• Progress or Failure in North Korea?

    November 16, 2018 // 5 Comments »



    In this same week the New York Times asserted North Korea is engaged in a “great deception” over its nuclear forces, South Korean unification minister Cho Myoung Gyon is visiting the United States with plans to meet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a Member of Congress, and to address several forums

    Will he speak of diplomatic failings and deceptions? Or will he talk about how to make progress as the two allies seek a balance between economic rewards and North Korean denuclearization?

    It’s likely the latter. Cho may compare the situation to one year ago, when the Council of Foreign Relations put the chances of nuclear war at 50%. Since then: the Olympics attended by North and South, the Trump-Kim-Moon summit, multiple intra-Korea summits, and positive steps economically and symbolically. The reality is we are watching complex diplomacy unfold in real time, meaning things can appear to move slowly. But with the Americans, the minister is likely share a perspective that with the movie played at double-speed a different picture emerges.

    The question is not so much if progress is occurring, but if, driven more by the Koreas than Washington, it isn’t moving fast enough. Jeong Se Hyun, former unification minister, reminds it is “unprecedented” for Seoul’s unification ministry to deal directly with the State Department. The reason? “In this situation where the United States is putting the brakes on United States-North Korea relations, there is a need for the unification ministry to directly persuade the State Department,” Jeong said.

    A year ago it was reported the United States was imminently preparing to attack North Korea. Instead of holocaust, what followed was a summit in Singapore. Officials from North and South now meet regularly, Secretary Pompeo has been to Pyongyang, and there is a new American Ambassador (a career Navy officer whose father fought in the Korean War) and Deputy Chief of Mission (a professional diplomat with nearly a decade of Korean experience) in Seoul. The United States has a Special Representative for North Korea. Diplomatic infrastructure is being built.

    Yet the headlines this week raise concern over a “great deception” by the North Koreans, evidenced by a think tank “discovering” North Korean missile facilities already long known to United States intelligence. As dramatic as that sounds, South Korea’s presidential spokesperson put those “new” missile facilities into a more accurate perspective, saying “North Korea has never promised to shut down this missile base. It has never signed any agreement, any negotiation that makes shutting down missile bases mandatory… There is no agreement, no negotiation that makes it necessary for it to be declared.” All of this was to be expected; Kim Jong Un in his January 2018 New Year’s Day guidance stated North Korea would shift from open air testing to maintaining nuclear weapons in such facilities.

    The larger story left in the shadows of such created-drama is the ongoing rush forward driven by the two Koreas themselves, the most likely subject of discussion this week between Minister Cho and Secretary Pompeo.

    Since the Trump-Kim-Moon summit the two Koreas established pseudo-embassies just north of the Demilitarized Zone, where representatives have met more than 60 times. The offices have become clearinghouses for over a dozen joint economic initiatives, including a massive project in preparation for greater cross-border trade to link roads and railroads severed during the Korean War. North and South Korea have removed landmines and other weapons from the border and drawn back border guards. Kim offered to permanently dismantle two key ICBM facilities under the observation of outside experts, and to negotiate further on the permanent shut down of the nuclear facility at Yongbyon.

    While Minister Cho and Secretary Pompeo will no doubt agree that’s not a bad start for the first five months since Singapore, of likely concern to the United States is South Korean President Moon Jae In’s belief economic progress is a necessary fore step to ultimate denuclearization. He almost certainly sent Cho to Washington seeking American concurrence to increase economic cooperation with the North, including asking for changes to sanctions now limiting some financial transactions. Moon himself lobbied Russia leader Vladimir Putin along the same lines, and will make a pitch to Vice President Pence on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ASEAN Summit this week.

    Moon seeks sanctions relief as negotiations move forward, no doubt holding little is accomplished without some give and take. “I believe the international community needs to provide assurances that North Korea has made the right choice to denuclearize and encourage North Korea to speed up the process,” he said this week in Paris. American domestic politics sees things flipped 180 degrees, with sanctions relief a thank-you gift delivered after the last nuke is carted away.

    Despite the situation as described by pundits – a sneaky North Korea duping an uninformed American president – the reality appears much closer to a process now at a crossroads between two visions of a way forward. North and South Korea appear to want economic progress, paced with concessions by the North. Under criticism Trump is naive, the American side wants aggressive steps toward denuclearization first, with economic progress largely withheld instead of fed incrementally. How much the United States is willing to incentivize denuclearization is much more likely the subject Minister Cho and Secretary Pompeo will discuss then North Korean missile bunkers both have long known about.

    Time matters. A new American president in 2020 will be unlikely to press the case in North Korea, receding back into the politically safer waters of previous decades’ policy of largely ignoring things. Washington is not alone in seeing strategy held hostage to domestic politics. In the South, progress with North Korea is widely supported, and Moon will see electoral challenges if he does not deliver results. Kim’s domestic situation is less clear, but he faces pressure for economic progress from his growing middle class while at the same time must tamp down the suspicions of his hard line supporters that he may give away too much too soon at too low a cost.

    Minister Cho may remind his reluctant American interlocutors decades of sanctions have yielded only a nuclear North Korea. The nukes are part of a problem solved by a comprehensive solution that takes into account what the North is really at the table for: engagement with the world system and assurance of its own survival. That ultimate goal will require the North’s nuclear weapons to become unnecessary, as Pyongyang agrees internally to and is allowed externally to become so engaged with the global system it finds itself no longer in need of such a powerful deterrence. It can be done; the world has the broader road map of Deng Xiaoping and China to follow forward.

    This isn’t faux optimism. This is diplomacy, chock-a-block with hard choices and twisty decisions, a push and pull between priorities. The underlying challenge for the three parties is not about media bleating, North cheating, and Trump tweeting, but finding the proper balance of economic incentives which match both strategic and domestic needs, in three national capitols. All that before time runs out.



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    What Happens Next in North Korea? Look Back at the China Example from 1979

    May 4, 2018 // 3 Comments »



    On April 27 North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in met, ahead of a trilateral summit with President Trump in June.

    There was a lot to talk about, but the focus in the west on nuclear issues misses the real story: Kim may be seeking revolutionary economic upheaval. There are signs everything is ready to change.

    It is not hard to imagine Kim has a biography of former Chinese leader Deng Xiao-ping on his nightstand. A nuclear power since the late 1960s, China’s centrally-managed economy as Deng took power was failing to feed its people. The nation remained mostly isolated from the world, dependent on the Soviet Union. Then everything changed in 1979 when Deng secured an agreement with President Jimmy Carter that covered his security needs (no one seemed worried China had nukes), diplomatically papered over his unproductive, long-simmering political issues like the status of Taiwan, and allowed him to introduce changes that led directly to China’s economic ascendancy.

    A key sign Kim is headed the same way is the extraordinary number of concessions he has made ahead of his upcoming summits. Kim is acting like a man in a hurry.


    Kim agreed to seek a formal end to the 1950 Korean War (supported by some 80% of South Koreans, an agreement would be a massive domestic win for Moon, himself the son of North Korean refugees, ahead of the June 13 elections.) Following a visit to Beijing, signifying sign-off on what happens next from the North’s Chinese patrons (confirmed soon after when Kim received Song Tao, a key Chinese diplomat, in Pyongyang), Kim Jong-un announced denuclearization of the peninsula negotiable, while at the same time saying he no longer insists the U.S. remove its troops in the South as a precondition to discussions.

    Trump could never agree to troop reductions at this early stage, and could never move into a summit if denuclearization was non-negotiable; Kim has taken those problems off the table. Kim then announced a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, and closed down the Punggye-ri test site. The rain of missiles which in the fall prompted Trump to issue his “fire and fury” threat simply stopped.

    Kim also announced the end of his signature domestic policy, byungjin, the parallel advance of defense and the domestic economy (Kim’s father promoted the defense-only policy of songun.) At a recent Workers’ Party meeting, Kim said it was time to focus the nation’s resources on rebuilding its economy, a clear signal to domestic elites he is aware of their desire for a better life. Throw in for good measure the reopening of the intra-Korea hotline, CIA director Mike Pompeo’s welcome in Pyongyang, the recent recognition of capitalism in North Korean law, and the stream of cultural exchanges underway, to include K-Pop shows attended by Kim himself.

    These concessions and changes are exactly the things most people would have expected to be the focus of the summits, if not the hoped-for results of months of tedious negotiations to follow. But what if Kim wants more?


    Wipe clean for a moment the cartoon image of Kim as a madman and re-imagine him as a nationalist. Kim literally grew up surrounded by westerners at boarding school in Switzerland, and speaks French, German, and some English. He knows where North Korea sits in the world. What if Kim sees himself as his nation’s Deng Xiao-ping? What if, having a crude nuclear deterrent and knowing pushing it further can only hasten his destruction, he is ready to end his nation’s isolation? What if by sweeping many of the expected short-term American goals off the table with unilateral concessions Kim wants to move directly to talking money, not just weapons? What if Kim is actually following Deng’s example?

    One of Deng’s first changes allowed farmers to sell surplus produce. Factories were told to sell production over-quota on the open market. Special economic zones designed to make money (not political showpieces such as the North-South experiment at Gaeseong) were set up, with much of the early action focused on “safe” partners like Hong Kong.

    So it may matter a lot that Seoul is already exploring ways to sell electricity to the North, and that Kim supports special economic zones. Or that there are already some 480 sanctioned (not “black”) free markets in North Korea, jangmadang, many new since Kim took power, hundreds more renovated or expanded under his hand. North Korea’s state-controlled media regularly runs pictures of Kim visiting these markets. There is a restless and growing consumerist middle class in North Korea, living in a parallel semi-market economy fueled by dollars, Chinese currency, and increasing access to foreign media, all not unknown to the Kim regime.

    “Everything about North Korea spells potential,” says one North Korean defector now at the South Korea Development Bank. Estimated to be worth six trillion dollars, North Korea’s reserves of gold, copper, zinc, and other minerals would allow Kim to diversify his sources of income if he converts his country into what Bloomberg calls a “frontier market” in the center of a booming region.

    Unlike previous negotiations with North Korea, when Kim’s father had to be bribed by the Clinton administration with a nuclear reactor to even come to the table, with the South dragged along by Washington as a neo-colonial afterthought, the current process is driven by the Korea’s (witness the low-key role America played at the diplomatic dance at the Olympics.) As one analyst put it “It is no longer where the U.S. may take the negotiating process so much as where the negotiating process may take the U.S… Those in the region now seem determined to commandeer a train the Americans have driven for 65 years.”

    To succeed, Trump need do little more than not fall prey to establishment fears, be unafraid to enable the economic opportunities he claims to understand well, and stay out of the way as the two Korea’s with their shared cultural, linguistic, and historical ties frame the issues. In this sense, the Kim-Moon summit may be more important than the Kim-Moon-Trump one. However, if Trump bulls into the room and says “Nukes, number one and we’re done” the process will stall.


    Political opponents will claim “they’ll renege, just you wait.” They will make the most of the “we beat the other guy” statements Kim (and Trump) will make for their domestic audiences. Media are teeing up denuclearization as a strawman, claiming if Trump comes home with the North retaining its weapons, he has failed. Such remarks are ahistorical nonsense, as denuclearization is a process, not an event. The Obama-era Iran accords required two years of negotiations and didn’t even involve actual weapons. U.S.-Soviet Cold War progress was measured in baby steps strung out over decades. Fast-track denuclearization has its history, too, in the failures in Libya and Iraq.

    Success will be measured as North Korea engages the international system, thus reducing the threat of war as a base for reducing the weapons. After all, decades of sanctions have yielded only a nuclear North Korea, and summit or no summit that is a starting point, not a debatable point. It is possible to imagine a future where North Korea’s nuclear stockpile erodes into the status of those in Pakistan and India, never mind China, an understood deterrent, not a threat. Focusing too much on the nukes is to ensure failure; they are part of a problem solved by a comprehensive solution that takes into account what the North is really at the table for: engagement with the world system.

    Reviewing the last ten years of western political thought on North Korea it is staggering how poorly predictions have panned out; there has been no succession struggle, no societal collapse, no coup, no war — and no progress. It is as if having painted one picture, the west is intellectually blocked from considering another. That is the most dangerous thing afoot as the 2018 summit looms.




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