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Moving North Korea policy past abstraction and towards reality

Kim Ga Young  |  2017-04-10 10:43

Government transitions in Seoul and Washington are prompting both countries to re-evaluate their North Korea policy. In South Korea, the debate is focusing on how to replace the Park administration’s “TrustPolitik.” The policy aims to achieve denuclearization and unification with a step-by-step model, but has not dissuaded the North to give up its missile and nuclear development. Choi Jin Wook (image left) is Director of the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU). He sat down with Daily NK to discuss these matters in an exclusive interview. 

Daily NK [DNK]: Now that Park Geun Hye has been impeached, the country’s North Korea policy is once again up for debate. There has been some criticism about an unhealthy amount of political bickering throughout process. What are your thoughts on the matter? 

Choi Jin Wook [Choi]: Some people say that the departing government had an overtly confrontational stance for their North Korea policy and believe that the Park administration did not pursue dialogue sufficiently. But personally I think that the administration didn’t perceive the exigency of the situation properly. Kim Jong Un conducted the country’s third nuclear weapons test right before former President Park arrived in office, and proceeded with a string of nuclear and missile provocations, removing any rationale for patience and dialogue on Seoul’s part. The Park administration should have understood the North’s intentions earlier and set an appropriate policy. The administration refrained from pre-judging the Kim regime, and instead opted for a wait and see approach. 

But the policy has turned out to be nothing but wishful thinking. North Korea had already publicly trounced Seoul’s offers several times by that point. There is a danger of miscalculation whenever Seoul’s North Korea policy is too optimistic. 

DNK: Why do you think Park’s “Trustpolitik” failed to produce positive changes? 

On the Korean peninsula, Trustpolitik doesn’t make sense beyond theory. The most important element of any North Korea policy is to produce positive changes, but no South Korean government has succeeded in doing so thus far. It’s important to look at the reality of North Korea, including the human rights problem, the nuclear weapons problem, and the country’s gradual marketization. To date, the tendency for South Korea’s North Korea policy has been to focus on function and implementation, to the detriment of the larger picture. We haven’t been good at coming to terms with reality when it comes to North Korea. 

The same applies for Trustpolitik. When foreigners ask us what the process entails, it’s difficult to give a definitive answer. The Sunshine Policy was better because you could point to specific examples, like loading up cattle and delivering them to North Korea. But Trustpolitik was too abstract. It’s important to discuss specific measures when crafting a policy, so that people can easily determine whether to support it or not. 

DNK: So the problem is that Trustpolitik lacked specific details? 

Yes, I think that’s fair to say. It might even have been better to engage in dialogue or give humanitarian aid to the North during the Trustpolitik process. When the government was forming their North Korea policy, I recommended that they continuously provide humanitarian aid. I advised them that to research exactly the type of aid and the volume needed so that we can ship it out. But the Park administration’s pledge to give aid was an empty promise.   

We need to move North Korea policy past abstraction and towards reality. This means that stating principles is not enough. It’s important to foresee what specific policies will be implemented in 3 years, and then in 6 years. We don’t need to go overboard by noting exactly how many times we plan on meeting with North Korean officials. But it would be beneficial to note what level of officials will meet and what sort of dialogue they will pursue. Without that, the next government might as well repeat exactly what the previous government did. Our North Korea policy has gone from overly exchange-oriented to overly abstract.  

DNK: Some of the South Korean candidates for the presidency have talked about a North Korea state visit if they get voted into office. In addition, there is a lot of support for transforming the country’s North Korea policy. What are your thoughts on this?

I’m not sure that it’s a clear move away from abstraction, merely saying, “I’ll start by going to North Korea,” or, “I’m going to increase the pressure.” The Park administration pursued a pressure-based policy. Pledging to do the opposite of that could mean an overzealous pursuit of dialogue with the North. Is that really within the realm of possibility right now? Since the North has nuclear weapons, no matter what we do, it is going to be difficult. Most likely, North Korea won’t welcome sudden invitations from the South to engage in dialogue. North Korea has made it clear that it prefers to negotiate with the US to try to ease some of the sanctions pressure.      

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the possibility of talking with the North is not in the cards entirely. 

DNK: Do you think that the incoming administration will participate in a state summit with the North? 

That would first require progress in terms of dialogue. The situation right now is quite different from years past. The North and South have already tried all manner of communication and the results haven’t exactly been promising. Furthermore, the North has publicly announced its intention to become a nuclear power. Kim Jong Un executed his uncle and has assassinated his half-brother. The international community is quite concerned about these developments. With that in mind, I don’t think that holding a summit with Kim Jong Un is a good idea at the moment.    

Right now it’s important to induce a change in North Korea’s attitude. That means convincing the regime that North Korea is a member of the international community, and as such, has a responsibility to act in accordance with the norms set forth by the community. Even if North Korea does not adopt a forward looking policy, it still needs to show enough goodwill to justify holding dialogue. That is not the case right now.  

DNK: With the prospect of an attitude change looking dim at best, some are pointing out that sanctions will not achieve the desired effect.

Sanctions alone will not succeed in inducing North Korea to change. The current sanctions are intended to get Pyongyang to halt its pursuit of nuclear weapons. But we do not have any indicators that North Korea is heading in that direction. 

That is why it’s also important to have strategic dialogue. In the last stage of his administration, US President Barack Obama expressed some degree of dissatisfaction that the South Korean government didn’t pursue dialogue with North Korea and instead used only sanctions to increase the pressure. President Obama believes that sanctions should be used to elicit dialogue, which in turn is used to achieve a change in attitude and ultimately denuclearization. The US consistently asked Korea what the “end goal” of sanctions is, but the Korean government had no satisfactory answer to offer.  

DNK: Do you think that South Korea feels reluctant due to the failure of past dialogue with the North? 

Of course it’s impossible to solve everything through dialogue, but it’s nonetheless necessary to continue to try and engage in dialogue. When candidate Trump mentioned the possibility of a US-NK dialogue, some people remarked that the talks would unduly expand into a wider negotiation. I think there is some neurosis here in the South that the US might cut South Korea out of the process.  
But there is a difference in perception between Washington and Seoul. The dialogue being discussed by the Trump administration is more like an informal discussion than the official negotiations that South Koreans tend to think about when dialogue is mentioned. This is a routine process for Washington, but South Koreans associate these high stakes discussions with crisis and fear. There’s a need to break out of this pattern and look at dialogue from a range of diverse tactical viewpoints. At the same time, it wouldn’t make sense to throw out all the sanctions and pressure that we have been applying merely to earn a round of dialogue. Anytime that a policy switches dramatically from one pole to the other, it is destined to fail. 

DNK: What factors should the incoming administration consider when forming their North Korea policy? 

Citing the failure of sanctions and pressure in creating policy change, the incoming administration may consider reversing course and pursuing an exchange-based approach with North Korea, but this would be a mistake. We need to review and examine what the exact results of sanctions and pressure has been and what direction we would like to go. If reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Kumgang Mountain Tourism area will result in denuclearization, then that is a direction worth pursuing. But if that’s not the case, we need to examine the effects of pressure and sanctions so that we can develop a consistent and effective policy going forward.   

This government’s North Korea policy was the inevitable result of the rapidly changing geopolitical environment in Northeast Asia and the North’s increasing nuclear threat. I don’t think it’s fair to say that these policies were shaped by the meddling of Choi Soon Sil. Looking ahead to the incoming administration, I think it will be important to create a bipartisan approach to North Korea.

DNK: Can you elaborate?

Bipartisan bodies that exist right now include The Presidential Committee for National Cohesion and the Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation. But the current level of bipartisan coordination on North Korea policy is not enough. We need a mandated body to help craft a diplomatic and security-based approach to North Korea policy; it could be called something like The Presidential Committee for Diplomacy and Security. It would be composed of policy experts and researchers from the ruling party and the opposition. The committee would focus on spirited debate and cooperation, and could be used to engage the opposition party and to reduce the perception that the president is acting unilaterally on important issues.  

DNK: What information should we use to begin building an effective strategy for denuclearizing North Korea? 

I think there is a need to reduce the perception of North Korea’s security threat. If that’s the goal, then diplomatic relations between North Korea and the US are inevitable. This doesn’t mean that a peace agreement should be signed right off the bat. Countries like Russia and Japan don’t have a peace treaty, and yet they do just fine. If North Korea exhibits some will to denuclearize, then we would need to work hard towards facilitating diplomatic relations between North Korea and China. If diplomatic relations are established, North Korea will have guarantees that its sovereignty, territory, and autonomy will be protected. That will lead to North Korea opening up, and then denuclearization will naturally arise during the negotiation process.  

Trust will gradually accumulate through this process, and then momentum will gather towards a peace agreement and denuclearization. North Korea has nuclear weapons and various biological weapons. If we go immediately towards a peace agreement, we won’t get anything in return. The process could mirror processes that we’ve seen with Cuba, Vietnam, and Myanmar.  

DNK: While some think that Kim Jong Un is irrational, others contest that claim on the basis that he’s been able to consolidate the regime’s power for 6 years. What is your evaluation of Kim Jong Un? 

I don’t think we can regard Kim Jong Un as a crazy person, but he certainly isn’t the most normal and rational person either. The most obvious point to make is that he expends significant energy in maintaining his power and authority. Kim believes in the brutal application of power to maintain his position. In that regard, even if we find it hard to consider his actions to be reasonable, we can fairly say that he has a kind of animalistic instinct and know-how when it comes to power. 

However, looking at Kim’s execution of his uncle, the assassination of his half-brother, and his continuous nuclear tests, I also think that Kim has an inferiority complex about his position. Kim suddenly became leader without the same preparation that his father was able to undertake before rising to the throne. He is also under the global spotlight. Given these factors, Kim feels compelled to act out. Compared to his father and grandfather, Kim seems to feel more anxiety about his grasp on power.   

It’s always very dangerous when someone with an inferiority complex comes into a position of power. Looking at Kim exercise fearpolitik toward veterans and senior citizens, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll be able to lead for very long. North Korea will continue to suffer as long as Kim Jong Un is in charge. 

DNK: Many people have voiced concerns about a possible emergency situation emerging from Kim’s unstable position, but nothing has yet happened to challenge his grasp on power. What do you think is going to happen to the Kim regime? 

I also think that North Korea is currently unstable. The country has cut out exchanges with the outside world, but there is still a chance that it might be overwhelmed by marketization. As the yuan and dollar are being openly used in the markets, the regime’s power is diminishing. The regime and its officials have formed a parasitic relationship with the nouveau rich class, known as the donju. And now they scratch each other’s backs. It’s not the kind of situation that can be carried out sustainably. Some have been noting that the regime could collapse at any time, but I think we should wait and see what happens. 

The problem is that North Korea will not collapse if we do nothing. It’s essential to get North Korea to open up and reform. If that’s the goal, then introducing information from the outside world is key. This should be done in order to expedite positive change, not merely to introduce instability. 

*Edited by Lee Farrand

 
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2017.04.25
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