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The Peninsula

Refreshing Our Understandings of North Korea before Approaching its New Leader Kim Jong-un

Published August 23, 2012
Category: North Korea

By Jinho Park

The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun-Tzu warns,

He who knows the enemy and himself will never in a hundred battles be at risk; He who does not know the enemy but knows himself will sometimes win and sometimes lose; He who know neither the enemy nor himself will be at risk in every battle.

It is unclear how well South Korea knows North Korea. Particularly after Kim, Jong-un became the new leader, policy-makers and academics are having diverse discussions about the nature of his leadership and how North Korea will change.  At this moment, it is hard to expect how Mr. Kim is likely to craft his own leadership style: rather, our attention is focused on how different Mr. Kim’s leadership will be from his father and grandfather.

The death of Kim, Jong-Il seems to be neither a surprise nor a crisis to South Korea, rather it provides a new opportunity to develop a fresh strategic approach to North Korea’s new leader. But in order to exploit this opportunity, South Korea must refresh its understandings of North Korea and correct its misunderstandings as well.

Misinterpretation of North Korea will not necessarily cause a policy failure, but it does seriously impede us from knowing how to influence North Korea’s strategy and from learning the right lessons through our experiences with North Korea.

The first misunderstanding is our understanding of engagement policy towards North Korea.

It is widely viewed that the principle of South Korea’s strategy in dealing with North Korea is rooted in a policy of engagement. However, the effectiveness of engagement is very limited. North Korea’s interests often do not align with the outlines of South Korea’s engagement policy and North Korea has often failed to move in tandem with South Korea to enhance the prospects of progress. What makes the failure of engagement policy worse is that North Korea usually stops its diplomatic dialogue and reacts with military and non-military provocations under its self-defined excuse of blaming South Korea.

Despite these pitfalls of engaging with North Korea, South Korea and the United States are often blind to them for political reasons. For instance, when looking at North Korea’s violation of the February 29th agreement, the United States and North Korea hold a different understanding of the agreement, particularly about the test of long-range missile by North Korea. In this respect, the U.S. negotiators were blamed not for being explicit in what is prohibited in terms of missile launches in this first agreement with North Korea’s new leader.

However, abandoning engagement with North Korea is not a good option because there is no other alternate strategy and political leaders in South Korea and the United States often politicize North Korean issues for diverse political reasons.  Although the influence of North Korean issues on domestic politics in the two nations varies significantly across time and situations, it is unavoidable particularly when there are major political events such as an election. In addition, the success of engagement with North Korea depends on two main variables; continuity and consistency.

The most prominent engagement effort with Pyongyang is the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear development program. In terms of continuity, the other five members have strongly requested North Korea return to the table; however, North Korea seems to have lost strategic interest in the talks. Moreover, it prefers to hold bilateral talks with the United States, then moving to the Six-Party Talks if necessary.

Consistency in the Six-Party Talks is much more flawed. The final goal of de-nuclearizing North Korea is not in dispute among any of the member states of the Six-Party Talks, besides North Korea. There are, however, different opinions on how to reach the final goal, and sometimes what should be done prior to achieving the final goal. In fact, de-nuclearizing North Korea is an important goal for which much effort will be required. The parties of the Six-Party Talks, however, sometimes seem to be more concerned about negotiating side issues, such as long-range missiles and the return of Japanese kidnap victims, within the Six-Party Talks framework than de-nuclearization.

In a recent revision of North Korea’s constitution, North Korea declared itself a nuclear state, clearly demonstrating to its people and the international community that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons. Under this situation, some experts turn their attention to how to manage North Korea’s nuclear challenge rather than dismantling it. However, managing a nuclear development program is like crossing a bridge of no return—no further discussion of denuclearization—and giving North Korea more opportunities and time to decrease the costs of continuing its nuclear development program.

The second misunderstanding is wishful thinking that by demonstrating both costs and benefits, the parties of the Six Party Talks can convince North Korea to cooperate.

Benefits come when North Korea’s actions meet international demands, and costs come when North Korea’s actions do not meet international demands. Although Pyongyang fully understands this simple logic, North Korea has conducted provocation without hesitation when the leadership thinks it necessary, even an act of war such as a torpedo-attack on South Korea’s naval ship and artillery attacks on South Korea’s territory killing two civilians in 2010. What motivates North Korea to take brinkmanship is its own strategic calculation; achieving significant benefits while suffering little in the way of costs because of a lack of ROK and U.S. will.

South Korea and the U.S. are required to diversify strategic approaches to North Korea to convince it that achieving our objectives also meets its needs. At the same time, we need to draw a clear line between what is acceptable and not acceptable to us. For example, the provision of humanitarian assistance to North Korea is, on one hand, a good means to keep North Korea open to work with the international community, and on the other hand, a good carrot for the North Korean leader to provide for his starving people.

In addition, South Korea needs to explore new means of using its strategic competitiveness, including the use of its economic power. These new means could be worked together with the international efforts. South Korea could take a new initiative to establish another industrial complex in either South Korea or North Korea and encourage foreign companies to invest and join.

While employing diverse strategic approaches to North Korea, it is of great importance to communicate with North Korean people about South Korea’s intention and will. The message to North Koreans should be focused on “we are not their enemy.” North Korea will try to counter this psychological message by reinforcing its domestic security system for controlling public unrest and strengthening cohesiveness of government officials. These responses from North Korea prove indirectly the effectiveness of such a psychological message. Sending balloons containing leaflets and CDs denouncing North Korean leader is not very effective in that the critical essence of the psychological message is “who sends the message and the credibility of the message.” Unlike a message in the balloons by a group of anti-North Korea people in Korea, a message from the South Korean government—even if its rhetoric is somewhat ambiguous—would have a significant impact on the mind-set and views of the North Korean elites and public.

The third misunderstanding comes from our expectation about China’s role in resolving North Korean issues.

Many experts point out that China’s support of North Korea is the main factor in weakening the effectiveness of international sanctions against North Korea. From Beijing’s strategic perspective, it is uncertain whether China has strategic leverage to use against North Korea. Even if China possesses strong measures to pressure North Korea to change its activities, it would not be willing to use these measures because North Korea’s response is unpredictable. Unless North Korea moves as China intends, China will face a serious strategic difficulty requiring a paradigm change in its strategy toward the Korean Peninsula. Although North Korea and China have maintained an alliance relationship since the end of the Korean War, Pyongyang is not willing to sacrifice its national interests for China.

To draw a constructive and responsible role from China in resolving North Korea’s issues, it is often said that the United States needs to strengthen its partnership with regional countries in Asia and promote a cooperative and multidimensional relationship with China. If these approaches go as the U.S. plans, interdependence between the United States and China would become much deeper and broader. Under this complex interdependent relationship between the United States and China, Beijing would be forced to pay a bigger cost than now when in a diplomatic conflict with the United States or other regional countries. On the other hand, the United States would be in the same situation. And, China now does not seem to be willing to pressure North Korea to dismantle its nuclear development program in the near future, but rather is trying to manage the progress of the program and stop a further nuclear weapons test; in other words, continuing the status-quo on the Korean Peninsula.

With an existing possibility of leadership-style change and attendant political, social, economic crisis, it is much harder to expect the effectiveness of sanctions or punishments by China on North Korea than when Kim, Jong-Il was in power. For these reasons, China is much more cautious about applying pressure on North Korea under the new leader. It takes time for China to draw up a set of policies to be applicable to North Korea. As economic cooperation between North Korea and China is strengthened and expanded, a risk-taking decision by China in regards to North Korea is increasingly unlikely to occur.

Lastly, I would like to point out that while the United States makes its prudent and multilayered efforts to shift its defense and diplomatic policy to Asia, Secretary Hillary Clinton claims in her contribution to Foreign Policy (November/2011):

One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment—diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise—in the Asia-Pacific region.

It is expected that the United States and China will be in a much more complex strategic game than ever before. And, as one of key components of U.S. strategy in Asia is to strengthen and adapt its traditional partnership with regional countries to changing environments in the region, regional countries will encounter a strategic dilemma of balancing their diplomatic distance between the United States and China, although not choosing one of them. Although regional countries look the United States to play a greater leadership in the region, unlike the Cold-War era, the United States will not allow regional countries to free-ride on U.S. diplomatic efforts in the region. This potential phenomenon will be another challenging issue for regional countries. After all, uncertainty in regional politics is likely to increase. What this challenging environment in the region implies for South Korean efforts in dealing with North Korea remains to be seen.

Mr. Jinho Park is a Legislative Aide to South Korean Legislator Jinha Hwang of the ruling Saenuri Party, also a non-resident fellow of Korea Defense & Security Forum (KODEF) in Seoul.

Photo from AK Rockefeller’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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