[Editor’s note: South Korean President Park Geun-hye will be in Washington this week for talks with President Obama and members of his Cabinet. She will also deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress, a sign of continuing strong US support for its long-time ally. Much of the discussion will focus on North Korea, and US and South Korean policy toward that troubled, and troubling, nation. To discuss the situation in North Korea, and the state of diplomacy in the region, we turned to Daniel Sneider, the associate director for research at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. Sneider, who spent time in Seoul just prior to Park’s late-February inauguration, closely watches current US foreign and national security policy in Asia and the foreign policy of Japan and Korea.
Prior to going to Stanford, Sneider was a long-time foreign correspondent. From 1990 to 1994, he was the Moscow bureau chief of the Christian Science Monitor, covering the end of Soviet Communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. From 1985 to 1990, he was Tokyo correspondent for the Monitor, covering Japan and Korea. He was also the national/foreign editor, and later foreign affairs columnist, for the San Jose Mercury News.]
DISPATCH JAPAN:There seems to be a bit of a lull in the recent North Korean boisterous behavior. What has been motivating Pyongyang? Have these been the tactics of a new regime trying to consolidate power? Or are these the tactics of a more shrewd leadership, engaging in yet another round of provocations designed to extract concessions?
SNEIDER: It is not an ‘either-or’ situation. My fundamental assessment is that the driver of North Korean behavior is the internal situation. That primarily means the crisis in the North Korean economic system. The country’s rigid command economy is unable to generate capital for growth, and is unable to meet the most basic needs of the population. There have been some small attempts at modest reforms, such as experimenting with some market incentives, and some opening up of the economy to the outside. The latter has principally meant with China.
In some ways, these fledgling attempts have worsened the internal crisis. The leadership is unwilling to go down the road of reform far enough to really begin to solve the country’s systemic problems. And yet the steps they are required to take to allow some flow of consumer goods, as well as food and fuel, function to open the society to the influence of the outside.
We don’t see any visible signs of opposition to the regime. But there is plenty of evidence of social and economic change, propelled by the need to open to the outside. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans work in China, many of them going and back and forth across the border. There are also some 90,000 North Koreans working in Russia these days, earning money and sending it back. A lot of people go to China, buy goods, and bring them back – shuttle traders. I saw this phenomenon when I was in the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
This movement of people across the border brings with it information about the outside world, and very specifically about South Korea. More and more North Koreans have access to South Korean TV dramas and movies. They arrive in North Korea onDVDs, and even material downloaded onto computer flash drives. There are cell phones that enable people to stay in touch with family members who live and work in China, as some cell phones can function across the border.
It means that there is some awareness of the reality of where North Korea stands relative to South Korea, but also relative to China. They know just how poor their situation really is, and what could be theirs.
That does not mean they are disloyal to the regime. It means they are potentially a force for change.
The regime has now set out a set of twin goals: to develop the economy and to enhance their status as a nuclear weapons state.In some ways these are contradictory goals, because the country’s resources are very limited, and there is competition for resources between the military and civilian side of the economy.
But they are trying to make this fit together. On the one hand, the regime needs to use its supposed success in becoming a powerful state as a propaganda tool to try to still command the support of the population. At the same time, the regime knows it needs to deliver some tangible economic gains.
That leads directly to the kind of external behavior that we’ve been seeing recently. It serves the purpose of keeping the population in some state of mobilization, of rallying around the flag of North Korean nationalism and patriotism. It enables the regime to regiment the population, and allows the regime to use escalation and pressure tactics to extract some kind of concessions from the outside, particularly in the form of economic aid, investment, or trade.
There is coherence to the recent North Korean behavior. The underlying driver is the weakness of the North Korean state itself. The behavior is that of a weak government. That does not mean it is not dangerous. In some ways it may be more dangerous. But the behavior is certainly not that of a confident regime.
By understanding the weakness, you can begin to see the pathway out of this problem. The way out lies in the process of change within North Korea, not in some diplomatic solution via a revival of the Six Party Talks or bilateral talks. I’m not saying those talks should not take place. But we should know that these talks are very unlikely to lead to a denuclearized North Korea. That is only going to come through the process of change in North Korea.
DISPATCH JAPAN:The rhetoric seems to have declined in recent days. How can Pyongyang just wind this down, short of some kind of skirmish, without losing “face?”
SNEIDER: A lot of people have been worried about that. What is the way off the highway of constantly escalated bellicosity? The decision to close the Kaesong Industrial Park is deeply disturbing because it makes so little sense for North Korea and it appears to be a product of their inability, in part, to back down from their initial escalation for fear of losing face. Hopefully, they can find a way to back off.The US and South Korea have ended recent joint military exercises, so perhaps Pyongyang can say that North Korea forced the ‘imperialist war-mongers’ to back down.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Kerry and, more importantly, the new South Korean president Park Geun-hye, have put on the table a readiness to talk. The North Koreans may continue to reject the overtures, but the fact is they know the offer is there. President Park will undoubtedly make that clear when she visits Washington and I would expect President Obama to support the South Korean leader. President Park will also be visiting China shortly afterwards, an important part of her emphasis on engaging the Chinese, not only regarding North Korea, but more broadly. The Chinese, for their part, appear to be sending a clear message to Pyongyang to avoid provocation and potential miscalculation, and get back to the negotiating table. Whether the North Koreans are listening to Beijing is a different question.
When the North Koreans are ready, I suspect they will pick up one of the available offers, and they will portray that as either their victory or a sign of weakness on the other side. Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but I think it is much more likely to head down that path, than it is to go down the path of escalation leading to conflict.
DISPATCH JAPAN:How much of this North Korean behavior is linked to recent political changes in South Korea?
SNEIDER: I believe that is a big factor. The North Koreans were hoping that the progressives would come back to power in Seoul, for very self-serving reasons. During the ten years of progressive rule in South Korea, there was a substantial flow of aid from the South to the North. Over that 10-year period, the South Koreans provided the grain equivalent of over a million tons per year in direct aid – food, fertilizer, and so on. This made up for the chronic deficit in the North Korean system. That stopped five years ago, with the coming to power of Lee Myung-bak, and that was a serious crisis for the North. China filled the gap to some extent, but not all of it. The turn of events pushed the North Koreans further into the arms of the Chinese, which Pyongyang is not happy about.
Pyongyang was very much hoping the progressives would come back to power, and that there would be a return to the previous pattern of aid flowing from the South. That did not happen.
Park Geun-hye has certainly signaled, both before the December election and after, that she is ready to open a dialogue and engage in a bit more of a positive relationship with the North. She’s talked about resuming humanitarian aid, forgingtrustpolitikbetween the North and South.
However, fundamentally there is a lot of continuity with the Lee administration. She has a lot of tough-minded folks around her and within her cabinet, and in the military. They are very determined to respond sternly to any North Korean provocation of the kind we saw in 2010.
It was predictable that the North Koreans would test Park, to take a measure of her resolve. This has quieted down a bit, but there is still concern that Pyongyang will do something more to further test Seoul, in the form of a military provocation. It certainly worries American officials that some kind of escalatory pattern could set in.
DISPATCH JAPAN:To what extent is Kim Jong-un actually calling the shots in Pyongyang?
SNEIDER: The North Koreans are still engaged in a struggle for legitimacy on the Peninsula. That is especially the case now that Kim Jong-un has come to power – a young guy who is untested and who must have his own doubts about the security of his regime.
I don’t believe that Kim Jong-un is individually making the decisions in Pyongyang. They likely are being made by a collective leadership. I can speculate along with others about the role being played by his uncle, and you can see evidence that decision-making goes well-beyond the young Kim. But none of us is privy to the leadership deliberations in Pyongyang. Just based on the culture and the society, it is unlikely that an untested 29 year-old with very little experience would be calling the big shots on his own.
By contrast, his father sat in waiting for over 20 years, and served in many senior positions before assuming the top spot after Kim Il-sung’s death.
The narrative of the young Kim being eager to risk war is not, in my view, an accurate portrayal of the situation in Pyongyang. The leadership in North Korea is largely stable, led by a group of people who have been running the country for a long time, under the auspices of the Kim family. They are not flighty or impulsive. They sometimes take risks, and are often aggressive and provocative. But they are not suicidal.
DISPATCH JAPAN:Has China really changed its attitude toward a greater willingness to apply substantial pressure on Pyongyang? Are there still limits to how much pressure China will apply, or would China risk bringing down the regime?
SNEIDER: Analysts are watching a number of indicators, including the commentary in the Chinese media, to gauge the thinking in Beijing. They are carefully reading statements from Chinese leaders, watching the cross-border traffic between China and North Korea. I find that some analysts are almost desperately looking for evidence that Beijing is fed up with Pyongyang and are getting ready to dump the leadership there.
I don’t find the evidence convincing. In my talks with Chinese officials I hear exasperation, and very blunt assessments of the nature of the problem in North Korea. But the bottom line remains that peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula are the priority for China, and denuclearization is secondary. China does not want to take steps that will undermine the stability of the regime in Pyongyang. That has been Chinese policy all along. North Korea is certainly a huge inconvenience for China, and it can be exasperating and irritating for Chinese leaders to have a client state like North Korea on their border.
Keep in mind that there have been time when the US and South Korea have had their problems. That is not unusual in the relationship between dominant powers and their clients. Sometimes things go awry, and the tail wags the dog.
There is a lot of that now taking place between China and North Korea. China did not want the North Koreans to test a nuclear device for a third time. They do not want the North to test a medium range missile. They want the North Koreans to avoid any kind of provocation, if for no other reason than the fact that continued North Korean provocations will lead to an expanded US military presence in the region.
China does not want that, and so the leadership in Beijing has every reason to want to want to curb the North Koreans. But the Chinese will stop short of taking steps that they fear would ultimately undermine the North Korean regime itself.
DISPATCH JAPAN:How do you assess the Obama administration’s handling of the situation?
SNEIDER: The administration has done a pretty good job. A good indication of the administration’s thinking came recently from President Obama himself, when he said the North Korean behavior has been like that of a child trying to get its way by banging a spoon on a high-chair table.
Secretary of State Kerry went to the region recently with a pretty clear, dual message. The US is prepared to defend our allies, and to respond in a forceful way to any kind of provocation or escalation, but the US is seeking to restrain any actions that could trigger a wider conflict.
Kerry, and later the President, was very unambiguous that the US is not going to give the North Koreans what they are looking for: recognition and acceptance of their status as a nuclear state. The administration has also left open the door to serious negotiations. As I think will be evident during the upcoming visit, the Obama administration is prepared to let the South Koreans take the lead in opening a dialogue with the North.
The administration also wants some kind of practical cooperation with China. Obama administration officials may overstate China’s willingness to help in restraining North Korea, but I think it makes sense to portray the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. We want to draw the Chinese in and to increase the sense of pressure on North Korea.
As for Japan, it has a limited role to play regarding North Korea. The Japanese don’t have any more significant economic interactions with North Korea, so Tokyo lacks pressure levers.
There was some concern in Tokyo that the US might prematurely enter negotiations with the North, which might not fit well with Prime Minister Abe’s tough line toward Pyongyang. But the reality is that this decision is going be shaped by events. The US wants to coordinate closely with Japan and South Korea, but it has been evident for quite some time that Japan is not shaping the policy.
DISPATCH JAPAN:Are you advocating that whatever engagement the US and allies conduct with North Korea be designed to accentuate the contradictions in the system?
SNEIDER: I favor the approach known as “subversive engagement,” which is a term coined by the Andrei Lankov, a very astute Russian scholar on North Korea. This means engagement that would tend to undermine the regime’s control over its own population. That would include limited economic interaction – not large-scale aid – flows of information, and other type of contact that enables the North Korea people to have a better sense of what is happening in the outside world. Academic exchanges could be an important part of this kind of engagement.
The Kaesong park is a very good example of this kind of subversive engagement. South Korean firms had been operating small-scale factories that employed upwards of 53,000 North Koreans just about 10 miles north of the demilitarized zone that divides North from South. Those workers go home and tell family members and neighbors about their experiences working in what is essentially a South Korean factory. Pyongyang has benefited from the economic gains the joint project has provided, but they revealed at times their unease over the spill-over effects on North Korean society.
For example, at one point the North Koreans demanded that the South Korean factory managers stop handing out “Choco pies,” a popular South Korean snack food, to their workers. In time, the choco pies started to find their way onto North Korean black markets all over the country. By moving to close the park, the North Koreans may have decided the impact of this kind of engagement was just too great. And there is an element of wounded pride, of being willing to tell the South Koreans: ‘You think you have leverage over us, but we don’t need you. We can shoot ourselves in the foot if we want to.’
More so than the nuclear and missile tests, and the war talk, I find this the most dangerous sign that the leadership is not in the frame of mind that could lead to some kind of sustained lowering of tensions.