America: Time to Talk with North Korea

"It’s time for Washington to try something different."

Power is like quicksilver. It often slips through the fingers of those attempting to grasp it. Who is in power in North Korea? Maybe thirty-one-year-old Kim Jong-un. Maybe someone else.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) continues its policy of mixing threats and entreaties. A high-level delegation visited Seoul to propose further talks and promote warmer relations. Days later, the North’s troops were exchanging gunfire with the Republic of Korea’s military, only to be followed by an inconclusive military meeting—and most recently, the apparent collapse of bilateral negotiations.

Kim disappeared from public view for forty days. His reported health problems—gout or ankle or foot surgery—should not have prevented him from attending important meetings and being filmed while sitting. And his return was not entirely convincing: Pyongyang only released undated still photos of a smiling Kim leaning on a cane while talking with other officials.

There’ve been no untoward troop movements or party conclaves in the North, though there was disputed talk of a “lock-down” restricting movement in and out Pyongyang. When visiting Seoul, the DPRK’s number two, Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong-so, seemed to enjoy some of the trappings of power previously limited to the supreme leader. The conflicting signs reawakened questions about the execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, a year ago. Was it Kim’s decision, or one forced on him by the military, which apparently had clashed with Jang over control of economic enterprises? There is no stability in the regime’s upper reaches: In his nearly three years at the top, Kim has replaced upwards of half of the party’s and military’s top officials, changing some positions multiple times.

Whoever reigns, there is little reason to hope for nuclear disarmament. To the contrary, the North appears to be increasing production of fissile material, moving ahead on ICBM development and upgrading rocket-launch facilities. Who in Pyongyang has an incentive to abandon a weapon that causes the rest of the world to pay attention to an otherwise small, impoverished and even irrelevant nation? Why trade away an effective tool of financial blackmail that has yielded billions in aid from the ROK?

Finally, even a seemingly secure Kim, the “Great Successor” whose father concocted the North’s “military first” policy, would hesitate challenging the armed services by trading away its most important weapon. And if he is insecure—or merely a figurehead for the military—there is even less likelihood of a deal.

Yet there are signs of change elsewhere. Reforms in agriculture begun two years ago allow farmers to keep some of their produce, giving them greater incentives to grow crops privately. Moreover, the time of mass starvation appears to be over.

The economy appears to be growing, with more consumer goods evident, especially in Pyongyang. For instance, high heels reportedly are popular, following the style of Kim’s wife, Ri Sol-ju. Sour political relations with the People’s Republic of China have not prevented continuing Chinese aid, investment and trade. The DPRK is not catching up with its capitalist rival, but North Korea also no longer appears to be sliding into an economic abyss. It also has turned itself into an exotic tourist destination, at least before apparently limiting foreign visitors out of fear of Ebola.

Moreover, Pyongyang appears to be adjusting diplomatic strategies yet again. After unsuccessfully attempting to use the plight of three imprisoned Americans to engage the Obama administration, the North released Jeffrey Fowle, convicted for leaving a Bible behind while visiting as a tourist. DPRK media reported that his release came from Kim in response to President Barack Obama’s request. Furthermore, following Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s visit to North Korea to secure the release of two other American detainees, both Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller were released on Saturday. While their return to the United States was indeed worthy of celebration, Clapper’s visit was in no way a diplomatic one. Although, Kim’s agreeing to release the three detainees may indicate a willingness on the part of the North Korean regime to possibly cooperate on other issues.

North Korea’s UN ambassador, So Se-pyong, indicated that the North was ready to return to the Six Party nuclear talks. In early October, Pyongyang sent a surprisingly high-ranking delegation, including the country’s reputed numbers 2 and 3, to Seoul, nominally for the Asian Games. The officials met with South Korean officials and proposed further talks, though the latter later foundered on the DPRK’s demand that the South stop its citizens from targeting North Korea with leaflets. The North pushed its “charm offensive” elsewhere, including negotiations to resolve disputes with Japan and multiple travels by Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong, including to Southeast Asia and Russia.