Misreading North Korea
For nearly two decades, the world has struggled with three inseparable North Korean crises that continue to defy policy makers: the security challenges posed by a nuclearized North Korea, mounting humanitarian costs associated with a failing state, and expanding political mistrust toward the communist country.
Analysts in Seoul, Washington, Beijing and Tokyo are pouring over what former U.S. President Bill Clinton said (or didn`t say) during his successful rescue mission in Pyongyang from Aug. 4-5. Experts are already betting that once the Obama administration fully digests North Korean leader Kim Jong-il`s messages to Washington, bilateral negotiations between the United States and North Korea will accelerate with or without progress in the stalled six-party talks.
If the past can serve as a guide, anxieties are bound to grow in Seoul and Tokyo since they are likely to view any rapid "negotiation surge" between Washington and Pyongyang with nuanced suspicion. But since no one wants to be left behind, one shouldn`t be surprised if a series of other bilateral back channels are already in place with slightly different but similar messages to Pyongyang: What does the regime want in exchange for "genuine" negotiations?
Yet if the Obama administration is really on the verge of contemplating a paradigm shift towards Pyongyang and wants its key allies such as South Korea and Japan to sign on, they should spend some time conducting a comprehensive reality check on the fundamental origins of the North Korean crisis and the changing contours of the North Korean problem.
One of the most important lessons in coping with the three North Korean crises mentioned above is the fact that six decades of a unique totalitarian system has resulted in structural constraints that even Kim cannot readily control.
Based on initial debriefings by former President Clinton to key White House officials and ongoing internal assessments, National Security Adviser James Jones stated in an interview with Fox News on Aug. 9 that Kim was "in full control of his organization, his government. ... He certainly appears to still be the one who is in charge." Jones also noted that Clinton and Kim talked about a range of issues of mutual concern and that the "North Koreans have indicated that they would like better relations with the United States."
For nearly a year, key intelligence agencies have poured over photographs and other information in order to ascertain the state of Kim`s health after an alleged stroke in August 2008. The U.S. media recently reported that one CIA estimate calculated that the probability of his death over the next five years was placed at 70 percent, although the U.S. government has not released any official finding on Kim`s health or the perceived actual state of his regime. Jones isn`t wrong when he asserts that Kim is in control but what is perhaps more relevant is to understand what exactly Kim is in control of.
The glue that bolsters and actually holds the Kim Family Dynasty (KFD) together is the Korean People`s Army and the associated security apparatus. A 1.2 million-strong military backed up with a small number of nuclear devices, a formidable array of ballistic missiles, and the most indoctrinated officer corps of any major military power is the backbone of the KFD.
As head of the DPRK`s most powerful organ - the National Defense Commission - Kim has demonstrated that without a powerful army, the DPRK itself almost becomes meaningless. No one disputes the overwhelmingly important and critical role of the KPA but this is precisely the double-edged sword that Kim has sharpened throughout his stewardship of the DPRK.
Sixty-seven years old and suffering from a combination of illnesses, Kim is reported to have begun transferring power to his third son and anointed heir, 26-year old Kim Jong-un, currently undergoing leadership training in the Korean Workers` Party. When the leadership succession begins in earnest (after the elder Kim passes away or becomes too ill to run the country on this own), the KPA will continue to remain loyal to the KFD but it is open to question for how long and whether Kim Jong-un has the power and authority to effectively control the KPA.
Even though Kim Jong-il has constantly replaced high-level officers with tested loyalists and has conducted unprecedentedly bloody purges to root out opposing factions, the fact remains that Kim Jong-un won`t have the prestige that his grandfather or even his father enjoyed over the KPA.
The KPA under Kim Jong-il has become a state within a state that exercises more direct political influence than any other military in the world. Although it is true that Kim "controls" the KPA and that the army remains "loyal" to him, he has created a Hydra-KPA: a military that has, for all intents and purposes, become so strong that it no longer really needs the leader that created it, but at the very same time, a military that has become so intertwined with its founding family and decades of political intrigue that the KPA has become "operationally anemic," and at its core, absolutely and thoroughly corrupted.
As senior echelons of the KPA begin to line up behind Kim Jong-un, it has become, in reality, "three armies" under one roof: (1) the top echelons of the KPA and loyal units that serve with one sole function - protecting and preserving the KFD at virtually all costs; (2) a two-tiered armed forces whereby a "powerful, modern" military comprises the top 20 percent marked by nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and an array of special forces but a "hollowing out, third-rate" military that comprises the remaining 80 percent with soldiers that are barely fed, have extremely limited operational training, and soldiers who are, in reality, conscripted laborers rather than professional combatants; and (3) perhaps most importantly, a military which has become totally, thoroughly and irreversibly corrupted through state-run companies attached to virtually ever major organ of the armed forces not only to raise foreign currency for the "Dear Leader" and his family, but increasingly, to bolster their own private coffers.
Whatever ideological commitment the KPA may demonstrate in public and however many soldiers may shout their lungs to become "human bombs" in defense of the "Dear Leader," the reality is that the KPA poses a clear and present danger not just because it has access to nuclear devices and other WMD assets, but because it is on a path to self-destruction.
What the Obama administration should understand in the crafting of its North Korea policy is the fact the "new and bold" diplomatic initiatives cannot undo the very structural constraints Kim Jong-il and his father, the late Kim Il-sung, built up over six decades. There are strong advocates of more active engagement with North Korea in the Obama administration and again, there is nothing intrinsically wrong or even short-sighted with negotiating with rogue regimes given that that`s what negotiations are for.
Nevertheless, if one believes that Kim is "really ready" for negotiations, the fundamental assumption is that he was always willing to trade away his nuclear weapons, programs and capabilities for the right incentives. In the aftermath of Clinton`s visit to Pyongyang on Aug. 4-5 and the release of the two American journalists, many have speculated that Washington should take this opportunity to offer a "comprehensive package" to Pyongyang to restart bilateral negotiations.
President Lee Myung-bak has also been pressured to strive for a key breakthrough in inter-Korean relations that have been stalled since he came into office in March 2008 but particularly after a South Korean tourist was killed on July 11, 2008 by North Korean soldiers in Mount Geumgang. If the Obama administration decides to move rapidly down the path of bilateral negotiations, Seoul will have little choice but to "support" such a step publicly and may well decide it was time to spruce up its own back channels with Pyongyang. Thus far, Lee has remained steadfast in his North Korea policy, to the point where critics have said he has little interest in building confidence with the Kim regime.
But as every single ROK and U.S. president have understood since the early 1990s, when the first North Korean nuclear crisis erupted, not only have the North Koreans extracted high prices for negotiations, they hve never really been serious about giving up their nuclear program - not even with the incentives and payments they received from Seoul through a decade of "sunshine policy."
Indeed, if Kim were serious about giving up his nuclear programs, he would have done so in the late 1990s when Seoul (under Kim Dae-jung) and Washington, D.C. (under Bill Clinton) were pushing for active engagement and parallel bilateral negotiations including the first South-North summit that was held in June 2000. In reality, though, Kim was never ready or willing to give up his nuclear weapons programs. As a "shield" against superior U.S. forces, the growing conventional military capabilities of South Korea`s armed forces, or as a bargaining chip with the outside world, Kim is highly unlikely to give up his nuclear weapons.
But the most important and enduring reason why he isn`t willing or even able to give up his nuclear weapons is due to the central role of the KPA in maintaining the Kim regime. The Faustian bargain that Kim signed with the KPA as soon as he gained official power was to retain and strengthen their loyalty in exchange for giving the KPA the most prominent role as the vanguard of the DPRK.
More recently, as his health has declined, Kim has moved rapidly to ensure that third-son Jong-un would be able to succeed him. Outwardly, the KPA has set the right tone and all indicators suggest that they are lining up behind Kim Jong-un. Yet the only true litmus test that really matters is the one that Kim Jong-il won`t be able to see or control: how the KPA acts after he dies.
For all intents and purposes, the continuing North Korean saga is entering into its final historical chapter although no one can say for sure exactly how nonlinear transitions are likely to transpire in North Korea. To be sure, officials in Washington are going to activate key channels (in New York, Beijing, Singapore and elsewhere), thrash out "new roadmaps," and coordinate actively with their partners in Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing.
While maintaining the facade of simultaneous pressure, proponents of engagement in the Obama White House are likely to argue for active negotiation with the North in the hopes of prodding Pyongyang`s return to the six-party talks, but more importantly, securing a joint U.S.-North Korea announcement by year`s end on a "de facto nuclear and ballistic missiles freeze" leading toward the goal of "dismantlement."
Seoul and Tokyo will follow but without resounding cheers not because they don`t believe in dialogue and negotiations but because they are much more sanguine and realistic about reading North Korean motivations.
Beijing and Moscow will jump on the chance of de-isolating North Korea and watering down U.N. Security Council Resolutions (1874) while the European Union will continue to applaud "comprehensive engagement" and negotiations with the DPRK.
Yet all of the principal stakeholders must realize one abiding reality: namely, that North Korea won`t give up its nuclear arsenal and programs through negotiations precisely owing to the nature of the Kim Family Dynasty, and the forces that support it within the DPRK, including the KPA.
By Lee Chung-min
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