April 15 Roundtable
With the arrival of April 15, North Korea has arrived at the 100th birth anniversary of its founder Kim Il Sung. We here at SinoNK.com are fervent believers in the importance of the politics of memory in the DPRK and among its allies — and for more about this topic, one can consult the list of published articles on our Research page. Today, however, rather than another retrospective on the Kim who started it all, we are joined by a group of experts who look stalwartly ahead. Many thanks to the participants and the editorial team at SinoNK for making it possible. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief
SINO-NK: What is your assessment of power transition in North Korea?
Moon Chung-in: For successful and sustained power transition in North Korea, Kim Jong-un must satisfy four requirements: legitimacy, power, institutional consolidation and winning the hearts of the people. As far as the first three conditions go, I do not see any problems. The last condition, however, is much more difficult. Winning the hearts of the North Korean people is achieved through strengthening the domestic economy. However, Kim Jong-un’s ruling strategy thus far may be hurting more than helping the economy. In order to enhance his legitimacy, Kim Jong-un has used tough measures against foreign influence, most notably the scheduled satellite missile launch. This bodes well for Kim Jong-un’s reputation within the ranks of the military, but there is a major trade-off to putting the military first – the songun policy. Whatever domestic benefits he may reap by taking a non-conciliatory approach to negotiations with foreign powers may be offset by creating a situation that hurts the domestic economy. Playing tough with foreign powers, particularly the US and South Korea, has negative consequences for international assistance and foreign direct investment that will hinder economic growth. It is extremely difficult for Kim Jong-un to both appease the military and satisfy the people concurrently.
I am not sure how long Kim Jong-un will be able to maintain this approach. The people will evaluate the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un based on three things: the provision of food, energy and the overall status of the economy. If he can address these three concerns of the people, then Kim Jong-un will have fully satisfied the fourth and most difficult requirement for power transition and will rule for quite some time. If not, sometime in the not-to-distant future, he may face a serious challenge from the bottom-up.
Moon Chung-in is a professor at Yonsei University and a former advisor to South Korean president Roh Moo Hyun.
SINO-NK: Are there real prospects for North Korean rapprochement with the US?
Niv Farago: The answer to this question is inextricably related to the nuclear conundrum. Unfortunately, North Korea’s failed satellite launch casts a dark shadow over the future of the February 2012 agreement that it had reached with the US in Beijing. The purpose of this agreement was, among other things, to allow IAEA inspectors to return to Yongbyon and to facilitate the resumption of the six-party talks. More disturbingly, Pyongyang had already warned that American-led international sanctions in response to the North Korean satellite launch may result in a third nuclear test. In 2009, Pyongyang had carried out similar threats, so we should take its threats seriously. Therefore, the near future of DPRK-US relations seems quite bleak. Even if the American administration decides to limit its response to merely condemning the failed North Korean satellite launch—an extremely unlikely scenario, especially in an election year—and to pursue the resumption of the six-party talks (instead of pursuing sanctions), a series of outstanding issues may lead the talks to a dead-end, resulting in a new crisis. These outstanding issues include, among other things, special IAEA inspections, unaccounted-for reprocessing activities, undeclared stockpiles of nuclear weapons, (long-rage) missile R&D, deployment and exports, and from Pyongyang’s perspective, its demand for LWRs.
Niv Farago has been watching the Korean Peninsula for almost two decades. He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on ‘rogue states’ and nuclear proliferation at the Department of Politics and International Studies in the University of Cambridge. He teaches at YonseiUniversity.
SINO-NK: What do you see as a path forward for North Korea? What role can or should China play in that future?
Joshua Stanton: No one has argued more persuasively than Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland that economic changes in North Korea are causing social changes, and that those changes will eventually lead to political changes, too. Regimes that can’t bend to those pressures are brittle; they tend to shatter violently. We should be trying to “engage” the North Korean people to pressure the regime and its Chinese sponsors, to shape the direction of a united Korea’s future, to achieve negotiated reunification, and to deter Chinese intervention. Unlike bombing, subversion of this regime might even improve the lives of the North Korean people, although inevitably, plenty of blood will be spilled first. Unfortunately, there is no plausible outcome for the North Korean people that does not involve much needless waste of life, but at least the waste is finite if the regime ends.
Joshua Stanton is the author/editor of One Free Korea and practices law in Washington, D.C. The above excerpt from his recent essay “A New Approach to North Korea: Contain, Constrict, and Collapse,” was used with his permission.
SINO-NK: Which key institutions, actors, or regions do you have pegged for significant attention in the coming year? Is there a “sleeper story” about either North Korea or China (or both) that is going under-reported either in the popular media or among analysts?
Nicolas Levi: Action concerning economic matters is of great interest to me, so, institutionally speaking I will be focusing on the Korea Taepung International Investment Group and its management (Jang Sung Thaek and Pak Sol Ju) which will be a North Korean chaebol. Concerning actors, I will be focusing on emerging new North Korean elites such as Mun Kyung Dok (politician), Choe Ryong Hae (a politician involved in military affairs) and Jon Sung Hun (CEO of the Korea Pugang Corporation). As to the “sleeper story,” you need to recall that Kim Jong Il was really a secret person. During his trips to China, he always used a private North Korean toilet. Why? He used to do it because he didn’t want the Chinese Secret Police to have access to his fecal matter to be able to analyze it, and, consequently, be able to better gague the prospects concerning Kim Jong Il’s health.
Nicolas Levi is an analyst at the Poland Asia Research Center and a PhD candidate at the Polish Academy of Sciences (Warsaw).
SINO-NK: What can we expect from inter-Korean relations going forward?
Steven Denney: From a political economy perspective, changes in inter-Korean business activity will be an important relationship to keep a close eye on. Since the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeongpyeong island, inter-Korean relations have been colder than an early winter morning in Pyongyang, thus preventing any inter-Korean business relationships from developing. Following the Cheonan sinking, the Lee Myong-bak government announced it would cut all economic activity with its belligerent neighbor, except for the Kaesong Industrial Complex, by prohibiting new investment by South Korean companies in North Korea. However, due to sanctions and a general souring of relations between North Korea and the outside world, North Korea has turned to its ally and regional power-broker China. Since heavy sanctions were imposed by the United States and South Korea following North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, bi-lateral trade with China has hit an all-time high, reaching $4.7 billion in 2011. Given what seems to be a developing schism between the two Communist friends, North Korea may seek to diversify its trade with states other than China. As long as the recent missile rocket launch and prospects of a third nuclear test do not all but completely ruin an chances for inter-Korean détente, North Korea may be able to lure not a small number of willing South Korean companies into making investments so long as domestic politics in South Korea allow it (in light of recent election results, this scenario is far from a given). Aside from diversifying North Korea’s trade and helping boost economic growth, or perhaps because of it, South Korean investment in North Korea could help improve the overall quality of inter-Korean relations, which, in a best-case scenario, would lead to better overall relations between North Korea and other countries with a stake in the region.
Steven Denney is a graduate student at Yonsei University and Assistant Editor at SinoNK.com.