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Obama Needs To Rethink Pyongyang

By Ilan Berman
Far Eastern Economic Review
October 26, 2009

The problem of North Korea has bedeviled policy makers in Washington for years. The notoriously opaque Stalinist state that sits above the 38th Parallel represents one of the world’s most intractable security dilemmas. Starting this spring, however, the challenge posed by Pyongyang has grown more acute. The defiant series of nuclear and ballistic tests carried out by Kim Jong Il in May has brought into sharp focus the growing threat posed by the North’s strategic arsenal—and precipitated a frenzy of international activity in response.

The Obama administration, still in the early stages of formulating its Asia policy, has reacted to Pyongyang’s provocations in predictable fashion. It has redoubled America’s diplomatic investment in the moribund multilateral effort known as the Six Party Talks, even going so far as to reverse longstanding limits on diplomacy with the D.P.R.K. by expressing a willingness to engage in bilateral talks (if only to coax North Korea back to the nuclear negotiating table). But dealing with the D.P.R.K. will require more than mere diplomatic engagement. It will necessitate Washington having an accurate understanding of what makes the regime in Pyongyang tick.

Doing so will be more difficult than it seems. For years, Washington has adopted a status quo approach toward North Korea—one defined by the view of North Korea as fragile, the Kim regime as a one-man show, and the North’s nuclear effort as negotiable. In fact, however, none of those things is true.

A State of Flux

A rethinking of American policy toward Pyongyang starts with understanding that, for the foreseeable future, the Hermit Kingdom is here to stay. Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, which pitted Kim Il Sung’s fledgling communist stronghold against its southern neighbor in one of Asia’s bloodiest contemporary conflicts. Yet Washington and other Western capitals for years have treated the North Korean regime as little more than a temporary phenomenon.

It is not. The insular dynasty that has ruled Pyongyang for the past six decades has repeatedly defied forecasts about its long-term viability as a nation-state. Indeed, during the mid- to late-1990s, as many as three million North Koreans—more than 10% of the country’s total population at the time—are estimated to have died as a result of devastating national famine. Yet at no point during that terrible period, arguably the darkest in the D.P.R.K.’s history, did the regime in Pyongyang appear to totter. 

North Korea’s leadership likes to ascribe this longevity to its own peculiar brand of patriotism. Like his father in his day, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il defines his regime, and justifies its excesses, based on the concept of juche, an ideological doctrine that promotes political independence, economic self-sufficiency and national defense. That idea, coupled with a pervasive cult of personality and a systematic isolation of its population from the outside world, has bred what regional observers have likened to a “faith-based model” of government. Put simply, ordinary North Koreans believe the hardships they are forced to endure are the result of external forces rather than Pyongyang’s own policies. The North Korean regime, therefore, is neither rickety nor lacking in popular support.

What is clear, however, is that the power structure in Pyongyang is in a state of profound flux. In August of 2008, reports surfaced that Kim Jong Il had suffered a serious stroke that had left him incapacitated, or worse. This speculation appeared to be confirmed by Mr. Kim’s lengthy absence from the national stage, which strengthened rumors that the Dear Leader had taken seriously ill or even died.

Subsequent months have seen Mr. Kim re-emerge on the political scene, but in a diminished capacity. The consensus among officials and academics in Seoul and Tokyo is that command of the National Defense Commission—the 13-member cabal that serves as the D.P.R.K.’s most powerful political body—has quietly been assumed by Mr. Kim’s 63-year-old brother-in-law, Chang Sung-taek. And when Pyongyang negotiated the release of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling earlier this year, the Commission (rather than Mr. Kim himself) is believed to have orchestrated the deal. This circumstantial evidence suggests that the D.P.R.K., once a one-man show, is increasingly being run by committee.

Nor is that situation likely to change in the near future. Academic experts and regional scholars are quick to point out that Kim Jong Il had close to 30 years of on-the-job training at Kim Il Sung’s side before officially assuming the reins of power upon his father’s death in 1994. By contrast, Kim Jong Il’s recently-appointed heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, is expected to have far less—and therefore will require considerable help steering the North Korean ship of state once he takes office.

All of which is bound to have a profound effect upon regime decision-making. The past six decades have been typified by the vagaries of an unpredictable dictator. The next one, however, may be driven by the strategic priorities of a military junta.

Perhaps most damaging has been a tendency on the part of Washington and its international partners to underestimate the permanence of North Korea’s nuclear effort. Ever since the start of multilateral negotiations in August 2003, the international community has treated North Korea’s nuclear program as a reversible project. The official goal of the off-again, on-again Six-Party Talks, six years after their inception, remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

But North Korea’s nuclear program gives no sign of being up for grabs. To the contrary, an entire generation of scientists and engineers has devoted their professional lives to erecting the North’s nuclear complex. The D.P.R.K. has been willing to expend precious state treasure and inflict massive hardship and privation on its own people to make this endeavor a reality.

This atomic effort, moreover, holds great symbolic significance for Pyongyang. It represents the single area of geopolitical dominance on the part of the North over its more dynamic, prosperous and vibrant southern neighbor. It is hard to conceive of the North treating this enterprise as a bargaining chip in its relations with the United States in a serious way, and harder still to imagine that Pyongyang would be willing to voluntarily give up its strategic ace-in-the-hole, regardless of the rewards proffered by the international community.

None of this, of course, means that the world should simply learn to love the North Korean bomb. But neither should the United States assume, as it currently appears to, that Pyongyang will be willing to give up its nuclear advantage, either now or in the future, if only the proper carrots were put in place.

Plan for Crises

In its day, the Bush administration pursued a haphazard and contradictory policy toward Pyongyang. Its flagship counterproliferation effort, known as the Proliferation Security Initiative, put a serious crimp in North Korea’s efforts to sell ballistic missile and weapons of mass destruction components abroad early on, but faded into obscurity in Mr. Bush’s second term. So did the U.S. Treasury Department’s efforts to target the North’s illicit activities through robust sanctions, which were pulled back by a skittish White House just as they had begun to bite. This schizophrenia was driven in large part by the fact that, as then Secretary of State Colin Powell famously made clear, the Bush administration, for all of its strident rhetoric, did not in fact have “any red lines” for dealing with the D.P.R.K.

Neither does Team Obama. The new administration’s preference for engagement with the world’s most troublesome regimes has led it to uncritically embrace the idea that problems with Pyongyang can be negotiated away. In the process, it has failed to think deeply enough about ways the U.S.—working in concert with regional allies in Asia—can seriously deter the D.P.R.K. and contain its rogue habits.

It will need to in the near future. North Korea has set a target date of 2012 for its emergence on the world stage as a “great, prosperous power.” The date holds great significance for Pyongyang; it will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Kim Il Sung; the 70th birthday of the current “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il; and the 30th birthday of Kim’s anointed heir, Kim Jong-un. South Korean officials believe that the D.P.R.K.’s nuclear program will be “completed” by this time as well, cementing its status as an atomic power.

An added worry is the looming issue of succession. A transfer of power in Pyongyang could very well take place peacefully, without adverse effects on the stability of the country’s political system. Just as easily, however, the deteriorating health or passing of the “Dear Leader” could precipitate a power struggle within the D.P.R.K. Under such conditions, the notoriously unpredictable regime in Pyongyang could become even more so, with regional or even international conflict a potential result.

All of which suggests that over the next several years successful crisis management on the Korean Peninsula is likely to become a full-time occupation for Pyongyang’s neighbors—and perhaps for Washington as well. In order to navigate this period safely, the White House will need to see North Korea as it truly is, rather than as it would like it to be.

Ilan Berman is vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

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Related Categories: Democracy & Governance; North Korea

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