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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un heads into an upcoming summit with U.S. President Donald Trump believing he is at a distinct advantage, Jung H. Pak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, warned in a recent interview with NK News.
Pak, a former CIA senior official, said she is skeptical that the U.S. President will go into his second meeting with the DPRK leader well-prepared to navigate the complexity of the denuclearization issue.
“The problem with just leader-to-leader [diplomacy] is that Kim is preparing for this meeting,” Pak, who also works as the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, said. “I think we have to be careful because I think Kim perceives that he is in a position of strength coming into this second meeting.”
Either a peaceful peninsula or the abandonment of nuclear weapons is not what Kim Jong Un wants to achieve as the North Korean leader “thrives on instability,” Pak said, explaining that Kim’s definition of peace is “much more different.”
In a wide-ranging interview in Washington DC, Pak discussed U.S.-DPRK diplomacy, the future of the alliance, why a nuclear North Korea is such a threat to peace in the region.
“The question we really have to ask ourselves is, are we comfortable that Kim alone has all of this power?”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and readability
NK News: Why do you think this administration has made North Korea such a high priority?
Jung Pak: Number one, President Obama told Trump that North Korea is going to be his first national security challenge. If there is going to be a crisis, it was going to be on North Korea. So I think that affected the way President Trump thought about North Korea. And it is a top national security priority, but I think there was an element of ego involved where President Trump thought, and he was very open about this; “why didn’t anybody solve this, why am I left to solve this problem?”
And so there is ego, but there is also the fact that North Korea’s nuclear weapons had advanced past all the redlines or whatever redlines that anybody had on North Korea.
Secondly, and this flows from the ego part is, “I’m going to fix this problem, and I’m going to try something different”. There is nothing inherently wrong with leader-to-leader meetings especially since Kim has taken complete and personal ownership of the weapons program. So it makes sense to talk to Kim.
“There is a sense by President Trump that he alone can solve this problem”
But there has to be a process in which all of the equities of the U.S. government, and the South Korean government, and the Japanese government, and the Chinese government, all allies, and partners in the region, are taken into a package so that you can negotiate from a position of unity and strength. That hasn’t happened because I think there is a sense by President Trump that he alone can solve this problem.
He was very candid that he did not prepare for the summit. “I don’t have to prepare because I know personalities, I’ve been in a lot of business deals…” and as far as I understand, there weren’t cabinet-level meetings to discuss all of these things before the Trump-Kim meeting.
And I think, among the other national security crises that are happening now, talking to North Korea has bipartisan support. Even though they might disagree with the way it’s been carried out, no one is saying we should go back to war. And so that is something that I think the President sees as his foreign policy success. And he’s been building that narrative of foreign policy success, without evidence, since March of 2018. So for almost a year, the President has been building and helping Kim to shed his murderous dictator image.
NK News: The U.S. and North Korea agreed to establish a working group to deal with the “nitty-gritty stuff” during a visit to Pyongyang by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in July. Why has there been no progress in its formation?
Jung Pak: Because they don’t want to talk about the things that we wanted to talk about. The point of the working group would have been to talk about how to implement the Singapore Declaration. The North Koreans, you can tell from Kim’s New Year speech too, they have done what they said they were going to do. That’s their claim, and that it’s now the U.S. side that has to respond.
“I think we have to be careful because I think Kim perceives that he is in a position of strength coming into this second meeting”
NK News: In the absence of working-level discussions, is a top-down approach – in the form of another meeting between President Trump and Kim – sufficient to resolve pending issues on the peninsula?
Jung Pak: The problem with just leader-to-leader is that Kim is preparing for this meeting. He’s preparing for the second summit by going to China, talking to Xi again, continuing to pressure South Korea on these issues. So he is preparing. But he has also shunned discussion about the nuclear issues that he was supposed to move toward –denuclearization. He’s argued that he’s already moved toward denuclearization, with the Sohae and Punggye-ri and others, and no testing. So I’m not optimistic.
I think we have to be careful because I think Kim perceives that he is in a position of strength coming into this second meeting, especially given the warm reception that his letter has got, the fourth meeting with Xi Jinping, the ongoing conversation with President Moon, the letter exchanges, and whatever else might be happening with just the President.
I think the U.S. has continued to move the goalpost there is a lot of changing of minds – “we want a declaration… we want to get this done in six months…” and then, “nine months…” and then, “they can take as long as they want…” to, “maybe they don’t need to do a complete declaration…” That’s what Vice President Pence said a few weeks ago. So the U.S. position continues to shift, which makes it in more of Kim’s interest to go directly to Trump whom he might think is more amenable to giving him what he wants, given some convergence of their interests.
NK News: Do you believe North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has a genuine intention to give up his nuclear weapons or is this part of a deception to obtain sanctions relief?
Jung Pak: I don’t think he has a genuine interest in giving up his nuclear weapons. I think one of the main reasons for why he’s pivoted to diplomacy is because he says he’s completed his nuclear weapons. And whenever he talks about denuclearization, it’s in the context of the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. And when he makes those types of statements, it is highly conditional on U.S. behavior, on U.S. actions, and the U.S. isn’t going to do certain types of those actions, which makes denuclearization impossible.
In terms of security guarantees, the problem with security guarantees and what North Korea calls U.S. hostile policy is that only they get to decide what U.S. hostile policy is. Because we’ve given security guarantees in the past, we’ve offered normalization, we’ve offered exchanges, but I think people have to really understand that Kim needs a hostile external environment to justify his rule domestically and internationally.
And I don’t think that a peaceful peninsula is something that is really what he wants, but a peninsula in which he can drive events without the burden of a U.S.-South Korea alliance, without the burden of threats on his regime, and his ability to control all aspects of what happens in North Korea. He thrives on instability. He thrives on conflict. Instability or conflict in Africa or the Middle East is a fertile ground for selling weapons, instability or conflict or fissures in any U.S. relationships in the region is something that he can always play to his advantage.
Conflict between and among the countries in East Asia also plays to his advantage. So when he talks about peace and how he wants peace, we have to examine what his definition of peace is versus our definition of peace. Our definition of peace is a North Korea without nuclear weapons, where we don’t have the constant threat of a nuclear war breaking out, or proliferation to non-state entities, or bad actors – that’s our definition. His definition is much more different than I think people realize.
“I don’t think that a peaceful peninsula is something that Kim wants”
NK News: What is the definition of peace from Kim Jong Un’s perspective, and what does the DPRK leader want most from the U.S. side?
Jung Pak: One is, “peace, who doesn’t like peace?” That’s a nice way of packaging something into something that can be acceptable to everybody and it’s hard to come out against peace or be opposed to peace. So it serves a rhetorical objective or purpose.
Secondly, his idea of peace I think is a way of linking that to U.S. and South Korea military exercises (the alliance). So if those things are still happening, then there is no peace. Third, the reason he wants the second is to have greater freedom of movement actions with respect to sanctions, with respect to his nuclear weapons development. So I think all three of those things combined gives you a sense of how his definition differs from our definition.
NK News: Do you agree with the opinion that the ultimate goal of Kim Jong Un is to be accepted as a de facto nuclear weapon state?
Jung Pak: Yes. He’s already said that he is a nuclear weapons power. He put it into his constitution in 2013. So that’s what he has. What he’s waiting for is other people to just get over it. And if you look at some of them over the past six years, what the regime has been saying pretty bluntly is, “Six-Party Talks are dead, we have nuclear weapons, we are in a new era, the U.S. has to just get over it.” And basically, those are the key points that the Party and the state media have been saying, “get over it. This is what we have.”
NK News: What future can we expect if we fail to create a nuclear-free peninsula?
Jung Pak: Ten years from now, if we still have a North Korea with nuclear weapons, the alliance will have eroded. There is the perception of peace because North Korea is not doing anything overtly militarily, China starts turning the spigot back on, even more so on the economic side, people start accepting Kim’s traveling to meet with the Vietnamese president, or going to Singapore, or flying to South Korea, or meeting Putin, more meetings with Xi. So it just continues to normalize him as the leader of a nuclear weapons power and he turns into a statesman rather than somebody who is a violator of human rights, a leader of a regime that has proliferated in the past.
“Ten years from now, if we still have a North Korea with nuclear weapons, the alliance will have eroded”
The question we really have to ask ourselves is, are we comfortable that Kim alone has all of this power? And all of our assumptions would have to be correct. The assumption that he wants peace and that he is not going to do anything terrible has to be correct all the time. Relying on this one person, who might rule for 20, 30, 40 years, that he is going to be able to completely control his nuclear weapons, that there is no loose nukes situation, and that he is not going to decide that he is going to use it or threaten to use it just to see what happens.
NK News: Could North Korea not become a rational nuclear weapons state in ten years, as other countries including India are?
Jung Pak: India is different because India is open, it’s an open society. It’s a civil society, they are democratically governed. That’s not the model that Kim has. And also, there is no South India. There is no South Vietnam, there is no South China. South Korea is an existential threat to Kim. Reunification is his big aspirational goal.
What if he thinks he can get that? I think we would have to be able to completely trust this one person who’s not going to open up the economy, who’s going to continue to repress his people, that he’s going to be this upstanding international citizen. I don’t see that happening. Because it would undermine his sole rule if he did all of those things.
NK News: Then, with regard to his North Korea policy, what will President Trump have achieved by the end of his first term?
Jung Pak: There are two consistent things in the President’s statements. One is that no sanctions removal without denuclearization. The second thing is, “progress is being made, we haven’t had a missile test or nuclear test in over a year”. That’s a low bar for progress. So if Kim doesn’t test for the next two years, the problem is solved, right? President Trump leaves office or he gets elected for a second term, he will say, “hey, everything has been fine while I was president… I solved this problem”. So I think there is space for him to claim success without complete denuclearization if Kim doesn’t test.
NK News: To this end, will Trump make concessions, for example, easing sanctions or lifting the travel ban, at the upcoming second summit, to persuade North Korea to accelerate the denuclearization process?
Jung Pak: I wouldn’t rule any of those things out. I think I would say that the President has differed in a lot of his talking points with his advisors in the past on everything. And on North Korea, he said, “I don’t even want to use maximum pressure, they can take as long as they want”, which is different from what Pompeo had been saying, and what Bolton had been saying. If there is one consistent talking point from the President, it’s that no sanctions removal without denuclearization. That is the one thing that he has kept consistent for the past two years.
NK News: North Korean state-run media has urged the Trump administration to relieve sanctions in response to the measures Pyongyang has taken towards denuclearization. But given what you’ve said, there appears to be a slim chance that Washington will accept the suggestion?
Jung Pak: If they do, that will be a huge about-face from the existing U.S. policy because the maximum pressure campaign, even though weakened, is still on. Treasury is continuing to research and churn out sanctions and additional designations. So I think that’s unlikely – to remove sanctions without some clear observable concession from Kim. It’s not going to be the nuclear test site, it’s not going to be the missile engine test site, it’s going to be something much bigger.
“The Kaesong Industrial Complex would generate $100 million that they would funnel back into the weapons program”
NK News: Then, what kind of corresponding measures can Washington take in the current stage?
Jung Pak: If you look at the President’s statement, it could be things like postponing, indefinitely, the military exercises. It could be reducing, to some extent, the troop level presence in South Korea. It could be talking about a peace regime or a peace treaty. It could be talking about humanitarian assistance and allowing that to go through. Those are some of the things that they can talk about.
Maybe a liaison office – that’s been floated around. So those are some side things that they could do. But those are big things. Exercises, there are lots of people in Washington – military folks – who say that we’ve already eroded our military capabilities and preparedness as a result of the two or three exercises that we’ve not done. And so that will be a big thing, to have a troop reduction on Kim Jong Un’s watch, but I don’t think that will be enough for Kim to give up very much.
NK News: Some, including Joseph Yun, say a U.S. green light to resume inter-Korean economic cooperation could be one of the corresponding measures that Washington can take. D0 you think that’s possible?
Jung Pak: I don’t think that the bureaucracy would let that happen because of the sanctions. The Kaesong Industrial Complex would generate $100 million that they would funnel back into the weapons program, which would be completely antithetical to U.S. policy of maximum pressure and trying to hamper North Korea’s generation of money for its regime. I would be surprised if Trump did that because that would mean more exemptions. It would mean exemptions on sanctions. But what this administration has done has always surprised.
NK News: Did South Korean President Moon Jae-in, then, succeed in his role as a mediator last year?
Jung Pak: Yes. That was President Moon’s success. It was to diffuse tensions, swoop in and try to keep North Korea and the U.S. talks on track. I think that the risk there was that when you are a matchmaker, you don’t always tell the whole truth.
NK News: What’s the biggest failure that Seoul made last year in terms of inter-Korean relations and the North Korean nuclear issue?
Jung Pak: Setting the tone of the engagement and diplomacy. President Moon jumped too fast on the Olympics issue, but I can’t blame him for that because the threat of conflict and the U.S. considering a bloody nose strike was really intense and I think he had no choice but to get his hands on managing that situation.
NK News: Inter-Korean economic cooperation also is a field where Washington and Seoul show a clear difference of position. What do you think Washington would prefer Seoul did?
Jung Pak: I think the working group between South Korea and the U.S. it’s to make sure that South Korea doesn’t move too fast and to make sure that there is transparency and that your government is about what’s going on. So in that way, the special representative Biegun is doing what he can to make sure that we are talking and talking about things that are collaborative. I would say that what Washington, as a government, would like Seoul to do is to slow down on the engagement.
“President Moon jumped too fast on the Olympics issue, but I can’t blame him for that because the threat of conflict and the U.S. considering a bloody nose strike was really intense”
NK News: Many believed that Seoul was not entirely satisfied with the setting up of that group. Do you agree?
Jung Pak: Yes. Seoul has to walk a delicate line because progressive governments generally want to be more autonomous, and are inclined toward engagement with North Korea than conflict or confrontation. So what you say makes sense because that was the reason for the whole working group – is to make sure that we are all moving in the same direction at the same pace.
NK News: Pyongyang has also expressed its dissatisfaction over the ROK-U.S. working group through its state-run media.
Jung Pak: Right. I get the sense that Kim is also just irritated and frustrated with Moon. Irritated that Seoul is working too much with the U.S., can’t do things by themselves because they are part of this international community. And I think that serves as a lesson for Kim too. It’s that this is what happens when you have allies and alliances and you are part of the international community. You actually have to compromise.
And so that goes to your first question about why he doesn’t want peace, or like to be the Indian model or the Vietnam model. He doesn’t have to listen. He is not beholden to anybody. He has not been shy about defiance in the past seven years. Defiance – speaking badly of the Chinese, not having any exchanges, calling Park and Lee Myung-bak terrible names like whore and other awful things, killing his brother, his uncle.
The boundaries for him are just much bigger than for most people. And being part of the international community, and his desire to have complete autonomy gives us zero leverage in envisioning North Korea as a responsible nuclear power. Those are not consistent.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: KCNA