Dealing with North Korea’s New Leader

Shigemura Toshimitsu [Profile]

[2012.01.31] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 |

How will the death of Kim Jong-il affect Japan and other East Asian countries? Professor Shigemura Toshimitsu, a Korea expert at Waseda University, reviews the outlook for the nuclear weapons issue and democracy and human rights in North Korea. He also comments on Japan’s special concern: return of the Japanese abducted by North Korean agents.

The year 2011 is likely to go down in history as one in which dictators fell from power. The year opened with the flight of Tunisia’s dictator into exile in January, and it continued with the toppling of strongmen in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere. With the whole world watching, such countries as Egypt and Libya took tentative steps toward democracy. At the close of the year, North Korea’s supreme leader also left the stage. On December 19, Pyongyang announced that Kim Jong-il, chairman of the National Defense Commission, had passed away. In North Korea as well, we should not expect to see the establishment of a new dictatorship based on a personality cult. Even so, more time will be required before North Korea moves in the direction of democracy under its new leader, Kim’s third son Kim Jong-un.

Asia’s Poorest Country

North Korea is the poorest country in the Asian region. This is a fact we must not underrate. By no means is it a power with the ability to influence the world. The bigger countries nearby must not allow Pyongyang to manipulate them.

The budget of the North Korean government came to only ¥4.8 billion in 2011 at the current exchange rate, making it one of the smallest budgets among Asian countries. One of the factors behind this tiny figure is the currency redenomination the government carried out at the end of 2009, which weakened the value of the North Korean won. Even before that, however, the budget amounted only to about ¥500 billion, still one of Asia’s smallest state budgets.

North Korea does not produce any oil at all. During 2011 it imported 500,000 tons of crude oil from China and a small amount of petroleum products from Russia. Its total oil imports for the year did not amount to 700,000 tons, making it one of the Asian countries with the least oil available.

Inflation has been skyrocketing as a result of chronic shortages of goods. Cigarettes in Pyongyang were selling for about 2,000 won (about $20) per pack in the autumn of 2011. Food has become so expensive that buying just four eggs costs about 2,500 won (about $25). Given that ordinary workers earn only about 4,000 won (about $40) per month, these are exorbitant prices. Food shortages have become a daily headache and are making life for many ordinary citizens truly wretched.

Such are the realities in North Korea. Even though the country’s leadership is living in luxury, the people are living in poverty, their human rights suppressed.

Downplaying Democracy and Human Rights

The New York Times titled its December 19 editorial on Kim Jong-il’s demise “Death of a Dictator.” The term dictator was not used by South Korean newspapers, however, and even in Japan, only one paper spoke of “the end of 17 years of dictatorship.” People in these two countries may not appreciate that it was a dictator who died in North Korea.

The countries around North Korea are not pressing hard for its democratization or demanding that it resolve problems of human rights. China in particular has shown no interest in getting involved in such North Korean issues. To be sure, that is not hard to understand, because China itself has much to do in the areas of improving democracy and protecting human rights. But why are the media in Japan and South Korea so reluctant to label North Korea a dictatorship? In the case of South Korea, no doubt the existence of domestic forces that support the North provides the answer. Any talk about a North Korean dictator or dictatorship would be sure to elicit criticism and complaints. Newspapers and broadcasters in Japan, meanwhile, hesitate to call the country a dictatorship because they want to be able to continue to send staff members to it for news-gathering activities. It can be said that in both countries, consciousness of the importance of democracy and human rights is rather weak.

In the wake of Kim Jong-il’s death, Japan’s media demonstrated concern about five issues: (1) the possibility of a military clash, (2) the likelihood of domestic confusion and a coup d’état, (3) the question of whether North Korea might collapse, (4) securing the return of the Japanese abducted by North Korea, and (5) resolving the nuclear weapons problem. The media did not, however, show much interest in democracy and human rights.

Pyongyang is in no position to provoke a military clash or start a war. It does not have enough oil for that. At the most, it can channel only 400,000 tons of oil into military uses. Nowhere else in the world will you find an army with as many as a million soldiers and so little oil. If it embarked on a military operation, it would simply be unable to sustain it. Its weapons, moreover, have become obsolete.

For the time being, neither a popular revolt nor a coup d’état is in the cards. If a number of people gather in secret in North Korea, they will be arrested. It is reported that the army’s generals and top officers are kept under watch around the clock and that even their homes are bugged. Under the circumstances, plotting a coup would not be easy. If the country’s new leader loses support and respect, however, overthrowing the regime should eventually become possible.

North Korea is not likely to collapse over the short run, because neither China nor South Korea would like to see that happen. If the government in the North were to collapse, all of Korea would be unified under the government in the South. In that event, the US military bases there might be relocated, with some of them moving close to the border with China. US aircraft carriers might even start sailing into the Bohai Sea. As that would pose a serious security threat to China, Beijing has no intention of allowing the North to fall apart. It will therefore render support to the new leader in Pyongyang by providing the minimum necessary supplies for keeping the country intact.

Securing Washington’s Support on the Abduction Issue

The single most important issue from Japan’s point of view is resolving the abduction problem. Possibilities for that have now emerged with the death of Kim Jong-il. This is because the blame for the abductions can now be assigned to him.

The official position the Japanese government has adopted is that North Korea abducted 17 Japanese citizens. While 5 have been returned, nothing is certain about where the remaining 12 might be or even if they are still alive. The North Korean government has stated that almost all of them have died, but the Japanese public puts little faith in Pyongyang’s announcements. In fact, it is quite likely that many of these abductees are still alive.

Resolving the abduction problem is an issue that can influence the course of the Japan-US alliance. Both common enemies and shared values are necessary underpinnings of any alliance. The Japan-US alliance is supported in part by the view in both countries that North Korea is a common enemy. If either country were to normalize relations with the North without first gaining the other’s consent, their alliance would be weakened by the loss of a common enemy. Under the circumstances, it would be dangerous for either Tokyo or Washington to normalize relations with Pyongyang independently. That might even result in the termination of their bilateral alliance.

By the same token, resolving the abduction problem is a matter of sharing values. This issue has a bearing on human rights. If the United States were to show no interest in securing the return of the abducted Japanese, the sense that both countries share the same values would suffer a blow, and Japanese trust in the alliance with the United States would weaken. Under the circumstances, resolving the issue has become an important factor in sustaining the bilateral alliance. If the United States is truly concerned about democracy and human rights in North Korea and at the same time hopes to maintain the Japan-US alliance, it must not adopt the position that resolving the abduction problem is not an American concern. Washington should instead declare that it agrees with Tokyo that this is a human rights issue requiring a solution.

The abductions were a violation of Japan’s sovereignty. The fact of the matter is that North Korean agents snuck into Japan, kidnapped people, and carried them out of the country. Washington and Tokyo should therefore assert that North Korea violated Japan’s sovereignty and demand a resolution of the problem under international law. When there is a violation of sovereignty, the rule is that there must be restoration to the original condition. Pyongyang therefore has an obligation to return all the people its agents abducted.

The Nuclear Issue and Six-Party Talks

Some people have concluded that the death of Kim Jong-il has presented a chance for resolving the problem of the North Korean nuclear weapons program, but they are ignorant of the situation in the North. The country’s military faction is sure to force Kim Jong-un into sticking to a stance of keeping the program alive.

The new leader is not in full control of the North Korean military establishment. In order to retain his hold on power, Kim Jong-un has no choice but to follow the military’s advice. The North Korean regime cannot be held together without the army’s support and cooperation. And the army wants to retain its nuclear card not just to save face but also because it fears that without it, big countries would soon destroy North Korea, since it is one of the world’s poorest states. It is said that Kim Jong-un has reached an agreement with the military brass on following a course that the military can go along with. This means that achieving progress in the six-party talks, which China, Japan, Russia, and the United States are participating in along with the two Koreas, is not likely to be easy even if the talks are resumed.

Resolving the nuclear issue has been complicated by the appeasement policy Washington pursued for quite some time. Simply viewed, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program can be broken down into five stages: (1) research and facility construction, (2) operation of nuclear facilities, (3) nuclear tests, (4) deployment, (5) and export. No answer to the problem can be expected unless all five stages are dealt with as a single package.

The United States opted to deal first with just some of these stages, demanding that North Korea shut down its nuclear facilities and refrain from conducting nuclear tests, and when Pyongyang agreed to this, food, oil, and funds were made available. Then the relations between Washington and Pyongyang soured, however, and North Korea retracted its promise and resumed work on its nuclear weapons program. Condoleezza Rice, then the US secretary of state, spoke critically about the North Korean approach of agreeing to accept small concessions, branding this “salami tactics,” but Christopher Hill, who was representing the United States in the six-party talks as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, fell for these tactics and failed to get North Korea to come to realistic terms. In the end, the nuclear issue was not resolved.

During the two decades of the six-party talks, the United States has made the same mistake repeatedly. Its policy failed because it was willing to go along with partial agreements, accepting the slices of salami North Korea put on the table. If further failures are to be avoided, the negotiators must stop making easy changes in their negotiating positions, and they must not provide North Korea with large food supplies. Recently, both US President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak have been insisting that they will give North Korea no help unless it renounces nuclear development. This policy must not be changed. The new North Korean regime finds itself in an extremely uncomfortable position. If assistance to it were resumed with no strings attached, it would mistake this as a sign that it need not abandon its nuclear ambitions.

The best course for Japan, South Korea, and the United States is to continue to talk with North Korea. While adhering to the basic strategy of offering support only if Pyongyang abandons its nuclear weapons program, they should seek to persuade it to change its ways. They should, in short, pursue a policy of “dialog but no aid with nukes.”

(Originally written in Japanese.)

  • [2012.01.31]

Professor at Waseda University. Born in 1945. Graduated from the Faculty of Law, Waseda University, in 1969. Was a research student at Korea University Graduate School in 1975–76 and a professional journalism fellow at Stanford University in 1985. Worked for the Mainichi Shimbun as a special correspondent, first in Seoul from 1979 to 1985 and then in Washington from 1989 to 1994. Served as an editorialist at the newspaper before assuming his current position in Waseda’s School of International Liberal Studies in September 2004.

Related articles
Latest updates

Video highlights

New series

  • From the editor in chief
  • From our columnists
  • In the news