Zhang Liangui: North Korea Will Conduct a Third Nuclear Test This Year
by Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga
With North Korea’s arduous march towards an increasingly likely nuclear test, Chinese scholars have gone into high gear with their pronouncements on North Korea. While op-eds by Chinese scholars offer a number of insights, as we have seen in the past, television appearances offer a chance for China’s top North Korea hands to directly and passionately lay out their double-edged analysis of the situation, and sometimes send a message to Pyongyang. The following program brings together some of China’s most respected North Korea experts from Beijing, Shanghai and Shenyang to share their thoughts on North Korea’s nuclear program, improving North Korea-Japan relations and prospects for a North-South summit this year. These scholars inform and reflect Chinese leadership thoughts in ways few others can and offer a glimpse into some of the factors Chinese leadership may be paying attention to as the impending crisis unfolds. (Note: This interview aired prior to the latest round of UN sanctions, and DPRK subsequently declaring that the Six Party Talks dead.)
Phoenix TV, “From Phoenix To the World [凤凰全球连线]” January 2, 2013
Translated from the Chinese by Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga.
Ren Ren: This is “From Phoenix To The World.” I’m Ren Ren.
Small and weak signifies being bullied and humiliated. For their 2013 New Years message, nearly all the leaders of East Asia took building a strong and prosperous nation as their New Year’s wish. This was the first time the leader of North Korea read a New Years message and Kim Jong-un called on the North Korean people to build a powerful country with the spirit of conquering the universe.
Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo called for rebuilding a strong Japan, and behind this desire for a strong nation lays the bitter anguish in their inability to manage their territorial disputes with East Asian nations and homeland security. However, if the sole purpose of a strong nation is the fanatical pursuit of security, beyond expanding its arms amidst fear, what else can an East Asian country seeking strength do?
At the start of the new year, Japanese Prime Minister Abe gave South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye an oral message of repairing the two countries’ tense relationship. In response to the imagined attacks from North Korea and China, the Japanese government is currently planning the combination of its land, air and sea self-defense forces for a comprehensive defense strategy.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un unexpectedly called for the reconciliation of North and South Korea. The South Korean Ministry of Defense’s judgment, however, is that the North may very well continue its provocations by misdirection and thus the South Korean military must raise its alertness.
Is trust in East Asia this precious a commodity?
On tonight’s “From Phoenix To The World,” we have Central Party School Institute for International Strategic Studies Professor Zhang Liangui in Beijing, Shanghai Jiaotong University Center for Japanese Studies Professor Wang Shaopu in Shanghai and Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences Center for North Korea Studies Director Lv Chao from Shenyang. From three different places, these experts will explain the New Years messages seeking strength and vigilance.
North Korea welcomed the New Year not only by launching fireworks for their countdown but also hosting a musical concert with foreign diplomats. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un coordinated red clothing with his wife, Ri Sol-ju, who hosted the New Years celebration, and Kim shook hands with foreign diplomats in a display of good-wishes. After the clock struck for the New Year, the skies above Pyongyang were illuminated with brilliant fireworks and Kim Jong-un and his wife enjoyed them with the crowd. At the musical performance, some performers gave flowers to Kim Jong-un and Ri Sol-ju and applauded for a long time. Before the performance started, everyone stood up and sang the national anthem and the Moranbong Band performed “With the Party ‘Til The End.” Besides Kim Jong-un and his wife, Kim Yong-nam, Choe Yong-rim, Choe Ryong-hae, other leaders, and the scientists who successfully launched Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2 also attended the performance. The North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly and cabinet also hosted a New Years celebration in Pyongyang at the People’s Cultural Palace.
Ren Ren: The North Korean people had a different type of New Years this year. Beyond Pyongyang hosting large-scale New Years activities and a New Years concert, Kim Jong-un also for the first time delivered a spoken New Years message promoting a wish for reconciliation with the South. Nevertheless, the South doesn’t believe Kim Jong-un’s address had anything new, but did it? We first want to invite Beijing-based Professor Zhang Liangui to explain his thoughts on whether the proposal for reconciliation in North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Years speech had any substantial political meaning?
Zhang Liangui: In reality, his speech is really worth paying attention to, since everyone knows in the five years under Lee Myung-bak, North-South relations have been very tense, and, especially in the not-so-distant past, the two sides had conflicts over many issues. For North Korea to announce in the speech this kind of appeal to the South for better North-South relations, right after the presidential elections in South Korea with Park Geun-hye elected to take power in February, this actually shows a positive attitude in North Korea and I believe this is worth welcoming.
Ren Ren: Professor Lv Chao in Shenyang, we also noticed that in Kim Jong-un’s New Years speech, beyond good will towards the South, he also mentioned North Korea’s desire to strengthen its political and military strength by every means possible, and that if others interfere then the North will ruthlessly strike back and wipe out its enemy. What message do you think this conveyed to the South?
Lv Chao: I also believe that Kim Jong-un’s speech was a carrot and stick approach to the South; this is what caused the South Korean Minister of Defense, Kim Kwan-jin, to respond so severely. Regarding Kim’s comment that he may use misdirection to attack the South, first off, [we need to note that] Kim Jong-un’s New Years speech is much more moderate than previous New Years editorials. The speech offered New Years greetings to foreign friends and South Korean compatriots by expressing a desire for unification, which is a phrase never used before, signifying this is a rare event. Yet Kim warned that confrontation amongst the Korean people will only incur war, demonstrating that he also has hardline options.
One noteworthy aspect was that this New Years message didn’t follow the convention of earlier messages in demanding the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Korea and criticizing South Korea and its leaders. This was the old convention and it’s no more. Thus, for South Korea, this speech by Kim Jong-un was a combination of a carrot and stick approach, or rather having a stick inside the carrot.
Ren Ren: Addressing the ongoing disturbances in 2012 for East Asia, wise leaders have actually all tried to find soft methods for creating a soft landing. We’ve seen that Japan has also done this, as the new prime minister, Abe Shinzo, sent South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye a message through a special representative on January 1st. He said that South Korean-Japanese relations are very important and hopes that they can improve relations between their two countries. Professor Wang Shaopu, this is part of Abe’s value-based diplomacy, so do you believe that this so-called value-based diplomacy can improve the previously-fraught South Korean-Japanese relationship?
Wang Shaopu: This indeed is an important aspect of Japan’s diplomacy. Since Abe took power, he has spoken of foreign policy as being based off the American-Japanese alliance and improving cooperation with countries of similar values and strategically important countries such as Vietnam, and by doing so push for better Sino-Japanese relations. This is actually one of his guiding principles for foreign policy and thus to have this kind of a relationship with South Korea is an important part of his value-based diplomacy.
For now, value-based diplomacy has a certain usefulness but it also has its limits. He is primarily basing his foreign policy actions off of his national interests, as all countries do. From this perspective, although South Korea and Japan have similar value systems, in reality they still have important differences in their interests, such as territorial disputes and historical disagreements, so these are the circumstances they have to work within.
South Korea’s interests are multi-faceted, beyond the common interests with Japan, the South also has very important common interests with China. South Korea’s main security partner is the United States, but the South’s most important economic partner is China. So in this situation, although Abe wants to promote his value-based diplomacy with South Korea, the South will be listening to what he says and watching what he does, especially since Abe has previously held a extremely incorrect attitude on the issue of history. For example, he has denied the existence of comfort women and many officials within his cabinet believe this, so in these circumstances, I believe South Korea’s current attitude is one of cautious observation.
Ren Ren: Another question on everyone’s mind is if North Korea’s next step will be to continue its nuclear tests. Professor Zhang Liangui, we’ve seen that recently John Hopkins University’s U.S. Korea Institute released a report based on the most recent satellite imaginary showing that the North is repairing the nuclear testing equipment that was damaged in heavy rain and will be able to test within two weeks of an order to move forward. Do you believe that after the success of last year’s satellite launch there will be a third nuclear test this year?
Zhang Liangui: Judging from the larger perspective, possessing nuclear weapons and walking the road of having nuclear weapons is a fixed national policy. How many times has North Korea already openly said that it will never abandon its nuclear weapons under any circumstances? This was especially evident in April 2012, when they wrote their status as a nuclear state into the constitution. From this perspective, North Korea will not abandon its nuclear weapons and will still advanced its nuclear warhead program. The North will choose a suitable time to conduct another nuclear test. As for the question if the North will conduct another nuclear test this year, this mainly relies on the North’s preparations.
According to my initial assessment, I believe there is a strong possibility for a third nuclear test this year. Obviously this nuclear test will likely evoke repercussions from the international community and the North will face severe sanctions from the international community. The North needs to consider [these repercussions]. In reality, the North is moving forward on two wheels. One wheel is advancing their nuclear program and the other is developing their economy to improve relations with bordering countries, especially a few important countries. These two wheels actually are certainly contradictory in their implementation so the North must think it over. Whatever course the North takes, they should make a complete analysis [of the situation].
Ren Ren: One on hand, both countries on the peninsula hope to improve relations, but on the other hand they live with the instability caused by nuclear tests and missile launches. We turn to Lv Chao in Shenyang. We have also noticed that South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye has previously expressed that she hopes to meet with Kim Jong-un but has also called for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. Do you believe that in this new year there is a high likelihood for the two leaders to finally meet?
Lv Chao: North Korea definitely has hopes for president-elect Park Geun-hye. Kim Jong-un’s New Years speech didn’t criticize anyone by name, but according to convention, he usually would criticize Park Geun-hye by name. While he has criticized people by name before, he didn’t this time but rather was comparatively calm. One of the biggest questions right now is whether the North will conduct another nuclear test. It’s worth noticing that Kim Jong-un’s speech didn’t mention denuclearization and also didn’t mention his status as a nuclear state. By not raising either one, he didn’t raise the nuclear program and this is meaningful, as it foreshadowed something for North Korea’s relations with the South and left a profound impression.
For now, the international community should inhibit North Korea from conducting a third nuclear test and this should be a common aspiration. If North Korea declines to have another nuclear test, I think this would show some hope for relations with the South. On the other hand, Kim Jong-un also proposed to produce more North Korean-style sophisticated weaponry and this implies a rise in prominence of developing nuclear weapons and missiles. For relations with the South, I think we should watch how the situation develops. The timing isn’t yet ripe for Park Geun-hye to visit the North. After all, North-South relations during Lee Myung-bak’s five years of governing saw North-South relations reach their lowest point, so for Park Geun-hye to visit the North in the short-term isn’t very likely.
Ren Ren: According to Japanese media reports, North Korea openly told Abe’s new government in Japan that the North was interested in reopening North Korea-Japan government negotiations next February. However, Japan temporarily doesn’t plan to reply as they grapple with the North’s intentions. First we ask Professor Wang Shaopu in Shanghai if trust is the biggest issue in the Abe government’s lack of a response to the North’s proposal?
Wang Shaopu: Trust is indeed a big issue and this is caused by a host of issues. Looking from the present conditions, first trust has historical reasons, such as Japan’s 39 years of harsh colonial rule, which is an issue that hasn’t been resolved since World War II. Japan has always had three demands on North Korea, namely abandoning its nuclear weapon and missile programs and resolving the abductee issue. Japan only demands that these three issues be resolved together and these haven’t been resolved between Japan and North Korea.
Thus Japan and North Korea have always existed in a very important state of mistrust. This issue actually needs [to be implemented] a process of understanding [了解过程], especially after the North’s recent satellite launch. They have just sent out another signal for alleviating tension but what really are the North’s intentions? With a background of a lack of trust between both sides, there needs to be a process of understanding.
Also, for now, if Japan wants to adopt measures to improve relations with North Korea, Japan must work with the United States and South Korea. Japan has previously hoped to have a breakthrough in relations with the North, including a visit to the North by the deputy secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party as well as Koizumi when he was cabinet prime minister. However these efforts failed for many reasons, one of which was the opposition of the United States and South Korea to Japan’s unilateral efforts to improve relations with North Korea. So overall, many reasons dictate that there is a lack of fundamental trust between Japan and North Korea and if this question remains unresolved it will be difficult for both sides to enter negotiations.
Ren Ren: Okay, here’s another question for Professor Zhang Liangui – is North Korea really willing to improve relations with Japan?
Zhang Liangui: From North Korea’s perspective, North Korea is extremely interested in improving relations with Japan. Everyone may have missed this, [but] think back to 2012: Even though everyone didn’t pay much attention, North Korea-Japan’s exchanges have actually been very intimate. In January, they had a secret meeting in northeastern [China] and in March they met in Mongolia and had secret meetings in May, July and August. In August they had Red Cross talks as well as also having section chief-level talks and in September and November they had bureau chief-level talks with plans for more in December. North Korea and Japan’s interactions have been very close and reflect the intent of the North to improve relations with Japan for many reasons.
The first reason is economics. Since both sides had previously reached an agreement, if they improve relations, and even establish official relations, Japan may give North Korea more than $10 billion in war reparations. Another reason is that improving relations helps the North’s entire strategic deployments, as improving relations with neighboring powers under the precondition of retaining its nuclear weapons forces these powers to recognize the North’s status as a nuclear state. Therefore, North Korea is seizing the situation that Japan’s relations with China and South Korea are in a difficult place, so if the North improves relations with Japan this will be an optimal outcome with little effort. [That's why] the North’s behavior is relatively positive.
Ren Ren: Indeed, some foreign analysis claims that the tone of Kim Jong-un’s New Years speech was the most reconciliatory ever. I want to leave the last minute for Mr. Lv Chao – how do you see Kim Jong-un’s future efforts to deal with the North’s foreign relations with East Asian nations, and will there be a new atmosphere?
Lv Chao: I think that on foreign relations, Kim Jong-un will change in 2013. Speaking from today, just like Professor Zhang Liangui said, there have been no halts in North Korean-Japan interactions. [This has been true] not just in 2012, but in recent years as well, when they have had secret meeting at all levels, including North Korea-U.S. interactions. It seems North Korea’s relations with Russia are comparatively good, besides disagreements over the underground natural gas pipeline.
Ever since Kim Jong-un took power, he has developed the traditional good relationship with China so from the overall perspective, Kim Jong-un would like to improve his diplomatic status in East Asia through secret interactions with Japan and the United States. Kim Jong-un may make new diplomatic moves in 2013, as his New Years speech didn’t specifically raise the issue of withdrawing U.S. Forces Korea or the unification of North and South through a federation system. These issues show that it wasn’t carelessness but rather a profound desire for a breakthrough on the diplomatic front. Get ready for it.
Ren Ren: Great, thank you very much to our three guests for their insight and thank you for watching “From Phoenix To The World,” we’ll see you tomorrow.
Additional Reading: Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, “Forecasting Breakthrough in DPRK-Japan Relations,” SinoNK.com, January 23, 2012, <http://sinonk.com/2013/01/23/zhang-liangui-north-korean-japanese-relations-breakthrough/>
Roger Cavazos, “Das Boot: Fishing in Troubled Waters,” SinoNK.com, May 27, 2012, <http://sinonk.com/2012/05/27/das-boot-china-nkfishing-in-troubled-waters/>
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