Obama's point person on North Korea, Glyn Davies

Obama’s point person on North Korea, Glyn Davies

On February 24, representatives from the United States and North Korea will meet for the first time since talks halted following the death of Kim Jong-il in December. Shortly after talks broke off, the two sides were reportedly close to brokering a deal that would have seen the DPRK halt uranium enrichment in return for much needed food aid. Such a deal would have represented a major diplomatic breakthrough, particularly in light of the tumultuous events of the last year and a half and a major step towards restarting the Six Party Talks. However, the death of Kim Jong-il prevented finalization of the agreement as North Korea inevitably shifted all its focus to ensuring the stability of the regime now centered on Kim Jong-il’s third son and heir, Kim Jong-un.

Having recently arrived in Beijing, Ambassador Glyn Davies remarked that his delegation is hoping to “pick up where we left off in our second exploratory talks in Geneva.” In addition to restarting talks over denuclearization, the delegation plans to raise the issues of nonproliferation, human rights, and humanitarian assistance and to encourage North Korea to return to the Six Party talks.

The resumption of talks between the United States and North Korea, although certainly an encouraging development, is unlikely to yield a significant breakthrough on the North’s nuclear program.

Less Urgency to Negotiate

The U.S. offer to supply the DPRK with a significant amount of food aid does not carry the same weight as it did in October. Although a severe food shortage was a major factor impelling North Korean re-engagement last year, the situation has changed. Reports indicate that the Chinese will provide its North Korean ally with 1 million tons of food as a gift on the occasion of the upcoming 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth. This will bridge the current shortfall, thought to be as much as 700,000 tons. Importantly, China’s willingness to provide North Korea with food aid and continued economic assistance significantly reduces U.S. leverage in negotiations with the DPRK.

Beyond the issue of food and international aid, the new regime will not likely enter into negotiations over its nuclear program until its internal situation has sufficiently stabilized. Although the new regime seems to be firmly ensconced in power and has rapidly consolidated elite and public support, Kim Jong-un is an extremely young and inexperienced leader. Having only been elevated as the heir-apparent in 2010, Kim Jong-un has had to learn on the fly, unlike his father who spent two decades in the government preparing for his eventual succession. The young leader’s political future will rely on his ability to gain and maintain the support of important power brokers in the North Korean political system.

In the last few years of his life, Kim Jong-il took steps to strengthen the party in order to offer his son a solid foundation for his accession. It appears that this was done partly to constrain and control the power of the military, which were thought to be skeptical of Kim Jong-un. This policy shift was also mirrored by a concerted effort to elevate Jong-un in the eyes of the military. He was promoted to the rank of four-star general and is thought to have been directly involved in the planning and execution of the November 2010 artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island. Recently, the North Korean state-run media also reported that Kim Jong-un was the primary motivator behind the 2009 nuclear test. Such reports, although difficult to prove independently, seek to enhance Jong-un’s standing as a military leader and to credit him with a share of the ultimate success of the nuclear program, thereby enabling him to gain further legitimacy as having helped develop North Korea into a “strong nation.”

Support from the military will be instrumental in the new regime’s ability to maintain power. In these early stages of the transition the regime would be unwise to risk alienating such a powerful base by entering into negotiations over a key source of the military’s power.

The military, conscious that it has fallen well behind the United States and South Korea in conventional terms, considers negotiations aimed at disarmament to be anathema to North Korea’s national security. Furthermore, despite the military’s public backing of the new regime under Jong-un, some of the earlier skepticism likely remains. Kim Jong-un may find his position more tenuous in the medium term as dire economic conditions continue to plague the nation and if his regime devolves into warring factions. Cognizant of these dangers and as one of the strongest factions that could emerge in such a situation, the military will be unwilling to relinquish its nuclear program, which it sees as vital to its current and future power.

As John Delury and Chung-in Moon point out, worsening economic conditions place the new regime between a rock and a hard place. In order to secure international aid, the regime will need to make concessions with regards to its nuclear program. However, at a time of transition, pursuing such action could place the new regime in a perilous domestic position and risk a military revolt.

Utility of Talks

Although the upcoming meeting is unlikely to yield much progress on the nuclear issue, the United States should use this as an opportunity to investigate and more importantly to engage in dialogue with the new regime. An important step the United States could take is to offer to wipe the slate clean, hang the past failures on the previous regime and reset relations. Although many proponents of this approach point to past instances when such a strategy succeeded in opening transitioning autocratic states, such policy will be difficult to implement in North Korea.

The reality is that the regime itself is largely unchanged from the Kim Jong-il era. Furthermore, an appeal to Kim Jong-un to break with the past belies the importance of his father and grandfather as key sources of his power and legitimacy, and over-estimates the power Jong-un now wields. Unlike the singular, autocratic power his grandfather, Kim Il-sung exercised, Jong-un must rely on the system that his father bequeathed him, which relied on parceling power out to closely allied functionaries he could control, and if need be, play off against one another. Moreover, the new regime likely rules by committee, further weakening Kim Jong-un’s individual power.

As a result, Jong-un would not probably entertain an offer to break with the past regime and reset relations. However, the transition does present the United States a unique opportunity to present such an offer at little cost. Barring the unlikely success of such an offer, Washington should use this opportunity to convey its positive intentions to deal with the new regime and resume discussions in search of solutions to the current impasse. However, the Obama administration must be cognizant of the pressures that will constrict the new regime, be willing to take a slow and patient approach to negotiations, and be undeterred by initial North Korean intransigence.

Future Steps

Conditional on the positive results of the upcoming discussions, the United States should consider offering to postpone, suspend, or curtail the joint U.S.-ROK military exercises scheduled to take place in and around the peninsula in the coming month. Along with its use as a confidence-building measure, such action would reduce the external pressure on the transitioning regime and forestall it from lashing out in response to what it might consider to be “provocative action.” Furthermore, as a decision on the exercises would require South Korean agreement, such a move could also work to improve inter-Korean relations. The political cost to President Lee Myung-bak would be low as he enters his final year in office. Indeed, such an action might enhance his legacy if it were to bring about an improvement in relations between the North and South.

In an effort to further tone down the often-superheated rhetoric and build further rapport with the new regime, the United States might also consider offering an official statement on the occasion of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday on April 15. In order to avoid undue controversy and yet still signal positive intentions, the United States could direct its congratulations at the North Korean people rather than the regime. Moreover, the United States and allies must not overreact to the likely uptick in provocative rhetoric that may stem from the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth. The new regime will probably use the occasion to draw specific parallels between Jong-un and his grandfather, the Great Leader, to further solidify Jong-un’s legitimacy. The celebrations will provide Kim Jong-un an ideal public opportunity to assume the mantle of his grandfather – the liberator of Korea – and realize his promise to create a “strong and prosperous nation.”

The long-term prognosis for improving relations, however, is not encouraging. North Korea faces a developing crisis if it cannot secure sufficient international aid and reform its economic system. Unfortunately, the key to securing aid and economic assistance from the international community outside of China will be contingent on its willingness to take positive steps to disarm and dismantle its nuclear program. Such bold action is unlikely as the new regime will be reliant on the support of the military and be unwilling to diminish its nuclear deterrent.

In the United States, election-year politics will also likely block bold action. The Obama administration’s policy toward North Korea has been one of “strategic patience.” Often criticized as being too reactive, the policy has predominately been a product of political expediency more than anything else, as the administration has had to face many other more pressing matters. Despite this deficiency, last year, the administration achieved a resumption of negotiations and was on the verge of a breakthrough when Kim Jong-il died and discussions were placed on hold.

If the administration implements the above suggestions as conditions allow, its policy toward North Korea would upgrade to “strategic patience plus.” However, the Obama administration will not be willing to overextend and expose itself to partisan accusations of appeasement or “being soft” on North Korea, especially as foreign policy is seen as a relatively strong area where it enjoys a political advantage vis-à-vis its Republican challengers. Even taking into consideration these domestic political factors, the United States can pursue a modest form of engagement as it seeks to acquaint itself with the transitioning regime and work toward improving relations.

Greg Chaffin is a research assistant with Foreign Policy In Focus.