A Time of Change on the Korean Peninsula

Charting Kim Jong-un’s Course


Now that Kim Jong-un has taken over at the helm of North Korea, will the country begin to reengage with the United States, South Korea, and Japan? This is the question Leon V. Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project, examines in this article, with a focus on the future of the North Korean nuclear and missile programs.

Kim Jong-un’s mid-July shake-up of his military top brass occasioned a spate of speculation about a possible transformation in North Korea. Yet his sudden move only showed that he was firmly enough in charge to fire the general whom his father had promoted to chief of staff.

Potentially more significant is that a widely anticipated third nuclear test by the North has not taken place. Preparations for such a test were under way when Kim’s father died. Kim’s restraint could signal that he wants to reengage with the United States, Japan, and South Korea. That could foster the calm external environment he needs to turn his full attention to improving his economy.

If so, Kim would have to implement his commitments of last February 29 to a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests and suspension of uranium enrichment at Yongbyon under international monitoring. He would also have to refrain from further satellite launches. That would do much to ease the security concerns of Japan and others in Northeast Asia and open the way to reengagement with all his neighbors.

International Calm—A Precondition for Economic Change

Kim’s speeches have hinted at economic change afoot, but those hints are inconclusive and no substantial change of course in North Korea is likely without a more conducive international climate that would allow him to reallocate scarce resources from military to civilian use, open the way to aid and investment from outside, and reduce his growing dependence on China.

Kim knows that when his father embarked on economic reform in 2002, he reached out to Seoul and Tokyo, only to be blocked by Washington’s refusal to engage. That history makes Kim unlikely to risk reform without clear evidence of rapprochement with all three countries. If so, he will have to curb his nuclear and missile programs.

Such restraint seemed in the offing at bilateral talks in Beijing on February 29 when Pyongyang committed itself, among other things, to a moratorium on nuclear and longer-range missile tests and a suspension of uranium enrichment at Yongbyon under international monitoring. Washington, in turn, committed itself to improve bilateral relations as well as provide food aid, which the North asked for as a “confidence-building measure.”

Left unresolved was whether the missile test moratorium precluded satellite launches. That is important because the first two stages of the rocket North Korea uses to put a satellite into orbit are indistinguishable from a longer-range missile to deliver a nuclear warhead. The North’s negotiators insisted it has a sovereign right to launch satellites despite a UN Security Council ban. US negotiators responded that a satellite launch would be a deal-breaker.

The North’s failed attempt to launch a satellite so soon after its February 29 commitments may have revealed little about the new leader’s intentions, however. Both of those actions were set in motion by his father, North Korean officials say. They insist that the “new generation” in power wants improved relations with Washington.

There is some evidence for their contention. The commitments were originally to have been formalized at a bilateral meeting in December, the week that Kim’s father died. Preparations for both the rocket launch and nuclear test were both under way by then. In announcing the test-launch, moreover, North Korea’s media referred repeatedly to his father, not him.

Why a Nuclear Test Matters

Nuclear restraint by Kim would have profound military and political significance. Militarily, a successful test could demonstrate a new “miniaturized” nuclear device that North Korea officials say it has, one capable of being delivered by missile. That could alter the regional balance of power to the detriment of Japan’s security.

Politically, the test would cross the Rubicon in relations with the outside, with major implications for the North’s economic policy.

Pyongyang has been pursuing a strategic alternative to improving relations with Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul. The first sign of this change in strategy came in a widely publicized trip by Kim Jong-il to Russia last year, when the elder Kim opened the way to playing off Russia against China, much as his father did during the Cold War.

Nuclear restraint would suggest a different course. For years, North Korean officials have been saying they want to improve relations with the United States, Japan, and South Korea, and were prepared to curb their nuclear and missile programs in return. An end to enmity—what the DPRK calls US “hostile policy”—would improve North Korean security and provide a counterweight to China. It could open the way to deeper engagement with Seoul and Tokyo, leaving Pyongyang less dependent on Beijing for aid and investment.

Given the lack of trust between the two countries, however, Pyongyang insisted on reciprocal steps by Washington—action for action—to build confidence.

Until the April satellite launch, there had been some evidence the North meant what it said about action for action for confidence-building. In the 1990s, the only way the North could make the explosive ingredient for nuclear weapons was to remove spent fuel from its reactor at Yongbyon and reprocess it to extract plutonium, but it had stopped reprocessing in late 1991 and did not resume until 2003, denying itself dozens of bombs’ worth of plutonium. It shut down its reactor at Yongbyon from 1994 to 2003 under the 1994 Agreed Framework and did so again in 2007 under an October 2007 six-party accord. The reactor has yet to be restarted. And the North has conducted very few test launches of medium- and long-range ballistic missiles over the past two decades. As a consequence, it has just a handful of nuclear devices and no reliable missiles to deliver them.

North Korea did begin to acquire the means to enrich uranium in 1997; it reprocessed some five or six bombs’ worth of plutonium in 2003; it conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009; and it test-launched missiles in 1993, 1998, 2006 and 2009. But each time, with some justification, it cited US failure to fulfill its commitments as the reason—or pretext—for its actions and offered to revive talks.

This time, Pyongyang had no reason to conclude that Washington would not keep its commitments. Its decision to conduct a satellite launch was not confidence-building but confidence-destroying. Repeated references to Kim Jong-il’s military-first legacy seemed to suggest it would conduct a nuclear test as well.

According to a DPRK Foreign Ministry spokesman’s statement on May 22, however, Pyongyang had since told Washington it would not conduct a nuclear test:

Several weeks ago, we informed the US side of the fact that we are restraining ourselves in real actions though we are no longer bound to the February 29 DPRK-US agreement, taking the concerns voiced by the United States into consideration for the purpose of ensuring the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula necessary for focusing every effort on the peaceful development. From the beginning, we did not envisage such a military measure as a nuclear test as we planned to launch a scientific and technical satellite for peaceful purposes.

If the North wants to begin restoring confidence, refraining from nuclear tests would be a start. But it will also have to begin implementing the rest of its February 29 commitments, as well as refrain from testing missiles, whether or not in guise of launching a satellite. Washington has hinted it would be prepared to reciprocate. On May 22, the same day as the DPRK Foreign Ministry spokesman’s statement, US negotiator Glyn Davies told reporters in Beijing,

Should the opportunity present itself, if we can reach a stage where we can once again have faith in the North Koreans’ ability to abide by its undertakings and its promises, we would like very much to get back to the provision of nutritional assistance. Sadly, that is not the case right now, in the wake of their decision, in March, to announce that they would launch a Taepo-dong missile. . . . And that was a miscalculation on their part. They missed an opportunity to demonstrate their seriousness of purpose and really getting back to negotiations with us, and ultimately with the six parties. So what we’re looking for now from North Korea is that they will now begin to take actions to demonstrate that they are serious about fulfilling their promises, their undertakings, in particular the promises that they made in the September 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks.

No talks are likely before this year’s elections in the United States and South Korea, but continued North Korean restraint could lead to their resumption. At that point the aim would be, first, for the North to implement its commitment to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. If denuclearization is to move beyond temporary suspension to permanent dismantlement, reassuring Pyongyang will be essential. That will take more far-reaching reciprocal steps including a peace process and steps toward full political and economic normalization.

Of course, no one should underestimate the political damage done to nuclear diplomacy by North Korea’s satellite launch. Moreover, officials in Pyongyang have reason to distrust US intentions as well after repeated reneging on its obligations by Washington.

What a Diplomatic Probe of Kim’s Intentions Could Yield

Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul have a stake in probing Kim Jong-un’s intentions. Economic isolation and sanctions have failed to prevent North Korea’s arming or its expanded trade. Its economy has been growing over much of the past decade—albeit from a very low base. Economic engagement, by contrast, is the only way to bring about much needed change inside North Korea. China’s engagement demonstrates this. The flow of goods into the North from China has weaned North Koreans from their dependence on the state, perhaps the most profound transformation in that country in decades. The effect was evident at the time of the North’s botched currency revaluation in December 2009. Intended to confiscate capital from private entrepreneurs by forcing them to deposit won in banks, where it would be available for state enterprises to invest, the revaluation disrupted the North’s markets. Within weeks the public reaction forced the state to do a U-turn and even issue a public apology. Would that have been possible without China’s engagement?

Disengagement has also failed to check mounting tensions on the Korean peninsula. The sinking of the South Korean corvette, Cheonan, is commonly viewed as a North Korean provocation, a characterization that ignores the precarious military balance on the peninsula. North Korean forces are inferior to the South’s on land, at sea, and in the air, but Pyongyang still holds Seoul hostage to its devastating artillery and short-range missile attack. Mutual deterrence may make the likelihood of deliberate aggression on the peninsula quite low, but the very steps that each side takes to deter premeditated war have increased the risk of deadly clashes, if not inadvertent war. Close scrutiny of North Korean sources suggests that the torpedoing of the Cheonan was a reprisal for the South Korea’s November 10, 2009 attack on a North Korean naval vessel that had crossed into the contested waters of the Yellow Sea south of the Northern Limit Line. In response to the Cheonan attack, the South conducted a live-fire exercise in those waters, triggering another deadly North Korean reprisal, this time on Yeonpyeong Island. Deterrence alone will not prevent more clashes, but a peace process might.

Unbounded nuclear and missile development by Pyongyang would also have grave consequences for the security of all of its neighbors and the world at large. Already some in Seoul have been calling for the return of US nuclear weapons to the peninsula—or worse, resuming a South Korean nuclear weapons program that Washington succeeded in stopping twice before. An arms competition will also strengthen the hand of those in Tokyo who distrust the United States and favor nuclear-arming.

As of now, the North is continuing to enrich uranium and it can restart its plutonium production at any time. It is constructing a new light-water reactor to generate power, which will also create plutonium as a by-product of fission, as all power plants do. It has yet to test two longer-range missiles it has paraded or its new nuke. It is one thing for the North to have a handful of nuclear devices best delivered by container ship and another for it to have dozens deliverable by missile.

Renewed talks may not convince the North to proceed down the denuclearization road. That would lead to stricter containment to deny its weapons-related trade by tougher inspections of suspect cargo ships and tighter restrictions on overflights. It would also preclude deeper economic engagement with all its neighbors, jeopardizing Kim’s economic hopes.

(Originally written in English.)

diplomacy United States China politics Russia East Asia North Korea Kim Jong-il Kim Jong-un South Korea six-party talks Korean Peninsula Leon V. Sigal nuclear weapon missile