October 2, 2019

Repetitive Patterns, the Era of Clowns and Global Indecision; Or, How Do You Handle North Korea?

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s meeting on the border of the two Koreas in 2019.
Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s meeting on the border of the two Koreas in 2019.

Western negotiators are too naive and inexperienced to deal with North Korea.

In seven years, Kim Jong-un’s North Korea has experienced developments that would have delighted his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the man who started one of the most horrifying human experiments of the 20th century. The ambitions, rooted in the 1950s, have reached a phase where North Korea can enjoy the status of a fully-fledged nuclear state supported by the country’s constitutional amendment of 2012. Like India and Pakistan, North Korea has overcome this costly challenge, and the current situation poses serious dilemmas to the parties involved, as well as the wider international community. So, how do you handle North Korea?

Achieving Full Authority Ahead of Schedule

In December, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will complete eight years under the rule of the third member of the Kim family dynasty. Even though Kim Jong-il, who passed away in December 2011 due to a health problem, had decided on his heir years earlier, the country’s political elite only became aware of the then 26-year-old Kim Jong-un in 2009. The young man had to prove himself to a hierarchical elitist political community, as well as to society in general. The young leader’s consolidation of power is considered to have been completed at the 7th congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in May 2016. At this rare gathering (the previous congress was held in 1980; Kim Jong-il did not deem it necessary to organise the ruling party’s key event during his leadership), Kim Jong-un declared himself the holder of several important positions, secured the party’s unanimous support for the country’s nuclear programme and determined the guidelines of its economic development. The first five-year plan under Kim Jong-un’s leadership started at that time. A white paper from 2016 published by INSS, a think-tank run by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), reported that 360 senior North Korean officials were purged to consolidate power and several were also executed.1 For the party congress, Kim Jong-un had surrounded himself with a loyal entourage in key areas, who, with a few exceptions, were still in the picture when the inter-Korean thaw began in 2018. Only a few months later, in February 2017, Kim Jong-un used a nerve agent to eliminate his last potential threat to power, his older half-brother and member of the Paektu bloodline, Kim Jong-nam.

Exterminating close relatives is not rare in this family. In 2013, Kim’s uncle and mentor, the influential Jang Song-thaek, who was considered a potential new leader, was arrested right in front of the cameras. His execution froze relations between China and North Korea for several years. Both executed relatives had their supporters in Beijing, while balancing the excessive and growing impact of China called for brutal methods. Those unbelievable events, resembling the power play of a medieval kingdom, remind us of the eternal challenge of the North Korean regime—survival. If we take this into consideration, we can gain a better understanding of these stories resembling oriental fairy tales, even though they are set in the 21st century.

From Failure and Laughing Stock to a Force to be Reckoned With

In addition to what is considered the world’s largest army relative to its population, North Korea’s arsenal includes dozens of nuclear warheads. It has exploded a hydrogen bomb and even the best analytics can’t keep track of the number and nature of its missile tests. After the successful test of the intercontinental missile Hwasong 15 on 29 November 2017, the regime announced that its nuclear and missile programme was complete.2 North Korea, which was stuck in a web of increasingly strict sanctions, had laid the groundwork for negotiations with its arch-enemy and was stronger than ever. Not even Washington, Tokyo or Seoul could make fun of this state that could not even provide rice for its citizens, was among the poorest in the world and had until then constantly failed in its missile tests. Even its ideological ally Beijing had joined in the UN sanctions and followed them assiduously, at least in the first quarters after entry into force.

Missile tests, which commenced in 1984, and remarkable achievements in the nuclear programme since 2006 gained extraordinary momentum five years ago. In 2014, North Korea started testing Scud-ER intermediate-range missiles and moved on to submarine-launched short- and intermediate-range missiles. The so far extremely secretive regime opened its missile launch sites to foreign media. The test of the three-stage ballistic missile Taepodong 2 failed miserably in front of dozens of foreign journalists just before the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth in April 2012, but the global community sensed Kim Jong-un was determined to openly threaten everyone with a missile programme. The second test of the same weapon in December was successful. The liquid-propellant missile engines, which were time-consuming to fuel, were replaced with solid-propellant ones that could be ready to launch in minutes. Launching platforms became mobile. When the first intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong 14, which has the range necessary to reach the US mainland, was successfully launched on 4 July 2017 (note the timing!), it heated up the war of words between Washington and Pyongyang. New sanctions, which were intended to deprive the country of 80–90% of its already poor export and foreign-exchange earnings, were imposed. Between 2012 and 2017, North Korea carried out nearly 100 missile and six nuclear tests,3 which marks the completion of Kim Il-sung’s life mission and can be said to have shaken the new East Asian security architecture quite badly.

Have the parties reacted adequately to the pivotal change in the 70-year-long Korean status quo? People familiar with the history of negotiations with North Korea can find some alarmingly familiar patterns here. The course of earlier negotiations is worth considering.4 Take a look at the timeline, topics, promises and outcomes—North Korea has never honoured an agreement and has mastered the art of creating anticipation, bargaining and buying time. Despite decades of experience, the constantly changing governments of democratic countries cannot break the North Korean enigma. Many current North Korean negotiators have experience of the six-party talks of the past decade. The US has no one with equal experience on active service today. Kim Jong-il’s main concern was to be seen as relevant in Washington’s eyes and, to achieve this, terror, kidnapping, cybercrimes and other atrocities were not deemed unethical. The American citizens detained in North Korea (Euna Lee, Laura Ling, Kenneth Bae, Matthew Miller and Jeffrey Fowle, to name a few) confirm there is a pattern—Pyongyang releases US prisoners only if Washington has apologised enough and recognised the North Korean penal code. A written apology is to be hand-delivered by a former president or foreign secretary-level official. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright and other high-level officials from the Department of State have travelled to Pyongyang to bring home detainees. Handling the case of Otto Warmbier (an American student who was detained in 2016 for attempting to steal a propaganda poster and died in imprisonment due to neurological damage) was too much for Pyongyang but, as subsequent incidents have shown, the brutally bad local human rights situation has not been allowed to affect the foreign policy of the country, which is drifting away from modern values-based diplomacy. President Donald Trump announced that he believed Kim Jong-un’s statement of not being aware (!) of Otto Warmbier’s detainment.

Fully verified references to a still-operating system of detention camps, kidnapped South Koreans and detained foreigners are dismissed by political leaders as marginal and disruptive in efforts to resolve nuclear issues.5 This is confirmed by Japan contacting North Korea. Tokyo was willing to restore communications on the condition that the issue of Japanese citizens kidnapped in the autumn of 2002, which sounds like an unbelievable fictional spy story, would be brought to the negotiating table. Let’s not forget that, after several months of undercover groundwork (even the Japanese foreign minister was not aware of the negotiations held in Dalian, China!), Pyongyang welcomed the newly elected Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, to whom Kim Jong-il had promised that North Korea would admit kidnapping people from the Japanese west coast in the 1980s and apologise for the incidents in exchange for extensive help and normalising relations. Koizumi’s team swallowed the bait but, at the summit, Kim Jong-il only put forward the documentation of five people. The rest were said to have died. Pyongyang’s “evidence” was ridiculous: the death certificates were all issued by the same hospital and the cause of death was given as either unexplained accident, suicide or traffic accident in a country where cars are all but non-existent. The results of DNA tests did not match, and the five abducted people going back to Japan with Koizumi had a different story to tell. Instead of economic aid and warmer relations, Kim—who was already battling the consequences of a famine that had killed over a million people—faced total humiliation, the animosity of Japanese society and the continuing absence of constructive diplomatic relations. The situation remains the same to this day. Technological development has made controlling the flow of information one of the biggest challenges for the Pyongyang regime, and its oppressive methods should be mentioned in high-level communications more often.

The Sun Rises—and Sets Again

Pyongyang’s foreign policy has seen many changes in rhetoric and narrative since the Supreme Leader’s landmark New Year statement on 1 January 2018. At the plenary meeting of the Workers’ Party Central Committee in March 2013, Kim Jong-un announced his policy of byungjin (parallel development), according to which the economy and overall defensive capabilities would be developed simultaneously. Pyongyang foresaw a major reaction from the South, the US and their allies in China but, after five threatening years of “investment”, the regime returned with a peace offer. The so-called charm offensive has brought Kim Jong-un to the international arena in a way that his father and grandfather could never have imagined. Spectators appreciative of grandiose symbolism in politics may have had an overdose in 2018, while the mainstream media published stories across the board starting from the Korean War and ending with Korean reunification. The liberal government of president Moon Jae-in, who assumed office in the South in 2017, began to experiment with the once-failed Sunshine Policy. The sun shone on North Korea for the first time between 1998 and 2008. Kim Jong-il has claimed this saved the North Korean regime after the famine, and publicly expressed his amazement at Seoul’s naivety. In exchange for economic aid, Seoul heard promises of freezing the arms programmes, even though this period saw the first nuclear test (2006) and successful intermediate-range missile tests. Analysts sense there are several similarities in Moon Jae-in’s Sunshine 2.0. The US president has also made some justified references to analogies.

Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in have met three times. The summits have resulted in the declarations of Panmunjom6 and Pyongyang7, which are detailed working plans compared to the four-sentence joint statement8 of “We’ll see what happens” made in Singapore by Trump and Kim. Some guard posts in the demilitarised zone have been removed, pathways have been created in parts of some minefields, and the parties are prepared to reopen the Kaesong industrial complex and Mount Kumgang tourism resort. Moon Jae-in has searched all over the world for countries that would support making exceptions to UN sanctions, but failed thus far. Last year, the peace initiative was on North Korea’s agenda, while this year the focus is on economic cooperation. In mid-April, however, North Korea lost patience. In his speech at the first session of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Jong-un accused the US of pressuring his southern neighbour, and South Korean leaders of excessive dependence on Washington and failing the peace initiative.9 Followers of the North Korean media could sense a change in rhetoric. “A fool becomes a greater fool with age,” the spokesperson of North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kwon Jong Gun, stated in a moralising article addressing the authorities of the DPRK’s southern neighbour.10 The reference to “a sound sleep at daybreak” in the same article refers to a promise made by Kim Jong-un in Panmunjom to assure a good night’s sleep for president Moon Jae-in on certain conditions. Since the beginning of summer, news stories have devoted disproportionate coverage to Kim Jong-un’s visits to military units and the Conference of the Munitions Industry. On the anniversary of the Korean Armistice, the daily newspaper Rodong Sinmun again resorted to the rhetoric of “American imperialists, freaks and traitors”, which had been absent the year before. A new phrase, “threat to national security”, has appeared in the media’s vocabulary. The considerable food aid offered by Seoul was demonstratively rejected.

Kim’s New Toys

The submarine being built in Sinpo shipyard—or, rather, a 1950s Soviet submarine being modified—has been tracked by geospatial intelligence for years. Kim visited the shipyard in July. The media coverage (intentionally very limited) revealed that it was a vessel capable of launching three ballistic missiles. In May, a new series of active short-range missile tests11 began and North Korea has thoroughly enjoyed giving a detailed overview of testing weapons that are clearly ballistic. It is now certain that North Korea is capable of launching several modified versions of the Russian Iskander ballistic missile with very little warning, and at an altitude and speed that South Korean and Japanese missile defence systems cannot detect. It is strange to witness the UN and experts arguing over whether the modern toys named by the Koreans as KN-23 and launched from Kim’s backyard in the luxury village of Wonsan are a breach of the sanctions. Donald Trump sees no problem with the tests, although his Secretary of Defense has a different opinion. It certainly does not affect Washington’s wish to deploy intermediate-range missiles to Japan or South Korea.

The Possibility of a Peace Initiative in an Increasingly Tense Environment

Does another attempt to achieve the nuclear disarmament of North Korea fit with the general development of the area? If so, how? Having gone through a process of economic awakening, China will spend the next decade catching up with developments in military capability. Everything that happens in the South China Sea is out in the open; the increasingly powerful arms tests and military parades boost public patriotism. The THAAD missile defence system deployed in South Korea causes concern, but a complex with similar capabilities in Japan does not worry Beijing. Windowpanes that rattle in north-eastern China and the Russian Far East during North Korean nuclear tests do not bother Moscow or Beijing. Japan is debating whether to restore its offensive capabilities. Japanese fighter aircraft and a South Korean cruiser had a confrontation in the Sea of Japan. It is worth noting that, due to the different interpretations of World War II history, an emotional trade dispute has resurfaced between Japan and South Korea, not to mention the one between the US and China. The biggest opposition party in South Korea is toying with the idea of deploying tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula again,12 and the defence ministry wants to reinstate the definition of North Korea as an “enemy” in its national defence doctrine. The South Korean defence budget is set to increase by 7.1% a year for the next five years, with the biggest contributions going into advancing missile defence capability. In current conditions, it is sensible to come to terms with the thought that North Korea will not give up decades of accomplishments. It is possible to achieve small trade-offs (so-called small deals), but both sides must relax their demands step by step if any real advances are to be seen. There are hints of the White House coming to a similar understanding in statements by Stephen Biegun, the US Special Representative for North Korea.13

The Person with the Best Manoeuvres

Kim Jong-un is tired of waiting for a substantive move from his southern neighbour; the short K-pop skirts on the stages of Pyongyang will not suffice. Even though the regime has learnt to survive under sanctions by creating parallel economies for the people and elite, and found illegal opportunities to make money across the world, Pyongyang has scathingly criticised the devastating effect (Trump’s) sanctions have had on the economy. A very reliable analysis by South Korea’s central bank estimates that North Korean GDP fell by 4.1% and exports by 90% in 2018.14 Trade has reduced by 48% in a year. Similar historical figures can be found as far back as 1997. The losses are not as remarkable in the vast illegal economic sector, but they’re still noticeable. The Japanese coastguard recorded close to 90 ship-to-ship fuel transfer incidents in the first five months of 2018 alone.15 The problem is serious enough for Donald Trump to mention it in a letter to the UN Security Council. Even some South Korean businesses(!), whose ships sail under the flag of an African state and whose officials speak Mandarin, have been caught carrying illegal materials and products.16 Kim Jong-un’s latest armoured Maybach luxury limousine travelled from the Netherlands to North Korea through ports in Japan, South Korea and Russia. The president of South Korea was driven around in the vehicle, while Xi Jinping, who is committed to following UN sanctions, graciously waved to tens of thousands of Pyongyang citizens from the car’s window. The prices of fuel and staple groceries have remained stable in North Korea despite the restrictions, which proves that the state has ensured security of supply. Satellite imagery confirms that the country has managed to establish its first fuel refinery.17 The largest North Korean tanker Wise Honest has been detained in Indonesia since 2018, and South Korea is dismantling18 the Panamanian-flagged, allegedly South Korean-owned, ship KOTI, which has repeatedly been caught carrying illicit fuel. This seems to anger Pyongyang much more than it does the ship’s South Korean owner.

The examples presented above mainly have to do with “lifeline” cases, but observers of North Korea are drawing attention to a re-emerging forgotten problem—arms trafficking and advising other difficult regimes and extremist groups. North Korean weapons have been detected in 42 present-day conflicts. In addition to other instances of ignoring sanctions, a March 2019 report by the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts of the DPRK Sanctions Committee records arms deliveries to Syria, Yemen, Libya and Egypt, as well as an extensive North Korean-led training programme detected in Central Africa.19 North Korea has a long history of cooperation with Mozambique, Namibia, Uganda, Senegal and many other African countries. Public interaction with Tehran and Damascus has intensified. North Korean weapons are used by Hizbollah. The months to come will show whether Pyongyang manages to ignore UN Security Council Resolution 2397, which requires North Korean nationals working overseas (estimated at up to 100,000) and remitting millions to the regime, to be repatriated by 22 December 2019.20 Russia has seen an exponential increase in North Korean students, and construction workers in Namibia have become trainers working in Chinese businesses overnight. My opinion on labour restrictions is divided; aside from making money for the regime, this work model—which the West considers a form of slavery—is still a good thing in the DPRK context, as it offers decent earnings and broadens the horizon for tens of thousands of North Koreans. The restrictions on working abroad to be implemented in December will harm the people of North Korea more than it will the elite.

In conclusion, it must be admitted that the world has not moved forward on the question of Korea. A repetitive pattern can be found in the processes preceding and following the framework of 199421 and the KEDO cooperation project22, as well as the history of six-party talks between 2003 and 2007. We are back at the starting point for the next attempt. The political circus in Panmunjom starring Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump has not brought the hoped-for follow-up activities, let alone any meaningful negotiations. North Korea is irritated by the joint US-South Korean military exercises involving OPCON transfer (in which, for the first time ever, control of the operation was passed to the South Korean army command in a combat situation scenario), even though the exercises are organised only via computer simulation. Kim is disturbed by the American nuclear submarine USS Oklahoma City being docked at the port of Busan for weeks, the F-35 fighter jets brought to the South, and the addition of ultramodern Global Hawk surveillance drones to South Korea’s military arsenal.

Even though Donald Trump has used phrases from the North Korean lexicon (“provocative wargames” on the border) and actual exercises have either been stopped or held on a much smaller scale, the contribution from the US as well as Eastern Europe is the same, if not growing. Seoul is under pressure from its main ally, which is seeking a host for intermediate-range missile systems in East Asia owing to the US withdrawal from the INF treaty. Trump is still publicly wondering why the US has to spend money in Korea, while the newly appointed Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, is more pragmatic about the situation. Negotiations over covering US costs are still creating tension in relations between Washington and Seoul, but the common interests of the parties should allow for a more permanent agreement soon.23 It is interesting to follow Kim and Trump’s interactions but, in reality, the Korean peninsula is probably moving further away from the peace initiative. The Washington Trio (Pompeo, Bolton24 and Trump) have dropped the topic of full nuclear disarmament. Trump, for whom foreign policy is a tool of domestic policy, has already won in the eyes of his home audience by presenting the fact that North Korea stopped intercontinental missile and nuclear tests as the product of his personal vigorous problem-solving. Is the strange friendship with a tyrant feeding into Trump’s vanity or is it a touch of genius to keep the door to Panmunjom open in this way?

The coming months should bring some interesting developments, as Kim Jong-un understands the opportunity to find solutions during the time in office of this singular US president—solutions that other presidents, especially Republican ones, have never offered to “evil Korea”. At the same time, temporarily suspended weapons tests have resumed, as North Korea allows the world to see more and more of its arms industry developments. “Shit, though hard and dry, still stinks even if it is wrapped in a floral cloth,” stated the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 13 August, commenting on the reduced-scale joint exercise of their southern neighbours and the US. In the current atmosphere, any kind of further negotiations would be a step in a positive direction.


1 https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20161229003600315

2 https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/hwasong-15-kn-22/

3 https://missilethreat.csis.org/north-korea-missile-launches-1984-present/

4 https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/dprkchron

5 https://en.tjwg.org/TJWG_Report-Mapping_Crimes_Against_Humanity_in_North_Korea(July2017)-Eng_Final.pdf

6 https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/04/27/national/politics-diplomacy/full-text-panmunjom-declaration/#.XVJcwXvbeCq

7 http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2018/09/103_255848.html

8 https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/joint-statement-president-donald-j-trump-united-states-america-chairman-kim-jong-un-democratic-peoples-republic-korea-singapore-summit/

9 https://www.nkeconwatch.com/2019/04/14/kim-jong-uns-speech-at-the-spa-in-april-2019/

10 http://uriminzokkiri.com/index.php?lang=eng&ftype=document&no=22702

11 https://www.38north.org/2019/05/melleman050819/

12 https://www.nknews.org/2019/08/south-korea-u-s-begin-scaled-down-joint-military-exercises/

13 http://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/article/article.aspx?aid=3065093

14 https://www.reuters.com/article/northkorea-economy-gdp/north-koreas-economy-shrinks-most-in-21-years-in-2018-s-korea-idUSL4N24R0SA

15 https://www.nknews.org/2019/01/japan-reports-new-evidence-of-ongoing-north-korean-sanctions-evasion-at-sea/

16 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/10/world/asia/north-korea-south-coal.html

17 https://www.nknews.org/pro/satellite-imagery-shows-upgrade-at-north-koreas-functioning-refinery/

18 http://www.arirang.com/News/News_View.asp?nSeq=240590

19 https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N19/028/82/PDF/N1902882.pdf

20 https://undocs.org/S/RES/2397(2017)

21 https://media.nti.org/pdfs/aptagframe.pdf

22 http://www.kedo.org/

23 http://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/article/article.aspx?aid=3066385

24 This article was written before John Bolton’s resignation as US National Security Advisor.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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