KEI Communications Director Jenna Gibson, host of Korean Kontext, recently interviewed Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation on North Korea’s recent Workers Party Congress, the first since 1980. The following is a partial transcript of that conversation. The rest of the conversation can be found at http://keia.podbean.com/.
Jenna Gibson: This week has all been about North Korea here. On May 6th, Pyongyang convened its first Worker’s Party Congress in 36 years, a spectacle of pomp and circumstance that lasted 3 days but didn’t seem to result in much change for the reclusive regime. Here to talk with us about the Congress is Bruce Klinger. Klinger is a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. He is an expert on Korean and Japanese Affairs, having spent 20 years at the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency. I’m definitely looking forward to hearing his thoughts about the events in Pyongyang this week so Bruce, thank you so much for joining us.
Bruce Klingner: Well, thanks for having me.
Jenna Gibson: This Congress was a highly anticipated event, in the lead up to the start of the Congress, analysts were predicting everything from massive economic reforms to a fifth nuclear test, and I’m very curious to get your point of view, but from my reading, it seems like none of those things really happened and not too much came out of it. So do you think that this Congress ended up being the big event that we thought it was going to be?
Bruce Klingner: I think it fulfilled the purposes that North Korea wanted, which were a lot lower than what many people predicted it would be. The fact that it was so rare, even historic, as you pointed out, the first time in 36 years. It led people to expect something grandiose. Why would Kim Jong-un have a Party Congress without some very large purpose, whether it was massive purges or a personnel reshuffle, identifying and articulating economic reform, which many people have been predicting for decades, or further bragging of a nuclear test? We had expected a fifth nuclear test, the second this year, sort of coinciding with this, none of which happened, so in that sense it was underwhelming. After the fact, North Korea pointed out that its objectives were affirming the Party’s role, affirming some policy adjustments, and personnel adjustments, nothing as large as we had predicted. So it was really pageantry over policy change, it was rubber-stamping over reform.
Jenna Gibson: One of the announcements that did emerge was that North Korea would strengthen its self-defensive nuclear capabilities but they pledged that they wouldn’t use a nuclear weapon unless its sovereignty was infringed first. How meaningful is this statement in reality and what does it actually mean in terms of how we deal with the North from here on out?
Bruce Klingner: It really is very much a reiteration of what they’ve been saying. Some will latch on to the no-first use pledge, which they’ve said in so many ways over the last couple of years, but really the message there is rebuffing the requirement to abandon its nuclear weapons as required under numerous UN Security Council resolutions. It really is no denuclearization along with no economic reform, no personnel change, and really no transparency – as we saw with the 130 foreign journalists being taken for a ride, literally and figuratively, without being able to report on the events themselves…the crowning glory of that was the BBC reporter being expelled for being disrespectful and even the LA Times reporter not being invited to a press conference because her articles were not beautiful, meaning they weren’t sufficiently adulatory about Kim Jong-un.
Jenna Gibson: To follow up on that because that is something that I found really, in one way interesting, and in one way not surprising. Why invite 130 foreign journalists and then not let them near the event, why invite them at all at that point?
Bruce Klingner: That’s very puzzling. They had invited journalists for some of the previous missile launches. And when one of them failed in April 2012, then they were actually very transparent in admitting that it had failed, perhaps if nothing else, because the journalists were right there. So because they invited so many of them, people were really expecting that it would be some big event, big announcement, and that it reflected that Kim was very different from his father and more like his grandfather, much more gregarious, much more open to interacting with people. So they thought because he was a Swiss-educated student that he’s much more open in meeting with the North Korean people and giving speeches, which his father did not. So there is an expectation…that his government would be different, at least in form, that he would be more opened to showing behind the scenes or showing what the Congress was up to. So again, it was a lot of buildup of hope and expectation for a major announcement or major changes and very underwhelming on so many fronts.
Jenna Gibson: One other announcement that came out of this Congress was that Kim Jong-un was officially named the chairman of the Worker’s Party of Korea. Given that he was already the head of the party, but the title was just slightly different, it was the First Secretary, what significance does this announcement have for him going forward?
Bruce Klingner: Well, I think it’s his seventh major title. He got six titles within the first six months after his father’s death, the Marshall of the Korean People’s Army, a list of other ones, which basically within six months had given him absolute control over the military, the Party, and the government. This is just a further adulation of his wonderfulness. The fact that you still have Kim Il-Sung, who is the Eternal President though he’s been dead these many years, Kim Jong-Il is still the Eternal General-Secretary of the Korean Worker’s Party, it really is the world’s first necrocracy – a country ruled by dead guys. So now Kim Jong-un is the chairman instead of the first secretary, it’s not necessarily a promotion, he already had all the powers. And that raises another issue, people had thought this might be a consolidation of his power – I think it was more a coordination more than a consolidation. We still might have disagreements, some feel that there’s still factionalism, hard-liners and soft-liners battling for control or influence over Kim Jong-un…I think Kim Jong-un had the power very early on. If someone was going to move against him, they would’ve done it right after his father’s death when he didn’t have the titles yet. But even then we’ve had no evidence of purges or coup attempts and we also debate about the purges, and some would say that it’s a weakened battle leader desperately trying to fight off real or imagined enemies, I think it’s more a strong confident leader who feels he can go against even the senior-most leadership; his uncle, the second most powerful man in North Korea certainly faced a dire demise and then he’s replaced his minister of defense five or six times, his chief of the general staff five or six times…he really has no hesitancy in exercising his power and going against his opponents if he feels that he has that he has that much, I think that people are more likely keeping their heads down.
Jenna Gibson: This might sound a little frivolous, but bear with me. Many outlets including Buzzfeed and others that don’t usually follow North Korean politics covered the Congress, but they were focused on Kim Jong-un’s fashion choice, this interesting silken-striped suit with a tie and glasses which is definitely not what he normally wears. So fashion choices aside, it seems interesting that for such an important and widely followed event, he chose to wear a Western style suit as opposed to the more uniform-like black suit. Do you see any significance there or is this reading into things?
Bruce Klingner: Well, all of us tend to delve into some of the more frivolous aspects of North Korea, we’ve all made gallows humor jokes about North Korea and we’ve focused on his clothing as well as his wife’s. I remember doing TV interviews where I was a bit surprised when most of the focus was on his wife and her choice of clothing and the fact that she has reappeared after a few months of absence. In the pinstripe suit, he looked a bit like Al Capone, rather than his Mao-style suit which his grandfather had favored. And also a lot of focus on his hair – he sort of has this rhomboid-shaped hairstyle more reminiscent of some of the folks from the Jersey Shore TV show, so we focused on that, we joked about that. But whether it’s a Western attire to reach out to reach out to the Western nations, I think that’s going too far.
Jenna Gibson: So we’ve covered a lot of ground as far as the Congress this past week, is there anything else that you think was important that we haven’t discussed?
Bruce Klingner: Well, outside of the Congress, we’ll still debate North Korea’s capabilities. We don’t think that they have a hydrogen bomb like Kim Jong-un declared both now and in the last couple of months. It may have a boosted fission which is sort of an atomic weapon on steroids. And he may not have an ICBM capability today, although three U.S. four-star commanders believe North Korea has that ability already. So we’ll continue to debate whether they’ve miniaturized or not but really I think the bottom line there is: Whether they have the capability today or tomorrow or next year, we know what path they’re on, we know they’re not going to give up the weapons without a great deal of pressure and there’s not a lot of optimism that diplomacy, even with targeted financial measures and sanctions, will get North Korea to give up the weapons. That said, sanctions do a have a number of interim objectives in enforcing our laws, imposing a penalty on those that violate our laws, and putting in place measures to impede both the inflow and outflow of prohibited nuclear and missile technology. But we, I think, are in for the long haul here as we’re already faced decades of the North Korean challenge. It’s going to get more dire, it’s going to get more precarious, and the more that North Korea brags about its nuclear capabilities, during a crisis, that may lead the U.S. or South Korea to lean further forward on pre-emption so I think as always, on the Korean Peninsula, we’re going to have the concern about miscalculation and escalation.
Jenna Gibson: Not an optimistic note to end on but that’s how it is on the Korean Peninsula these days.
Bruce Klingner: I think it’s pretty hard to be optimistic when you’re dealing with North Korea. It’s just a matter of managing risk, managing the dangers that are there. As people who have served on the DMZ have said, even a tactical situation can become strategic in the blink of an eye.
Transcribed by Thomas Lee, an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America and a graduate of American University.
Photo from Prachatai’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.