COMMENT From hope to despair in North Korea
By Joseph R DeTrani
When Kim Jong-eun succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, two years ago there was hope that North-South relations would improve and that the six-party talks to resolve the nuclear issue that has dogged relations with North Korea could be resumed. This new young leader, it was hoped, would move North Korea on a path
toward reconciliation with the international community and eventual normal relations with South Korea, the US and Japan.
In fact, the work necessary to move North Korea in that direction was done by his father, and memorialized in the September 19, 2005, Joint Statement signed by North Korea, which committed the North to comprehensive and verifiable nuclear dismantlement in return for security assurances, economic assistance, the provision of light-water reactors and, ultimately, normal relations.
Two years ago, there was guarded optimism that Kim Jong-eun would move North Korea in this direction, that he would surround himself with officials interested in improving the dire economic situation in the country and improving strained relations with South Korea, the US and Japan. The first few months fueled this optimism, with Kim Jong-eun replacing some of the hardline senior military officers close to his father, such as Army Chief of Staff Ri Yong-ho, and aligning himself and his government with people like his uncle Jang Sung-thaek, who was a senior Party official and the Vice Chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, reputed to be a moderate, close to China and interested in economic reform. Reports at that time of modest agricultural reforms and free-trade zones with China were encouraging.
The few months of optimism were dashed when North Korea launched missiles in April and December 2012, had a nuclear test in February 2013 and from March to June 2013 threatened South Korea and the US with pre-emptive nuclear attacks. The North also ceased cooperating with the South at the Kaesong Joint Industrial Park and removed all South Koreans from the Park, suspended North-South family reunions, imprisoned Kenneth Bae, a US missionary, for unknown reasons, and summarily removed an 85-year-old US tourist from a plane leaving Pyongyang, also for unknown reasons.
It wasn't coincidental for those who follow events in North Korea that during this period of escalation and tension, Jang Song-thaek was no longer in the news and a number of military hardliners, officials such as Kim Kyok-sik and Kim Yong-chol, had returned to positions of prominence in the North.
The December 2013 execution of Jang and the theatrics that surrounded his public humiliation prior to his announced execution left many, myself included, saddened by this inhumane treatment, regardless of the so-called offenses Jang committed. The disappearance of Kim Kong-hui, Kim Jong-eun's aunt and Jang's wife, removed another key figure who, after the death of Kim Jong-il, was viewed as a moderate voice facilitating the transition of a 29-year-old Kim into the supreme leadership position in the North.
Recently, North Korea expressed an interest in improving relations with the South. The South responded with a proposal for reunions of those families separated during the Korean War to take place this month at Mount Kumgang, a scenic spot in the North that was open to South Korean tourists until a few years ago, when a tourist from the South was shot dead there by a security guard. The South's failed efforts to get the North to apologize for the death of the tourist resulted in the South suspending visits to the site, depriving the North of tourist revenue.
Hopefully, with the South's offer to have these reunions at Mount Kumgang, and the North's expressed interest in improved relations, Pyongyang will implement the agreement for these reunions to take place from February 20 to 25.
If the current impasse with North Korea continues, it's likely the North will persist with another nuclear test and additional missile launches, probably to include the KN-08, a mobile inter-continental ballistic missile with significant reach. The North is reported to have restarted the plutonium reactor at Yongbyon and to have expanded the uranium-enrichment facility at this site.
Thus the North, using both plutonium and enriched uranium, most likely will intensify efforts to enlarge its nuclear arsenal for weaponization purposes and pursue efforts to miniaturize these arms with the goal of achieving a capability to connect them to missile delivery systems. The latter is a difficult process, requiring significant testing, but based on the North's past behavior, it's a goal that will likely be pursued at any cost, including diverting scarce resources from producing food for its people. Compounding these issues is North Korea's history of proliferation, which includes selling missiles to countries like Syria and Libya and, in the case of Syria, providing a plutonium reactor, at Al Kabar, that was destroyed by Israel in 2007.
For these obvious reasons, North Korea cannot be ignored. Efforts to prevent North Korea from proliferating have to be robust, with all member states committed to implementing UN sanctions that prohibit proliferation. China and Russia, with their own treaties with North Korea, have an extra obligation to the international community and the people of North Korea, to convince Kim Jong-eun that the past two years of reckless provocation will not be tolerated, that returning to meaningful negotiations to implement the September 2005 Joint Statement (a commitment his father made) is something Kim should embrace. It's a commitment that will benefit North Korea and its people, while also contributing to regional and international peace.
In that context, South Korea, Japan and the US, working closely with China and Russia, have an obligation to address their tension-causing bilateral issues in a manner that does not distract from a unified and timely approach to resolving issues with North Korea.
Indeed, it's time to engage the leadership in North Korea in meaningful discussions to determine if Kim Jong-eun is committed to implementing the 2005 Joint Statement. This shouldn't be difficult to accomplish, given China's allied relationship with the North and their close Party-to-Party relationship. If Kim is committed to implementing this nuclear agreement, then hopefully this commitment would involve the release of Kenneth Bae and not launching missiles or conducting nuclear tests.
The international community and the people of North Korea are expecting heightened efforts to resolve the myriad of security issues related to North Korea.
Joseph R DeTrani was the Special Envoy for the Six-Party Talks with North Korea from 2003-2006. He was the Office of the Director of National Intelligence Mission Manager for North Korea from 2006-2010 and until 2012 the Director of the National Counterproliferation Center. He is currently the President of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a nonprofit organization. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any government department or agency.