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A. Mansourov: Address to Summit 2022, Session VIIa

Address to Summit 2022 and Leadership Conference,
Seoul, Korea, August 11-15, 2022


Good afternoon. Actually, ladies and gentlemen. I usually find myself in an interesting position. I speak to you either right after lunch, when it’s time for napping or before lunch when we’re all hungry. But I will ask for your indulgence, at least for my 15 minutes of limelight so that we can talk a little bit about my brief today: the alternative futures of the Korean Peninsula in light of the North Korean strategies towards China, the United States and South Korea.

Now, before I start, let me highlight some key assumptions that are underlining my analysis here. The first one is that Kim Jong-un is a rational actor who is motivated by regime survival, which I think is a basically solid assumption. The second one is that the Kim regime remains stable and Kim Jong-un is in full control. And I believe it’s also a basically solid assumption.

The third assumption is that Kim Jong-un’s regime probably will never give up nuclear weapons. I think this assumption is correct with some caveats, which if we had more time, I could discuss with you. And finally, I believe that the core North Korean unification strategy remains to be the communization of South Korea. Again, this is a key uncertainty. It’s not really a solid assumption, and there are very many questions about it.

But this map in the top right corner of a unified Korean peninsula on North Korean terms is the map I saw every single day for three years when I went to Kim Il-Sung University. It was hanging on the wall in the front hall of our building at the university.

Let me start by highlighting some principal North Korean national security objectives. It’s important to understand what the regime is driving at. The juche ideology and the WPK (Workers’ Party of Korea) leadership dictate that the primary national security objectives of that country are the survival of the North Korean state, and they need to protect its independence and sovereignty for that purpose. It’s the survival of the party rule, the survival of the Kim family rule, as well as changing the military balance of power on the Korean Peninsula in favor of North Korea. It’s also the hegemonic unification of the Korean peninsula on North Korea’s terms. Again, that’s really a key uncertainty at this point, whether this still remains a viable objective for the North Korean state.

And finally, some people in the United States also believe that the current North Korean regime has a broader objective to become a regional great power.

To give some background on North Korean policy towards South Korea, towards unification, you have to keep in mind that this is a 70-year-old-plus unification line, a 70-year-plus united-front strategy, which they pursued vis-à-vis the South. Now for almost a decade the South was run by liberal regimes: Kim Dae-jung pursued the sunshine policy and the Roh Moo-Hyun administration pursued the peace and prosperity policy. Essentially, the North Korean government tried to train both regimes and manipulate their sensitivities.

When conservatives Lee Myung-Bak and Park Geun-Hye took over, the North Koreans confronted their hardline policy with their own confrontational policy. Basically, pressure for pressure, head-on for head-on. With the previous administration, Moon Jae-In’s administration, in the first year, the North Koreans tried to “train” the Moon government. And then basically they succeeded in co-opting it for their own foreign policy objectives.

Currently, Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration has been in office for only three months, so it’s still too early to say. What we see now is North Korea is just basically ignoring the administration. But the bottom line from this slide for you to take away is that it’s a one-family business. From Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un, it was one family that handled South Korea policy and unification strategy as far as the North Koreans were concerned.

Now, what do the North Koreans actually want? What are their desired end-states with respect to Korean unification? I would submit to you that they want to see a solution that I would characterize as separate but united. What exactly does this mean? On the one hand, of course, they want a credible and viable peace regime to be established so that they can develop the country. They want the legitimacy of the Kim regime and the legitimacy of their party rule to be enhanced and Kim Jong-un’s authority to be recognized in South Korea. Separate but united means that they want to see the South Korean economy fully integrated with the North Korean economy in what they call a balanced and mutually harmonized way. Essentially, it means that they want to be able to mobilize the South’s economic and financial resources for the North’s economic development. Also, for the North Koreans, separate but united means that they want to see the policymaking of the two Koreas be mutually beneficial. What does it mean? It means for them that they want to be able to influence or stir the South Korean domestic political processes and foreign policy in a direction favorable to North Korea.

And finally, of course, just like we want to see North Korea be transformed on the basis of the liberal democratic ideals, they want South Korea to be transformed on the basis of the juche idea.

On the foreign policy front, basically they want independence and sovereignty at the end of that process. They want their independence and sovereignty to be enhanced because they believe that North Korea is the best carrier. They want the U.S. military threat to their regime to be reduced gradually and eventually eliminated. And in the meantime, they try to deter the United States preemption and contain what they believe is the aggressive behavior of the U.S.-ROK alliance, which, of course, we disagree with completely. But as the end solution, they want the U.S.-ROK alliance to be dissolved and the U.S. forces in Korea to be gone from the peninsula. And in the meantime, they are trying to do everything they can to weaken the U.S.-ROK military alliance.

Now, believe it or not, they want Chinese support to be enhanced while Chinese influence on the peninsula to be reduced at the end of this process, because they want to reduce their overwhelming dependence on China for political support, for economic aid, trade, investment and all the foreign relations.

And finally, they do want relations with the United States, ultimately, and Japan, to be normalized and developed.

There are four key drivers that are shaping future development on the Korean Peninsula. That’s not just the strategy the North Koreans pursue, but it’s also the strategy the Republic of Korea pursues, the strategy of China and the United States. And let me very quickly highlight 12 alternative visions of the future, depending on the interplay of these four drivers.

Now, if we basically juxtapose the North Korean strategy, which could be either aggressive on one extreme or cooperative on the other extreme, to the South Korean strategy, which basically vacillated between appeasement under the liberal governments and hardline policy based on strength under conservative governments, we can end up with four different scenarios. What might happen is if North Korea continues its aggressive behavior and it’s appeased in the future by this government or a future liberal government, then the North Korean nuclear breakout could continue and eventually it could lead to the decoupling in the U.S.-ROK alliance. That’s a possible scenario.

Now, if North Korea shows more collaborative spirit and the South Korean government pursues the appeasement policy towards the North, what could happen is that “reunify Kim” doubles down on his charm offensive, leading to gradual pan-Korean reconciliation and low-level configuration. Now, if North Korea switches its course and again becomes much more forthcoming and cooperative while it hits the wall of a very hardline policy based on strength pursued by the South, then the least likely scenario that could result is the co-optation of Kim Jong-un. In a way, Kim could be “gorbified,” like what happened in the late Soviet times with the then-Soviet leader Gorbachev, which eventually could lead to the dismantlement of the North Korean state. Again, I believe this is the least likely scenario.

And finally, if North Koreans pursue a very aggressive policy and meet with a hardline policy in the South, then we can envision a nightmare scenario basically resulting in limited conventional warfare.

Now you can juxtapose a North Korean strategy with the U.S. strategy, both aggressive and cooperative: North Korea to be confronted by maximum pressure, but non-kinetic on the one extreme, and the U.S. bloody-nose option on the another extreme. And again, what might happen? What’s likely to happen and the least likely to happen? The most worrisome scenario here is limited nuclear exchange, when a very aggressive North Korea is confronted by the very aggressive U.S. administration. We almost came to the brink of that back in 2017.

Finally, again, if you juxtapose North Korean strategy with Chinese strategy, whether it confronts Chinese policy aimed at essentially fulfilling all the alliance obligations with North Korea, or essentially looking the other way, turning the Chinese back, then you can end up with four different scenarios. A recalcitrant North Korea could drag China into a proxy war against the United States, which is possible, or what’s more likely to happen is a puppet regime in Pyongyang is likely to follow Beijing’s lead if North Korea pursues a very cooperative policy and the Chinese honor their treaty obligations.

Now, the most worrisome scenario here is that if aggressive North Korea is abandoned by China, that could lead to the rogue regime in Pyongyang basically building a nuclear arsenal which could spark a regional arms race and invite preemptive strikes from the United States—the so-called nightmare scenario.

An equally worrisome scenario—U.S. preemptive strikes, limited conventional war, limited nuclear exchange—involves the risk of miscalculation in Pyongyang as its WMD (weapons of mass destruction) capabilities are growing, while the international tolerance of North Korea’s bad behavior is declining.

Now, I believe that Kim Jong-un is neither the rogue leader prepared to use nuclear weapons, nor is he a responsible player willing to roll back his strategic gains. If anything, despite mounting international pressures, despite international constraints, Kim Jong-un acts like the revisionist re-definer who seeks to create new facts on the ground and coerce the United States to peace talks, hoping to normalize relations with Washington, weaken the U.S.-ROK alliance, force the U.S. forces’ withdrawal from Korea, and facilitate the pan-Korean reconciliation and reintegration so that he can go down in Korean history as the “peacemaker” and a unifier of the Korean nation.

Now, I have to mention one wildcat scenario, and that is the possibility that Kim Jong-un and his government could actually abandon the reunification dream. They can stop the reunification campaign, they can drop the reunification rhetoric, and just go the Taiwan way. We talked a lot about Taiwan. That could happen in North Korea as well. And we saw some signs of that already when North Koreans threatened to disband all the unification organizations. There is the Committee on Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, etc. Will it delay reunification then? Until when? Or will it deny completely reunification? And if the Kim regime loses interest in reunification, what should the South Korean government do to find and nurture a new partner in the reunification drive in the North?

Basically, I would suggest that we need to get out of the wait-and-see mode and start planning to outsmart, re-engage and transform the North Korean regime in such a way that not only will eliminate the WMD programs in Pyongyang, stop its horrible human rights abuses, but also will advance the cause of Korean reunification.

And for that purpose, we need to link domestic transformation in Pyongyang with gradual integration and eventual reunification of two Koreas. We have to encourage the emergence and growth of those agents of political change in North Korea that are pan-Korean nationalists, not just North Korean nationalists who are interested in unification.

I will conclude by saying that the future is plural. Future possibilities are wide open, and we must take a very good look if they’ll turn into futures on the Korean peninsula, because one of them could be our future.

Thank you very much for your kind attention.



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