This is part of NK News’ series of opinion and analysis of the first five years of Kim Jong Un’s rule.
Five years ago on Saturday, Kim Jong Il, who ruled the country since the death of his father in 1994, died, leaving the reigns of North Korean power to a relative unknown: his third and youngest son Kim Jong Un.
When the fresh-faced and astonishingly young new leader emerged to claim his family inheritance – rule over the 24 million people who live in North Korea – no-one quite knew what to expect. Some predicted the regime would imminently collapse, others that Kim Jong Un would become a puppet for better-established powerful players in Pyongyang.
Neither of these has come to pass, and from a rapidly accelerating nuclear program to the ambitious goals of the byunjin line, there’s a sense that, at least for now, Kim Jong Un is firmly in control.
But how have North Korea’s foreign relations fared as the new leader looks inward to solidify his power and develop a nuclear state? In the first part of a six-part series examining how Kim Jong Un has spent his first half-decade in power, NK News reached out to experts from across the world with three key questions on how North Korea’s international relations have developed under his reign.
The following North Korea specialists responded on time for our deadline:
- James Hoare, former British Chargé d’affaires in Pyongyang
- Aidan Foster-Carter, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University in England
- Cheong Seong-chang, Senior Research Fellow at the Sejong Institute
- David Straub, former associate director, Stanford University Korea Program
- Georgy Toloraya, former diplomat, Director of Department at the “Russkiy Mir” Presidential foundation
- Darcie Draudt, PhD Student in Political Science, Johns Hopkins University, and Non-Resident James Kelly Korean Studies Fellow, Pacific Forum CSIS
- Stephan Haggard, Lawrence and Sallye Krause Distinguished Professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego.
- Jeong Kuk-jin, a former researcher at the MBC Unification Broadcasting Research Center
- Kim Dong-yup, a researcher at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies based in Seoul
1. How would you grade North Korea’s foreign policy performance over the past five years?
James Hoare: From a DPRK perspective, they are probably reasonably pleased. They have continued to develop their nuclear weapons capability and nobody has managed to stop them, despite all the noise and the rhetoric. Sanctions have been imposed but appear to be ineffective.
They may be heavily dependent on China, but they have not allowed that to deflect them, and they have shown that they can stand up to Chinese pressure – so far anyway. Whether there is a long-term sustainable policy in all this, I am doubtful. Yet they have survived serious crises in the past, have defied expectations in the past, and have shown a remarkable ability to keep going.
Aidan Foster-Carter: A huge success, at least in the short term. Kim Jong Un needed to show the home crowd (both elites and the public) that he was a fit successor to dad and granddad. So he did everything they did on the nuke and missile front – only more so.
He didn’t have much choice: an angle that western reactions have overlooked. Basically, Kim does as he pleases, and there is damn-all anyone – including China, given its overall calculus where collapse is a worst-case scenario to be avoided at all costs – can or will do to stop him.
Cheong Seong-chang: Relations between North Korea and the United States have deteriorated as Kim Jong Un has sought regime survival and extension of influence by developing nuclear and missile capabilities, instead of implementing foreign policy. Therefore, the U.S. has no choice but to pursue a policy toward the North focused on sanctions.
North Korea’s relations with China and Russia was partially hit by the long-range rocket launches and nuclear tests. However, Kim Jong Un tried to restore diplomatic relationships by dispatching special envoys, for instance. And he made China adopt a compromising position by strengthening the North’s relations with Russia when its relations with China becomes strained.
David Straub: By any conventional standard, Kim Jong Un’s foreign policy performance has been catastrophic. He has not traveled abroad and he has met very few foreigners, Dennis Rodman being a startling exception, much less foreign leaders.
Relations with China worsened, as evidenced by the lack of a meeting with President Xi, Kim’s execution of his pro-PRC uncle, and his failure to connect the new $350 million Chinese-built bridge across the Yalu River. Regarding South Korea, Kim rejected overtures and raised fears of another Korean War, finally prompting Seoul to make the difficult decision to close Kaesong, the last major inter-Korean cooperative project.
Georgy Toloraya: When Kim Jong Un came to power he had no ready concept of foreign policy. In fact, he hoped that he might suggest some kind of a deal to his opponents and get out of isolation. His attempts to contact the South, the U.S. and Japan testify to that. However, he encountered a very negative attitude based on the conviction of instability of his regime and no desire to look for a compromise from his counterparts.
He then himself turned to pressure and provocative behavior: nuclear and missile tests and hostility towards South. The country is now quite comfortable in its self-imposed isolation and can exercise “strategic patience”.
Darcie Draudt: From North Korea’s perspective, Kim Jong Un has made advances in his foreign policy as it relates to national security. This is particularly the case for its nuclear weapons and missile development programs, which Pyongyang upholds as a deterrence against external interference.
However, because these developments have been met with opprobrium from the international community, North Korea has stalled in other aspects of its foreign policies. Inter-Korean relations have deteriorated, leading to the cessation of institutionalized cooperation programs, such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
Stephan Haggard: Viewed in the regime’s own terms, I suspect Kim Jong Un is satisfied. Power appears to be consolidated, the weapons programs are advancing, and at least in Pyongyang there is little evidence that sanctions have had much bite.
The question is how fragile is the appearance of success? Is it vulnerable not to “collapse,” as is typically assumed, but financial crisis?
Jeong Kuk-jin: Just like in many of its other fields, North Korean diplomacy for the last five years was focused on stabilizing Kim Jong Un’s government. The surrounding environment of the North at that time also contributed to its goal: in 2012 the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia – all of five major nations that affect North Korea’s foreign policies – have faced leadership changes.
In overall, all of the replaced leaderships were not deeply interested in making changes in its relations with the North. So, without putting much effort, the Pyongyang government could easily manage its foreign relations for the past five years.
Kim Dong-yup: With regard to foreign policy strategy under the era of Kim Jong Un, North Korea has pushed ahead with a self-reliance policy, pursuing nuclear power [when approaching] their relations with the United States and China.
As the North implements a strategy of ‘selective parallelism’ considering the dynamics of the external security environment, the country will selectively utilize its relations with China and the U.S. concerning security as well as with South Korean and China regarding the economy depending on the situation.
2. What, in your assessment, will be the overarching goal driving North Korea’s relations with the South and U.S. over the next five years?
James Hoare: I do not think that this question is really answerable at present. We are entering some very unknown waters. There is a new and so far unpredictable new U.S. president whose knowledge and understanding of international affairs and their complexity seems limited.
Perhaps the DPRK can exploit this but I have a suspicion that much of Trump’s support will lie among military veterans and other groups that want to see the U.S. taking action against perceived “enemies” and that the DPRK will be high on their list of such enemies.
In the ROK case, it is impossible at present to say what will come out of the current political shenanigans or what will emerge from the next presidential election. In the past, despite some noise, the DPRK has been cautious at such times – but who knows whether Kim Jong Un might behave differently.
Aidan Foster-Carter: I keep hoping for some sign of strategic vision in Pyongyang. Keeping the world at bay and on edge is ultimately second-best for the DPRK, and for KJU’s long-term prospects. The weapons guys claim it’s all about improving nuke and missile capability such that they really could hit the U.S., forcing it to talk.
Maybe so, but in my view diplomacy is essential and overdue. Post-Park, the next South Korean leader – whoever it is – will resume dialogue in some form, since shunning the North clearly isn’t making Seoul any safer.
Cheong Seong-chang: The North is expected to demand the U.S. and South Korea recognize it as a nuclear state by pursuing the deployment of hydrogen bombs, miniaturized warheads, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) for the next five years.
North Korean may accept the freeze and inspection of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities if the international community withdraws sanctions and the U.S. and South stop joint military drills. I, however, don’t believe that Donald Trump’s administration will proceed with negotiating to develop a compromise.
David Straub: North Korea’s leaders believe that they cannot deal with (i.e. subvert) the South as long as the United States is Seoul’s ally. They see the United States as the South’s essential supporter and, at the same time, the leader of global pressure against the North.
Pyongyang’s aim is thus to convince Washington as soon as possible that it has achieved the capability of attacking the United States with nuclear warheads atop intercontinental ballistic missiles.
When it has done so, its leaders believe, they can use that threat to induce Washington to negotiate on Pyongyang’s terms. Those include Washington accepting it as a nuclear weapons state, which would entail ending sanctions and other pressures, and signing a peace treaty, the provisions of which would eviscerate the U.S.-ROK alliance. Kim Jong Un’s foreign policy is intended to achieve—and is consistent with—those goals.
Georgy Toloraya: More of the same: combining dialogue with provocation and belligerence. As long as the diplomatic process brings North Korea security and benefits it will continue.
When expectations turn short, pressure tactics will follow. The goals are security and economic profit.
Darcie Draudt: The overarching issue will be related to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile development programs. Certainly, its missiles and nuclear weapons development programs have made great strides, U.S. analysts have projected it will reach anywhere from 10 to 100 nuclear weapons by 2020.
South Korea and the United States have proposed denuclearization as the center for any dialogue with North Korea, a condition which North Korea has refused to meet. The change of administration in both South Korea and the United States in 2017, however, might also indicate there is the potential for dialogue if each country’s policies toward North Korea also changes.
Stephan Haggard: At the moment, the regime appears to be taking a cautious stance, in part because of developments in the South. There is a strong possibility that the Constitutional Court will approve Park Geun Hye’s impeachment, and if it does, a strong possibility that a more pro-engagement president will take office in the South.
This will set up a set of conflicts between Seoul and Washington from which North Korea could benefit, particularly if engagement is pushed toward the top of the South Korean agenda.
The problem is that there is little prospect that South Korean engagement will have much impact on the nuclear issue, and it could even be negative if it provides the regime a cushion without having to give up anything.
Jeong Kuk-jin: The North’s skill in diplomacy will be put to the test. Trump’s administration in the U.S. – presumed to bring 180-degree changes in its foreign relations – will soon be meeting with the new South Korean leadership.
At this moment it seems like the opposition party is almost certain to take power during the upcoming South Korean election. The opposition Minjoo Party has already made public its desire to improve relations with the North.
So, compared to the last five years when Pyongyang could simply make military or diplomatic choices to counter the increasing sanctions, Kim Jong Un’s administration will be facing a whole new round of issues.
And in terms of the inter-Korean relations, the country will try to remove the threat of unification by absorption completely and have the equal statehood in the international community.
3. Given your experience watching Pyongyang over the past five years, what do you think is now the best approach for the Trump administration to take with North Korea?
James Hoare: What Trump should do, as his predecessors should have done, is to engage with the DPRK. If you want something from them, then you have to deal with them as they are and not as you would like them to be or as you think they out to be. It is too late to stop the nuclear program, and you will never get rid of the knowledge and expertise acquired over the last several years.
But if the price is right – and I have no doubt that it would be a high one – I still think that they could be persuaded to cap the program. That is what happened back in 1994 and it could happen again. But there should be no tricks and no increasing of the demands or changing the demands as you go along.
I suspect, however, that Trump will engage in bluster and shouting and will be frustrated by his inability to get what he wants (not just in the DPRK case) and that seems to me to be dangerous, given what appears to be his limited understanding of how the world works and how dangerous a place it can be.
Aidan Foster-Carter: Whoever is in power, what is needed with North Korea is to take a deep breath, swallow our disgust, and go for a Helsinki approach and a grand bargain. Accept that the DPRK is here to stay – no more collapsist wishful thinking, and build on KJU’s desire for economic development.
Politically that is very unpalatable in Washington, but nothing else stands a chance of working. Trump is the loosest of cannons, who could go either way. He should have that burger with KJU, but I fear the hardliners he’s appointing will say no.
Then again, the likes of Tillerson – though a dreadful pick overall – might be more receptive, given his track record of doing business with scumbags and his presumably sincere (if also self-serving) belief that this, rather than sanctions, stands the best chance of success.
Cheng Seong-chang: As North Korea’s missile capabilities have been highly developed at a rapid pace, it is predicted that the country will be able to deploy an ICBM within the next four years. Precedence demonstrates that the international community’s sanctions against the North won’t deal a blow sufficient to make the regime give up its pursuit of nuclear and missile development.
Under the circumstances, it is necessary for the next U.S. administration to seriously consider the South’s nuclear armament on condition, meaning the South would give up the option of nuclear armament only if the North abandons its nuclear weapons.
David Straub: We are entering a potentially very dangerous period. Most experts believe that North Korea may achieve the capability of attacking the United States with nuclear weapons during President Trump’s term in office.
From that point on, each time North Korea prepares to launch a long-range missile, the Trump administration will be confronted with the stark reality of not knowing what trajectory it will take or what payload it will carry.
To prevent this, President Trump will need to focus immediately on North Korea and mobilize far greater pressure on North Korea all over the globe until it denuclearizes. Close cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo will become even more important, and could be challenging with Seoul if President Park is succeeded by someone from the progressive camp.
There should also be a clear and transparent formulation of America’s goals: is there a need for regime change? What are the conditions for that and the price U.S. is prepared to pay? What are alternative scenarios and how far the U.S. is prepared to follow them?
Darcie Draudt: The looming question of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program will be of central concern for the Trump administration, and will need to be folded into a larger strategy toward nonproliferation. During his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump indicated a wide range of potential tactics for U.S. relations with North Korea in service of this goal.
Trump has suggested China should take stronger action and he has also offered to sit down with Kim Jong Un himself—which would be the first a sitting U.S. president has met with a North Korean head of state.
There may be some traction in U.S.-North Korea relations to be gained in speaking with North Korea about a wider range of issues, while also keeping a firm stance on global nuclear nonproliferation. The key for the Trump administration in dealing with North Korea will be clear signaling and consistent messaging that corresponds to U.S. diplomatic behavior.
Stephan Haggard: Except for those hoping for a collapse of the regime or believing that it can be pushed to extinction, the broad outlines of policy are pretty well known. The U.S. will continue to do what it can from a distance through incremental increase in secondary sanctions and strengthening of defensive and deterrent capabilities, in part to get China’s attention.
But at the same time, it should keep open the possibility of returning to talks if China can pull off a revival of the long-stalled Six Party Talks. The probability of threading this needle is small, but should be the bedrock of policy. The question is the extent to which a Trump administration would toughen up strategic patience by taking more military risks, for example, by intercepting a missile test.
But the most important thing to note is that the entire regional landscape has been thrown into much greater uncertainty as a result of Mr. Trump’s comments on Taiwan, which have a direct influence on the peninsula. If Trump insists on upending the One China policy, then not only will cooperation with China on North Korea completely dry up, but overt conflict is a real possibility.
How confident is Mr. Trump that he can successfully play the Taiwan card? The more confident he is, the more risk I see for the region.
Jeong Kuk-jin: Trump’s recent nominations hint that the North’s previous foreign policies will not work the way they used to. However, we have to remember the similar situation we faced during Bush’s administration has clearly shown its limit.
The old Korean saying is that ideal parents are made of “a strict father, and a benevolent mother.” Wouldn’t it be ideal if South Korea and the U.S. abide by this Korean saying when facing the North?
Kim Dong-yup: It’s hard to solve [North Korean issues] only through imposing sanctions and putting strong pressure. And it won’t be effective if we only think of persuading and pressing the North through China.
Therefore, it seems that comprehensive negotiation with an aim to achieve nuclear disarmament is the only one realistic alternative.
Additional reporting: Chad O’Carroll, Oliver Hotham, Hamish Macdonald, JH Ahn, Dagyum Ji
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