East Asia and Pacific // Analysis

08 february 2013

The new face of Pyongyang in Northeast Asia

Alexander Vorontsov PhD in History, Head of the Korea and Mongolia Department, RAS Institute of Oriental Studies
AP/David Guttenfelder
North Korean soldiers in front of the rocket Unha-3

Two December news stories were, for North Korea, the symbolic highlights of 2012. Young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was voted American Time magazine readers' Person of the Year, winning the contest by a wide margin. And North Korea successfully launched, and put into orbit, its artificial satellite, an event confirmed by the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Thus, North Korea “actually entered the elite club of space powers”. Of course, this second event caused international controversy and was officially condemned by the major powers, but North Korea nonetheless celebrated the launch as a major success of its domestic science and technology development program.

Pyongyang and its Opponents: From Sanctions to Dialogue

North Korea's policy continues to exert significant influence on the security situation in the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, as well as the Asia-Pacific Region (APR) as a whole. In recent years, North Korea’s opponents, especially in Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, have pinned ever more hope on seeing the country’s rapid and inevitable collapse as a result of economic sanctions and international isolation, the outbreak of internal instability caused by the widely-anticipated power struggle in the country’s ruling elites after Kim Jong-il’s death, or inspired by the Arab Spring. However, none of these scenarios became reality. Nevertheless, the possibility of regime change and the idea of incorporating the northern part of the peninsula seems to have shaped the policy enacted by the South Korean government under President Lee Myung-bak. This policy was aimed at dismantling the infrastructure of cooperation with Pyongyang, which had been established and maintained by his two predecessors. These considerations apparently laid the foundation for the “strategic patience” policy toward North Korea, which the Obama administration pursued for most of its first term, and which formed the basis for Japan’s restrictive actions.

Photo: KRT via AP Video/AP
Rocket Launches By North Korea,
December 12, 2012

Steps taken in recent months by Washington and Tokyo were aimed at resuming dialogue with the DPRK. People in South Korea expect to see similar change in Seoul’s approach after December’s presidential elections. Analysts view this as a concession by each of the three capitals that the previous course had been a mistake. Some of these steps signify a certain retreat from the passive position adopted by Washington in recent years in line with the “strategic patience” concept. This retreat can be seen in the breakthrough agreement Leap Day Deal (food aid in exchange for a freeze on their nuclear missile program) signed in February 2012 after what was, for the Obama administration, the third round of U.S.-North Korean high-level talks, but the first for Kim Jong Un. However, one month later the U.S. canceled the deal over the North Korea’s failed satellite launch of April 13, 2012, which violated the agreement as it prohibited missile tests. However, substantive U.S.-North Korean contacts continued.

In summer 2012, Japan injected fresh impetus into its diplomatic activity as well. August-September saw two rounds of meaningful government-to-government talks in Beijing and Ulaanbaatar.

Stereotypes and Realities

The West has developed many stereotypes in regard to North Korea.

First, North Korea is considered an “outpost of totalitarianism,” and its regime viewed as orthodox, dictatorial, feudal and reactionary, incapable of renewal and reform. However, competent Korean experts world over note that the late Kim Jong-il, who launched economic reforms in 2002, consistently followed through with them despite facing extremely adverse external conditions. These included the economic blockade and comprehensive international sanctions imposed on the DPRK by UN Security Council resolutions (№ 1718 of 2006, № 1874 of 2009) after two nuclear tests, in addition to unilateral national restrictions imposed by the United States, Japan and the ROK. The point is that, after a lengthy and thorough analysis of reforms in China, Russia, Vietnam and elsewhere, the North Korean authorities implement their market-oriented reforms in a way and at a pace that they deem appropriate, ignoring instructions from abroad.

Second, North Korea is often perceived as a “failed rogue state.” This label notwithstanding, the country managed to overcome a severe crisis in the mid-1990s, disappointing the Western political establishment, which unanimously and categorically predicted the collapse of Kim Jong-il’s regime within two years of the death of his father Kim Il Sung in 1994. The DPRK entered this century displaying modest but steady economic growth.

This “rogue state” forces all its powerful opponents to heed its genuinely independent foreign policy. While for political reasons the U.S. State Department continues to deny Pyongyang nuclear state status, the Pentagon, calculating practical threats, ranks North Korea among the powers that possess nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang’s policy is consistent and predictable. It is oriented toward self-preservation, survival, and the gradual adjustment of a rather idiosyncratic political and economic system to the rapidly changing international environment. Pyongyang considers normalizing relations with the United States a key condition for attaining these goals, since North Koreans believe that the U.S. is the only country capable of providing them real security guarantees. Accordingly, Pyongyang considers improving relations with (but not surrendering to) Washington and its allies its long-term and highest priority foreign policy goal. The internal political dynamics in the country throughout 2012 further underscores that the country’s leadership act predictably and consistently.

Leadership Change – Consolidation and Prudent Modernization

Photo: AFP/ KCNA via KNS
Kim Jong-un

At the turn of 2011 to 2012, North Korea witnessed a change of leader. The transfer of power took place smoothly, confidently and quickly: the death of Kim Jong-il was announced on December 19, 2011, and the appointment by “unanimous request of the people” of his youngest son Kim Jong-un as the Supreme Commander of the Republic took place 6 days later. In July 2012, he was promoted to the rank of DPRK marshal in the Korean People's Army, which, many observers felt, finalized the process of his power assumption.

The idiosyncratic nature of North Korea’s political system and culture, emphasizing the exceptional role of the leader, in itself helped Kim Jong-un legitimize his new authority and status. Despite his youth and lack of experience in managing state affairs (he enjoyed the official status of heir to Kim Jong-il for just 15 months), people saw him as a genuine successor. Besides, the fact that outwardly, Kim Jong-un resembles his grandfather, the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, appeals to North Koreans.

Of course, the circumstances that led Kim Jong-un to power at such a young age are a great challenge both for him and the country. The significance of help from his father’s “old guard” should not be underestimated, particularly in the early years of his rule. Political scientists usually single out his aunt Kim Kyong-hui and her husband Jang Sung-taek, who occupy key positions in the upper echelons of power. But this does not mean that Kim Jong-un is merely a figurehead. Combining individual and collective elements is part of tradition in North Korea, although the correlation between them is not rigidly fixed, and changes in response to a variety of factors. Even Kim Il Sung was not initially the sole leader of the party or state. At the height of their fame, neither Kim Il Sung nor Kim Jong-il ignored the role played by collective management bodies, such as the DPRK National Defense Commission, the Workers' Party of Korea, etc.

The past year’s developments testify to this. The new leader has moved to narrow existing imbalances in the roles played by the army and the party, and somewhat restrained the military’s influence on the country’s political and economic life. Kim Jong-un has replaced 10 percent of the command staff; culminating in relieving Chief of the General Staff Ri Yong Ho. Some experts view the move as marking a shift in power between the political leadership and the armed forces, with the political leadership in the ascendant. The Cabinet of ministers strengthened its position as a central body responsible for economic development, largely by acquiring external economic foreign functions that were previously overseen by military structures [1].

This background gave rise to new expectations of accelerated economic reforms and increased influence for the “technocrats” [2]. Great hopes were pinned on the extraordinary session of the Supreme People's Assembly convened in September 2012. Foreign (chiefly South Korean and Japanese) media reported that a comprehensive package of far-reaching market reforms would be announced. This did not happen, but a course of economic innovation and rise in living standards was clearly charted.

The forecasts of internal chaos, disunity and power struggle within the political elite that had been voiced by influential political circles in South Korea, Japan, and the United States, were revealed as baseless. Any competent, objective observer will have noted that the internal political situation within the country has remained stable, and no organized opposition or protests have appeared on the horizon. Many academics, including those in the United States and South Korea, call North Korea today “a dynamically stable regime”.

External factors play a significant role in the internal consolidation of society. Pyongyang studies its opponents’ regime change strategy for North Korea thoroughly, in particular by monitoring military scenario planning for emergencies on the Korean peninsula, developed under the U.S.-South Korean alliance. According to these documents, an “emergency situation” can be caused, inter alia, by the sudden death of the DPRK’s leader. Strategists believe that an untimely death would entail a power struggle and turmoil within North Korea. Seoul and Washington could take advantage of this environment and invade the Republic to restore order.

Recent events in Iraq, Libya (and now – in Syria), as well as the fate of Muammar Gaddafi give the North Koreans a graphic demonstration of how the West treats its opponents. Pyongyang was quick to draw a clear-cut conclusion, made public in an official statement: Gaddafi committed a fatal error when he naively believed the West’s promises and traded his country’s national nuclear program for international guarantees of security. Without his “nuclear trump card” he was swiftly dealt with. North Korea will not make any such mistake; instead it will continue to strengthen its defenses, including the nuclear deterrent as a security guarantee [3]. Consequently, North Korea's political elite, and indeed the bulk of the politically active population, are under no illusions concerning their fate, including their physical survival, should this “regime change” policy win out. This rallies them around their leader and nips all internal divisions in the bud much more effectively than any ideological directive.

Thus, we have every reason to believe that, at least in the short and medium term, the DPRK will retain this continuity in its internal and external policies. The young leader is likely to demonstrate commitment to the memory and precepts of his father. This means that Pyongyang’s approaches to major foreign policy areas and partners will remain unchanged. These expectations were confirmed in Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech, in which he set out a detailed program of state goals and actions for 2013 [4]. Analysts note that the young North Korean leader called for an end to “confrontation between North and South,” extending an olive branch to Park Geun-hye less than two weeks after her election as South Korea’s president. Important innovations include a return to the tradition of directly addressing the nation, in the mold of the DPRK’s founder Kim Il Sung (under Kim Jong-il the January 1 spoken address was replaced by a joint editorial published in three state-run newspapers) Clearly, Kim Jong-un reiterated his intention to adhere to the precepts not only of his father, but also of his grandfather, specifically regarding active personal involvement in public policy.

“All the Flags to Visit Us”

Photo: independent.co.uk
AP opens full news bureau in North Korea

Kim Jong-un has already confirmed his commitment to multi-vector diplomacy, including the resumption of six-party talks to resolve the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula and the accelerated implementation of major tripartite infrastructural projects initiated by Russia (railway and gas pipeline projects from Russia to South Korea via North Korea) [5]. Multilateral relations with China, DPRK’s only ally, main economic sponsor and partner, continue to develop dynamically. Beijing, while supporting the DPRK, unobtrusively but consistently encourages it to take more decisive steps to promote market-oriented reforms (1, 2).

Washington (with Tokyo in tow) apparently chose to seize the opportunity that the new leader of North Korea provided to break the deadlock and open a new chapter in U.S.-North Korean relations.

The first serious attempt in this direction appeared to be the Leap Day Deal, announced on February 29, 2012. The United States pledged to provide North Korea with 240,000 metric tons of food in exchange for Pyongyang’s moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing, suspending the production of weapons-grade nuclear material at and allowing UN inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to assess North Korea’s Yongbyong nuclear facility to verify that enrichment activity had indeed ceased [6]. As already noted, in response to a failed attempt to launch a satellite (North Korea’s interpretation), which the United States viewed as a test of an ICBM test, the United States withdrew from this agreement, but extensive bilateral contacts continued behind closed doors. This provides grounds for cautious optimism regarding possible progress in relations between the two countries and the resumption of six-party talks. A visit to Pyongyang by an unofficial U.S. delegation consisting of Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, held in early January 2013 despite the U.S. State Department’s warning that it was ill-timed, can be considered a positive development in this direction. Both members of the delegation acknowledged that “the visit to North Korea was very productive and successful”.

North Korea-Japan governmental talks resumed in August 2012 after a four-year hiatus. The second round of the talks at department director level took place in November. Their results and the general atmosphere, (against a background of the profound cooling of Japan-South Korea relations), give good grounds to expect these contacts to be more productive than previous similar attempts. The talks’ broad agenda and the participants’ constructive attitude would seem to justify these optimistic expectations.

Restrained Optimism for 2013

Photo: Reuters
North Korea-Japan governmental talks resumed
in August 2012 after a four-year hiatus

An analysis of events in 2012 leads to the following conclusions. The political situation in North Korea will continue to be stable. Russia and China have confirmed that peace and stability are their priorities on the Korean Peninsula, alongside their aim of developing multilateral cooperation with the DPRK after the change in leadership. Washington and Tokyo are looking for new approaches to dealing with Pyongyang, apparently including promoting “Burmese-style” evolution for North Korea. After many years of isolating and ostracizing the dictatorial military regime in Myanmar, Washington has dramatically changed its approach over the last two years, adopting a policy of active engagement. South Korea expects North Korea’s new president to revise the country’s policy, bringing positive changes in inter-Korean relations. All this, taken together, creates a potentially favorable climate for substantive multilateral discussions on the Korean peninsula nuclear issue – not only at six-party talks in Beijing but also within the framework of other multilateral formats. The appeal to hold a representative international conference on nuclear security and peace mechanisms on the Korean Peninsula, which could replace the Armistice Agreement of 1953, is gaining momentum.

Therefore, the “negotiating track” of the DPRK’s relations with the international community for 2013 looks optimistic enough to exert a positive impact on strengthening regional security in the Asia-Pacific region.

1. Kim Jong-Un. Revering Kim Jong-Il as Our Party’s Eternal General Secretary, Let’s Accomplish the Revolutionary Idea of Juche // Korean Central News Agency (Pyongyang), April 19, 2012.

2. Kim Jong-Un’s Special Order for the Reform of Farm Ownership and Collective Farms // Dong-A Ilbo Daily (Seoul), June 26, 2012.

3. Comments from the DPRK Foreign Ministry spokesman// Korean Central News Agency, March 22, 2011.

4. New Year's speech of Comrade Kim Jong-un, January 1, Juche 102 (2013). Press release of the Embassy of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the Russian Federation, January 01, 2013.

5. A.V. Vorontsov When Will Russian Gas Come to South Korea? // Asia and Africa today, 2012, 5, pp. 52-56.

6. DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman on Result of DPRK-U.S. Talks // Korean Central News Agency (Pyongyang), February 29, 2012; North Korea-U.S. Deal Revives Hopes of Nuclear Disarmament Talks // Reuters, March 1, 2012.

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Alexander Vorontsov, “The new face of Pyongyang in Northeast Asia,” Russian International Affairs Council, 08 February 2013, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=1374

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Date: 28 february 2013

Author: Comments from other Sources

I don't think the author realizes that Kim Jong won Time's "person of the year" award because of a gag made by the site 4chan. See http://gizmodo.com/5968230/how-4chan-made-kim-jong-un-time-readers-man-o... . Not only did they control the winner (Kim Jong Un) but they controlled all the winners so they spelled out "KJU GAS CHAMBERS".

To be honest, I don't trust Russian commentary on issues like this at all. While the Western media has its biases, to be sure, Russian sources like this "Russian International Affairs Council" and "Russia Today" act like out and out propaganda arms of the Russian government - slamming the US and its allies at any opportunity and unrealistically portraying terrible governments like North Korea's. This article seems to contort the facts into a positive light almost comically - for example it mentions "Kim Jong-Il... launched economic reforms in 2002", somehow overlooking the devastating currency reform of 2010, for which they executed a scapegoat for being "a son of a bourgeois conspiring to infiltrate the ranks of revolutionaries to destroy the national economy" (http://www.guardian.co.uk/ world/2010/mar/18/north-korean-executed-currency-reform).

Author: Albertican

Source: The Economist

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