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Washington DC Peace & Security Forum

Washington DC Forum: Regional Perspectives of the Korean Peninsula

Washington, DC, USA - On Dec. 14, 2011, the UPF Office of Peace and Security Affairs convened its inaugural roundtable meeting in Washington, DC on the theme, “Regional Perspectives of the Korean Peninsula 
after the November Asian Summits.” 
The roundtable discussions focused on the new shift of US foreign policy towards the Asia Pacific region and its implications towards the Korean peninsula. The program was held at The Washington Times with top experts on the subject.

With the recent death of Kim Jong Il and the ascension to power of his third son, Kim Jong Un, as leader of North Korea, the Northeast Asia region and in particular the Korean peninsula is going through a period of uncertainty. The report for the December 14 roundtable incorporates opinions from the participants on this timely issue in North Korea and the possible implications for the region.

The UPF Office of Peace and Security Affairs offers the following summary of the proceedings of this roundtable to shed an informative and objective light on this volatile and strategically important area of the world.

Executive Summary

“Regional Perspectives of the Korean Peninsula
after the November Asian Summits”

A Roundtable Sponsored by the UPF Office of Peace and Security Affairs
December 14, 2011

Green Room, The Washington Times
Washington, DC, USA

 

The inaugural roundtable by the Office of Peace and Security Affairs of the Universal Peace Federation (UPF) was convened on December 14, 2011 at The Washington Times, with the theme, “Regional Perspectives of the Korean Peninsula after the November Asian Summits.” Participants included Dr. Larry Niksch, Senior Associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and retired Asia Specialist with the Congressional Research Service; Zachary Hosford, Research Associate, Center for a New American Security; Stephen Costello, an independent Asian affairs analyst and previous director of the Korea Program at the Atlantic Council; and Sohee Gu, Research Associate, Embassy of the Republic of Korea. Representing UPF were Dr. Antonio Betancourt, Director, UPF Office of Peace and Security Affairs; William Selig, Deputy Director, UPF Office of Peace and Security Affairs; Dr. Mark P. Barry, advisor, UPF Office of Peace and Security Affairs; and Tomiko Duggan, Director, UPF Office of Embassy Relations.

In November, the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Economic Leaders Summit and the East Asia Summit took place in Honolulu and Bali respectively, highlighted by statements from President Obama and Secretary Clinton that the United States is renewing its focus on the Asia-Pacific region as the world’s economic and strategic center shifts eastward. While media coverage tended to focus on China’s reaction to this policy shift, as well as the announced basing of U.S. Marines in Australia, UPF’s roundtable narrowed the focus to the impact of these changes upon the Korean Peninsula. In particular, we invited assessments of the present status and near-term future of North Korea as it approached the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth in April 2012, as well as the prospects for improved inter-Korean relations in the last year of Lee Myung-bak’s presidency leading to the December 2012 election in South Korea.

Our discussions centered around a comprehensive set of prepared questions. However, no one expected that North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, would pass away three days after the roundtable was held, creating a dramatically new landscape on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia. Accordingly, several participants submitted additional comments assessing the impact of the death of Kim Jong Il and assumption to leadership of his son, Kim Jong Un, to be reflected in our record. What follows is a summary of highlights of the full afternoon discussion.

Assessments of the United States Asian Pivot

At the outset, participants addressed the overall theme and assessed the Asian “pivot” by the Obama administration, as announced at the two Asian summits last month, and the impact upon China, Japan, and both Koreas. Mr. Costello offered that much of the “pivot” is a military-security pivot, an effort to balance and influence China’s rise. The expansion of U.S. bases in Asia to Australia relates to the ongoing debates about the U.S. footprint in places such as Okinawa and South Korea. There is also an economic part, promoting transparency, lower tariff barriers, and free trade, but it is not fleshed out. He added that there are controversial aspects about the U.S. role. To what extent, he asked, is the U.S. administration interested in and capable of contributing a diplomatic pivot? Recognizing that we are entering an election year, we do not have a diplomatic pivot. If President Obama is re-elected, Mr. Costello did not think we will see any change in diplomatic efforts, which would not be in the best interests of the U.S.

Mr. Hosford agreed. Looking across East Asia, many countries are concerned about China’s rise. There is room for the U.S. to play a role in the security realm, which may have follow-up effects in the diplomatic realm. He suggested perhaps the U.S. could rekindle some relationships based on security concerns and expand and broaden them. The big driver will be how the relationships between the U.S. and China play out, for example, whether ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) + 3 or the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) gathers momentum.

Dr. Niksch did not see the planned stationing of 2,600 Marines in Australia as being that important. The Chinese are not worried about a small number of Marines there, but are worried about American naval and air power, especially in Guam. He saw some improvement in the diplomatic pivot. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Burma was a response to measured changes in Burma. One should not exaggerate these, he said. ASEAN governments did want some positive response to the new Burmese government releasing some prisoners. Diplomatically, there is a more assertive U.S. involvement in the South China Sea issue. Secretary Clinton raised this and has continued to speak out, infuriating the Chinese. The issue for this administration is whether it can forge a united bloc to negotiate multilaterally with China on the South China Sea issue. China’s strategy is to carve off each country for bilateral negotiations, negotiating with each from a position of strength. Dr. Niksch stressed the administration needs to push China to change.

Dr. Betancourt stated that the nations with a stake in the region need to convince China and its oligarchs to build a system that will work for everyone, rather than tampering with the playing field. In a game, you have to have rules. The World Trade Organization is forcing China to rethink certain aspects of their behavior. In the 1990s, the Korean chaebol heads were following their own rules rather than international agreements, leading to the economic collapse of South Korea in 1997. The International Monetary Fund came to the rescue and forced them to play by the rules. As a result, today what Korea is doing is beneficial to Korea and the world. China has to see the same light. If they play by their own rules, there will be no institution-building, negatively affecting China, Asia and the rest of the world.

Mr. Costello believed American economic problems will detract from the diplomatic efforts that need to be done on these issues. On top of that is the disinterest of the administration. Burma, was the exception; they were pushing on an open door there. The administration is happy to go where there is an open door. But regarding the Okinawa issue and South Korea, he was skeptical how much the U.S. would be able to drive its interests, which themselves may not be terribly clear. Since President Obama returned from Asia, U.S. officials have been bending over backwards to say that the Marines to be stationed in Australia have nothing to do with China. This says something about the lack of sophistication of American leadership in securing the broader American interests in the region.

Dr. Barry expressed concern that in the context of current U.S. preoccupation in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq (with the recent withdrawal of American troops), and potentially with Iran, it is difficult to see the U.S. being capable of a credible security and diplomatic pivot towards Asia. Moreover, there is the matter of Congressionally-mandated force reductions. He questioned how could the U.S. military handle these two theaters in today’s economic climate.

Mr. Hosford noted he had just met a senior U.S. official on the issue of how it could make a significant pivot toward Asia when so much is going on in the Middle East. The official responded that “pivot” might be the wrong word. The U.S. will stay involved in the Middle East. What is meant by “pivot” is a higher priority on Asia than before. The Navy may fare better than the other services in force reductions. It will require Congressional help, but the hyper-partisanship on the Hill makes it difficult. Mr. Hosford thought the U.S. can still protect its interests in the Middle East – it will not require as many ground forces there – and show that it is giving Asia a higher priority than in the past.

The North Korean Nuclear Issue

Participants discussed concerns that in the next 1-3 years, North Korea may succeed in mounting nuclear warheads on its Scud and Nodong missiles and/or successfully test a long-range missile that could reach U.S. territory, at least Hawaii, Alaska, and Guam. They addressed how U.S. policy toward North Korea would change if the North achieves these military-strategic goals, as well as the overall prospects for the Six Party Talks.

Dr. Niksch noted that this month, for the first time, the U.S. and South Korea are doing joint military exercises based on the scenario of a nuclear attack by the North. This development must be based on U.S. intelligence about North Korea’s nuclear capacity. Although North Korea says that talks should begin unconditionally, without preconditions, he did not see how the Obama administration can back away from the insistence on preconditions it has worked out with the South Korean government, such as suspension of the North’s uranium enrichment program. He concluded that North Korea is very close to crossing the nuclear-delivery threshold. Once they achieve a nuclear warheading capability, they will never give that up. This was the ultimate strategic military goal of Kim Jong Il. Whether we want to recognize it or not, they will be a genuine nuclear-weapons state. They have more than centrifuges, he said; they have been involved in the design and production of a Pakistani warhead. The Pakistani technology is a duplicate of North Korea’s. By mid-2012, the North Korean military is going to say it is time to move ahead. As a nuclear-weapons state, the DPRK will be able to extract a lot from the U.S., South Korea, and China, in terms of propping up its economy. They will have a major diplomatic tool to get more benefits.

Dr. Barry explained that six years ago when he worked with Dr. Douglas Joo, now chairman of The Washington Times, he was interfacing with the North at a very high level. It was made quite clear to him that, on the one hand, the North had a nuclear program ultimately to deter the U.S. It could not trust the United States, seeing what it had done in Iraq in 2003. Yet, in a 3½ hour one-on-one meeting with Kim Jong Il in August 2005, Kim told Dr. Joo that an alternative security guarantee to nuclear deterrence is friendship, or normal relations, between the two countries, which can only be secured through engagement of the senior leadership. He told Dr. Joo that “new friends can become better than old friends - and even become the best of friends.” Kim noted when he met Russian president Putin in Vladivostok in 2002, Putin suggested that “President [George W.] Bush could become a good friend of yours.” Kim said that through “top-to-top” or senior-level engagement, trust could be built at the highest level, so that Kim Jong Il’s subordinates (particularly the military) would be compelled to embrace his trust and follow his new policy direction without objection. Of course, things have changed since then, especially the North’s two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, and there was no succession issue six years ago. But Dr. Barry conjectured that what Kim Jong Il elaborated to Dr. Joo still has considerable relevance today.

Participants also discussed whether efforts to reach a permanent peace agreement ending the Korean Armistice should be made parallel to resumption of the Six Party Talks. Mr. Hosford noted there is one potential area for optimism in negotiating a permanent peace agreement to end the Korean War. A likely North Korean condition would be ending the U.S. military presence in the South, but the U.S. would be highly reluctant to do so because its presence in Korea shows its investment in the region. He suggested that perhaps there could be less focus on land bases in the region. If the U.S. were able to move its military presence offshore, such as rotating Marines through Australia, it might give it the ability to drawdown troops in Korea or elsewhere; this might make agreement more likely.

Dr. Betancourt said public rhetoric in North Korea is of course anti-American. But when he met with senior planners in North Korea in 1994, they said they would in fact welcome an American presence in South Korea, albeit in small numbers. They said the Americans are the only ones who can keep the military leaders in both South and North from doing foolish things. Last year’s shelling by the North of Yeonpyeong Island would be an example of their concern. However, the Chinese would certainly want the U.S. out of a united Korean Peninsula.

A North Korean Pivot Towards China?

Participants evaluated if North Korea “pivoted” toward China this year, and if it is now less interested in improving relations with the U.S. We also discussed to what extent the ROK government’s policy toward the North has been a significant factor in the North’s increasing reliance on China, and if present U.S. policy toward the North also has been a factor in the North’s increasing reliance on China.

Dr. Betancourt said the question is whether North Korea is more interested in a relationship with China than the U.S. The country most concerned about nuclear non-proliferation is the U.S. The Chinese are not committed to defending the interests of other nations. Today, North Korea can get from China what originally they needed from the U.S. China has the capability of giving North Korea the cash, technology, and know-how that they seek; the U.S. is no longer the attractive source of essential resources they need for entering the international community. The U.S. has to be very conscious of this and analyze in depth the question of America’s relevance to North Korea.

Dr. Niksch said North Korea has to manipulate the Chinese to get much of what it wants. Kim Jong Il apparently was a lot more successful in manipulating and maneuvering with the Chinese than his father. Mr. Costello noted that Stanford scholars Robert Carlin and John Lewis recently suggested that this pivot by North Korea toward China is unstoppable. What North Korea gets from China is what it has to get. And China is happy to exchange this for whatever peace and commerce they get across the border, and gets the prestige of being a middleman. But the U.S. will always be a more interesting focus for North Korea than China. Regarding U.S. policy toward the DPRK, Dr. Niksch observed that previous policies of “buying peace” with the North – paying them to behave themselves – probably turned them more in the direction of China. Under the “Sunshine Policy,” South Koreans were in favor of a policy of buying peace. Kim Jong Il believed that achieving the status of full nuclear-delivery capability would pressure Washington in the direction of “buying peace.” Regarding the 2012 ROK elections, he said, the two major political parties in South Korea take different views. The Democratic Unity Party wants to return to the Sunshine Policy of unconditional aid and perhaps expand it. The issue will figure in the elections next year.

North Korean Reform and Opening

Participants discussed whether the fact that one million North Koreans now own cellphones (albeit only to be used in-country) and the proliferation of black market flash drives and other devices indicate that a digital transformation is taking place that cannot be rolled back. The consensus was that the influx of high technology is not great enough to make huge changes in the near future. However, whenever North Korea does open up, much as the South Koreans have done, it will leapfrog forward in high technology.

Regarding the reported Russian and South Korean agreement to build a gas pipeline through North Korea, Dr. Betancourt noted that China and Russia will have to institutionalize policies in the North that will create a crack in the system. Dr. Niksch said the pipeline deal with Russia, if it goes through, will add a restraining factor. The Russians will reinforce what the Chinese have tried to do, for example, in limiting the North’s provocations against South Korea.

Mr. Costello said what has been discussed are small steps forward. But regarding fundamental changes taking place, he would say no. Proposals like this have been on the table since the mid-1990s. We should recall how comprehensive the light-water reactor deal could have become. The point was to teach the North some standards of economic interaction. It would not have worked alone. The architects of the Agreed Framework were very conscious of the conditions. They had been talking about this in great detail for 15-20 years.

Mr. Hosford noted there have been few recent investments in the Kaesong special economic zone. Mr. Costello added the Chinese have learned that there will not be a U.S. engagement in the foreseeable future. So they too have pivoted: this is evident in their implied endorsement of Kim Jong Un. These may be the economic rules of the road.

2012 ROK Elections

Dr. Costello observed that both major South Korean parties lack strong leaders. There are difficult National Assembly elections upcoming. In contrast, the conservative Grand National Party, which has a strong presidential candidate in Madam Park Geun Hye, appears to be fending off collapse. A main theme of this ROK election may be anger at current President Lee Myung-bak over domestic policy. A vision of their role with the North remains alive in a significant sector of South Korea. They experienced 10 years of relatively progressive government, and the people of that era have not forgotten it. Just as between the Republicans and Democrats in the U.S., there is a big difference of vision between the two main parties.

Dr. Niksch said the Democratic United Party has become increasingly strident towards the United States. We have to ask will they try to carry through their advocacy about rolling back agreements with the U.S.  American defense budget cuts impact plans to finance the expansion of U.S. forces in Korea and the possibility of troops bringing their families to Korea. Another issue is South Korea’s nuclear power program and a new U.S.-ROK nuclear agreement governing what kind of policies and mechanisms South Korea will be able to use in operating nuclear facilities. South Korea, for example, wants to be able to reprocess plutonium.

Participants discussed the possibility of North Korean provocations against South Korea next year. Dr. Niksch said that when the North threatened to shell Yeongpyeong Island a second time in 2010, the Chinese recognized that the U.S. might step in and warned Kim Jong Il not to unleash artillery again. The North Koreans know that if they do something like that again, South Korea may retaliate with U.S. backing. There is a long history of North Korean provocations against South Korea and the U.S. restraining South Korea. The U.S. attitude seemed to change after the shelling of Yeongpyeong. Then-Defense Secretary Gates and U.S. military leaders made it clear that South Korea had the right to defend itself and that the U.S. would support it. U.S. planes were transmitting strike data to South Korea at the height of the crisis. But 2012 may be a calmer year in terms of provocations against the South.

Mr. Costello countered that he did not believe North Korea is really deterred from making some kind of provocation. They could launch short-range missiles into the sea, knowing that it would not result in a retaliatory attack. He believed North Korea understands its promise to China to be that they will not launch major retaliations. Mr. Hosford agreed that there is a huge continuum of potential action by North Korea. He did not take Kim Jong Il at his word not to engage in provocations. The bar for retaliation is very high, and there are many activities North Korea can engage in while remaining below the bar. Dr. Niksch added the wild card is the North Korean military.

Obama Administration Policy

Mr. Costello recommended the U.S. administration should do a serious internal or government-wide assessment of its interests in Northeast Asia and its goals. The Obama administration may have decided not to engage in potentially divisive internal debates, so instead what we have is a bottom-of-the-barrel, lowest-common-denominator policy. Are we most interested in locking together the democracies to stand against the non-democracies? If so, our interests are more clear. If we want to see a united Korean peninsula or a much less tense peninsula, that suggests a different approach. Among the tools the U.S. should use are trade, beginning to introduce diplomacy, and taking a leadership role in the region.

Dr. Betancourt observed that the world economy is linked to East Asia. Any major upset of the stability of the region affects the world economy. We should seek to convince the U.S to promote the necessity for a negotiated outcome with North Korea – it is not the ideal, but a road map for them to come out of their present predicament, to be connected to the world economy according to accepted standards. The U.S. should be advised that it is time to orchestrate a negotiated outcome.

Dr. Niksch countered that Dr. Betancourt’s suggestion is a major shift from U.S. policy to date that has 100 percent focused on the nuclear issue. Instead, Dr. Betancourt seems to be recommending an economic strategy. If the North becomes fully nuclearized, the U.S. will have to shift its strategy from being solely anti-nuclear to primarily an economic strategy. China has been ambivalent; while they say they are supportive of U.S. anti-nuclearization efforts, they are supplying critical technology to North Korea. However, perhaps an economic approach will be able to draw in the involvement of China.

Post-Roundtable Observations on the Death of Kim Jong Il

Mr. Costello provided these observations:

The Kim Jong Il era in North Korea saw terrible deprivation and continued isolation for the DPRK public. For North Korea it is too soon to judge if the change in leadership now underway will help or hinder its desperate need to break the cycles of the past and find a route to economic development and increased state and human security. This 17-year period also saw attempts by Kim to break out of the insecure and dangerous strategic and economic position he saw the country in. Those efforts were sometimes halting, clumsy and counterproductive. Some were tantalizing in their potential implications for the demilitarizing and opening of the North.

At his death, Kim had secured what to him may have been his least-bad option – a closer economic and political relationship with Chinese leaders. This deepening of the DPRK-China strategic alliance may have provided Kim with modest confidence that his son, Kim Jong Un, will be able to grow into the leadership position after his death, while China’s Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping provide increased economic and diplomatic protection against any threats from outside. Now Kim Jong Un will reportedly depend on his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, for increased legitimacy and on senior military leaders for control of the state apparatus.

When Kim Jong Il took power upon his father’s death in 1994, there was a concerted attempt by the U.S. administration to contain the North’s nuclear programs and to coax it out of extreme isolation. This led to a six year period of slow, tentative, but progressive North Korean engagement – first with the U.S., and then in 1998 with South Korea – which culminated in the North-South summit of June 2000 in Pyongyang and the so-called “Joint Communiqué” of October 2000 in Washington. The prospect for change that was implied by the extensive diplomacy that year was the highlight of Kim Jong Il’s attempt to create a legacy beyond that of his father.

For a range of reasons – including internal questioning and criticism of his direction, changes in external conditions, radical changes in U.S. leadership, interests and goals, and the weight of decades of tragic history – Kim was unable to realize the breakthroughs that would have changed his country’s trajectory. For the past decade Kim resisted any large-scale DPRK economic initiatives that would have exposed the country to new pressures, new opportunities, and unknown challenges. He maintained the Kaesong Industrial Complex project with South Korea, and signed a far-reaching tentative development plan with ROK President Roh Moo Hyun in 2007.  He experimented with various isolated trade zones on the border with China, and made several tours of large-scale development sites there. He preferred to focus outwardly on the political, security, and above all strategic linkages that would presumably make possible some new and better future.

His obsession with a normalized relationship with the U.S. prevented him from making greater progress in North-South strategic accommodation and integration between 2001 and 2007. With the effective end of South Korean engagement in early 2008, Kim was more isolated than at any time since taking power. His hopes to engage and attempts to test the new U.S. administration in 2009 failed to produce any breakthrough. The last three years have seen increased tensions with both the U.S. and South Korea, necessitating the least-bad option of drawing closer to China.

We do not know what lessons the young Kim Jong Un has been drawing from his father’s 17 year experience in national and foreign policy-making. We should hope that he can use it to chart a more effective and successful course of his own. More relevant perhaps for the other stakeholders in the region and the U.S. is the question of what lessons they have taken from this period. Today it seems entirely possible that outside actors will miss what opportunities there are to help Kim Jong Un find a way to change the course of DPRK history for the better. After all, the death of Kim Jong Il represents, among other things, a colossal waste of diplomatic investments in building a minimum level of trust and coaxing the North Korean leader into new and better relationships. However, there is always the chance that some combination of opportunity, intelligence, leadership and luck will combine to take advantage of the change in leadership in North Korea so that the next decade can be different from and better then the last.

Mr. Hosford provided his comments:

First, the death of Kim Jong Il is enormously consequential for the stability of both North Korea and the region more generally. However, efforts by the United States, South Korea, Japan and others (perhaps even China to an extent) to understand the machinations of the power brokers in North Korea will be hindered by the maddeningly opaque nature of the country. Though Kim Jong Un has been chosen to succeed his father, it will be difficult to ascertain the true power dynamics behind the scenes. How much authority will Kim Jong Un actually hold? Will he earn enough respect from the high-ranking military officers to prevent them from undermining his power? Will Jang Song Thaek and Kim Kyong Hui truly serve as Kim Jong Un’s regents, helping him solidify his position atop the North Korean political apparatus or will they seek to undercut him and exercise power from the sidelines?

Just as importantly, the reaction to the power transition by the United States, South Korea and China will be critical. The U.S. and South Korean responses so far have been appropriately muted and all countries should make extra efforts to exert caution. Quite possibly, the worst-case scenario might be one where the United States or South Korea take actions that are perceived by a jittery North Korea as provocative, causing a miscalculation that could spiral into conflict. So far, all sides have shown restraint and it is crucial that this remains the case.

The United States should continue to work closely with its South Korean ally (and to a lesser extent, Japan) to re-engage with the North. The United States and North Korea were close to reaching an agreement on food aid – now termed nutritional assistance – before learning of Kim Jong Il’s death. Though we should re-engage, including the possibility of re-starting the Six-Party Talks, we should be cautious regarding the ability of the new government to deliver on any agreement – even more so than in the past. Though the U.S. military has contingency plans for a North Korean collapse, we must ensure that the rest of the U.S. government is also adequately prepared – to the degree possible, at least – for the worst-case scenario. Furthermore, the United States should reach back out to China and try to jumpstart talks about the future of North Korea. Chinese officials – even through Track II discussions – have been hesitant to discuss this topic, but perhaps given the recent developments, would be more amenable to such discussions now.

Though Kim Jong Un (or any other official who ends up wielding power in North Korea) will likely be hesitant to make significant policy changes in the near future, the United States should be prepared to work with South Korea to explore the potential of expanding Special Economic Zones along the lines of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the event that the North is willing to embrace some degree of small economic reform in the coming months or years.

So far the North Korean political transition following the death of Kim Jong Il appears to be going smoothly. Kim Jong Un is receiving pledges of loyalty from the centers of military and political power in North Korea. China in effect has pledged support. In viewing the immediate transition period in 2012 and beyond, there are both certainties and uncertainties regarding the political situation inside North Korea.

There are two certainties: the North Korean military will gain more power and control over decision-making; and, a collective leadership – with a strong military role – will be at the top of the policy-making structure.

The North Korean military leadership acquired considerable power after Kim Jong Il’s stroke in August 2008. During the period of Kim’s incapacitation extending well into 2009, military leaders assumed a prominent role in the collective leadership that set policy; they pressed and obtained greater power. When Kim Jong Il designated his son as his successor and sought support from the regime power centers, I believe he made a crucial deal with the military leadership. In return for supporting Kim Jong Un’s succession, the military leadership gained undisputed control over North Korean policy on nuclear weapons – not only the production program but also diplomatic policy. For example, the military leadership appears to have demanded if not dictated North Korea’s April 2009 announcement that it was withdrawing from the Six Party Talks.

Another part of this deal was that the military would gain a predominant role in setting policy toward South Korea. In November 2008, South Korean businessmen in the Kaesong industrial zone found themselves dealing with North Korean general military officers for the first time. At the secret North-South diplomatic meeting in May 2011 (disclosed by North Korea in early June 2011), the North Korean delegation was headed by a general for the first time in such a meeting. A third man constantly accompanied Kim senior and junior on their inspection trips – General Ri Yong-ho.

The power acquired by the military leadership undoubtedly will continue in the transition period and probably beyond. By 2011, only Kim Jong Il could put some, albeit modest, limits on the power of the military. There appears to be no one among civilian leaders in the transition who can do that.

The second certainty is that North Korea will have a collective leadership in the transition period.  A collective leadership had a trial run during Kim Jong Il’s incapacitation following his August 2008 stroke. The power of the military leadership and Kim Jong Un’s inexperience necessitate such a leadership. The structure of a collective leadership likely will be centered on the National Defense Commission or the Central Military Commission of the Korean Workers (Communist) Party. Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, Jang Song Thaek, may be the leading civilian in the leadership. General Ri Yong-ho, General Kim Yong-chun ( the Defense Minister) and General O Kuk-ryol, head of the military intelligence apparatus, likely will figure prominently.

It seems that the transition period faces two uncertainties. The first is Kim Jong Un himself. He will be in a situation of tutelage for a considerable period of time. Senior collective leaders will bring him into the decision-making structure they create, but he will not acquire unlimited authority for several years. He will have to take “guidance” from military leaders like Ri Yong-ho. His leadership skills will be tested. If senior collective leaders conclude that his leadership skills are inadequate, they would replace him with one of their own or with another member of the Kim family (Kim Jong Un’s older brother in exile in Macau, or Kim Jong Il’s half brother, long in exile and now reportedly under house arrest).

A second uncertainty is whether rivalries and divisions will emerge among the collective leadership. If so, there could be purges and attempts by a leader to seize unlimited power. Post-Stalin rivalries in the Soviet Union after 1953, in China after the death of Mao Zedong, and in several Eastern European communist countries are examples that could be replicated. Such rivalries would have the potential to produce civil strife and instability.

Diplomacy, including nuclear negotiations, likely will be on hold for several months. When they resume, I believe that the North Korean military leadership will demand that the foreign ministry obtain major concessions from the United States within a short period of time, probably a few months. These concessions will be for the United States to agree to deal with the nuclear issue in bilateral negotiations with North Korea and relegate six party meetings to a perfunctory role; and for the United States to agree to a negotiating agenda that will include North Korea’s position that denuclearization must be tied to an “end of the U.S. nuclear threat.” Under Pyongyang’s definition, the U.S. nuclear threat means the stationing and exercises of U.S. troops in South Korea. The North Koreans also may press the United States to agree to place such negotiations in the form of negotiating a U.S.-DPRK peace treaty replacing the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement.

If the United States does agree to such concessions, the North Korean military leadership will act to advance rapidly the nuclear weapons programs. It seems to me that one of the first directives the military leadership will issue in the transition period will be to press ahead toward the goal of producing and mounting nuclear warheads on North Korean missiles, beginning with producing highly enriched uranium as the core fuel for warheads and/or producing a few warheads from the plutonium North Korea possesses. North Korea appears close to achieving a warheading capability, and the military leadership likely will call for the acceleration of this program. It also may direct the conducting of a new nuclear test, this time a test of a uranium-enriched bomb. A long-range missile test, aimed at a missile capability of reaching U.S. territory, is another possibility.

Policies toward South Korea are more uncertain. North Korea likely will continue to demand that South Korea provide unconditional, large-scale food aid and return to the “sunshine policy” of unconditional financial transfers. The key question is whether the military leadership will resort to singular military provocations against South Korea similar to the provocations of 2010. Kim Jong Il appeared to have adopted a more cautious attitude from December 2010 and in 2011 when it became apparent that another military provocation would result in South Korean military retaliation and when the Chinese warned him not to escalate the situation further. That caution could persist in 2012 as North Korean leaders watch the South Korean presidential election scheduled for December 2012. However, after that, a very uncertain situation could emerge. Will the military leadership, which appears to have advocated the provocations of 2010, continue to exercise restraint, or will it look for opportunities to strike more blows against South Korea? Will the mounting of nuclear warheads on its missiles make the North Korean military more aggressive toward South Korea, believing that nuclear warheads will deter South Korea from retaliating?

North Korean collective leaders likely will continue Kim Jong Il’s policy of tying North Korea’s economy more closely to China while, at the same time, resisting Chinese calls for North Korean economic reforms. The military leadership has a specific interest in further expanding mineral exports to China. Chinese leaders may see a collective leadership as providing a greater opportunity to influence the North Korean internal situation, including the political situation. If signs emerge that Kim Jong Un’s leadership skills are weak, the Chinese government may be emboldened to try to influence collective leaders to institute new leadership changes that could tie North Korea more closely to China. However, if he seems to be emerging as the future leader of North Korea, the China will court him and likely will try to persuade him to adopt economic reforms and perhaps moderate political oppression.

On behalf of UPF, Dr. Betancourt offered his observations, having previously met Kim Il Sung five times and Kim Jong Il twice:

The recent death of North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Il and the current transition of power to a new generation of leadership is a time of great risk for all Koreans and the entire East Asian region. At the same time it also offers an important opportunity to plot a new course of peace and reconciliation that will finally bring to a close more than six decades of division and distrust. The Universal Peace Federation counsels a course that recognizes the importance of stability on the Korean peninsula. This will require sincere good will from the strategic actors in the region, the U.S., China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.

For two decades, the founders of the Universal Peace Federation, Dr. and Mrs. Sun Myung Moon, have reached out to the leaders of North Korea, urging them to bring down the barriers between the two Koreas. In December 1991, Dr. and Mrs. Moon met with President Kim Il Sung. The result of their meetings was a 10 point communiqué signed by both President Kim and Dr. Moon. Since then, the relationship deepened through a series of non-governmental exchanges between the two Koreas, including artistic exchanges, the opening of the Mt. Kumgang tourist area, the visit of the Little Angels arts troupe and the establishment of the Pyonghwa (Peace) Motors Corporation, among others.

Just recently, on December 9-16, 2011, Rev. Hyung Jin Moon, youngest son of Dr. and Mrs. Moon, and Chairman of UPF, came to Pyongyang to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his parents meeting with Kim Il Sung. The day after his departure, on December 17, Kim Jong Il suddenly passed away, leaving his third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as heir to the leadership of the nation. Rev. Hyung Jin Moon returned to Pyongyang on December 24 to extend his condolences and attend the state funeral, on behalf of his parents.

The Washington Times, founded by Dr. Moon in 1982, wrote in a December 19, 2011 editorial:

The death of North Korea’s longtime ruler, Kim Jong Il, is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to settle the conflict on the Korean Peninsula and bring North Korea into the community of nations.… Mr. Kim’s anointed successor, third son Kim Jong Un, faces many challenges in taking over the family leadership post. There is a 40-year age gap between him and the core party and military leaders, who are in their 60s and 70s.… The challenges of dynastic succession provide the young Mr. Kim a historic opportunity to prove his leadership ability by embarking on a bold new course of openness.… The opening is there if Mr. Kim is bold enough to take it.

UPF and its global network call for dialogue, confidence-building and trust-building initiatives to help the new leadership in the DPRK advance the cause of stability and prosperity in the Korean peninsula, build better relations with other nations, and work toward eventual peaceful reunification.

For information about UPF's North-East Asia Peace Initiative, click here.

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