandage for a number of wounds that have somehow yet to kill the Pyongyang regime.  As the last outpost of quasi-Stalinism in the world, North Korea remains in a Cold War mindset when it comes to its increasingly acrimonious relations with both the U.S. and ROK.  Ruled by an inefficient socialist system and enduring bilateral U.S. financial sanctions since 1953 and ever-tightening UN sanctions since 2006, North Korea’s economy has never truly been given a chance to flourish. In these circumstances, nuclear weapons have become an increasingly critical pillar of Pyongyang’s security, allowing a morally reprehensible government to access significant aid, garner domestic support, deter foreign military intervention and even perpetuate the rule of a family dynasty from generation to generation.  While the unique character and context of the North Korean leadership’s relationship to nuclear weapons suggests that potential for denuclearization is extremely unlikely, the risks associated with what is now an increasing threat suggests denuclearization efforts must remain a critical if lofty international goal.

In the early stages of North Korea’s nuclear program, non-proliferation policy would arguably have only had to deal with perceived external security concerns to prevent the crystallization of the ninth nuclear state.  Perhaps this could have been achieved had the U.S. negotiated a peace treaty with North Korea prior to the collapse of the Agreed Framework.  But now North Korea has nuclear weapons and keeps testing them, any effective denuclearization policy must now address the same security concerns in a far more comprehensive manner, including new external and internal angles.  Externally, a peace treaty still remains essential from North Korea’s perspective, but for this to be achieved sanctions would also have to be removed, isolation ended and decades of mutual mistrust overcome.  Simultaneously, absolute domestic security would have to be assured to Pyongyang during the transition, achievable only through unconditional guarantees of energy and aid provision.  And perhaps most importantly, hard-line political and military figures in North Korea would have to be won over in order to persuade them of the logic to denuclearizing, not to mention persuading the general public.  Unfortunately, even if all of these often contradictory issues could ever be addressed, previous efforts to achieve them underscore the abundance of barriers in applying even the most modest of concessions to Pyongyang.

But while denuclearization seems a dim prospect at the moment, it is clear that the ever growing dangers associated with the DPRK’s expanding nuclear arsenal continue to flourish.  However, it is these dangers that provide a compelling justification for the need to continue efforts to denuclearize the DPRK, no matter how low hopes are that this can ever be achieved. That’s because even just in the process of trying for denuclearization, the international community can have tangible impact on parts and aspects of the North Korean nuclear program that could yield positive effects for partners in both the region and beyond.  These benefits can broadly be split into four areas:

  1. An immediate aspectof the DPRK program that needs to be addressed in the short to medium term is reducing the potential for sensitive nuclear technology and science transfers.  Indeed, the tighter sanctions become and the more that barriers are introduced to limit legitimate trade, the greater the motivation for Pyongyang to try and sell its nuclear know-how on the black market. One way these intellectual transfers could be somewhat minimized is through a dual-track policy of stimulating the DPRK economy and increasing the penalties associated with such transfers.
  2. Safeguarding the North Korea’s weapons and fissile materials is another important issue, especially post Fukushima nuclear disaster, that could be easy to solve through foreign assistance, expertise and investment. Of course, better relations will be required for the DPRK to even consider such a proposal, and while necessary, such initiatives may come with the cost of sending a negative message to would-be-proliferators.  However, the dangers associated with unauthorized usage or nuclear accidents are more pressing than the correspondingly negative, but slow-reaching,  signal such a move would have on the non-proliferation regime.  In addition, this effect could be minimized if safeguarding was pursued under the long-term auspices of denuclearization.
  3. Medium term, the likely potential for a regional nuclear domino effect arising from the DPRK weapons program seems low.  However, this is likely contingent on the continued U.S provision of a nuclear umbrella to allies in the region and the salience of the non-proliferation regime.  In this regard, it is essential that the U.S. remains committed to its security agreements in the region and that the non-proliferation regime remains credible.  This latter issue can be realized to a degree through avoiding temptations to formally ever recognize the DPRK as a nuclear weapon state.  And this response can form part of a long-term denuclearization policy that never accepts the legitimacy of Pyongyang’s weapons in order to minimize the scope for damage to the non-proliferation norm.
  4. Longer term, if engagement policies are pursued – and even if the DPRK acquires significant surpluses of fissile materials – then motivations to one day sell complete arms or fissile materials can and must be reduced.  Only a DPRK better integrated into the world community and economy will be more susceptible to the costs associated with fissile material / arms transfers. A DPRK living in perpetual isolation won’t necessarily care as much.  Importantly, increased confidence in restricting this type of sale could also be simultaneously sharpened through the further development of global nuclear attribution capacities, an area that needs increases in resources at this time.

Because little is known about Kim Jong Un’s leadership and the systems of control in his supporting regime, it is impossible to preclude nuclear weapons being one day deployed in offensive configurations.  Each day that is passed without meaningful progress towards a resolution on the peninsula, this likelihood of this scenario developing sharpens.  However, should nuclear engagement policies be pursued now, these risks could potentially be lowered. That’s because it seems that North Korea would be less motivated to use weapons offensively if efforts to improve its political, economic and security relations were addressed now.

While the third test proves beyond doubt that the prospects for denuclearizing North Korea remains low, an overarching goal of denuclearization should still be pursued as a way of dampening the side effects of what is becoming an increasingly dangerous program. Whilst the weapons program has dangers associated with it, there are steps that can be taken in the short – medium term to mitigate these.  A consequence of these mitigations may be a boost in the DPRK’s confidence in the world system and thus an increase in prospects for denuclearization.

Chad 0′Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from 涉外山頂人’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Understanding North Korea’s Missile Motivations

By Chad O’Carroll

With North Korea having conducted two long range rocket launches in a year, many analysts have been speculating as to why Pyongyang was so keen to try another launch just months after the last one ended in catastrophic failure. One straightforward theory suggests Pyongyang wants an inter-continental ballistic missile capability and that today’s launch was motivated to get North Korea one step closer to that goal. Another theory suggests the launch was symbolic, designed primarily to mark the 100 year anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth and recent departure of Kim Jong Il. Yet other theories suggest the launch may even have been an attempt to influence South Korean elections or to simply remind leaders that Pyongyang still exists.

While the world has gotten used to an increasing frequency of long-range North Korean missile testing, it is true that the more the country launches, the closer they come to acquiring an inter-continental ballistic missile capability. Wed to Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, this capability could one day present a security risk to the United States and one that policy makers in Washington DC will be keen avoid. But following decades of investment in ballistic missile technology, it seems North Korea’s missile motivations are deep and as time passes, becoming increasingly difficult to override. If hopes to one-day reverse North Korea’s missile motivations remain, it is important that policy makers address what have now become a multitude of drivers.


Motivations for North Korea’s missile program began in the early 1960s, a period of time that saw insecurity mounting for Pyongyang due to deteriorating Soviet-DPRK relations and increasing friction between traditional allies Moscow and Beijing. Responding to a seemingly more dangerous threat environment and wanting to free the country from Soviet and Chinese dependence, Kim Il Sung in 1965 commented, “If a war breaks out, the U.S and Japan will be involved [and] in order to prevent their involvement, we have to be able to produce rockets which fly as far as Japan.”

Whilst insecurity was undoubtedly the underlying factor behind Kim Il-Sung’s 1965 decision to pursue missiles, it has nonetheless continued to prevail as an important motivation for the program’s continuation and development.  As such, militarily impulses can be seen as contributing towards the thinking that necessitated the DPRK’s initial requirement of possessing a short, medium and long-range missile arsenal.  The early short-range low-technology missile acquisitions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, combined with the North’s then goal of conquering the South using military means, suggested that Kim Il Sung certainly regarded these missiles as primarily offensive weapons.  Consequently, North Korea’s 1980s work to develop 600km range missiles be seen then as a way of assuring a pan-ROK strike capacity.

While Pyongyang was able to roughly match ROK military expenditure up until the early 1970s with relatively equivalent technology, as economic decline became more and more apparent, the DPRK’s potential to force reunification dwindled.  But although the Korean People’s Army (KPA) represented (and still does) a quantitatively superior force compared to that of the South, the North’s economic problems have kept its technology and equipment frozen in time.  As a result it is likely the security motivation behind North Korea’s pursuit of medium and long-range (‘No-Dong’ and ‘Taepodong’ class respectively) missiles in the late 1980s and 1990s changed.  Indeed, the No-Dong 1,500km SCUD variant was designed to reach Japan whilst the 8000km range Taepodong series was likely designed with the aim of reaching continental USA. It’s this Taepodong rocket that evolved to the Unha-3 class used most recently.

Rather than ready such missiles for offensive use like North Korea had done in the 1970s and early 1980s, it is likely that the increased ranges of these two variants represent a changed defensive posture.  In combination with nascent chemical, biological and nuclear programs, North Korea was able to use its medium and longer-range missile delivery system as a strategic deterrent, capable of leveling the playing field vis-à-vis its traditional and militarily advanced enemies. Evidently then, in either offensive or defensive lights, this missile program can thus be partially as an outgrowth of North Korean strategic thinking that has been largely driven by a sense of insecurity.


As already alluded to, North Korea’s economy was by the early 1980s in a downward and seemingly irreversible spiral.  Given that during the early 1980s DPRK Hwasong missiles cost between $1.5 and $2 million each, one might initially assume the financial burden of the program to have ended further research and development at this time.  Paradoxically, North Korea regarded the high cost of its missiles as way of raising much-needed foreign exchange and as a possible trading chip that could secure the acquisition of important resources.

Missile exports can be traced back to the mid-1980s when nearly 100 Hwasongs were sold to Iran for use in her war with Iraq.  Deals such as this, and largely with states shunned by traditional arms suppliers partaking in non-proliferation initiatives, have since continued in varying degrees with the additional benefit of creating numerous missile production employment opportunities in North Korea. Estimates suggest that between 1987 and 1992 missile exports totaled $580 million, whilst in 1993 exports were used to secure $120 million worth of Iranian crude oil.  By 2001 North Korea’s GDP was valued at $15.7 billion, being made up of $650 million of legitimate exports and some $560 million of clandestine missile sales.

Whilst the Kim dynasty denied the existence of the missile cash cow for many years, the motivation to engage in missile production for financial reasons was made clear when Pyongyang declared, “our missile export is aimed at obtaining foreign money which we need at present”. It is therefore evident that the cumulative effects of North Korea’s shrinking economy, the need for foreign exchange and natural resources, and the existence of a buoyant export market all contributed towards motivating North Korea to continue missile production for much of the 1980 and early 1990s. Intriguingly, the export market itself likely contributed towards the shaping and facilitating of the strategic policies mentioned in the preceding paragraphs.


A further (if perhaps unintentional) driver for North Korea’s long running missile program can be seen commencing in Pyongyang’s 1992 attempt to use the technology as a diplomatic bargaining chip in response to Israel’s request to stop Hwasong (a DPRK SCUD clone) exports to Syria and Iran.  Upon Israel’s call that Pyongyang stop exporting missiles to the Middle East, North Korea demanded Israeli economic cooperation worth approximately one billion dollars in compensation and the development of a gold mine in Unsan.  Tellingly North Korea’s reported exports to Iran and Syria at this time totaled well under one billion dollars, far less than the net worth of what Pyongyang was demanding from Israel.

Although the U.S. ultimately forced Israel to back out of this deal, the fact that the Israelis were at all considering the agreement goes to illustrate the diplomatic leverage that missiles could give the DPRK on the world stage. Learning from this episode, in response to North Korea’s 1998 Taepodong-1 test, renewed calls from the U.S to curtail the DPRK’s missile exports were met with comparable demands for economic and scientific compensation from Pyongyang.   Here again, the missile program gave negotiating power to the DPRK that was well beyond what it ‘should’ have realistically possessed as a small, developing nation.

Since the DPRK’s nuclear test of 2006 it is arguable that the value of this bargaining chip has been increased significantly.   For the outside world, developments in North Korean missile technology cannot now be understood as being divorced from their nuclear capability. That’s why North Korea satellite launches in 2012 are viewed with so much suspicion, being regarded by many as progress towards a nuclear ICBM capability.  And should North Korea eventually acquire such a weapon, it will clearly mark a far more valuable possession on any negotiating table in future. This factor may now be playing a significant role in motivating North Korea to further refine or develop a long-range capacity.


Many analysts are regarding North Korea’s latest satellite launch as evidence that Pyongyang is strongly motivated to invest in rocket technology as a way of bolstering domestic support. In a similar fashion to how the regime learnt to use missiles as a bargaining chip, it would appear that this factor was unlikely an initial impetus behind the program but instead a utility whose potential advantage became evident to the regime in more recent years, as technical improvements increased.

Accordingly, the 1998, 2006, 2009 and April 2012 long-range “satellite launches” can be understood domestically as part of the leadership’s efforts to advance the country as a “strong and prosperous” state. In this light the launch can be understood in terms of inward looking national prestige, as a mechanism to galvanize support for the regime and promote unity at a time when economic hardship and food shortage remained. This was made evident by the manner in which North Korean media extracted every last ounce of propaganda value from first three satellite launch attempts, reporting that all launches were a success – despite credible allegations of failure from widespread external sources.

After the first launch in 1998, for months state news pushed the satellite story with extravagant reports suggesting that citizens were expressing great national pride and calling in to describe their sightings of the Kwangmyonsong-1 satellite. The domestic importance assigned to the ostensible ‘space program’ was again illustrated in 2009 as evidenced by the state organized mass rallies celebrating the success of the launch in Pyongyang.  That launch took place just days before Kim was sworn in as chairman of the National Defense Commission, the highest position of authority in the North, suggesting it may have even been used to bolster public support in him.

More recently, the December 2012 launch was timed to coincide with the 100 year anniversary celebrations of Kim Il Sung’s birth, also taking place just days before the anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death.  As highly symbolic dates in the DPRK calendar, North Korea’s rocket launches can thus be seen as playing a major role in promoting both national solidarity and pride – something crucial for Kim Jong Un in what remains an early period of leadership.


Since the 1950’s the DPRK has evolved in a state of perpetual suspicion, fear and isolation.  While the theme of security can be seen as having played a major role in the initial driving force of the DPRK missile program, it is evident that it still prevails today as an important explanation for their program.   But that the program evolved from a short-range arsenal to the current objective of achieving an intercontinental capability is simply a reflection of the evolving security threats that face the DPRK regime.

Initially, short-range missiles were required to attack the rear of the ROK in a war that was widely expected to rekindle at any moment.  As economic difficulties commenced in the 1970s, longer range missiles helped mitigate the growing differences in North-South military capabilities.  The further the North was economically marginalized through the 1980s, the more valuable its burgeoning missile trade was at securing the regime internally; providing employment opportunities and valuable commodities for the state.  Fast forward to the late 80s and early 90s, and increased missile ranges wed to increasing WMD opportunities bolstered Pyongyang’s diplomatic leverage whilst improving the deterrent value of the arsenal.  Domestic support was further fortified through internal propaganda based on the rapid developments that brought Pyongyang closer and closer to entering space.

In short, it is evident that the ever-changing motivations of the DPRK missile program can be understood primarily through the lens of regime survival, having evolved in accordance with technical developments as and when they happened.  Under current conditions it is arguable that Pyongyang will therefore continue to regard missiles as an essential facet of national security.  Regardless of the success of today’s launch, the evidence suggests the DPRK will continue investing in the missile program regardless.

PHOTO: Some rights reserved by NelC, Flickr Creative Commons

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Why North Korea’s Failed Missile Launch is Bad News for Beijing

By Jack Pritchard

There was a plausible scenario ready to work itself out with a successful launch of a missile by North Korea.  The Security Council would meet and issue a stern presidential statement condemning Pyongyang.  North Korea would push back rhetorically, claiming its sovereign right to space exploration while Beijing would send a high level delegation to Pyongyang to privately caution the North not to conduct a third nuclear test.  Because the Security Council presidential statement carries no actual new punishments, Pyongyang would have absorbed the criticism and reveled in its achievement of placing a satellite in orbit and, most importantly, would not have seen the need to conduct a third nuclear test – at least not in the near term.  Beijing would have been given credit for preventing the situation from escalating out of hand.

But that is not what happened.  Pyongyang gambled that it could successfully launch a satellite and in a grand gesture to spotlight the launch as the centerpiece in the celebration of the country’s founder’s 100th birthday, the North invited the international press to witness the event. The consequences of that decision were immediately evident when Pyongyang was forced to publicly admit that the missile had failed.  In contrast to past failures where North Korea has declared success to its citizens, there was no possibility that Pyongyang could cover up this failure.  Journalists were in real time communications with their networks and within minutes of the missile failure being reported outside of North Korea, the invited journalists were pressing their North Korean minders for comments about the failure. While there are controls on the 1 million cell phones in North Korea, news of the missile failure was certain to spread quickly.

The embarrassment to the new regime cannot be over stated.  The failure will cast a dark shadow over the most important celebratory day in North Korean history.  The credibility and perhaps the survivability of the regime are at stake.  Pyongyang will need a spectacular achievement to overcome the national embarrassment it finds itself in now.  Declaring yourself a “strong and prosperous nation” requires that you be able to point to some kind of tangible achievement. What that means is that it is now much more likely that North Korea will move forward with its third nuclear test.  Unlike a missile launch that is observable and is either a success or failure, a nuclear detonation, regardless of yield, can be touted as an absolute success.

If Pyongyang does proceed with a nuclear test, it will also mean that North Korea has made the political calculation that it can do anything without fear of serious negative consequences from Beijing. It will have concluded that China has put itself in a position where it will not allow North Korea to collapse – no matter what.  And it will be right.

The precedent for this type of calculation was set several years ago.  In spite of the tough non-proliferation rhetoric coming out of the George W. Bush administration, Pyongyang calculated that it could cooperate with Syria in building a nuclear reactor (proliferating nuclear technology) and get away with it.  Unfortunately, that calculation proved correct.  There were no consequences.

Now China finds itself in a difficult situation. What, if any, leverage can it exert to prevent a third nuclear test and not risk contributing to the collapse of North Korea?  For Beijing, the answer is: very little.  The need for Pyongyang to overcome the immense embarrassment caused by the very public failure of its missile and to quell any latent rumblings about the leadership of Kim Jong Un is far stronger than any unrealistic threat by Beijing to seriously punish the North.

While a successful satellite launch would have had negative consequences regarding North Korea’s missile delivery program, it just might have precluded the need for a third nuclear test.  However much relief there is because of the missile failure, it just may mean that Pyongyang disregards any warnings from China and goes ahead with a nuclear test.

Jack Pritchard is the former ambassador and special envoy for negotiations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the President of the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Joseph Turk Jun’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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What Putin’s Return Means for Russia and the Korean Peninsula

By Dr. Richard Weitz

During his campaign for the Russian presidency, Vladimir Putin wrote several lengthy articles detailing his views and policy recommendations. In his foreign policy treatise, Putin devoted a surprising amount of attention to North Korea.

Putin writes that, “We have consistently advocated the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – exclusively through political and diplomatic means — and the early resumption of Six-Party Talks.” At the same time, Putin says that. “I am convinced that today it is essential to be particularly careful. It would be inadvisable to try and test the strength of the new North Korean leader and provoke a rash countermeasure.

“In coming years, “We will continue conducting an active dialogue with the leaders of North Korea and developing good-neighborly relations with it, while at the same time trying to encourage Pyongyang to settle the nuclear issue. Obviously,” Putin adds, “it would be easier to do this if mutual trust is built up and the inter-Korean dialogue resumes on the peninsula.”

In some ways Moscow is well-situated to serve as a key mediator in international efforts to resolve the disputes between North Korea and South Korea. Not only does it have good relations with both Koreas, but Russian economic and security interests would be bolstered by a lengthy period of harmony and stability in the Koreas.

For starters, Russia shares ethnic and historical ties with Koreans as well as a 17-km long border with the DPRK. This proximity ensures Russian interest in participating, even indirectly, in any multilateral dialogue concerning the Koreas.

More importantly, Russian policy makers seek to enhance Russia’s integration with the flourishing East Asian region. Securing additional South Korean, Chinese, and Japanese investment and trade would help revitalize the Russian economy, especially the lagging but strategically significant region of the Russian Far East (RFE). Russia’s trade relations with the major East Asian nations of Japan, South Korea, and China falls far behind these three countries’ economic interactions with each other.

Russian entrepreneurs envisage converting the DPRK into a transit country for Russian energy and economic exports to South Korea and other Asia-Pacific countries. Such a development would further Russia’s integration into East Asia as well as revitalize Moscow’s ties with North Korea. They have discussed linking a trans-Korean railroad with Russia’s rail system, which would allow Russia to become a transit country for South Korean trade with Europe, which now involves mostly long-distance shipping. Furthermore, Russian planners want to construct energy pipelines between Russia and South Korea across DPRK territory.

This bright scenario has one major problem: it cannot occur without a reduction of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. For this reason, Russian diplomats have regularly engaged in high-profile Korean diplomacy.

Unfortunately, a decade of Russian diplomacy has had little impact on regional affairs. Breaking with precedent, Vladimir Putin visited Pyongyang in July 2000 to bolster and reenergize ties. The new Russian president also hoped to bolster his diplomatic credentials. But his efforts failed to secure a tangible agreement, souring Moscow on Pyongyang for several more years.

Almost a decade later, both Russia and China each sent two high-level delegations to Pyongyang in 2009. The DPRK’s leader, Kim Jong Il, decided to meet with Premier Wen Jiabao and PRC Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, however, he did not so much as greet Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov or Russian parliamentary leader Sergey Mironov.

Russia’s problem is that its economic and political influence in the Asia-Pacific region is too limited. The territorial dispute with Tokyo over the South Kuriles/Northern Territories excludes a genuine Russian-Japanese partnership. Although Russian ties with Beijing and Washington are better, Chinese and U.S. diplomats focus their Korean diplomacy on Pyongyang, Seoul, and each other. In order to increase their regional influence, Russian officials must become more conciliatory towards Japan, and less beholden to China.

Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Jonathan Davis’ photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Resuming Six Party Talks – The Impact of Food Aid

By Chad 0Carroll

With North Korea making a number of concessions related to its nuclear and long-range missile programs last week in Beijing, it now looks like a road-map back to the Six Party Talks is emerging.  For its part, the U.S. reaffirmed important positions regarding its intent and commitment to previous agreements with Pyongyang.  But to assume that this is all that motivated North Korea to accept the deal misses one fundamental issue – that Washington reached a monitoring agreement with Pyongyang that allowed it to proceed with setting up the logistics for a 240,000 ton delivery of nutritional assistance.  And while the State Department maintains that the proposed food aid remains completely separate from the deal, Marcus Noland has long shown that when it comes to North Korea, there is normally a linkage between food aid and talks.  But if there is too much food on the table, might Pyongyang become less inclined to negotiate?

Over the past year a number of voices have debated the true extent of North Korea’s food shortage. Some claimed the country faced an imminent famine that could kill up to six million people, while others suggested that things were actually improving.  As a result, there is naturally some disparity in the data available about how much food aid is actually needed in North Korea.  A recent graph by Stephan Haggard and Noland illustrates some of the discrepancies between their estimations and those calculated by the UN system. Noland’s team suggested that for 2011 / 2012, North Korea would face a shortfall of 146,000 tons of food, while UN estimates suggest a figure around the 259,000 ton mark.  While many suspect that Pyongyang could fill this gap through wiser spending, North Korea’s policy makers have instead made a habit of pleading to the international community to assist.

Following the death of Kim Jong-il, reports emerged which suggested that China had agreed to dispatch emergency aid that included 500,000 tons of food and 250,000 tons of crude oil.  A variation of that story said that China planned to deliver up to one million tons of aid, scheduled to coincide with 100th anniversary celebrations in April 2012.   All of this was said to be China’s attempt at helping Kim Jong-un stabilize the country during a sensitive time.  Beijing did not confirm either story, but human rights activist Do Hee-yoon was quoted as saying that in January thousands of lorries “laden with rice” had been seen entering North Korea, lending some credibility to the reports.

If the Chinese story was true, then some think the news could be a potential game-changer with regards to nuclear negotiations.  At the time rumors were circulating, Seoul was reported as having concerns that such a substantial amount of Chinese provision could have political implications, with one anonymous official warning that it would make Pyongyang less compelled to return to the Six Party Talks.  Indeed, 500,000 tons of aid would bring North Korea well above even the UN’s more conservative estimates of food shortage.  And when combined with the U.S. nutritional assistance (in the form of items that will be difficult to divert for military use), things might look even more rosy.

But there is more – regardless of the Chinese rumors, it is important to remember that we already know several other actors have already contributed food aid to North Korea.  Here are the top five donors and their contributions as of Q3 / Q4 2011:

  1. Russia completed the released of some 50,000 tons by the end of 2011
  2. In December 2011, the WFP reportedly released 32,000 tons of food aid
  3. In July 2011, the EU gave some 10 Million Euros in food aid
  4. In November 2011, Tzu Chi volunteers distributed 13,000 tons of rice & 43 tons of infant formula
  5. In July 2011, India sent $1million worth of soybeans

So even if Chinese rumors are false, when the above donations are combined with Washington’s confirmed donation, the DPRK currently seems more than capable of fulfilling its minimum dietary requirements for 2012. However, three factors suggest that this won’t impact on nuclear negotiations, as some currently fear.

Firstly, it is important to remember that 2012 is an important year for North Korea, being the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung. Having made a promise to become a “strong and prosperous” nation this year, the Pyongyang government needs a food surplus to help prove that it has accomplished its stated goal. So while North Korea may now be capable of addressing its shortage this year, a  major boost in aid should not be confused as signaling an unwillingness to come to the table.

Secondly, Kim Jong-un is a new leader and needs to bolster his legitimacy to the people of North Korea. A significant boost in the provision of food is one way that he can achieve this.  If the state is able to resurrect its broken down food distribution service with good, new aid, Kim Jong-un will be able to bolster his credentials among many North Koreans.

Thirdly, because the U.S. is releasing its food aid in monthly increments, it will have leverage over the North Korean government throughout 2012. Even if China has given significant aid, the DPRK’s need to provide over and beyond minimum levels will necessitate its continued cooperation with the U.S. to gain its nutritional assistance. Even though it claims no linkage between nutritional assistance and nuclear talks, the U.S. will likely be able to find reason to shut off the supply should Pyongyang not cooperate. In addition, Pyongyang will probably appreciate the monthly arrival of food, lessening its burden in keeping it stored and in good condition.

Already North Korea forwent its demand of initially requiring 330,000 metric tons of food aid from the U.S and agreed to a lower amount. Some worried that because this previous demand had come under Kim Jong-il’s stewardship, Pyongyang would have been reluctant to budge on their former leaders’ request.  But perhaps it was the combined foreign assistance that facilitated North Korea’s acceptance of Washington’s nuclear proposals.  And while the DPRK may now be in a position to provide to its people at minimum levels, the new leadership of Kim Jong-un, wed with 2012 celebrations and a drip-drop provision of U.S. aid, suggest that there is little reason for Pyongyang to back away from further talks on its unclear program – for the moment at least.

Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Peter Casier’s UN World Food Programme photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.


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New Boss, Same as the Old Boss in North Korea, But Progress on Nukes

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

We now know that the “modest progress” after the U.S’s first meeting with North Korea after the death of Kim Jong-il actually meant that a deal regarding food aid, missile launches, and nuclear tests would be forthcoming. The statement on U.S.-DPRK discussions released today by the U.S. Department of State entails an understanding that the U.S. will provide nutritional assistance and North Korea will start a moratorium on long-range missile launches and nuclear tests as well as letting IAEA inspectors back to Yongbyon. The initial steps enclosed in the statement provide both North Korea and the U.S. short-term gains that allow each side to continue to move toward better relations and denuclearization talks.

For North Korea, the big gains from this statement are food aid and legitimacy. On top of the food aid it will reportedly receive from China, North Korea will now receive 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance from the United States with the potential for more. Both of these donations should help North Korea have some more food for its April celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth and help demonstrate the new government led by Kim Jong-un can help provide for its people. Even though the U.S. government insists that it tried to keep food aid separate from other discussions, especially nuclear issues, the linkages are clear and fully interpreted as together by the North Koreans.

Moreover, North Korea will use the statement to illustrate the U.S.’s recognition of the new Kim Jong-un leadership. The first bullet point summarizing the understandings from the meetings in Beijing last week on the U.S. and the DPRK improving relations through “the spirit of mutual respect for sovereignty and equality” provides that need for the North Koreans. In a continual process of consolidating power, Kim Jong-un can use this phrase suggesting the U.S.’s recognition of his leadership to illustrate he is seen by outside powers as the leader in charge of North Korea.

For the U.S., the discussions and statement provide it time and space to move forward on denuclearization efforts. Fears lingered that in an attempt for stability under the new leadership or if the new regime felt threatened, North Korea would launch a long-range missile or test another nuclear device. The moratorium by North Korea will mitigate some of those fears, but doubts will remain on how long North Korea will sustain the suspension. Furthermore, the Obama administration can point to IAEA inspectors being allowed back to Yongbyon as a success and as an indication that it is committed to pursuing the denuclearization of North Korea.

The deal and understanding suggested in the statement also allows more access into North Korea under the new leadership of Kim Jong-un. Even though they are just to clear up “administrative details,” the U.S. and North Korea will continue to meet. Despite Glyn Davies, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea policy, suggesting there was no substantial difference from the North Korean negotiators now that Kim Jong-un has taken over, more meetings will help the U.S. understand any potential changes in future negotiations. IAEA inspectors will be back to Yongbyon, and there is supposed to be “intensive monitoring” of the nutritional assistance.

The statement provides a way forward, but the potential for backsliding is always there. Disagreements between the U.S. and North Korea over nutritional assistance monitoring seemed to hamper earlier attempts at food aid.  With more monitoring, the North Koreans could get nervous and limit access; the U.S. and North Korea have had this history before over food aid. Access will be critical for the IAEA inspectors visiting Yongbyon. They should be allowed to see even more than what was revealed to KEI President Jack Pritchard in November 2010 and shown to Sig Hecker the week following Ambassador Pritchard’s visit.

The potential is there to get the monitors and inspectors into North Korea and have them return with their assessments in time for the U.S. to implement some next steps with North Korea before the final campaigning for the presidential election limits the Obama administration’s ability to maneuver policies toward denuclearization of North Korea. The statement provides some steps for future talks and action, but the details and commitments must be scrutinized and specifically followed. Otherwise, this statement can easily get set aside with numerous other attempts at bridging difficult U.S.-North Korea relations and creating a more peaceful Korean peninsula.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from IAEA Imagebank’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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12 Things on the Korean Peninsula to Watch for in 2012

By Nicholas Hamisevicz, Sarah K. Yun, Chad O’Carroll, and Troy Stangarone

Last year saw significant changes on the Korean peninsula. While 2011 ended with the surprise death of Kim Jong-il and the beginning of succession to Kim Jong-un, last year also saw Korea become one of only nine nations to surpass $1 trillion in total trade, the passage of the KORUS FTA, and a surprise election for the mayor of Seoul. With even more change set for 2012 in both Northeast Asia and on the Korean peninsula, here are twelve economic and foreign policy issues that are worth following in the coming year:

1.      The Transition and Public Events in North Korea: Kim Jong-un has been declared the successor to his father. The North Korean government is working hard to illustrate the unity of the nation and the loyalty of the elites to Kim Jong-un. There will likely be a formal meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea where titles and positions will be made and adjusted. Kim Jong Un possibly has an advantage with the early schedule of public events where his new leadership will continue to be highlighted, such as the one hundred year anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth in April and the start of North Korea’s development as a prosperous and powerful nation. However, after those events, there could be more room for maneuvering if other North Korean elites do not like the direction of the country.

2.      Political Change in South Korea: While North Korea may have got the jump on political change in 2012, South Korea will conduct elections for both the National Assembly and the presidency this year. With South Korean presidents limited to a maximum term of five years, Lee Myung-bak will be ending his term in December.  Lee’s Grand National Party (GNP) has Park Geun-hye at the forefront of potential presidential candidates. However, she will likely face a significant challenge from Ahn Cheol-soo, founder of anti-virus software company AhnLab.  Although yet to declare his candidacy, there are growing signs that he will run as the opposition candidate – and recent polls suggest that he has strong support polling at 49.7 percent, some 7 percent more than rival Park Geun-hye.

Additionally, in April, all 299 seats of the National Assembly will be up for vote, with 245 in single-member districts and 54 seats determined through proportional representation. The ruling GNP has fared poorly in local elections recently and developments indicate that progressives may be uniting under a unified banner for the April elections that could seriously compound difficulties for the GNP.

3.      Kim Jong-un and China: In the early days of the transition, China has thrown its support behind Kim Jong-un. Who from China visits North Korea, and especially if Kim visits the new leadership in China, will likely provide clues to the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing, as well as how secure the new regime feels in its position. Given that China will undergo its own leadership transition this year, 2012 will likely set the tone for both sides going forward.

4.     The Role of Social Media in South Korean Politics: Social media, including Twitter, are playing an increasingly prominent role in Korean political discourse. A recent Hankyroreh and Korea Society Opinion Institute poll showed politics to be one of the most retweeted topics by users in South Korea this year. This suggests that the conversations that take place on Twitter in 2012 will play a significant variable in this year’s presidential election.  South Korea’s Twitter community has an active user rate that is some two times higher than the world average, with nearly 10% of the nation signed up.  The important role Twitter plays in politics can be seen in a campaign that was credited with a higher than expected voter turnout among young voters during the during the April 2011 by-elections.

The team behind the one of the world’s most listened to podcast, Naneun Ggomsuda, may have a key role in determining the outcome of elections in South Korea this year.  Specializing in political satire, their podcast has to date taken a vehemently anti- Lee Myung Bak and Grand National Party position.  They have also developed a number of investigative stories that have attempted to highlight mis-steps by the ruling government, often with significant media interest.  Their feature on Na Kyung-won’s alleged visits to a luxury skin care clinic is said to have contributed to her loss of support in recent Seoul mayoral elections.

5.   The Euro Crisis: Strictly speaking, this isn’t about Korea, but with Korea heavily dependent upon trade for growth and Europe a major trading partner, the euro zone matters for Korea. If Europe is unable to restore market confidence and avoid a deepening of its debt crisis, a steep economic decline in Europe or the unraveling of the euro could hit the global economy hard. While Europe has managed to consistently fail to address the debt crisis in a comprehensive manner, there may be some tell tale signs early in the year regarding whether Europe has turned the corner or not. If France is able to maintain its AAA credit rating and Italy and Spain are able to roll over nearly $200 billion in debt in the first quarter of the year, Europe will likely have passed the most immediate dangers. When it comes to Korea, the stats to think about are this, the EU accounted for 10.2 percent of Korea’s exports and 9.6 percent of its total trade through the first 11 months of 2011.

6.    U.S. Defense Budget Cuts: The U.S. Department of Defense budget is expected to cut $260 billion over the next five years and more than $450 billion over the next decade. In the new budget strategy announcement on January 5, President Obama and Secretary of Defense Panetta presented a revamped U.S. military strategy with an emphasis on Asia and space and cyber capabilities, and preservation of missions in the Middle East.

With a reduced defense budget, partner relationships will become more important. Although the 5% increase in the 2012 South Korean defense budget may offset the potential challenges in the U.S.-Korea military alliance, uncertainties continue as both countries enter an election year. Despite reassurances from Obama and Panetta, the future shape of United States presence in Korea and Asia is still to be determined. With both nations preparing for op-con transfer in 2015, how the budget and strategy changes in the U.S. play out could play a role in the future force structure of the alliance.

7.    North Korea’s Interaction with the United States and South Korea:  Despite its current turn inwards, North Korea will likely turn its attention outwards at some point in 2012. North Korea and the United States seemed to be on the verge of a deal over food aid and possibly moving forward on nuclear talks before Kim Jong-il’s death, and there are early indications these may start back up at some point. As for South Korea, Pyongyang has said that it will not deal with the current administration in Seoul, but 2012 will also bring fresh elections for the National Assembly in April and the presidency in December, key points to watch for in North-South relations.

8.    Seoul Nuclear Security Summit: Seoul will be hosting the second Nuclear Security Summit in March with participation from over 50 national leaders. The agenda will consist of mainly three issues: international cooperation against nuclear terrorism, prevention of illicit transaction of nuclear materials, and protection of nuclear materials, nuclear power plants and other nuclear related institutions.

The appointment of Korea as the chair of the second NSS is both practical and symbolic – practical in that Korea is a close ally of the U.S., enabling smooth coordination; and symbolic in that Korea has been an active member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with advanced nuclear energy capabilities, yet facing a serious nuclear threat from North Korea.

Whereas the hosting of the G-20 in 2011 elevated Korea’s status as a world economic power, the Seoul NSS will elevate Korea as a world security leader. The NSS will be even more significant in light of Kim Jong-il’s death. President Lee Myung-bak had previously extended an invitation to Kim Jong-il to attend. It will be interesting to see how the new regime responds to the summit.

9.    The Implementation of the KORUS FTA: Now that the United States and Korea have passed the KORUS FTA the two governments are looking to implement the agreement. The agreement should come into force early in the year, but might slip until after National Assembly elections in Korea for political reasons.

10.  The Politics Around the KORUS FTA and U.S.-Korea Relations: Speaking of the politics of the KORUS FTA, prior to the death of Kim Jong-il, the opposition in Korea was turning the FTA into a major campaign issue, calling on Korea to renegotiate certain provisions such as those relating to investor-state dispute settlement. Some had gone so far as to suggest Korea should withdraw from the agreement. Korea’s relationship with the United States is a complex one, and anti-Americanism has played a role in previous elections. While North Korea is now likely to become the major campaign issue, look for the FTA and Korea’s broader relationship with the United States to remain caught up in domestic politics for the time being.

11.  South Korea-China FTA: China has become South Korea’s largest trading partner by a significant margin, with the two countries doing more than $200 billion in trade in the first eleven months of 2011. With the EU and KORUS FTA now concluded, Korea will look to start negotiations with its biggest trading partner in the next few months.

12.  World Expo 2012 – Yeosu, Korea:From May to August, Korea will host the 2012 Expo in the port city of Yeosu. Under the theme of “The Living Ocean and Coast,” the Yeosu Expo will share knowledge in maritime cooperation, marine science, and the proper use of ocean and coast. Korea is anticipating an international recognition of Korea as a leading maritime nation.

Hosting the Expo can be seen as a completion of Korea’s campaign as a world leader – the 2011 G-20 on economic issues, the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit on security issues, and the 2012 Expo on cultural and soft power issues.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs, Sarah K. Yun is the Director of Public Affairs and Regional Issues, Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications, and Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are the authors alone.

Photo from Rachael Towne’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Year in Review: The Korean Peninsula in 2011

By Troy Stangarone

While 2011 will ultimately be remembered for the passing of Kim Jong-il, it was also a year of significant change and new milestones for both South Korea and the U.S.-Korea alliance.

In many ways, 2011 really began in the waning days of 2010 for South Korea. On November 23 last year, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing two civilians and two members of the South Korean military. The attack sealed a chill in relations between North and South Korea that would set the tone for the first half of 2011. By the time both sides began to make progress towards the end of the year that could have led to the resumption of the Six Party Talks, Kim Jong-il had passed away.

At the same time, barely two weeks after the shelling of Yeonpyong Island, the United States and South Korea reached a supplementary agreement on the KORUS FTA that paved the way for the agreement to be passed four years after originally being concluded. Despite political delays over remaining political issues in Washington and in Seoul, the long stalled agreement was passed by Congress on October 12 during President Lee Myung-bak’s summit visit and the National Assembly during a surprise session on November 22.

Having resolved long-standing concerns over the FTA, it is now set to coming into effect early next year. Representing a significant deepening of U.S.-Korea relations, the FTA signifies an important milestone for both sides in remaking the alliance into a broad based 21st century partnership that extends beyond mutual concerns about North Korea. However, despite the importance of the agreement politically and economically, the politics surrounding it may seep into 2012 as the opposition in South Korea has continued to call for the agreement’s renegotiation.

Korea also saw success on the Olympic front in 2011. After bidding previously for the 2010 and 2014 Olympic Games, Pyeongchang easily beat out Munich and Annecy for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.  With the International Olympic Committee awarding Korea the 2018 Winter Games, Korea will join the United States, Italy, Germany, France, Japan, and Russia as the only nations to host both Winter and Summer Olympic Games.

Despite lingering concerns regarding the KORUS FTA, 2011 was an important year for South Korea when it comes to trade. On July 1, the EU FTA came into force, making it the world’s largest bilateral free trade agreement and in early December South Korea overcame the headwinds of uncertainty from the euro zone crisis to pass the $1 trillion threshold in total trade for the first time.  South Korea reached the $1 trillion mark in total trade in a short six years after first crossing the $500 billion threshold and during some of the worst economic times since the Second World War. Barring a meltdown in the euro zone, which remains a real possibility, the EU FTA and newly implemented KORUS FTA will likely help South Korea to continue to expand its trade volume in the coming year.

On the diplomatic front, there were a series of milestones. The summit meeting between Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Barak Obama in October was universally seen as a high water mark in U.S.-Korea relations and representative of a strengthening of ties in recent years.  South Korea continued its efforts to become more of a global player as it hosted the 4th High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan and is set to host the next Nuclear Security Summit in 2012. On a bilateral level, Ambassador Sung Kim became the first Korean-American to be posted to Seoul, capping a year of deepening ties between Washington and Seoul.

At the same time, the future holds uncertainty for the relationship. Like much of the world, South Korea is beginning to feel the effects of political change. In the November Seoul mayoral election, the Grand National Party (GNP) was unable to hold on to the mayor’s office, but the Democratic Party (DP) was unable to capitalize on the GNP’s difficulties. Instead, social networking and a desire for change from politics as usual led to the surprise victory of the independent Park Won-soon in the mayor’s race and the failure of the DP to gain any traction in the election. The aftershocks have already seen the DP merge with a party of supporters of former President Roh Moo-hyun to form the new Democratic Unity Party and a push for greater change in the GNP.

Despite the prospect for political change in South Korea, the most sweeping changes of 2011 have occurred in North Korea. With the surprise death of Kim Jong-il, the succession process put in place during the September, 2010 Workers Party Conference was unexpectedly pushed forward. In recent days the regime has worked to choreograph a smooth transition to Kim Jong-un as the military has publically referred to Kim-Jong-un as its “supreme commander”  and he has been promoted to top post in the Korean Workers Party Central Committee.  However, it is still unclear if Kim Jong-un will govern with complete authority as his father did, or North Korea will move towards a collective leadership structure where Kim Jong-un serves as a figure head. What does seem clear, despite uncertainty about the future ability of the regime and Kim Jong-un to maintain its hold on power, is that the passing of Kim Jong-il will presage a change in how North Korea is governed.

On a lighter note, South Korea saw the debut of Saturday Night Live Korea (SNLK), a spinoff of the popular U.S. satire. While early indications are that SNLK will be as irreverent as its American counterpart, that might not be a bad thing. Given the uncertainty that lies ahead in North Korea with the death of Kim Jong-il, many Koreans might just need a good laugh in 2012 as many of the events of 2011 linger into next year and they ponder their own future.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director of Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from David Hepworth’s photostream in flickr Creative Commons.

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About The Peninsula

The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.