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View more articles by Wang Son-taek
Wang Son-taek is diplomatic correspondent for South Korea's YTN news network and one of the country's leading journalists on North Korea and diplomatic affairs.
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.
As the year-end deadline set by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in April looms, it remains unclear what option he will take, with much speculation that the most likely scenario is a formal end to long-stalled diplomacy between the North and the U.S.
Some say that the North has already decided its “new path” and that the new policy will be a return to the “fire and fury” of 2017. That line of prediction was strengthened by two announcements earlier in the month that the North had conducted what it described as “important” tests at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground.
North Korea’s claim, too, that it was preparing a “Christmas gift” for the U.S., prompted fevered speculation that North Korea would conduct a long-range missile, or even a nuclear, test in the near future.
Practically, there is a real possibility that the North will soon revert to “fire and fury”-era tensions. But the discourse of the last few weeks has revealed some of the many biases and myths about the North that are prevalent among outside observers of North Korea. Here are some of what this author believes are the most common.
1. North Korea has no interest in denuclearization
It’s easy to believe that Kim Jong Un will not denuclearize, and that he believes his regime won’t survive without nuclear weapons. According to this line of thinking, Kim has no intention of giving them up and has simply cheated Presidents Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in. However, there are a few problems with this view.
First, there is little evidence that Pyongyang really holds such a hard-line position, while the country has frequently expressed its willingness to give up nukes under the right circumstances. Diplomatic negotiations are only possible when there is a rational calculation by all participants that they can gain something from meeting. Emotional convictions or wishful thinking cannot be the starting point for negotiations.
Some might say that the talks began because the U.S. side was cheated by the North. This is difficult to believe: the U.S. has more experiences of dealing with the North than anybody else, except South Korea, and it seems unlikely they went into a negotiation without a solid understanding of the challenges that lay ahead.
While it would be silly to believe everything Kim Jong Un has promised, it’s also irrational to deny everything he has said
This conviction does not explain why Kim Jong Un has already repeatedly promised to denuclearize. He committed to working towards “complete denuclearization” in last year’s Panmunjom Declaration, confirmed it at the Singapore Summit, and again in the Pyongyang Declaration.
He repeated it again in January’s new year address, and just a month later proposed destroying the Yongbyon nuclear complex permanently in return for loosening some sanctions. North Korean media also reported that the talks had focused on denuclearization. While it would be silly to believe everything Kim Jong Un has promised, it’s also irrational to deny everything he said.
Third, there is a rational road map to North Korean denuclearization. Pyongyang has long argued that it needs nuclear weapons because it is at war against the formidable military giant of the U.S. and that nuclear bombs are required to protect the country against a potential U.S. invasion.
According to this logic, North Korea may give up nukes if the North and the U.S. end their state of war through measures like the signing of a peace treaty, normalization of diplomatic ties, and the lifting of sanctions. The Singapore agreement explicitly includes those steps, and North Korea has not hid what it expects to achieve in negotiations since then.
It’s safe to say that there remains a possibility that North Korea will gives up its nukes if negotiation go well, even if the process has gone badly so far.
2. North Korea always cheats
Many would not argue with the claim that North Korea has always cheated on its commitments. It’s certainly true that Pyongyang has often resorted to brinkmanship tactics in negotiations — negotiators must do everything to produce the best results, and sometimes playing tough works.
But it is one sided to claim that North Korea’s negotiating partners have never used these tactics, and it also ignores what the North Korea claims is the long history of U.S. false promises in negotiations. They argue that under the 1994 agreement, they were to receive two light water reactors by 2003 and 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil annually from the U.S. However, the contract was broken by Bush administration.
We don’t need to be so naive to believe that the U.S. has never sought to trick or deceive North Korea
The promises in the joint communiqué between the North and the U.S. in 2000 were also ignored. There was another agreement in September 2005, but the U.S. side had begun financial sanctions against the North four days earlier — hardly a sign that it was negotiating in good faith.
At Singapore, President Trump promised to begin steps towards a new relationship between the two countries. Since then, however, the U.S. has only demanded denuclearization, without raising the possibility of a change in relationship or reciprocal measures.
Kim Jong Un then proposed the possible dismantlement of the Yongbyon facilities, but the U.S. described it as a small deal and rejected it. Again, there is no need to believe all North Korean claims, but we don’t need to be so naive to believe that the U.S. has never sought to trick or deceive North Korea.
3. North Korea will launch an ICBM again
Ask many top experts what North Korea’s next move will be, and this will likely be top of their list. It’s also a prediction that was strengthened by the North’s recent announcements that it had conducted two “important” tests at the Sohae Satellite Launch Ground.
This speculation extends to the idea that North Korea’s new policy line will be a head-to-head confrontation with the U.S. — a 2017 redux, so to speak. However, this idea has three weaknesses.
First, North Korea already announced the completion of its ICBM program in 2017, and it has no need to demonstrate its capability to launch an ICBM again. If they boast about the development of missile capability again, the North Korean people may ask: “what, then, did ‘the completion of nuclear power’ two years ago mean?”
It also costs a lot to conduct a rocket launch. What if they are hoping to provoke a crisis by testing an ICBM? Yes, they could use missiles. But North Korea also has plenty of other ways it can provoke a crisis.
North Korea announced that its important test was done at the Sohae Satellite Launch Ground, a facility used for launching space vehicles including satellites. So, it’s more likely that the North is preparing to launch a space vehicle.
Some experts also argue that the North Korean announcement strongly hinted that the test was of an ICBM engine because the test was conducted by the National Academy for Defense Science. However, the tests were not conducted at a missile engine test site, but at a satellite launch site, and it’s possible the academy could oversee the test of other kinds of military devices, like reconnaissance satellites.
Apart from these misconceptions, there are some points which are often disregarded, even though they are critical for understanding North Korea.
4. Kim Jong Un is chiefly concerned with economic development
North Korea is a poor country, with a per capita GDP of $1500. This point is very important, because poverty is a serious political issue in the North, and it could serve as a critical constraint to the leader of the nation. As a result, economic development has been one of the major goals of the nation, especially after the great famine of the late 1990s.
Kim Jong Un has many times said that he wants to develop the economy of the nation and that he wants to see his people enjoying good meals and happy life. He officially adopted an ambitious five-year national economic development strategy at the seventh Party Convention in May 2016. And in his new year’s speech in January 2018, he admitted that he had not been able to demonstrate positive results on the economic front.
The desire for economic growth is likely one of the major motivations for Kim’s efforts to engage with South Korea and the United States early last year. He calculated that he could achieve the removal of sanctions, he had a much greater chance of achieving development.
Again, people outside North Korea don’t need to believe what Kim Jong Un has said. But the fact is that the country is poor and his desire for economic development is reasonable. Even if the messages he delivered to his people were simply lies, they still impact the domestic politics of the North. It’s foolish not consider his hopes for economic development when we try to develop a strategy to denuclearize the North.
5. North Korea has a siege mentality
Pyongyang’s long-standing siege mentality is another important factor to consider when debating what to do about North Korea. Pyongyang sees itself as having been isolated and besieged since the end of the cold war by hostile or unreliable nations like the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia.
The North’s propaganda recognizes that its worst enemy, the U.S., is a formidable military superpower and that it is a weak and small country
The North’s propaganda recognizes that its worst enemy, the U.S., is a formidable military superpower and that it is a weak and small country. As a result, it must do everything to be ready to fight against a potential invasion.
The narrative by the North is exaggerated: the U.S. would not invade the North unless it directly started a war against the South. But there are plenty of times where major powers like the U.S., China, and Russia have taken unilateral military action against a small nation.
The U.S. invaded Iraq, after all, and executed its leader, less than two decades ago. Many countries around the South China Sea have blamed China for its coercive actions. Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula and annexed it through a military operation.
Furthermore, North Korea’s propaganda and agitation operations are based on this mentality, and they reflect a collective fear shared by the North Korean people. Exaggerated or not, this is a political reality and those that negotiate with the DPRK must understand it.
6. North Korea’s use of diplophonia
Most of the time, North Korea uses a duality of meaning in their communication style. They like to play with conditional phrase. For example, they threatened the U.S. in 2014, saying they would turn Washington D.C. into a sea of fire if the U.S. entered even 0.001 mm into their territory.
The major point of the sentence was to warn the U.S. not to invade, but the media reports focused on “the sea of fire” claim, and the “if” phrase was simply disregarded.
North Korea also uses exaggeration. When a trilateral meeting took place between North Korea, the U.S., and China in Beijing in April 2003, North Korean delegate Lee Gun quietly said to American delegate James Kelly that North Korea had already developed nuclear weapons. Three years later, North Korea carried out a nuclear test for the first time. However, the yield of the explosion was not that powerful and the remark by Lee Gun in 2003 was judged to have been an exaggeration.
They also use twisted sentences. When Kim Jong Un delivered his new year’s speech this year, he used an extremely roundabout phrase.
“We may be compelled to get into a situation reluctantly and inevitably that we could not avoid to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state and for achieving peace and stability of the Korean peninsula.” (translated by the author)
This sentence asks the U.S. to give a major concession, and that he would not want to take a new way. However, lots of western media interpreted that he simply said that he would take a new path.
If we are little bit more cautious about these biases and misconceptions, we can get reach a more objective and accurate understanding and develop a more feasible and effective strategy. If we can get a better strategy, we have a much better chance of achieving denuclearization and creating of a peace regime on the Korean peninsula.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA