Why Expect Fewer Fouls if National Interests Haven’t Changed?
By David Roosevelt Lawrence
The idea of a youthful new leader in North Korea tempts spectators to see a shot at reform. Playing to this perception, the Korean Central News agency recently released a photo of North Korean generals taking notes as the Great Successor Kim Jong Un discusses basketball.
In 2012, South Korea will hold Presidential and National Assembly elections in the same year for the first time in its history, and South Korean voters are questioning the logic of containment. In contrast with the hardline policies of the current Lee Mung-Bak administration, with which the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) leadership appears unwilling to engage, South Korea’s progressive Democratic United Party advocates a return to a revised Sunshine Policy – and it’s quite likely that they will win both elections.
While progressives believe easing containment might facilitate change in North Korea, lessons of the past guide many analysts to opposite conclusions. Disagreement stems from differing assessments of the positioning and interests of North Korea and China, and what outcomes best serve the United States’ interests.
The first point of contention is North Korea’s level of willingness to open its economy and the inherent risk such reform would pose to the regime. “I have perceived in talking to North Koreans about economic issues that they are pretty comfortable with opening up,” Dr. John Delury (ES ’97), a professor at Yonsei University, said during a phone interview from his office in Seoul. In North Korea’s participation in special economic zones such as Kaesong with South Korea, and in failed attempts to establish such zones in Rason (with Russia), and Sinuiju (with China), Delury finds the leadership willing to pursue a path towards gradual economic liberalization.
Accordingly, Delury proposes increasing economic engagement with the DPRK, which he theorizes would soften the regime gradually into trading its nuclear program for economic security.
Yet Professor Shi Yinhong of Renmin University in Beijing argues that unlike China’s leadership, Kim Jong Il and now Un’s regime do not believe that “a gradual and step-bystep (but serious) economic reform will reduce [instability] greatly rather than cause instability.” North Koreans “in fact have refused this advice [to pursue reform] over many years.”
Stanford’s Professor Daniel Sneider offers a different explanation than Delury’s of North Korea’s exploration of market economics through special economic zones and other limited means. With the state-run ration system for food distribution ineffective, the regime has had to rely on marketplaces to fill in gaps; however, “they fear the loss of social and political control that comes along with that” and have consistently pulled back from market-based solutions.
While the DPRK’s leadership might flirt with a market economy in small ways, it has compelling reasons not to liberalize more significantly, or “open Pandora’s box” as Sneider puts it. When China and Vietnam opened their economies, they brought in foreign investment. For North Korea too this would be a necessary step. Yet, “with foreign investment comes the truth about what life is like across the border in the south.” Were North Koreans to gain awareness of South Korea’s lifestyle under a free market economy, the regime’s claim to be the truly legitimate leadership of Korea would weaken.
The risk of information flow already poses grave concerns for the regime, especially during the current transfer of power. Soon after the death of Kim Jong Il, cell phone use during the 100-day mourning period for the Dear Leader was declared a war crime. Sneider says that in speaking with defectors he learned that smuggled DVD players and South Korean television dramas circulate underground in Pyongyang, and in his December 21 article on North Korea in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof observed that as police crackdown on smuggled videos, “a smuggled tape could mean the dispatch of an entire family to a labor camp.”
Alan Romberg, Director of the East Asia program at The Stimson Center, agrees that the regime views substantial economic reform as incompatible with maintaining control: “few people believe that North Korean domestic policy can fundamentally change without a change in the system, which means a change in the regime.” Under Kim Jong Un’s leadership “it would seem even less likely than before that North Korea could handle the political fallout from serious economic reform. That doesn’t mean that they won’t try to tinker with the system a bit—as they have with markets over the years.”
A separate contention arises over whether the offer of greater economic engagement by the United States and South Korea could coax the North to part willingly with its nuclear weapons program. Delury believes so, if that economic engagement were part of a process including security assurances, a revision of the United States’ extended nuclear deterrence that currently covers South Korea, a lifting of sanctions, economic assistance, cash reparation payments from Japan, and a peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice. As for the armistice, “over the last few years, I’ve seen no readiness to deal with that on the American side or on the Korean side,” Delury adds.
These steps are politically infeasible from the American security perspective. Even if the United States were willing to pursue this process, Delury admits that it would not guarantee complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s weapons programs. As Romberg asserts, the North Koreans “probably have other (undetectable) uranium enrichment facilities elsewhere, and they are unlikely to give up all nuclear devices (which they see as their assurance of effective deterrence).”
So why does Delury want to try to increase economic engagement with the DPRK? His disagreement with some American analysts results from a differing prioritization of objectives: “I don’t share the basic goal that this is all about denuclearization…that’s not my starting point.” While denuclearization is a “key goal,” Delury’s top priority is “deep normalization of relations” that would hopefully entail denuclearization. In contrast, Mr. Romberg believes that there is a clear path towards denuclearization that the DPRK can choose to take, and that economic engagement is a tool to be used only when North Korea demonstrates “significant movement on the nuclear front.” Sneider agrees, mentioning Delury directly in warning that he (Sneider) has “no interest in rewarding” North Korea for their recent aggression, especially ahead of any “real movement towards denuclearization.”
As to what movement on the nuclear front would warrant economic engagement, there is again disagreement. Sneider says there have been reports of recent discussions offering a freeze of specific nuclear programs for a resumption of U.S. food aid. Should the United States take such an offer as a sign that North Korea is serious about pursuing denuclearization? Some observers, such as Delury, would argue that this deal would be a positive step because it would delay the DPRK’s progress towards more sophisticated nuclear and ballistic capabilities while keeping it at the negotiating table. Delury considers deals where sanctions are loosened in exchange for commitments such as freezes and allowing inspectors in a good dynamic “that’s worked in the past.” Under President Clinton, the United States certainly made significant progress towards halting North Korea’s nuclear program by a gradual strategy of careful engagement.
Other observers, such as Sneider, argue that the situation is different now and that a food for freeze trade is inadequate. With North Korea’s exploration of uranium enrichment in addition to its plutonium program, outsiders have had more difficulty determining whether North Korea is upholding its commitments. Speaking from the experience of his colleagues, Sneider asserts that “uranium enrichment is really, really hard to track and to verify that it’s not taking place. We know of only one facility, and we didn’t even know that it was there until they chose to show it to my colleagues here at Stanford. It’s really hard to be able to verify that, so that becomes very, very hard to roll back in a serious way.” Sneider predicts that “another freeze of the existing facility in Yongbyong” would merely result in “paying them something for a freeze that gets reversed within a matter of months.”
Others argue that food aid to North Korea just frees up resources in either the military or the government to spend on non-food items, such as nuclear or ballistic missile programs. In a March 2011 article, Dr. Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics provides evidence for this connection: as food aid increased in the 1990’s, commercial imports decreased, and they have remained low since. Additionally, Dr. Noland notes that “in 1999, after the famine had ended, but aid from South Korea and the WFP [World Food Programme] continued to ramp up, the North Korean military went on a buying spree, purchasing among other things, the Kazakh air force.”
As a freeze cannot be satisfactorily verified and food aid serves as an indirect subsidy to North Korea’s weapons programs, it is not clear that a food for freeze deal would delay North Korea’s progress in developing nuclear weapons. In Sneider’s thinking, such an offer thus does not represent “significant movement” in North Korea’s willingness to denuclearize, and would not warrant an increase in economic engagement. Sneider is also troubled that providing food aid without attaining an apology for the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong represents a failure to punish North Korea for behaving poorly, and instead constitutes an undeserved reward. Sneider does, however, provide a caveat to his argument against undeserved food aid. Targeted food aid that cannot be absconded by the military, such as nutritional supplements for children, should be allowed, Sneider believes, as it is North Korea’s regime, not its people who are at fault. Will the regime’s need for food aid ever be more pressing than its proliferation goals and fears about the domestic instability economic reform may entail? In the 1990’s, between 900,000 and 2.4 million North Koreans died of starvation. Tragically, this humanitarian crisis proved no barrier to the regime’s ability to maintain power. It would take an even greater food shortage for North Korea’s regime to be threatened, and it appears that China will never let North Korea reach such a point.
China’s support of the regime seems likely to continue in the future. Instability can spread over entire regions, and an unstable North Korea poses a threat to China’s sense of national sovereignty. Conversely, Romberg observes: “as long as there is stability, North Korea remains a buffer state” for China to American or pro-American forces on China’s eastern border. Professor Shi agrees, but with different emphasis. Having North Korea as a buffer state is not China’s top priority, and neither is preventing international instability caused by North Korea nuclearization. To Shi, the most important benefit of a stable North Korea is avoiding the ramifications for China if North Korea loses internal order. Beijing fears that the resulting flow of North Korean refugees into China might cause domestic instability in northeast China.
Koreans are the 12th largest of 55 designated minorities in China, and they are concentrated along the 880-mile border with North Korea. In the case of significant instability in North Korea, millions would seek refuge in China – and China sees such an outcome as a severe threat to its sovereignty.
In addition, a severely weakened and unstable North Korea without unified control might trigger Korean unification, renewing many old challenges and tensions for China. As a result of China’s interests, a denial of food aid by the United States is unlikely to motivate the regime to denuclearize. China will continue to provide limited food aid to North Korea to protect its own national interests, and the North Korean regime needs little food aid to maintain control.
Moreover, South Koreans are likely to elect a leadership this year that will be more willing to offer North Korea food aid than the Lee Mung-Bak administration. If the United States does not provide food aid to North Korea, then China or South Korea will. In this context, the benefit of providing food aid is the U.S. keeps North Korea at the negotiating table to discuss a path toward denuclearization. Without this level of diplomatic engagement, there may be little hope for progress on any issue with the new leadership.
Yet even this gesture contains risks. Unless the United States limits its food aid to the low quantities China would otherwise provide, it might indirectly fund the DPRK’s shipment of nuclear or non-nuclear military technology to Iran, Syria, or elsewhere. Avoiding the spread of nuclear technology remains a cornerstone goal of American foreign policy that trumps many other objectives.
One remaining factor in whether the United States provides food aid is that the U.S. must maintain strong alliances with South Korea and Japan by demonstrating that our policies support their national interests and security. The United States must weigh the benefit of continued negotiations with Un’s regime against the possibility of undermining South Korea’s current hardline stance on food aid, and continue to communicate effectively with South Korea’s leadership. Yet, it is not clear that the United States can significantly influence North Korea in negotiations.
China, which accounts for around 60% of North Korea’s total trade, maintains the greatest leverage over North Korea because it appears unwilling to let the regime fail. According to Sneider, unverified reports suggest China has offered large amounts of food aid and fuel supplies to ensure stability during the transition. Romberg suggests that because aid and support are even more important during a transition period, China has further strengthened its influence during the succession. How will China use its considerable and growing influence?
China does not want North Korea to expand its military capabilities because this might trigger a regional arms race. Sneider notes that he has had “plenty of conversations with South Koreans, particularly conservative security policy makers,” who “want to at least talk about going nuclear.” If Japan were to develop nuclear weapons, which it could do rapidly, South Korea would likely follow. A scenario in which either country developed nuclear weapons would be a nightmare for China. To avert these possibilities, China wants North Korea to avoid irritating Japan. Yet, as Professor Shi points out, avoiding regional instability and nuclearization are less important to China than avoiding instability in North Korea. As noted succinctly by Romberg: “It is clear that China ranks stability above nuclear issues, even though it wants North Korea to denuclearize.” Thus, China will sacrifice opportunities to discourage North Korea’s nuclear program in order to protect the existing regime to ensure North Korea’s internal stability. Pushing Pyongyang hard on denuclearization just isn’t worth the political capital to Beijing. As Sneider observes, “if the Chinese could choose, would they rather that North Korea not have nuclear weapons? Of course. But that cow is not only out the barn door but in the pasture munching away.”
Chinese food aid for North Korea remains secure. China’s support of the regime, however, does entail a trade-off with avoiding long-term instability in North Korea. North Korea faces structural economic problems and the gradual, destabilizing inflow of information from the south and China’s semi-porous eastern border. As a result, and given the regime’s resistance to economic reform, an eventual regime collapse is a real possibility. Imagine what would have happened if China itself had not reformed but instead remained rigid for the last three decades, Professor Shi prompted. “The Chinese believe that the only path here is one of gradual reform and change in the north led by the existing regime,” says Sneider. Yet short-term stability remains top priority for China, and North Korea will likely put off reform as long as it believes it can sustain itself through dependency on China’s food aid. Still, China will push the regime to introduce gradual economic reform in North Korea, and will grow more insistent as the DPRK’s prospects for instability grow.
The combination of China’s national interests and North Korea’s long-term instability pose significant risks for the United States. China may decide to ignore North Korea’s exports of nuclear technology to protect its leverage to incent the regime to pursue gradual economic reform. Sneider presents some frightening possibilities.
“We don’t know…the extent of North Korea cooperation with Iran – but we know there is some. We know there’s plenty on the development of ballistic missiles. …and uranium enrichment. This is a case where the North Koreans may have done better than the Iranians, and they may be able to assist them back another way. That’s not a matter of minor concern in the United States. Is it a minor concern to China? I have yet to see any evidence that if it is a matter of concern for them, that they’re willing to do anything about it.”
Professor Shi offers only a qualified disagreement: “At present, under the pressure of U.S., Saudi Arabia, and EU, I suppose that China is doing more to prevent any NK-Iran trade-off in the missile area if it falls into China’s field of obligation.” Sneider and Shi’s statements are reconciled by Mr. Romberg’s impression that, while China has been cooperating more than before on this issue, it is probably not enforcing inspections of DPRK shipments as thoroughly as it could.
In net, the leadership change in North Korea may change little about the regional political dynamics. National interests endure, even as important individual players change. North Korea will likely continue to seek to extract aid without taking significant steps to denuclearize. It will prevent economic liberalization out of fear of its destabilizing effects, yet tolerate free markets to the extent necessary to gain the bare minimum of goods to sustain the regime. China will protect its domestic harmony by pursuing North Korea’s short-term stability to the detriment of its secondary goals of North Korea’s long-term economic reform, North Korea’s disarmament, and global nuclear containment. The United States may exchange food aid for a nuclear freeze to demonstrate willingness to engage with the new leadership while continuing to demonstrate commitment to allies by maintaining 64,000 troops in South Korea and Japan, maintaining its nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan, and pressuring China to contain North Korea’s weapons exports.
As the situation unfolds following Kim Jong Un’s ascent to power, each nation continues to face the same trade-offs, and no party has gained a significant advantage from Kim Jong Il’s death.
Even Kim Jong Un’s fixation on basketball was inherited from his father, who fervently followed Michael Jordan’s career. In 2000, Madeleine Albright ended a summit by presenting Il with a basketball signed by the Chicago Bulls star. While Un may not have his father’s charisma, he seems to like the same diplomatic and athletic games his father favored. When asked whether Un would stand a chance in a basketball game against President Obama, Senior Political Scientist at RAND Dr. Andrew Scobell gave an ambiguous answer suited to the uncertain security environment: “It depends on the size of the court and who is refereeing.”
The interview transcripts with Mr. Romberg, Professor Sneider, Professor Shi, Professor Delury, and Dr. Scobell are available on The Politic’s blog at www.thepolitic.org.