Challenges to Building Stability on the Korean Peninsula

May 9, 2013

Glyn T. Davies
, Special Representative of the Secretary of State for North Korea Policy, United States Department of State

Charles K. Armstrong
, Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies, Department of History, Columbia University; Director of the Center for Korean Research, Columbia University

Ambassador Glyn Davies, Special Representative of the Secretary of State for North Korea Policy, visited Japan Society on May 9, 2013 to talk about the international community's quest for a diplomatic way forward to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear capability and reengage with the world.

In remarks during the Q&A session at the end of the evening, the ambassador noted that "we're really at a time when it's up to North Korea.... And I think we're seeing, beginning to see, what this young man, Kim Jong Un, is all about, and we're beginning to see that he is a bit of a throwback, but he may even be approaching these issues more intensively, more provocatively, in a sense a bit more dangerously. So sadly, in what's called the dual-track policy of the United States, which is pressure when we must, and engagement when we can, we're in a pressure phase."

As Ambassador Davies began his main presentation, he reflected on the equanimity of South Koreans in the face of North Korea's belligerence:

"A few weeks ago, North Korea was issuing bellicose threats against the United States and the Republic of Korea on an almost daily basis," a "'threat of the day' strategy" that prompted a throng of journalists from the U.S. and other Western countries to descend on Seoul. But the media were "a bit baffled when they arrived in Seoul and found South Koreans going about their daily lives as they always do. Ordinary citizens in Seoul said they were aware, of course, of North Korea's threats and bluster; but that given the numbing repetition of threats from the Pyongyang regime over the years, they were not paying them much mind."

"In fact, one commentator even joked when asked whether there were signs of North Korean military preparations. He said, 'The only thing that's massing on the Korean Peninsula is Western journalists.' I think that was very much the case at the time."

"But this is not really a laughing matter," Ambassador Davies continued. "It has been a quite sustained and almost unprecedented threatening display." Pyongyang claimed that the 1953 armistice was dead, threatened "strategic strikes" on U.S. and ROK territories, said it would "restart and repurpose" the Yongbyon nuclear complex, and halted operations at the Kaesong Industrial complex.

"These threats and actions occurred in the aftermath of the most provocative and dangerous of all of North Korea's recent steps—its explosive test on February 12 [of this year] of a nuclear device. In this century, only one nation on earth has exploded nuclear weapons, and that is the nation of North Korea."

"Over 80 countries and international organizations issued statements criticizing North Korea's nuclear test—a remarkable chorus of condemnation."

Leap-Day Understanding of February 29, 2012
"The truly sad thing about all of this is it didn't have to be this way. It didn't have to happen like this. North Korea's two missile launches and nuclear tests over the last 13 months (and its recent serial threats) unraveled what had been a nearly year-long U.S. diplomatic effort to engage the DPRK," including meetings in New York in July 2011, in Geneva in October 2011, and in Beijing in February 2012.

The Beijing meeting was originally scheduled for the week before Christmas 2011, but was delayed when the DPRK announced that Kim Jong Il had died on December 17. Out of this meeting came the U.S.-DPRK "Leap Day" understanding of February 29, 2012.

"I was parachuted into this diplomatic process in time for the second round of negotiations in Geneva," Ambassador Davies noted. His predecessor, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, "had done a terrific job of getting us through several tough years on North Korea.... Steve was the one who launched us on the more positive diplomatic trajectory."

The Leap-Day understanding was modest in scope, "meant to establish confidence-building measures and pave the way for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks.... North Korea committed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, on long-range missile launches, and on its uranium-enrichment activity. It also promised to allow international inspectors to return to Yongbyon.... The U.S., for our part, pledged security guarantees."

March 2012 Satellite Launch
"In a dramatic twist, just two weeks later in mid-March, North Korea scuttled the 'Leap Day' deal. It announced its intent to launch a satellite to mark the 100-year anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth on April 15," Ambassador Davies continued. Despite "public and private calls on North Korea not to proceed with the launch; including strong efforts from the People's Republic of China," Pyongyang went ahead and attempted the launch.

"The launch was quite destructive. It did more than put an end to almost a year's worth of diplomatic efforts. It also, sadly, ended humanitarian efforts we had been working on from the U.S. side for quite some time."

The Regime Under Kim Jong Un
At age 28 or 29, Kim Jong Un "is the youngest leader on earth," the ambassador said. However, "despite his fresh image and promising rhetoric of a better future for North Korea's people, Kim Jong Un's changes proved to be stylistic; not substantive. He has rooted his vision for his country firmly in the past."

"A small and privileged elite continues to lavish resources on long-range missile and nuclear projects, as well as luxuries for their own gratification at the expense of his long-suffering subjects. While Pyongyang may have received a facelift, and a few members of the elite have been profiting, the vast majority of North Korea's 25 million people live in poverty without even permission to visit their gleaming capital."

"Reports suggest that the regime has locked away between 100,000 to 200,000 citizens in a vast network of political prisons where inmates are subjected to forced labor and to inhumane conditions. The decision to sentence them is done with no pretense of due process. Promoting human rights, therefore, is a key component of our North Korea policy."

"To sum up, the ball is in North Korea's court and its choice is clear," Ambassador Davies concluded. "Concrete steps toward denuclearization can lead to a path of peace, prosperity, and improved ties with the world including, of course, with the U.S. But if Pyongyang, instead, elects to ignore its commitments to denuclearize and continues to engage in destabilizing provocations; it will face only further international isolation."


Professor Armstrong started off the Q&A:

What would be necessary to resume the Six-Party talks, and what would be the primary subject of discussion, given that North Korea has now said repeatedly it will not give up its nuclear weapons, which was after all the main objective of the talks when they began?

In this "pressure phase," Ambassador Davies said, "we're trying to sharpen North Korea's choices; we're trying to close off avenues to them other than this peaceful diplomatic way forward. And so even though sadly I'm not engaged in Six-Party talks, which would be nice to get back to in the right context, there's lots of work to do with our other four partners in the Six-Party process, and with the rest of the world, which is increasingly interested in this issue."

"So it's a tough moment diplomatically, but we've been in these moments before, and I think if we stick together and take a principled approach, and the U.S., Japan and Korea work tightly together, and also with China and Russia, we'll get there eventually."

The audience joined in:

In your view, who is it who makes the decisions in the DPRK?

"There's lots of speculation about this. A lot of very experienced analysts are looking at it. Nobody knows, because it's a very opaque, kind of closed system," Ambassador Davies responded.

A year ago, as Kim Jong Un came to power, there were some "outward signs that he was interested in being a bit different, more accessible than his father."

"Remember his father ruled for 17 years, and I think there's only one sentence fragment in 17 years that was broadcast, we think by mistake, to the North Korean people; so they heard their leader speak once, a few words in 17 years." Whereas "this young man gives speeches, he seems interested in the welfare at least of the elites of Pyongyang," and has "talked about how to improve his economy."

"And so this debate emerged at the time, well, maybe this is collective leadership, maybe there are others behind the scenes, his famous uncle, his aunt, or the military, or those in the party are calling the shots or helping him along."

"That debate has largely evaporated.... It's increasingly clear that the logic of the North Korean system is at work, and according to the logic of that system, there must be one paramount leader who heads the Party, the state, the army, who has all six of the titles that have now become traditional for a North Korean leader. And I think for all intents and purposes, however the mechanics might work in practice, all roads, all decision-making, goes to him, and all decisions come from that mountain top down, through the instrumentalities of the DPRK, and are put in place."

Is there really any hope of North Korea responding in a positive way regarding Six-Party talks? It seems to me that the only hope is that China will exert the only leverage that the world has.

"To a great extent there is increasing expectation that China should use its unique relationship with North Korea to try to impress upon the leadership there the need to take a different direction, a direction of diplomacy and peaceful resolution of these problems, and step away from military threats and provocations," the ambassador agreed.

"Your larger question, your first question about is there hope—of course there is. There's always hope for diplomacy," he added.

"I often use the example of my father, who joined the U.S. Foreign Service as a junior officer in 1947 after crossing the Normandy beaches and serving as a sergeant in the U.S. Army. Comes into the State Department, becomes a Sovietologist, works on Russia. My first memories in life were life in Moscow, when he served in Moscow a couple of times, and on the periphery of the Soviet Union. He worked at it for 30-plus years. He was retired. And about nine years after he retired, what happened? 1989."

"I am actually in a strange way somewhat optimistic that we'll eventually get there" with North Korea. "And largely that's because of this growing, gathering international consensus—80 nations issuing statements of condemnation, China beginning to take steps that would have been unimaginable even 12 months ago to signal to North Korea its displeasure with some of North Korea's actions."

"The main reason we have to keep at it is the alternative or alternatives are, honestly, unthinkable, for the future of not just the Korean Peninsula, which now becomes so important because of the ROK economic miracle and the fact that South Korea is now an international player, but because it's right smack in the middle of arguably the most important engine of growth in the world today."

I was in South Korea the week that North Korea closed the factories. South Koreans were saying essentially "Same old, same old," but then I'd turn on the BBC and get a worrying picture. My work as an education consultant will bring me back to South Korea in June. What are your criteria for saying to foreigners that now's the time to leave South Korea?

"We have never said to our own citizens that they should leave South Korea, in fact quite the opposite," Ambassador Davies declared.

"In fact, it's fascinating—as someone who follows this closely, you probably know that not too many weeks ago, when the North Koreans called in all of the couple of dozen foreign embassies in Pyongyang, and they said to them you know, there's going to be a nuclear war, the Americans are hostile, they're going to attack, so therefore, if you want to evacuate, we'll help you evacuate. And I saw one expert on TV say 'it might have been the only time in history that a host government called in ambassadors from a range of countries, said war's coming, time to go, and every single one of them said thank you very much but we're really going to stay here.' Because everyone knew the U.S. for 60 years has done the exact opposite. We've done everything we can to prevent a recurrence of the war that broke out in the early 1950s."

"So don't change your plans. I'm going back. I'm not going to think twice about it. The U.S. is working with South Korea to ensure that we're ready for any kind of contingency that arises. And I would counsel you not to be concerned by the scare talk that comes from North Korea."

So how stable, or unstable, has the region become, and how rightful are Japan and South Korea and others in their thinking that they should be nuclearizing?

"In fact one of the things that President Park Geun-hye said when she came to Washington was the exact opposite, that that's not the intention of the Republic of Korea, [to] walk away from their commitments to the nonproliferation treaty and develop nuclear weapons... I don't think the Japanese see that in their interest either. So I think those concerns and fears are overblown."

"I don't think the region is destabilized. I think there is this issue, this problem, this kind of festering challenge that we've got in North Korea. But you know I don't think the North Korean regime is suicidal. I don't think that they're going to take steps that will bring down upon them a reaction that would cause them great difficulty. We certainly hope that's the case. There's no reason for them to do that because no one is threatening their existence. Nobody is in an aggressive posture toward North Korea. All of our actions with the South Koreans are defensive, and we put a very fine point on that every time we have exercises with the South Koreans or engage in military talks with them."

"It seems to me that we have to understand that the North Korean leadership is not insane; they're not suicidal, I agree, and they're not even irrational," Professor Armstrong remarked. "We have to understand the reality which drives them, and the priorities which they have."

"And I also happen to believe that Kim Jong Un is in charge, although he certainly has help," the professor continued.

Economic development or reform "is very much a third priority" behind, one, defense of the regime, and two, defense of the elite in the regime. "So to get them to change, I think, through appealing to their economic self-interest is not going to be as successful as a first measure as it is to try to address these security concerns directly, it seems to me. Again, they may be unpredictable in a certain sense, but I don't think the regime is irrational, and certainly not crazy."

"I agree," Ambassador Davies said. "I agree completely. And anyhow we're counting on that, as we try to work through this."

—Katherine Hyde

Topics:  Policy

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