What’s behind Kim Jong-un’s peace overture?
m.koreatimes.co.kr · January 9, 2018
William Brown Ahead of the proposed inter-Korean dialogue, the mood is upbeat. Many Koreans are pinning high hopes that the high-level talks will bring about rapprochement between the two Koreas. However, the country is split into two camps as the opposition party and the conservatives are wary of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s intention behind his rare, sudden talk offer in his New Year’s speech. The Korea Times interviewed four international experts on North Korea to discuss Kim’s true intention, Seoul’s negotiation strategy, and a bottom line that the Moon Jae-in administration must stick to for successful talks. The four are William Brown, adjunct professor at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service; Balbina Hwang, a special adviser on East Asian affairs to the U.S. State Department in the George W. Bush administration; Tara O, an adjunct fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS; and Sean King, senior vice president of Park Strategies. The following discussion has been reconstituted based on separate interviews conducted through emails and phone calls from Jan. 2 to 5. ― ED.
‘Seoul should not agree to any sanctions-busting actions to help Pyongyang’
By Kim Jae-kyoung
Q: What do you think North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s intention behind his peace overture to South Korea is?
Balbina Hwang Balbina Hwang:The speech was not at all surprising, and seems to me an expected outcome of the strategy that Kim Jong-un has pursued for the last five years, particularly since South Korean President Moon Jae-in came to office. By rebuffing all of Moon’s initial efforts for dialogue and opportunities of engagement, Kim established that he is setting the agenda for talks, and furthermore has strengthened his immovable position that the nuclear issue is “off the table” in any engagement with South Korea.
William Brown:The only oddity here is why North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has waited until this late to make such a suggestion. Clearly there is little cost to him and he can hope to drive a wedge between conservatives and liberals in South Korea and between Moon and Trump. If the move backfires, he can raise havoc and thus blame outsiders for his poor domestic economic conditions. We need to be ready for that.
Hwang:In fact, a careful analysis of the contents of the Kim’s entire speech, which is quite lengthy and detailed, indicates that he has strengthened the continuous and unchanging goal of the North Korean regime since Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current leader Kim, to achieve “unification” or at least reconciliation between the two Koreas “independently,” without the interference of any foreign powers.
Tara O Tara O:Kim’s intention has not changed. North Korea’s long stated goal of dominating the entire peninsula under its rule remains the same. The offer of a potential talk with South Korea does not change that goal, and getting the U.S. military off the Korean peninsula is crucial for that goal. Thus, Kim is likely to try to find ways to drive a wedge between South Korea and the U.S. He is also likely to provide a list of demands, including for South Korea to provide cash, not implement sanctions, and halting or delaying the combined exercises with the U.S., none of which serves South Korea’s national interests.
Hwang:This of course implies not just that the two Koreas should be “united” in their attitudes towards eliminating U.S. interference, but also China, and presumably Russia, and others, such as Japan. Such appeals for a “strong” and “independent” Korea can be appealing to many in South Korea, even some conservatives, who seem to worry that Trump’s actions may be impulsive, and could lead to a war without the consent or approval of the South Koreans. This ultimately serves the long-standing goal of North Korea which is to end the South Korea-U.S. alliance.
Sean King Sean King:Kim’s reaching out to South Korea could be a sign sanctions are taking a toll and that he’s desperate for cash and assistance wherever he can get it. Kim likely assumes any talks with the South will lead to the reopening of the Gaesong Industrial Complex and other giveaways like those he got from South Korean President Moon’s liberal predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Kim’s also playing the inner-Korean ethnicity card here, trying to say it’s North and South together against big bad America. This appeals to some on South Korea’s ethno-nationalist Left who traditionally view America and Japan with suspicion.
Q: How should President Moon and his administration should prepare for inter-Korean talks?
O:Seoul should apply a principled approach to any talks with North Korea, and not be so eager to please. There’s a precedent ― the Sunshine Policy ― of unconditional aid given to North Korea, only to see North Korea prioritize nuclear weapons development that threatens South Korea and the international community. Thus, there should not be efforts to re-start the Sunshine Policy.
Brown:Moon should endeavor to not let the wedge work and, indeed, if he can, turn it back on Kim. A key thing at this point is to dampen expectations that these talks, or even North Korean participation in the Olympics, will change the dynamics of the strategic issues. If presented in that way, I don’t think there will be trouble with Trump. In fact, Trump’s initial response suggested as much. Trump thinks the sanctions are finally having an impact, and that Kim is looking for an excuse for a very cold economic situation in North Korea. Trump is looking at what is happening in Iran and hopes the same can happen, eventually, in North Korea.
Hwang:South Korea will face a profound choice in the near future: whether or not the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons is indeed the priority or even a necessity, or whether it is willing to accept the North’s nuclear status de facto, in order to improve inter-Korean relations. It is almost certain that Kim will continue with more missile tests, and maybe even another nuclear test in the upcoming months, even as he makes positive overtures to South Korea. Of course, this will make the South’s relations with the U.S. very challenging, and may even cause a rift in the alliance, although China ― and Russia ― will certainly prefer such a change in direction by the ROK.
King:South Korea is a sovereign state and America should always want the South front and center in any talks with North Korea so as to debunk the North’s lie that it is the one true Korea. But I’m always afraid any liberal South Korean government will give away too much too easily.
Hwang:I do not believe these overtures from Kim will lead to any real or long-term progress in inter-Korean relations. Certainly it does not change the fact that the North will never agree to a peaceful unification if it means the destruction of its system, and presumably almost all South Koreans cannot imagine changing their current democratic and open market society.
Q: What strategy should Seoul take to improve the situation on the Korean peninsula? Is there a bottom line or principle that you believe Seoul must stick to?
Brown:Hopefully, Moon has learned from the many bad “engagement” experiences of the past. Most importantly, this means no gift giving. I don’t mean small gifts to participants and their families but big secret gifts of taxpayer’s money to the North Korean regime. I think everyone knows what I mean. This would be outrageous in most Americans’ eyes and really would drive that wedge deep. And after so much history, Kim probably expects his Olympic team to be “self- supporting” in this respect. The South should be very explicit in saying it welcomes North Korean participation, even at this very late date, but that normal procedures will be followed.
Tara O:South Korea should not agree to any sanctions-busting actions to help North Korea. Not only does that lessen the impact of sanctions, but it also would make South Korea a pariah among the UN members that have signed on to implement the sanctions. The South Korea-U.S. alliance is the key to South Korea’s national security. If the Moon administration approaches North Korea with too much alacrity, it will only get pushed around by North Korea.
Brown:If North Korea wants to plead poverty and get some support, that might be all right but all rules must be respected and evidence presented. This includes the UNSC sanctions. I don’t think they need to apply to the Olympics, but certain banks, people, and travel entities are sanctioned and these all need to remain that way.
King:No government, let alone one directly in Pyongyang’s line of fire, should be funding Kim’s murderous cult regime even one dollar. I hope President Moon won’t consider reopening Gaesong and/or giving Pyongyang any aid but I sense and fear he will. Now’s the time to squeeze the North. Not to give it any respite. It’s Moon’s call but his presumably default responses are not what I might advise.
Brown:As far as turning the wedge around, this must be done very carefully, since North Korea is worried, I’m sure, and likely prepared for this to happen. Generally speaking, I like North Koreans coming out of their stronghold, so this is a good opportunity to effect changes. But Moon must keep his eye on the ball, just like an Olympic ping pong player. The ball needs to be hit back into the North Korean court in a way that forces the regime to accept the reality that it needs to reform, change its ways, and get rid of this nuclear threat business. So, a key condition on North Korean participation should be that Pyongyang allow wide access of its own people to South Korean and foreign press coverage of the event. Without that, Kim will only use it for his own propaganda purposes. The bottom line is “No gifts, open coverage inside North Korea.”
Hwang:The problem may be that Moon views this overture as an “easy” or short-term solution to near-term tensions, that can allow South Korea to successfully complete the Olympics without incident and successfully. As such, he may make concessions to Kim in the short term. But this will make resolution of the nuclear issue even more difficult over the long-term, and does little to really address South Korea’s long-term security threats from the North. But there may be little other options for Moon, as his immediate goal is understandably to oversee a successful Olympics.
m.koreatimes.co.kr · January 9, 2018