King, Wu, B-52: North Korea’s Rational Dis-invitation to the US Special Envoy on Human Rights

By | April 13, 2015 | No Comments

Members of an Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker crew refuel a B-52 Stratofortress during a training exercise. | Image: USAF/Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

Members of an Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker crew refuel a B-52 Stratofortress during a training exercise. | Image: USAF/Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

The US and South Korea’s longest regular military drill Foal Eagle FTX takes place on the Korean peninsula every other spring, alternating with the Key Resolve CPX. This year’s Foal Eagle, is going on now (March 13 – April 24), and it has been met with the usual vitriol from the Northern side of the 38th Parallel. This year the North launched two short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan in protest.

The last time these exercises took place, March 2013, was a highly sensitive time for US-DPRK relations. The role of the B-52 was a key symbol, both for the US-ROK forces as a display of dominance and North Korea as a particular point on which to contest, using the flights as grounds for rescinding the invitation of human rights envoy Ambassador Robert King. Meanwhile in 2015, the human rights discourse is barely trudging on.

This piece of (recent) history by Morgan Potts explores the tensions of the time, examining what could have been a turning point for US-DPRK relations that was lost amidst other diplomatic crises. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-In-Chief

King, Wu, B-52: North Korea’s Rational Dis-invitation to the US Special Envoy on Human Rights

by Morgan Potts

On August 19th, 2013 Ambassador Robert King set off on an almost fortnight-long trip to Asia: a very long time for a Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues and diplomat of ample standing to spend lecturing North Korea or doing victory laps after a recent successful UN inquiry into North Korean human rights abuses. About halfway through the sojourn, the New York channel to the DPRK agreed that Ambassador King would go to Pyongyang and return with Kenneth Bae, an American citizen arrested by the DPRK in November 2012 just prior to tensions on the Peninsula soaring as high as a Taepodong rocket.

Quite literally hours before King was to travel to North Korea for the pick-up, possibly opening up a channel to the US that the DPRK so covets, his invite was rescinded. King was forced to return home from Tokyo, Ken Bae remained a prisoner of North Korea’s Ministry of Security, and the US-DPRK relationship returned to a deep freeze. The assumption at the time was that basketball diplomacy would allow Dennis Rodman to collect Bae, but this too failed to transpire. There was scarcely time for reflection on this turn of events as the possible military strike on Syria, an unexpected Rodman re-visit to North Korea, and prurient rumors of Kim Jong-un executing an alleged former courtesan (the fact that she was allegedly a Bible-reading pornographer might have been a red flag) crowded out what should have been an introspective moment and possible turning point in relations with North Korea.

Given that Ambassador Robert King had just finished the United Nations Commission of Inquiry, and that he is Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues and not an ex-President, it was amazing that Pyongyang arranged his visit in the first place. Both China and North Korea react negatively to “Human Rights” as raised by any American official, yet both swallowed hard and accepted his visit—he was making some serious headway. It is also important to note that all arrangements were made in a semi-formal fashion. We are aware of that because in ironic transparency, the US kept the secret while the North Koreans openly referenced using the New York channel.

Moving Beyond the “Crazy’ Trope | North Korea is often accused of being various forms of crazy, yet there is much to indicate they are coldly rational and still guard their sovereignty with revolutionary zeal—even when doing so costs them dearly. If we take North Korea’s reasons for cancellation at face value, North Korea must have perceived that the US was distracted and paying little more than lip service to the “pivot.” The commitment to shift ten percent of the US fleet toward the Asia-Pacific over 10 years apparently does not impress North Korea, and is not indicative of any concrete commitments to the region. From North Korea’s standpoint, they likely felt they were being very quiet during the 2013 Ulchi Freedom Guardian large-scale military exercises which take place annually on the southern half of the peninsula between the US and ROK forces, in 2013 from August 19–30. The DPRK does not typically shy away from criticizing the US and South Korea for military exercises, but they held off in commenting on at least two B-52 flights because they wanted to get Kaesong back online. DPRK rhetoric expressed restraint during the 2013 Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises until B-52s were flown overhead in a misguided display of deterrence capability.

Earlier that year, in March 2013 B-52 bombers flew over the DPRK during annual Foal Eagle FTX drills; B2s joined later that month. USFK spokesperson Christopher Bush declined to comment on whether B-52s were involved in the August 2013 UFG exercises, avoiding a direct question. Yonhap reported, “It was not immediately known whether the US had flown the strategic bombers during the drills.”

Meanwhile on the sidelines of ASEAN Defense Minister’s meeting on August 28, US Defense Secretary (and object of special DPRK scorn) Chuck Hagel and ROK Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-jin were meeting and discussing UN Security Council Resolutions against North Korea. The joint statement meant to indicate a close US- South Korean relationship also included a rather anodyne and conciliatory statement that “diplomatic efforts are fundamental to encouraging North Korea to pursue the path of peace”.

North Korea’s National Defense Commission (NDC)—an extension of Kim Jong-un—warned the US and South Korea against anti-DPRK actions on August 28, just prior to the State Department announcing the spake with opprobrium on August 29. The NDC, without the slightest hint of irony, accused the rulers in South Korea of lacking deep knowledge of war and military affairs. They also complained specifically about the B-52 flights earlier that month. On August 31, King’s invite was rescinded.

The Chinese response? Sending Wu Dawei, China’s nuclear envoy and former PRC representative in the Six Party Talks, to Pyongyang. China was surely uncomfortable with Human Rights inquiries and precedents for China. Even though the DPRK has never been charged with R2P (Responsibility to Protect), from Chinese and DPRK viewpoint, the subject bears baleful import each time it is invoked. The DPRK confirmed Wu’s visit; the MFA, however, was non-commital regarding Wu’s visit to Pyongyang, confirming it (with some delay) and reporting that he and his DPRK counterparts “exchanged views” and remaining focused on Syria. The KCNA reported Wu’s visit as essentially one to the War Museum, with no mention of nuclear issues.

Another Missed Opportunity? | Unfortunately, other crises du jour, scintillating piercings, and darkly sourced intimations of jealousy, palace intrigue, and brutality meant there was no follow up on what could have been a new chapter in US relations with North Korea. Bae was returned to the US in November of last year, but after the failure to procure his release in 2013 it was speculated at the time that his health might continue to decline with the nightmare scenario that he die in North Korean custody. Ironically, DPRK called for more foreign tourist venues the day before not-releasing Bae to Ambassador King.

We don not know which bureaucratic fault lines have been exposed or which ones may have been caused by this dramatic course correction. What we do know is that DPRK has been exposed to and understands extended deterrence in concept and in practice. We also know that North Korea claims to take those deterrence signals as threats to DPRK sovereignty. However, DPRK’s lessons on nuclear weapons as instruments of persuasion are unclear. We also remain relatively unclear on what this means for North Korea’s negotiating strategy. The US and South Korea set out to change the old paradigm of North Korea being rewarded for misbehavior, but North Korea’s negotiating strategy continues to emphasize sovereignty, even if doing so increases tensions.

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