North Korea: Just the Tip of the Iceberg

As part of the two year anniversary special issue of the World Current Report, ISC Editor Dae-Han Song interviewed ISC Advisor Jung Chul Lee, a professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Soongsil University. Professor Jung Chul Lee has focused much of his research on North Korea, in particular its relations with the United States. Professor Lee reviewed the past year and made some predictions for the next.

Dae-Han Song: Can you review this year for us for North Korea? Jung Chul Lee: Nothing of note took place this year, especially with regards to US-North Korean or inter-Korean relations. However, there has been informal communication between these countries. While we don’t know the exact content, we can make a fairly educated guess. North Korea’s celebrations in October for the 70th anniversary of its Worker’s Party could have been the site of a provocative action. North Korea has been ready to launch a rocket and satellite since February. But nothing happened.

This was due to behind-the-scenes communications between North Korea and South Korea, China, and the United States. After a landmine explosion in the DMZ wounded a South Korean soldier in early August, tensions escalated quickly. South and North Korea diffused the tensions with the August 25th agreement, in which North Korea expressed regret for the wounded South Korean soldier and Seoul halted its anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts. South Korea took this opportunity to indicate it wanted a meeting with North Korea. As regards the US, the US Special Representative for North Korea Policy Sung Kim mentioned several times that if North Korea didn’t launch a rocket in October, this could open an opportunity for negotiations. As regards China, in October, China sent Liu Yunshan (the fifth-highest-ranking office in the Chinese Communist Party) as a delegate to North Korea. It was these three endeavors that dissuaded North Korea from launching its rocket. Now, North Korea is waiting for talks with the United States.

DHS: What does North Korea want from the United States? JCL: Twice this year, North Korea announced that it would cease its nuclear tests if the US ceased its military exercises.[1] The first was on January 9th, when North Korea officially called for the US to stop its military exercises. While they asked for a stop to the military exercises, I believe even shortening the duration or scaling down the content of the military exercises, such as excluding the use of nuclear strike vehicles like the B52 bomber and aircraft carriers, would have sufficed. However, the US rejected the North Korean proposal. The second attempt was on October 7th, when North Korea proposed a peace treaty with the United States. North Korea was asking to begin the long term process towards a peace treaty which, again, would start with the scaling down of the military exercises.

DHS: Why did the United States reject North Korea’s offers of normalization? Is it because normalization with North Korea would necessitate demilitarization of a geo-strategic region vis-a-vis China? JCL: The US didn’t respond to North Korea’s proposals because it thinks North Korea’s motive is to weaken the US-South Korea alliance. While the civilian parts of the American government (such as the State Department or the White House) might consider such proposals, the military cannot. Since the first military exercises, the exercises have only been suspended once in 1991, when Team Spirit did not happen.

DHS: Why was it halted? JCL: At that time, Bush Senior agreed to negotiate with North Korea. It was just after the post-Cold War era. So far, the US government has been rejecting the North Korean proposal, as has the South Korean conservative government. Personally, I don’t think the military exercises need to be stopped, but if the US removes these elements, North Korea will think that the US is being less hostile, less hawkish towards it. It would signal a desire to negotiate with North Korea. Inclusion of the B52 and the aircraft carriers symbolize preemptive strikes against North Korea. Excluding these two would be like saying, “We have no intent of preemptively attacking you.” North Korea is asking for such signals. I think the US is considering this option. They have not rejected again. So North Korea is still waiting.

If the US again rejects North Korea’s proposal and carries out its military exercises again, North Korea will launch a satellite or conduct a nuclear test resulting in another type of crisis. Since they have been ready to launch a rocket since October, they are ready to launch a rocket at any time, maybe even this December.

DHS: Next year is a presidential election year in the US. While we don’t know who will become president, many North Korean experts say that there is a learning curve for all new presidents regarding North Korea. First, they pressure North Korea by taking a hard stance. After they realize coercion doesn’t work, they try to engage with it, usually in the latter half of their second term. What are your thoughts about the presidential elections and North Korea? JCL: Whoever it is, the next US president will have a stronger stance against North Korea than Obama does. A Republican president will institute a coercive policy with sanctions (including financial ones). They will go through the same learning curve of a hard stance followed by engagement later. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton appears to be the most likely candidate. When she was Secretary of State, she took a hard stance against North Korea. She is ahead of the learning curve, but if her time as Secretary of State is any indication, she will also adopt a harder stance against North Korea than Obama has taken. This means that she will take longer engaging and negotiating with North Korea.

As regards Obama, he will be happy if North Korea simply stays quiet until the end of his term. So I predict that Obama will have silent negotiations with North Korea asking them to keep things the way they are. North Korea will reply by asking the US to scale down its military exercises.

DHS:  Does this mean that Obama has no choice but to scale down the military exercises if it wants to prevent a provocative act from North Korea? JCL: Yes, but South Korea would have to agree to that option. So, inter-Korean relations becomes important for that option.

DHS: Despite the popular perception of North Korea as irrational, North Korea appears to be quite reasonable. It seems to tailor its demands to US political reality. What are your thoughts? JCL: North Korea is very rational nowadays. They know the cycle of their relationship with the US. With all previous presidents, North Korea sought a deal during the last year of each presidential term; it was that way with Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush the second - and it will be that way with Obama. North Korea waits every eight years. It knows that normalization of relations with the United States is a long-term goal that will take ten years, maybe decades. North Korea is well aware of that. It will take another eight years under the next president for there to be progress in relations between the US and North Korea. So, if there is a scaling down of the military exercises, then it may ease tensions in the region and open opportunities to improve relations with South Korea and Japan through an inter-Korean summit or an Abe visit to North Korea.

DHS: A few months ago another of our advisors, reporter Mun-hee Nam, wrote about North Korea’s economic growth for a previous World Current Report. So in some ways, North Korea doesn’t appear to be unstable – rather, it appears to be growing more stable. In some ways this refutes the viability of waiting for North Korea to collapse. What do you think? JCL: Contradictory to government experts’ predictions, North Korea’s economy grew after the May 24th sanctions in 2010.[2] Despite the sanctions, North Korea has other options. We don’t know the full reason for its growth, but its economy did improve through the enlargement of its markets.

Regarding the political situation, Kim Jeong Eun, North Korea’s current leader, has been able to eradicate the pro-Chinese faction in his party and resolve party-military tensions by taming the military. Thus, he has consolidated his power, and regime durability is very stable. Kim Jeong-eun now holds sole authority on all policies, including foreign and inter-Korean policies. This is the reason why North Korea declared that they will hold their seventh Communist party congress next May. Despite the fact that the constitution states one should be held every year, the last congress party took place thirty-five years ago. I believe they will announce two policy changes at the congress:

  • The party will declare reforms and make its market policies official.
  • Currently, the North Korean Worker’s Party has a one-Korea policy, which is interpreted by the South Korean government as the absorption of South Korea by North Korea. North Korea will change that policy, allowing the South Korean government to adopt a softer stance towards them.

DHS: Finally, Obama and Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China, met just a couple months ago in September. What do you think came of this meeting? It seems that as China and the US draw closer to each other, North Korea may become more isolated. What is the impact of China-US relations on North Korea? JCL: Originally, Xi Jinping chose Li Wen Chao, the Chinese Communist Party’s twentieth-highest-ranked official, to attend North Korea’s 70th Anniversary of the Worker’s Party in October. However, after reviewing inter-Korean relations and US-North Korean relations, he upgraded the delegation to Liu Yunshan, the fourth-highest-ranked official in the party. North Korea viewed this as China giving up its policy of coercing and pressuring North Korea. I think this is mostly right. China thinks that the US and North Korea are trying to work out a security arrangement, the South Korean administration wants to have informal contact with North Korea, and Japan’s Prime Minister Abe wants to have access to North Korea. China fears that North Korea will become another kind of Vietnam.

DHS: Can you explain a bit about China’s policy of pressuring North Korea? JCL: Xi Jinping proposed to the US a new type of power relations between the US and China. This means China and the US would carve out their spheres of influence. Thus, Xi Jinping’s policy of coercing and pressuring North Korea was to show the United States that China had the capability to control and influence North Korea.

DHS: By “another kind of Vietnam,” do you mean that instead of North Korea and China maintaining friendly relations, that there develop tensions as there are between China and Vietnam? JCL: Yes. After Xi Jinping came into power, China adopted a policy of pressuring North Korea. However, relations between the two worsened because of that. I think now China is adopting a less forceful, more cautious stance towards North Korea. North Korea is using that to its advantage. Ultimately though, everything right now rests on the US’ response to North Korea’s proposals around scaling down and/or shortening the US-ROK military exercises.

DHS: Do China and the US have a fundamentally antagonistic relationship? JCL: No, I don’t think so. I think they have reached some sort of secret agreement. However, this is a very important time for both of them. We have the Taiwan elections, the Korean Peninsula issue, and the South East Sea conflict, all of which are very important. Each side cannot concede to the other. So North Korea is exploiting that weakness on China’s side.

DHS: Every time I talk with you, it becomes clear that what we hear in the news is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much happening that people don’t know or don’t know what signs to look for. JCL: East Asian politics have no transparency. We only see the tip of the iceberg. Much of the communication happens under the surface.

Interviewed and edited by Dae-Han Song, Chief Editor

[1] Every year in the first week of March, the US and South Korean militaries carry out joint exercises: Key Resolve, which lasts around a week, and Foal Eagle, which lasts two months. In the late summer, Ulchi Freedom Guardian is also carried out.

[2] The May 24th sanctions are a set of trade and economic restrictions that were put in place by the South Korean government after the sinking of a South Korean navy vessel in 2010. South Korea accuses North Korea for the sinking; North Korea maintains its innocence.