Robert Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council. He served as a senior counselor from 2001 to 2004 and as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008. The interview was conducted via email for both Dispatch Japan and Weekly Toyo Keizai.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is motivating North Korea right now? Are these 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?
MANNING: The conventional wisdom to explain North Korea’s actions is that this is primarily about a new twenty-nine-year-old trying to consolidate his position by demonstrating how tough and courageous he is to the North Korean military and political elite.
That may be part of the answer. But let me offer an explanation that has been noticeably absent in the sea of commentary on North Korea in recent weeks.
It’s possible that a major reason North Korea’s new leaders decided they needed to whip up a sense of crisis — of a nation under siege and facing impending attack from outside enemies —is because they are insecure and fear a fragile internal situation that is increasingly difficult to control.
Since the end of the Cold War (and Soviet aid) North Korea’s economic system has steadily broken down. Since the great famine in 1995, there have been continual food shortages facing by some estimates up to one-third of North Korea’s twenty-three million people.
The breakdown of Pyongyang’s food-distribution system led the government to allow private markets and some private plots. There has been a bottom-up second economy taking shape. In recent years, markets have sprung up all over North Korea with a growing array of goods indulged by the regime as a coping mechanism. A fledgling merchant stratum has sprung up; it is occasionally harassed, but tolerated, and exists largely outside the government.
At the same time, despite efforts to keep the nation isolated, several factors — including economic trade and refugee flows to China, CDs and broadcasts from South Korea, and now some five million cell phones — have made its borders more porous and information flows more accessible.
This is a regime that are control freaks, and are deeply uncomfortable with things they can not control. That is a key reason they have rejected economic reforms such as those China and Vietnam have pursued. To the degree that North Koreans get a dose of reality about the outside world, the myths of a “socialist paradise” by which the regime misgoverns start to unravel. If the twenty-three million North Koreans realize the massive lies fed to them to sustain the world’s only hereditary Stalinist dictatorship, it could gradually undo the regime.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is the regime unstable?
MANNING: I am not arguing that the masses are poised to revolt. That is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Pyongyang still runs a terror state with some two hundred thousand in labor camps, and those caught trying to flee the country are frequently executed. But the current situation may be viewed by the regime as discomforting and fragile, with its efforts to seal off the country from reality increasingly more than fraying at the edges.
At the onset of a new leader’s tenure, how better to reassert tight control over its beleaguered citizens and whip up support for the regime than to instill fear and claim that the U.S. imperialists are on the verge of starting a nuclear war. This involved going to great lengths, including telling foreign embassies to evacuate Pyongyang and warning foreigners in South Korea to leave before the war starts. It’s great political theater, and Pyongyang seems oblivious to how ridiculous it is.
DISPATCH JAPAN: So Pyongyang is not looking for a large-scale confrontation?
MANNING: I don’t think so. Actually, I think the notion of a “crisis” – as in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis – is nonsense. The world is not on the brink of an imminent nuclear confrontation. North Korean troops and artillery are not about to pour across the Demilitarized Zone. This is all nothing more than political theater. Unfortunately, a lot of media has gone along for the show, from the hysterical TV portrayals of goose-stepping North Korean troops, and breathless news reports of North Korean warnings of war, to maps depicting the range of imminent missile launches, complete with retired U.S. generals explaining the targets.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Still, the bellicosity has been pretty strident.
MANNING: This time around, it is louder and more melodramatic. But we have seen time and again North Korea throwing a political tantrum in response to annual U.S.-ROK military exercises or the latest round of UN Security Council sanctions in response to Pyongyang testing a nuclear device or launching a missile.
Kim may be dangerous, but he is not crazy: North Korea is not suicidal. Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests are not really “provocations.” They are part of a systematic military program that North Korea has been working on for more than forty years to obtain nuclear and missile capabilities. Diplomatic concessions in the past have affected the timing and perhaps the amount of missile and nuclear tests. But they have gone and will continue to go forward because the North Koreans want to gain such weapons. While I think deterrence still prevails, there is cause for more concern as the North Koreans develop new capabilities like the Musudan, with a 4000km range, and a mobile ICBM.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How can Pyongyang wind this down and “save face” without some kind of skirmish?
MANNING: I think they can simply claim victory, with a narrative that says US and its puppets in the South were about to attack us, but the heroic stance of Kim Jong Un forced them to back down. That may be why they held festivals and a marathon in the midst of this on April 15, Kim Il Sung's birthday. And why they did not test a missile --at least not in the midst of the pseudo-crisis as many expected.
DISPATCH JAPAN: To what extent is Kim Jong-un actually calling the shots in Pyongyang?
MANNING: That is unclear. We know his uncle -- his father's brother-in-law, Jang Sang Taek, has been providing much adult supervision, and if you recall for about roughly a year after Kim Jong Il had a stroke in 2008, Jang was running day-to-day affairs. I suspect he is still playing a large role. But Kim is what passes for political legitimacy in North Korea.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Why did the North shut down the Kaesong industrial area?
MANNING: They had suspended operations before. But given that Kaesong produces about $100 million a year in free money for the regime, it suggests domestic factors. 53,000 North Korean workers have been exposed to South Korean managers every day in Kaesong.
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? Would China risk bringing down the regime?
MANNING: This is a somewhat humiliating situation for Beijing, with the tail wagging the dog. Their problem is that they give stability a higher priority than denuclearization, and provide enough food, fuel and spare parts to keep N. Korea going, but have little real leverage. It is not like a rheostat that they can dial up or down a little; it is either on or off. And they are afraid of the consequences of turning it off and the possibility of a collapse where they would lose their buffer, and face a unified Korea aligned with the US.
But there is a growing debate within China among the political and intellectual elite over whether N.Korea may be a liability not an asset. China is willing to apply some pressure, endorsing sanctions. We will see how far they go in enforcing sanctions. Their ultimate problem is that like the Soviet Union, at some point N.Korea may collapse of its own weight, and China may not be able to do much about. In the meantime, rather than coordinating with the US, ROK on Japan, they have been reluctant to discuss "what if" – regime collapse -- questions.
DISPATCH JAPAN:The US seems prepared to impose a price on North Korea for any conflict, while working carefully to avoid unnecessary escalation. Is that your assessment of the Administration’s approach, and do you agree with it?
MANNING: I think Obama has handled it about right. They show of force, the B-2s, was a clear statement that we are serious, and if they launch any aggression, it will be the end of N.Korea.
Yet the US cancelled an ICBM test to avoid appearing to escalate things, and have made it clear the US is willing to negotiate. The door is open -- anytime, so long as Pyongyang is willing to put its Weapons of Mass Destruction on the table, based on the 2005 agreement that the North walked away from, as they did with the Feb.29 2011 agreement.
In the past, North Korean actions have been designed to create tensions in order to extract concessions. But the Obama administration and that of the new ROK President Park Geun-hye have made it clear that they have both seen that movie before and are not buying it.
The administration has handled this tempest in a teapot well, with its military show of force sending a clear signal to the twenty-nine-year-old Kim that this is not a video game, and that Pyongyang should think twice before confronting the United States and its allies.
DISPATCH JAPAN: To what extent is the strenuous US reaction designed to reassure the region of US reliability, vs. the obvious desire to deter North Korea?
MANNING: I think for the US, credible deterrence and reassurance to our allies are inseparable. The US offshore balancer role in the Asia-Pacific remains an essential pillar of stability, and the US does not want to risk diminishing the credibility of that role. I think it is important to make clear to Pyongyang that they will not be accepted as a nuclear state. They would probably like an India-type agreement with the US, but Washington and Seoul are not going to give it to them.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is there any chance for a diplomatic solution, and what would that look like?
MANNING: So long as the North Korean regime wants to possess nuclear weapons, there is little room for problem-solving diplomacy. There are deep levels of distrust on both sides and the North Korea regime is anachronistic, trapped in its own myths. That leaves little to seriously talk about. Pyongyang should recall that the Soviet Union had thirty thousand nuclear warheads, yet that didn’t save it from collapsing from its own contradictions.
Americans tend to think all problems have solutions, but sometimes they can only be managed. We can plan for post-Kim regime scenarios, but we have to live with the present.