North Korea: Trump and Moon, Missiles & Mayhem

NewNations last reported in depth on North Korea in March 2016. This update thus considers the main developments during an eventful 15 months on and around the peninsula, and tries to assess future prospects now that two key actors, the US and South Korea, are each under new, doubly different leadership: different from their predecesssors, and divergent from each other.

When we last wrote, the DPRK’s back-to-back nuclear and missile tests at the start of 2016 had caused much of the world to lose patience. In particular, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), the last inter-Korean joint venture.

In retrospect, 2016 was the 'Year of the Hawk'. As North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un pressed relentlessly ahead with his WMD programmes, there seemed no mileage in calling for dialogue. Park Geun-hye abandoned the ‘trustpolitik’ she had once advocated, joining Japan’s right-wing premier Shinzo Abe (whom she had long shunned) and Barack Obama – he, busy elsewhere, never tried very hard on Korea – in ditching incentives and piling on the pressure.

Thus all three allies, plus others such as the EU, added their own bilateral sanctions on top of ever tighter UN Security Council (UNSC) measures, imposed under Resolution 2270 of 2 March and again in UNSCR 2321 (30 November) after Pyongyang, unprecedentedly, carried out a second nuclear test in a single year. Emblematic of last year’s mood, in July for the first time Washington sanctioned Kim personally, for human rights violations. However justified in principle, this looked like a gratuitous slap rather than calculated or calibrated diplomacy.

Hawk consensus - briefly
Yet to anyone thinking long-term, this hawk consensus was fragile – on two counts. China, as the DPRK’s major trade partner, has the power to make or (more often) break any sanctions regime; it also insists sticks must be balanced by carrots. Besides, the democratic cycle meant the US and South Korea would soon elect new leaders. The latter in particular looked likely to reject the unpopular Park’s hard line and revert to some form of inter-Korean engagement.

And so it came to pass. Park is gone, almost a year early – the first ROK President ever to be impeached, in a cronyism and corruption scandal which also ensnared another big fish: Lee Jae-yong, de facto boss of Samsung, Korea’s largest conglomerate. Park and Lee are both now behind bars: their trials, likely to last for months, will no doubt yield further revelations. (Park’s defenestration is beyond our scope here, but the sorry saga has been well told by both Stephan Haggard of UC San Diego, and the anonymous TK of the lively blog Ask A Korean.)

Park Geun-hye’s slow-motion decline and fall, left the South Korean ship of state perilously rudderless, under a caretaker acting president (the prime minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn), for five long months: from 9 December when the National Assembly voted to impeach her, until 9 May when voters overwhelmingly elected Moon Jae-in of the liberal opposition Democratic (Minjoo) Party as President for the next five years. Seoul was thus ill-placed to plan for new threats and challenges, including one from an unexpected and unwelcome quarter: how to handle an old ally suddenly grown unpredictable, with Donald Trump in the White House?

Which way will Trump jump?
On Korea, as on much else, Trump is full of bluster yet hard to read. Someone once described North Korea as right at the top of the bottom of every US President’s in-tray: a view borne out by Obama’s ‘strategic patience’, in practice often hard to distinguish from neglect. Trump has changed that, but not for the better. As several commentators quipped, 'strategic impatience' is worse and riskier – if, indeed, any coherent strategy underlies Trump’s contradictory remarks.

Mostly the note sounded is a growl of menace. Of Pyongyang’s boast that it is developing an ICBM to reach the US mainland, Trump famously tweeted: “It won’t happen!” How, he did not say, but the repeated mantra that “no option is off the table” implies that military options are not excluded. This caused anxiety, not least in South Korea where most of the 24 million inhabitants of greater Seoul are within artillery range – never mind missiles – of the ironically named Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). In April the ROK Unification Minister, Hong Yong-pyo, voiced concerns at loose talk of pre-emptive strikes: echoing responsible US security experts like IISS’s Mark Fitzpatrick, who warned in February that “public talk of pre-emption should be quelled before it takes on a life of its own” – adding that to consult allies was essential.

Then again, on 1 May Trump said of Kim Jong-un (whom he had just called a “pretty smart cookie”): “If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would – absolutely. I would be honoured to do it.” Confusionism reigns: what will this loosest of cannons say or do next? If recent reports from Seoul are correct, we can perhaps breathe easy. By this account Trump has a 4-point plan: not accepting the DPRK as a nuclear state, imposing all possible sanctions, but not seeking regime change and ultimately resolving the problem with dialogue. Phew!

Rising Moon: Sunshine redux
If that is true, Trump may rub along better than many fear with South Korea’s new President. Unlike the erratic neophyte Trump, Moon Jae-in is a seasoned politician. Yet his stance on North Korea breaks sharply with the hawkish allied consensus, still prevalent in Washington and Tokyo. To be sure, the ROK’s election was primarily fought, as most are, on domestic issues. But Moon, who was chief of staff to the liberal Roh Moo-hyun (president in 2003-08) is an advocate of the ‘sunshine’ engagement policy, begun by Kim Dae-jung and continued by Roh. On the stump Moon spoke of reopening the Kaesong complex, and even said (though he later denied it) that if elected his first visit would be to Pyongyang, not to Washington.

It is early days yet, but in office Moon is sounding a more nuanced note. Kim Jong-un did not help – or maybe he did – by continuing his accelerated programme of ever more sophisticated and successful ballistic missile launches, regardless of the regime change in the Blue House. When Moon naturally condemned these provocations, Pyongyang rebuked him. So although Moon’s key security and other appointments include veterans of past inter-Korean dialogue, committed to engagement, there is as yet no answering ray of sunshine from Pyongyang.

In what sounds a significant hardening, while the new administration is letting NGOs resume contact with and aid to the North (Park had all but banned both), the Ministry of Unification (MOU) said on 23 May that state-level economic cooperation requires progress on the nuclear issue first. This may not be the final word. Three days later Lee Su-hoon, one of Moon’s top security advisers, insisted that the President “is highly interested in” inter-Korean economic cooperation. Describing Moon’s ‘Korean Peninsula new economy map’ – a policy vision issued in 2015 – as “a very important key in solving the job shortage issue [and] rejuvenating the economy”, Lee berated MOU for its passivity under Park and her fellow-conservative predecessor Lee Myung-bak (president 2008-13). That is unfair: MOU has to take orders from whoever is in power. And the notion that North Korea could somehow galvanise the Southern economy and create jobs there is absurd, especially in the peninsula’s current conjuncture.

More sanctions; different Kim
It may be months before a coherent Nordpolitik emerges in Seoul. Whatever form this takes, it must reckon with two factors absent in the original sunshine era (1998-2007). A raft of UN sanctions against the DPRK mean that any new economic cooperation may be illegal; it was on that basis (or pretext) that Park closed Kaesong. The letter of the law aside, North Korea’s WMD have made such worrying strides during the past decade that to brush all that aside while striving to promote economic ties is a non-starter now, even for liberals like Moon.

The other big change is the new Kim in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-il became a relatively known quantity, especially after two North-South summits in 2000 and 2007. But he is dead, and his son is much harder to read. Now in his sixth year in power, Kim Jong-un – perhaps uniquely in the world – has yet to meet any other country’s leader, or venture abroad. Moon is surely right that the recent lack of inter-Korean contact is a problem in itself, liable to cause tensions. But he cannot assume that his own laudable urge to mend fences is in any way reciprocated.

Having dwelt (necessarily) on the important recent leadership changes in the DPRK’s two main interlocutor powers, we must now return to the hermit Kingdom itself. One thing that does not change is North Korea’s inscrutability: no orientalist stereotype, but a stubborn fact. A polity always hard to fathom has grown still more so, under Kim Jong-un. Let us reprise the main issues, focusing on two very different events during the 15 month period under review.

Restoration, not revolution
A year ago, in May 2016, North Korea staged the first full Congress of its nominally ruling Workers’ Party (WPK) for 36 years. None had been held since the Sixth Congress in 1980, which unveiled Kim Jong-il as his father Kim Il-sung’s successor. Caring little for procedural niceties, Kim Jong-il favored the military over the party. His son, by contrast, has reined in the Korean People’s Army (KPA) as a political force and restored normal functioning to the central Party organs. The Seventh Congress was the climax of this process of restoration.

That said, outside hopes – which spring eternal – that the Seventh Congress would usher in a turn to 'perestroika' (much less 'glasnost'), or even 'Dengism', were dashed. The DPRK economy remains almost as mysterious as its polity. Kim Jong-un has explicitly embraced economic development as a goal. Alongside nukes: he wants guns and butter. There are still no official data, but at least the capital Pyongyang appears to be modestly thriving, despite sanctions.

The economy has also changed radically, if surreptitiously. Unlike his father, Kim Jong-un has not sought to rein in markets. North Korea has become a de facto mixed economy, with private capital said to be increasingly important. Yet in a crucial difference from China under Deng Xiaoping, none of this is officially acknowledged – much less celebrated. Ideological and political control remain pervasive, as if nothing had changed; markets go unmentioned in official discourse and 'reform' is a dirty word. Under communism citizens always live a double life – between the official pieties and actual realities (including their real thoughts) – but in North Korea this gap is extreme, and growing. Cognitive dissonance must abound.

Kim Jong-nam: a signal?
From speculative psychology, we leap to a corpulent corpse in Kuala Lumpur airport. The brazen murder of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam in February adds yet another layer to the DPRK’s mystique.... and menace! Much about this extarordinary case may never be known, given Malaysia’s craven capitulation to blackmail in releasing the DPRK suspects.

But one has to ask: What kind of regime does not scruple to use banned, highly toxic nerve agents in a public place in a friendly country? Rogue state is an overused term, but no other will do. The DPRK’s propensity for state crime is longstanding, but has been little addressed compared to other concerns like WMD or human rights. Hopes that an apparent recent decline in North Korea’s traditional illicit activities – counterfeiting, drug trafficking, etc – were a signal that Pyongyang had decided to go straight at last, are belied by not only Kim Jong-nam’s assassination, but also strong evidence of a shift to new forms of cyber-skulduggery, such as electronic bank heists, where costs are low and proof hard to establish. Some security experts are linking the recent WannaCry ransomware to Pyongyang (though others disagree).

Meanwhile, not only does North Korea look the South’s new gift-horse in the mouth but – crossing a new line – it has even started verbally attacking China, despite relying on Beijing for 90% of its trade! This followed more overt criticism of the DPRK than ever before in PRC media this year. Under Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, North Korea quite astutely played off big powers against one another: first the USSR and China during the Sino-Soviet dispute, then China versus South Korea in the sunshine era. Kim Jong-un, by contrast, seems to reckon he can bad-mouth everyone else simultaneously, while getting away with murder – literally.

Maybe he can. The whole point of going nuclear was to render the DPRK impregnable, and in this (if little else) it has succeeded. Despite Trump’s bluster, a US pre-emptive strike on North Korea is not, thank heavens, a viable option. We shall see, over the next five years (hopefully sooner) whether a dose of patient neo-sunshine from Moon Jae-in can coax Kim Jong-un into at least revealing his hand, if not coming in from the cold. What does this Kim want? Would some grand bargain on the nuclear and other issues, even be possible?
If not, what then?

Frustratingly, all the age-old North Korea questions still remain – and answers are more elusive than ever.

Aidan Foster Carter