Steven Denney is the Editor-in-Chief of the Yonsei Journal of International Studies (PEAR) — a journal which is accepting submissions from graduate students and junior faculty until March 15, Seoul time. In this installment of the Weekly Digest, Denney assesses the still very fresh announcement by North Korea that it would “freeze” nuclear activities in exchange for food aid and again returns to the writing of the eminent but controversial historian Bruce Cumings. — Charles Kraus, Managing Editor
by Steven Denney
Unless you’ve implemented a contemporary events embargo, the “big story” filling the headlines will come as no surprise: North Korea has agreed to “freeze” its nuclear work in exchange for US aid.
A Short Recap of Post-Agreement Analysis
As usual, Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, over at North Korea: Witness to Transformation, provide keen and illuminating analysis. This round of insight is a breakdown of the official US ‘Press Statement.’
Joshua Stanton, at One Free Korea, chimes in with some limited and (characteristically) pessimistic comments. Provided in his post, however, is the transcript to a ‘Background ‘Briefing’ of ‘Senior Administration Officials on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.’ According to Stanton, these are the “Administration’s mouthpieces” who knowing its an election year are “try[ing] very hard to depress expectations that this [the recent agreement] is leading up to Agreed Framework III.” Stanton commented on the prospects of an ‘Agreed Framework III’ a few weeks ago.
Posted at Haggard and Noland’s blog is a very intriguing and insightful debate between Haggard and Stanton about the history of North Korea policy. The debate is a follow-up to Stanton’s sharp rejoinder following a post by Haggard about Mitt Romney and the “re-entry” of the Neocons. Readers are treated to an enriching and enlightening discussion of what a “neocon” actually is, whether Clinton’s strategy in the original Agreed Framework negotiations was advisable and a whole host of issues surrounding diplomacy on the peninsula, to name just a few of the topics and themes mentioned. This debate is worth and couple of reads and some follow-up analysis. Given the ongoing negotiations, it is a very pertinent policy debate.
Politicization of Aid
Something else to ponder is this questions raised by Whitney Eulich, a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor: “How did aid first get linked to North Korea’s nukes?” This issue is also brought up in another post at The Peninsula:
Even though the U.S. government insists that it tried to keep food aid separate from other discussions, especially nuclear issues, the linkages are clear and fully interpreted as together by the North Koreans.
The politicization of food aid, i.e. how to administer aid to the DPRK, prevent it from being funneled only to the military and high-ranking officials and other issues surrounding engagement with a regime known for starving its people is indeed a matter of concern, as is indicated in reports on the current negotiations for the delivery of aid. This issue was a main theme in an interview conducted by Papers, Essays and Reviews (PEAR), the Yonsei International Journal, in an interview, with professor John Delury. The main focus of the interview is understanding Chinese-North Korean relations, which is a major focus of Professor Delury’s study and work.
Given the major stake China has in any negotiations taking place on the peninsula, it is, as Haggard and Noland notes in their post cited above, a “striking feature” that the US press release contains “no direct reference to the Six Party Talks.” As Scott Snyder has pointed out, “if North Korea agreed to a set of pre-steps, including a freeze on North Korean missile and nuclear tests, stabilization of inter-Korean relations, and an IAEA monitored shutdown of the uranium enrichment” and a resolution of the food aid disagreement with the US, it would “enable a return to Six Party Talks,” and inclusion of China in further negotiations (let us not forget, though, that China is, in addition to its economic exchange with the DPRK, involved in giving aid: something like 500,000 tons of rice and 250,000 tons of crude oil).
In “China-Korea Relations: New Challenges in the Post Kim Jong Il Era,” a CSIS Comparative Connections E-Journal article (the same one linked to by Dr. Cathcart in this post), Snyder and See-won Byun talk about China’s role in the Kim Jong-un era. They pay specific tribute to the “[p]rospects for China-mediate denuclearization talks.” From the article:
Beijing has actively called for ‘creating the conditions’ for the resumption of Six-Party Talks and continues to hold periodic consultations on the nuclear issue with DPRK, US, and ROK envoys.
Despite the (justifiable) skepticism regarding North Korea’s sincerity, one has to believe that the “conditions” for the resumption of the Six Party Talks is underway. One must then assume that talk of China’s role is soon to come – given the negotiations do not break down like they did in 2009.
Also mentioned in the article is “China-DPRK trade, investment, and economic ties,” which brings to attention this interview by Chad O’Carroll with Yoji Gomi, the Tokyo-based journalist who had extensive contact with Kim dynasty’s lost son: Kim Jong-nam. in a post at The Peninsula, run over at the Korea Economic Institute’s website (KEI; 한미 경제연구소). This answers, in response to a question about economic reforms in the DPRK, stands out:
He [Kim Jong-nam] believed that the Chinese way is the best for the DPRK. It is possible to invite capitalism while maintaining socialism. For him, the most important thing is to protect foreign investors, including those from South Korea. [emphasis added]
The issue of foreign investment, particularly Economic Trade Zones (SEZ), is something that has been covered here at Sino-NK by analyst Alan Ferrie. It is also an issue discussed in detail in a recent Korea Economic Institute (KEI) paper, part of its Academic Paper Series. In “A Convergence of Interests: Prospects for Reason Special Economic Zone,” Andray Abrahamian argues that the DPRK’s efforts to establish a SEZ at Rason (the topic of Ferrie’s analysis) indicates “Pyongyang’s increasing need to reach out to foreign investors to reinvigorate its economy” and, due to China’s interest in developing Rason, it’s “desire to develop its Northeast region and promote stability while increasing its leverage over North Korea’s economic growth.” Perhaps Kim Jong-nam is serving as an advisor in absentia?
Cumings Coming at Ya’
Cumings is a controversial figure. But nothing Korea-related could ever feel complete without words of wisdom (or controversy – depending on your interpretation of history and conditions inside North Korea) spilling from the pages or op-eds of one of the most prolific Western writers/historians on things Korea-related. Or, in the words of a popular “Korea Blogger” at The Marmot’s Hole, “Love or hate him, Bruce Cumings speaks a lot of sense in his Le Monde diplomatique piece on North Korea’s transition.” For those of you who have already watched this video of Cumings’ speech at the University of Michigan, most of the article will sound familiar. This quote (the same one used at the Marmot’s Hole) is a good summary of the entire article, a repeat of a story used in his speech at the U. of Mich. and a good anecdote to sign off with for the week:
My first visit to North Korea was in 1981. I flew from Beijing and hoped to go out through the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian railway. Consular officials said I should obtain a visa at the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang. When I got there, a friendly (read KGB) counsellor offered me cognac and inquired what I might be doing in Pyongyang. Then he asked what I thought of Kim Jong-il, who had just been officially designated as successor to Kim Il-sung at the 6th Party Congress in 1980. “Well, he doesn’t have his father’s charisma,” I said; “He’s diminutive, pear-shaped, homely. Looks like his mother.” The counsellor replied: “Oh, you Americans, always thinking about personality. Don’t you know they have a bureaucratic bloc behind him, they all rise or fall with him — these people really know how to do this. You should come back in 2020 and see his son take power.”
It was the best prediction I’ve ever heard about this communist state-cum-dynasty, even if Kim Jong-il’s heart attack at 69 hastened the succession to Kim Jong-un by a few years. North Korea has known only millennia of monarchy and then a century of dictatorship — Japanese from 1910-1945 (in the late stages of colonial rule Koreans had to worship the Japanese emperor), and then for the past 66 years the hegemony of the Kim family.