Letting Go of North Korea

Letting Go of North Korea

Washington should step back and drop the issue in the laps of North Korea's neighbors.

North Korea is a nuclear power. The United States should get used to it.

Nonproliferation is a sensible objective. But Washington’s drive to prevent the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons is dead. The North will remain a nuclear power irrespective of who ends up on top in the ongoing transition of power in Pyongyang.

Not that the Obama administration wants to acknowledge reality. Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, recently opined: “We need to see a very clear signal that this new leadership—or some structure in North Korea—accepts the very clear commitments that North Korea made in 2005 to denuclearization.”

There’s little reason to believe those commitments were ever sincere. Nuclear weapons offer the Kim regime obvious advantages: deterrence against a much stronger South Korea backed by Washington, status for an impoverished and otherwise unimportant country, and opportunities for extortion from its neighbors and the United States. There’s likely a domestic reason as well. How better to run a “military first” policy than to give the armed services the ultimate weapon?

Whether Kim was ever willing to trade away his nuclear program may never be known. But it’s doubtful that he now envisions a nuclear-free future. Maybe he’s prepared to yield up future production. But he has given no indication that he is willing to turn over his existing arsenal.

Indeed, North Korean officials have ostentatiously claimed the status of a nuclear power. The regime equally ostentatiously left the so-called six-party talks, supposedly permanently.

These could be negotiating tactics, of course, but the regime appears to have restarted construction activity at the Yongbyon nuclear site, where in 2008 it demolished an old reactor’s cooling tower. Perhaps the North is simply attempting to frighten the West. But Seoul is concerned. Kim Tae-hyo, the South Korean deputy national security adviser, said: “We have judged that North Korea is currently operating all its nuclear programs, including highly enriched uranium processing and the nuclear facility in Yongbyon.”

Christopher Hill, the Bush administration’s chief negotiator with the North, also is pessimistic. “I think it’s very clear at this point that it is a more difficult proposition than ever before,” he said. “They have continued to work on their systems for delivering nuclear weapons.”

The North’s recent policy toward the South has been unreservedly hostile. Last March the DPRK sank a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, killing forty-six sailors. Pyongyang has dismissed all South Korean attempts to win an acknowledgement or apology for the sinking. At the recent Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) Congress three officers thought to be involved in the attack were promoted.

Unfortunately, the situation is only likely to worsen as “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il attempts to pass power on to his son, Kim Jong-un. The process may not be smooth.

“Great Leader” Kim Il Sung spent more than two decades moving his son, Kim Jong Il, into positions of influence. The latter held important party roles before he was unveiled at the 1980 KWP Congress. He then had another fourteen years to strengthen his position before his father’s death.

In contrast, Kim Jong Il only began rushing Kim Jong-un into position as heir apparent after the former’s stroke in August 2008. The latter has been promoted to a four-star general, member of the KWP Central Committee, and vice chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission. Earlier he was given a mid-level position with the National Defense Commission (NDC), the most powerful organ of state power. And for the first time the man known in the North Korean press as the “Brilliant Comrade,” “Young Captain,” “Young General” and “Our Commander” has appeared in public, and near his father.

Some hope that the younger Kim might prove to be a reformer—he reportedly speaks English and French, attended school briefly in Switzerland and was addicted to American basketball. However, former-KGB head Yuri Andropov proved to be a hard-line Soviet Communist Party general-secretary despite supposedly loving jazz, poetry and whiskey.

Moreover, Kim Jong-un has been blamed for last fall’s currency “reform,” which destroyed most of what passed for a middle class. He also has been tagged—a claim obviously impossible to verify—as responsible for cyberattacks on South Korea last year and even the sinking of the Cheonan.

However, it could get a little crowded near the top. Kim Jong Il also made his sister Kim Kyung-hui a four-star general and member of the Party’s Politburo. Her husband, Chang Sung-taek, seen as the regime number two, earlier was made vice chairman of the NDC and an alternate member of the Politburo. A previously obscure vice marshal, Ri Yong-ho, also was promoted to full membership on the Politburo; he won some other offices and sat between Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong-un in an official photo. Kim Jong Il’s current wife/consort and daughter also made the photo, though not as close to the Dear Leader.

The common presumption is that the first three, at least, are tasked with shepherding Kim Jong-un towards ultimate power. However, all may have ambitions of their own. There also are other potential claimants—an older brother criticized as effeminate by his father and an even-older half-brother living in disgraced-but-luxurious exile in Macau. Plus numerous party and military officials who have been waiting for years for their turn at the top.

Indeed, there are indications that a brutal power struggle already may be underway. Chang is said to be unpopular and at odds with some top generals. Earlier this year, two high officials suffered suspicious deaths—supposedly in a car accident and of a heart attack. Rumors of Kim Kyung-hui’s involvement have circulated. Another official allegedly retired for reasons of age in a system dominated by the aged. (The Dear Leader himself is 69, and his father was in control until his death at 82.)

Some more moderate officials also were promoted at the recent Party conference, but none appears to have significant political influence. There is no evidence of either glasnost or perestroika.

Moreover, an uncertain political environment discourages any serious effort at accommodation with the West, and especially serious negotiation over nonproliferation. A weakened Dear Leader dependent on military support is not well positioned to abandon his aggressive policies, let alone sacrifice the nuclear weapons developed at enormous expense. No one struggling for power after his demise is likely to stand against the military.

Thus, the best hope in the next several years likely is the status quo. The DPRK has invited U.S. officials to visit and even intimated that it is prepared to restart the six---party talks. These or other negotiations may not hurt, but they are unlikely to provide any discernible benefit. An alternative approach is needed.

Christian Whiton of D.C. International Advisory advocates “political warfare” against Pyongyang. However, the United States has virtually no arrows in its quiver. Given Seoul’s vulnerability to North Korean attack, military strikes are a nonstarter. More and more intensive sanctions will have little effect on the already isolated North absent meaningful Chinese support. Most everything else would be the equivalent of Uncle Sam huffing and puffing and holding his breaths till he turns blue.

Washington could redouble its efforts to enlist the DPRK’s neighbors in one stratagem or another. However, none are inclined to be particularly helpful.

South Korea’s policy has ranged from isolation of to engagement with the North, including generous subsidies, while relying on America for its defense. Even after the sinking of the Cheonan, Seoul refused to close the Kaesong industrial park, which provides Pyongyang with substantial hard currency.

Japan has subordinated policy toward the North to resolving the status of Japanese citizens kidnapped by Pyongyang’s agents in past years. Doing so has satisfied public demands but effectively sidelined Tokyo as a diplomatic player. The continuing turnover in prime ministers and cabinets has further marginalized Tokyo.

Malign has been the behavior of an ever more assertive Beijing. Despite U.S. efforts to enlist the People’s Republic of China’s help in moderating the Kim regime’s behavior, the PRC has remained aloof, even after the attack on the Cheonan. Beijing obviously believes that stability matters more than anything else. Indeed, China has been expanding investment in the North. The result has been to strengthen Pyongyang and discourage reform.

Nothing is likely to change in the near future. Washington should step back and drop the issue in the laps of the North’s neighbors.

Looking at a map demonstrates who has the most reason to be concerned about the DPRK. The only Americans within easy reach of Pyongyang’s arms are those stationed in South Korea. Given the ROK’s manifold advantages over North Korea, an American military garrison is unnecessary. The troops should come home.

Then America should adopt a policy of benign neglect towards the North. Let Seoul engage in frenetic attempts to bring someone in Pyongyang to the negotiating table. Let Japan fixate on decades-old wrongs committed against its citizens. Let China bear the risk of implosion, war or nuclear proliferation.

In particular, Washington should point out to Beijing that North Korea remains a potential national powder keg, with a rushed power transfer in the midst of a continuing economic crisis. Moreover, a regime willing to risk war by sinking a South Korean vessel may be tempted to escalate and perhaps miscalculate in the future. Only the South’s pusillanimous response avoided a potentially violent confrontation this time.