History Repeats on N. Korea
By Tong Kim
The state of North Korean affairs today is amazingly as it was during the Kim Young-sam presidency more than a decade ago. In March 1993, North Korea announced its intent to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), triggering the first nuclear crisis. It was taking exactly the same approach of ``shunning the South, seeking dialogue with the United States" that it is today.
Sixteen years ago, North Korea was rejecting IAEA inspections under its safeguard requirements to prove discrepancies regarding the amount of plutonium it had reported to the IAEA, which wanted to look into the entire history of reprocessing activities at Yongbyon by taking rigorous sampling tests. Today, the North is refusing to agree on a verification protocol, which would include an IAEA role in taking sampling tests and verifying the accuracy of plutonium levels that the North reported at the six-party talks.
A decade and a half ago, North Korea was attacking the then-president of South Korea with a harsh, insulting diatribe, while appearing conciliatory to the United States. Today, the North continues waging vituperating personal attacks on President Lee Myung-bak despite Washington having asked it to stop its provocative rhetoric and resume dialogue with the South, as it did years ago.
In March 1994, the head of the DPRK's delegation to a working-level meeting to discuss a possible exchange of envoys between Seoul and Pyongyang made an unforgettable statement, ``If war breaks out, Seoul would turn into a sea of fire, and you (referring to his counterpart from the South) would not be safe yourself."
Since January 2009, the Korean People's Army (KPA) has escalated its intimidating threats against the South and has repeated its warning that the South ``will meet the merciless and stern punishment by the North Korean army" for ``inciting hostility" toward it. The North is seen as preparing for another test-launch of a long-range ballistic missile, creating a serious concern in Seoul and the rest of the international community, despite its uncertainty.
Fifteen years ago, there was a lot of talk of a possible collapse of The North, either by implosion or explosion ― as well as of a hard or soft landing. There were several collapse scenarios of how the Kim Jong-il regime might come to an end, including uncertainty of the viability of the first father to son succession. Kim Jong-il was often described as unfit, undisciplined, having a speech impediment and lacking the kind of charisma, leadership, respect and support of the people that his father had.
Today, there are concerns over the uncertainty of a post-Kim Jong-il North Korea given the speculation over his health, who his successor might be and what form of leadership the succession might take ― a collective leadership or single absolute authority. There's also speculation of a power struggle in the succession game, which, some argue, might lead to violence and eventually end the North's government as we know it. But nobody knows. Only time will tell what is going to happen.
In the early 1990s, we did not trust the North Koreans, and they did not trust us. Little has changed. The North is still impoverished and in need of foreign aid and the gap in threat perception between Pyongyang and Washington has not narrowed from 15 years ago. As some doubted the North would ever give up its nuclear weapons programs before, some still question it would get rid of its nuclear weapons at the end, while others believe complete, verifiable denuclearization is still possible today.
Despite the many similarities between then and now, there are also differences. North Korea is no longer suspected of pursuing a nuclear program as a result of its development and testing nuclear weapons, which could have been prevented had we followed and improved an earlier agreement to implement the dismantlement of its nuclear program. Pyongyang no longer has to strive for meetings with Washington.
Today, there are several positive signs of hope. A scrutiny of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's statements from her visit to Seoul last week shows how the Obama administration would deal with the North Korean issue; with the clear objective of denuclearization but not at the expense of the interests of its allies.
Unlike the Bush administration's ABC (anything But Clinton) policy eight years ago, the new Democratic administration is picking up where the Republican president left off in negotiating with North Korea in the six-party talks. Sixteen years ago, the Clinton administration picked up a policy of caution and guard for the North, very much like Bush Sr. did.
Unlike eight years ago, the Obama administration has first reassured its allies ― South Korea and Japan ― that it will closely work with them to build ``a united front" in cooperation with China and Russia in order to address all of the issues of concern," including North Korea's nuclear weapons and missiles.
The appointment of Stephen Bosworth as ``special representative for North Korea policy" ― who will report to the secretary and the president ― is another important step forward in resolving the North Korean issue. It is an encouraging sign of the Obama administration's seriousness commitment to the denuclearization of North Korea.
Conversely, Clinton's public comment about the uncertainty of succession in the North does not seem to have been well thought out, but rather as an unprepared, casual statement of the obvious in the sense that the subject is being widely discussed.
In Korean history, a dynasty's collapse was succeeded by a new dynasty. If history is a guide, the North Korean dynasty is still young ― only 60 years old. Within the same Korean dynasty, there were often power struggles between competing factions, all in the name of King and country. Once one of Kim Jong-il's sons takes over the reigns, he will likely depend initially on the counsel of his father's experienced advisers. Someone outside of the ruling Kim family taking over the country's leadership is unlikely.
The secretary's comment, along with her reference to the North as a ``tyranny" might upset Pyongyang. But it was not ``a beginner's error" or a gaffe. She was simply talking the talk of concerns of uncertainty that might affect future dealings with North Korea, which won't bring it back to the negotiating table.
She made it clear in Seoul that in the meantime, the United States and South Korea are dealing with ``the government that exists right now." That's the government of Kim Jong-il, who may be motivated to precipitate the succession process.
Despite the possible repercussion of Clinton's public talk of the need to prepare a contingency plan for any potential development in the North, the North Koreans have too much at stake to overlook the new opportunity to secure its security and improved relations with the United States. What's your take?
Tong Kim is a research professor with the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He can be reached at email@example.com