SEOUL -Regime survival is the primary driving force behind North Korea’s nuclear program, foreign affairs, and domestic policy, said Moon Chung-in in the second of a two-part interview with NK News.
Analysis from figures like Andrei Lankov suggesting that the DPRK nuclear program might be used as a bargaining chip is misleading U.S. foreign policy, Moon said. He believes that “numerous attempts at negotiation have all failed because of this incorrect assessment.”
In calling for further sanctions and isolation, Moon criticizes American commentators like Victor Cha and Michael Green. “Cha and Green have witnessed that sanctions did not work while they were working for the White House. Yet, they simply blame China for the ineffectiveness of sanctions,” he explains.
Moon concludes that a key problem with the North Korea watching community surrounds an absence of real argument. “At all these conferences, the American NK experts all sort of nod their heads – no one steps out of line.” And unfortunately America’s North Korea experts “suffer from a deep insecurity, an unsettling underlying awareness that they don’t know what they are talking about.”
Chung-in Moon is a leading advocate of the Sunshine Policy on North Korea and the only scholar to attend both the first and second inter-Korean summits in Pyongyang as a special delegate. Currently a professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul and editor-in-chief of the English-language quarterly journal Global Asia, his book, The Sunshine Policy: In Defense of Engagement as Path to Peace in Korea, was published by Yonsei University Press in 2012.
Full interview follows:
NK News: Amid the symposium of verbal assaults on the peninsula, Andrei Lankov explained North Korean bellicosity as diplomatic blackmail to extort aid from the outside in his New York Times op-ed. His op-ed was acclaimed by some as words of composure in the middle of a warmongering atmosphere in the United States. What do you think?
Lankov raised a good point, but I do not agree with his analysis. I do not think that North Korean bellicosity was designed to extort external aid. I got the impression that he is saying what the United States most wants to be heard: North Korea is doing all this for money and it’s all about brinkmanship, extortion and bargaining power! This could be a motive behind North Korea’s provocative behavior, but I would argue that the extortion motive must be a peripheral one.
The core motive is the survival of the state and regime as well as recognition and esteem. It is very likely that the North launched the rocket on December 12, 2012 for a scientific purpose, and it undertook the third nuclear test on February 12 as part of its efforts to build minimal nuclear deterrence capability. Its recent exceedingly provocative military maneuvers might have been a reaction to the ROK-U.S. joint military exercise. While this might all reflect Pyongyang’s efforts to draw American attention for dialogue and negotiations, but not for extorting American aid. Of course, that could be an outcome of dialogue and negotiation, but not the primary motive.
“Lankov construes that North Korea is using nukes and missiles as bargaining chips to extort money for the development of its bleak economy. Numerous attempts at negotiation have all failed because of this incorrect assessment.”
Lankov construes that North Korea is using nukes and missiles as bargaining chips to extort money for the development of its bleak economy. The way the Obama and Bush administrations saw North Korea differed little from this. Numerous attempts at negotiation have all failed because of this incorrect assessment. The American government has understood North Korea’s motive à la Lankov. That’s why President Obama has kept saying that “we will not reward bad behavior.” (Former U.S. Defense Secretary) Robert Gates once said, “We won’t buy the same horse twice.” But for the North, the “bad” behavior is an exercise for survival, and what it seeks is not a reward, but recognition. North Koreans even argue that, “the United States has never bought any horse from us.”
What the North wants is recognition, peaceful co-existence and diplomatic normalization with the United States through some type of peace regime. That is the core motive. Yet, Lankov fails to understand this simple truth. Lankov’s way of understanding North Korean behavior cannot be seen as “words of composure” but “words of distortion” that can lead to the underestimation of North Korea, jeopardizing the security situation on the Korean Peninsula.
NK News: So how do you analyze the motivations behind North Korea’s weapons program and bellicosity?
I would argue that there is a hierarchy of North Korean motivations. Let’s imagine this hierarchy as a pyramid, layered with multiple motivations. The deeper a motivation is located, the more fundamental it is. Displaying bellicosity, testing rockets and nukes are, at their deepest, about survival. Survival in two ways: from the nuclear threats of the United States and from the conventional forces of the United States and South Korea.
“The idea of nuclear deterrence seems to be the top priority in the minds of the North Korean leadership and its military”
At every opportunity when I have met North Korean officials, I have asked them how they’ve come to the seemingly absurd idea of nuclear deterrence against the United States. Whereas the North has less than 10 nuclear warheads, the United States has thousands of them. But they argued that minimal nuclear deterrence is possible. Should the United States undertake a first strike with nuclear weapons, the North can retaliate by targeting American facilities in South Korea, Japan or even Guam. Thus, the United States wouldn’t strike first without a second thought, they think. The idea of nuclear deterrence seems to be the top priority in the minds of the North Korean leadership and its military.
Coping with the threats coming from the joint U.S.-ROK joint conventional forces seems to be the second-most important motivation. South Korea’s annual defense spending is almost equal to the North’s gross domestic product. Thus, the North cannot match South Korea in a conventional arms race. When American conventional forces are added, the situation is much worse for the North. That is why the North has been trying to overcome inferiority in conventional forces by venturing into asymmetric forces such as nuclear weapons and missiles.
Third, the North Korean leadership must have been trying to appease and even co-opt the military by engaging in such belligerent behavior. The North Korean military wants two things. One is institutional interests, and the other is personal interests. Whereas new, strong weaponry such as nukes satisfy the former, promotion and new assignments following military events contribute to enhancing the latter.
The fourth layer consists of national pride and the regime’s legitimacy. North Korea claims that it has become the ninth nuclear weapons state in the world. Despite its international isolation, such narratives provide its people with something to be proud of, which can enhance its international prestige as well as Kim Jong Un’s political legitimacy. This domestic political motivation emanates largely from the first and the second ones — striving for its own survival.
So does the fifth layer: bargaining power for economic gain or extortion or the motive of earning hard currency by exporting nuclear materials and technology. Yes, I do not deny the bargaining motive, but the North has not engaged in rocket-launching and nuclear testing for the sake of bargaining. As a result of the rocket-launching and nuclear testing, the North has profoundly increased its bargaining power. Nevertheless, bargaining itself was not the primary motive. I do not buy the “exports for hard currency earning” thesis. In this case, costs outweigh benefits. Pyongyang is well-aware of the possible consequences of the sale of its nuclear weapons and missiles. It would be the last resort for North Korea. North Korea is neither a fool nor irrational, as Lankov has been saying all this time.
“It is time for them to pay attention to primary motives, namely the security concerns of North Korea”
As long as negotiators from the United States and South Korea see economic interests and bargaining chips for extorting more as primary motives and focus on them, negotiations are bound to fail. It is time for them to pay attention to primary motives, namely the security concerns of North Korea.
NK News: Will North Korea reform and open up? (Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN) John Bolton calls those who say Pyongyang is going to open up “naifs,” and claims “North Korea cannot open and survive, as the regime itself well-knows.”
This is a very presumptuous claim. This is a typical one-way understanding of North Korea.
Hawks in the United States and South Korea have been arguing that North Korea wouldn’t survive if it opens up so it won’t go in that direction. It is a kind of wishful thinking that has backfired. Hard-liners in North Korea would use such claims from the outside as an excuse to oppose opening and reform.
In other words, John Bolton and other hard-liners do not seem to want opening and reform in the North in order to justify their hard-line position and eventually military actions. How ironic it is that according to their values and ideology, North Korea has to reform and open up but they continue to claim it won’t — and it will keep provoking it so the world has to put more pressure on it. If they continue to say, “North Korea will never reform and open up, and it will never give up its nuclear weapons,” it will become a self-defeating analysis — the conclusion is already made and the analysis follows. Moreover, we should make the North pursue opening and reform as well as abandon its nuclear weapons.
“I believe Kim Jong Un is desperate to improve the living conditions of North Koreans through opening and reform. But it won’t be possible without giving up its nuclear weapons. Here is a dilemma, a Catch-22”
Basically it’s none of their business whether the North would survive or not after opening and reform. What we can do at best is shape the external security environment in a way that is conducive to opening and reform in the North. The rest is up to the North’s leadership. We’ve never been able to set up such conditions so far because in every chance to do so, it was always interrupted — not only by the North but also by South Korea and the United States. I believe Kim Jong Un is desperate to improve the living conditions of North Koreans through opening and reform. But it won’t be possible without giving up its nuclear weapons. Here is a dilemma, a Catch-22.
NK News: Michael Green and Victor Cha at the Center for Strategic and International Studies wield substantial influence over South Korean society. In a submission to CNN, they call for “serious and sustained pressure,” not dialogue, to “stop the North Korea madness” since North Korea may temporarily freeze its program but “the pattern has been consistent in later breaking away from whatever agreement was reached.”
Green and Cha represent a typical Washington perception of North Korean behavior. I do not agree with their view. Above all, I don’t understand on what grounds they are calling it “madness.” “Madness” is by definition behavior that is unpredictable. And madness is all about lack of rationality.
In my opinion, North Korea has been more predictable than the United States. Pyongyang has shown an unusual consistency in its behavior, whereas Washington has been changing its policy from time to time. And as Victor Cha once observed, the North did not show any “mad” behavior when it was in negotiations with the United States. And rational behavior displays maximizing behavior and this is what North Korea has been showing.
Yes, the North broke away from negotiations (but not necessarily agreements), but it did so with justifiable causes (according to its own terms).
Three causes can be identified: first, when the United States lacked the intent to negotiate; second, when the United States failed to implement agreements; and, finally, when the United States blasphemed against North Korea’s supreme dignity (a phrase used to refer to North Korea’s leader) and sovereignty.
And the North thinks that the United States breached the agreements more often than it did. North Koreans argue that the United States unilaterally scrapped the Geneva Agreed Framework of 1994 as well as the February 13 Agreement of 2007.
“I’m not taking sides with the North. But what I argue here is that blame cannot be placed solely on North Korea. The United States is equally responsible”
Even as to the Leap Day Agreement of 2012, Pyongyang claims that it did not break the agreement since it never promised the moratorium on rocket-launching for the peaceful use of space. I’m not taking sides with the North. But what I argue here is that blame cannot be placed solely on North Korea. The United States is equally responsible. But Washington believes that it is free of mistakes, while Pyongyang always cheats. It is virtually impossible to reach a meaningful agreement with such a one-sided view.
I think Green and Cha are making two major mistakes. One is that they are missing what the North wants. Pyongyang wants Washington to discard its hostile intentions and policy and normalize diplomatic ties. The North has been striving toward that goal, but Green and Cha simply dismiss them as guilty of bad and mad behavior.
Mike Green once said that “U.S. administrations from Barack Obama to George H.W. Bush have offered North Korean security assurances over 33 times – but the regime is sticking to nuclear weapons for multiple purposes: to deter China, to keep the Army loyal, and to juxtapose their weapons status against rival South Korea’s enormous successes on the international stage.” What is important here is North Korea’s perception of American security assurances. The principle of “words for words, actions for actions” should have been kept. Empty words would not work under the situation of severe mutual distrust.
Cha and Green have witnessed that sanctions did not work while they were working for the White House. Yet, they simply blame China for the ineffectiveness of sanctions.
The other is that they do not learn from their own past mistakes. It seems to me that they do not realize the limits of sanctions. They have witnessed that sanctions did not work while they were working for the White House. Yet, they simply blame China for the ineffectiveness of sanctions. Relentless pressure alone cannot change North Korea’s behavior. And the result of sanctions would be a more hardened and confrontational posture from North Korea, which South Korea has to cope with. Furthermore, they do not listen to North Koreans. They only listen to other North Korea commentators and U.S. policy makers. Whatever North Korea says, Cha and Green dismiss in lines from their preexisting framework and narrative. They constantly oversimplify, distort and underestimate DPRK.
NK News: In the opinion piece in question, Green and Cha assert that in order to persuade China to put pressure on North Korea, the U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral cooperation should be beefed up to an “unprecedented level.” Do you agree with them?
I know their pro-Japanese stance, but I do not agree with their view. The strengthened U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral cooperation would make China much closer to North Korea. Because the trilateral cooperation will be eventually predicated on the strengthening of bilateral military cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo (e.g., Japan-ROK Military Secret Protection Accord and Defense Logistic Support Accord) as well as on missile defense which targets not only North Korea, but also ultimately China.
China has clearly warned that South Korea would be considered one of its strike targets if South Korea joins the trilateral missile defense system. Professor Zhu Feng of Beijing University, who is known to be pro-American, warns that South Korea’s joining of the missile defense system is tantamount to crossing the Maginot line. This would be the worst choice for South Korea. Why should we do that? I personally believe that the ROK-U.S. alliance is designed to be an effective deterrent against North Korea. Its function should not go beyond that. The concepts of “value alliance” and “strategic alliance” seem misleading. The “value” here means, of course, liberal democracy and the free market economy and a value alliance would be to identify friend or foe by these values. A strategic alliance would aim to expand the U.S.-ROK alliance from the peninsular level to pan-global level, which doesn’t fit well with South Korea’s foremost interest — peace on the peninsula. An alliance is merely a means for securing our national interests, not an end in itself.
NK News: Is it not easy to understand the logic of their approach : calling for pressure, a standoff with North Korea? They know what would come next, as Sue Mi Terry acknowledges it “could well lead to a limited North Korean attack and South Korean retaliation.”
What seems confusing is that the “South Korean leaders and public, who would suffer the most in any conflict” seemingly support this approach, according to The Wall Street Journal.
I do not understand either. The Wall Street Journal should disclose exactly who told them that they support such a policy. A small minority who are able to exit the peninsula in case of any conflicts and have their fortune stacked in the United States or elsewhere and can live off it could have supported such a policy. But the majority of South Koreans who cannot do anything but remain, fight and suffer obviously would not support such a policy. Posting such an editorial shows how lightly The Wall Street Journal takes the Korean crisis.
We want and support the alliance in order to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula. Why would we want such an alliance if it triggers war? As I said before, an alliance is a means, not an end in itself. The United States may want to use the alliance as a means to preserve its hegemonic posture over East Asia. That’s fine with me. But if it deliberates on war on the peninsula for the sake of its hegemonic interest, most Koreans will oppose it. South Korea’s fierce opposition to American military action in May 1994 during the first North Korean nuclear crisis underscores this.
NK News: The Economist ran an interesting cover last February. It focused on what it describes as glimmering hope for the world’s most oppressed people — namely the new capitalists, as its title says, with incipient markets on the fringes of the state economy. Last April, Jang Jin-sung, editor-in-chief of New Focus argued something similar through his op-ed in The International Herald Tribune. To quote its headline, “Shall the market set North Korea free?”
I agree with their observation. A market economy is the only solution to North Korea’s economic malaise. It is generally known that the public distribution system in the North has virtually collapsed and that informal markets such as farmers’ market, the Tongil Market and the black market account for 70 percent of distribution. Professor Cho Dong-ho at Ehwa Women’s University argues that the North Korean economy is in fact run by a market mechanism. It is true that the market, no matter how informal, has encroached on a considerable part of the North Korean economy.
“A market economy is the only solution to North Korea’s economic malaise”
However, I don’t think such a market will free North Korea. The North Korean state should transform itself into an agent of opening and reform without which the impact of an informal market would remain very limited. China and Vietnam are classic examples in this regard. The best way to make the state an agent of market transformation is to create an external security environment favorable to North Korea’s opening and reform. And we should be careful in using terms such as “regime change from below.” Let’s give an assurance to the North Korean leadership that they can steer opening and reform without necessarily undermining their own regime security.
NK News: Experts have long debated North Korea’s future. Some believe it will soon collapse, even though they have been saying it for about 20 years. But few wonder about what would happen after any collapse. If we are to take the words of those who are saying the end is nigh, it would be a civil uprising which will bring the regime to an end. What do you anticipate after the collapse?
Why should we be concerned about post-collapse? If you put too much emphasis on collapse, North Korea will not collapse, contrary to your expectations. Of course, we can have some contingency plans, but we do not have to reveal them to the public. And I believe North Korea will not surrender to us, as East Germany did 20 years ago, if the Kim Jong Un regime collapses. In other words, regime collapse would not lead to the collapse of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a sovereign entity. Even if the Kim Jong Un regime and the Juche system collapse, a sovereign state that is North Korea will live on.
“Even if the Kim Jong Un regime and the Juche system collapse, a sovereign state that is North Korea will live on.”
Maybe it could be the military that comes to power afterwards. A collective leadership system that consists of leaders of the military and the party could be another possibility. The possibility of the advent of a popular regime cannot be ruled out either. But even under this scenario, the new people’s government will not give up its sovereignty. That is why we need to cultivate a wide range of civil networks with North Korea through the promotion of exchanges and cooperation.
Analysts, think tanks and the policy community waste their time talking about “contingency planning” instead of “reality planning” — a coordinated strategic plan for dealing with the DPRK as it is, not as many wish it to (in this case, wishing it not to be). Let’s learn how to deal with this state, this country that has been around since 1948, despite many decades of predictions that it is on the verge of collapse.
And that’s what is needed, direct critiques, delivered respectfully, on rotten ideas and policies. One underlying problem in NK discourse in English is that absence of real argument. At all these conferences, the American NK experts all sort of nod their heads – no one steps out of line. Classic case of group think. To a great degree it’s because their knowledge of the primary object of inquiry, NK itself, is so limited, by language, by reading, by chances to talk to North Koreans, that as a group they suffer from a deep insecurity, an unsettling underlying awareness that they don’t know what they are talking about, and yet are constantly put in positions of authority (media, conferences, policy advice) where they are expected to know, where the audiences must believe they know.
Interview conducted by Subin Kim, Seoul. Editing by Rob York.
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