Japan’s next leader has a chance to reshape the country’s North Korea policy

Tokyo has long insisted on resolving the abduction issue first, but the public increasingly prioritizes denuclearization.

Earlier this month, after a collapse in his poll ratings, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced he would stand down as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Given the LDP’s majority in parliament, the winner of the party leadership vote on Sept. 29 will replace Suga as prime minister, and he or she will almost certainly go on to win late November’s general election thanks to a divided and distrusted opposition.

These elections will not immediately create any dramatic change in Tokyo’s stance on North Korea, which has long been inhibited by demands to resolve the abduction issue before engaging Pyongyang in other arenas.

But it could trigger a longer-term shift in Japan’s approach if the new leader prioritizes denuclearization negotiations, in keeping with changes in public opinion away from the abduction issue. The two strongest candidates have already called for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The upcoming elections thus stand to make Tokyo a real player for the first time in twenty years — though the new prime minister’s real challenge may be convincing Pyongyang to trust them enough to engage again.


In the past, faction politics decided LDP elections. The system has now changed, increasing the importance of grassroots LDP members’ votes and putting more focus on policy debates.

Should no one win a majority on the first ballot, a runoff between the top two candidates could shift the balance back to lawmakers’ votes based on whom the other candidates choose to support. This makes it difficult to strongly predetermine a winner this time.

Of the four candidates, two men and two women, former defense minister and current “vaccine tsar” Taro Kono is the leading candidate both in public polling and within LDP ranks. Both Suga and former LDP Secretary- General Shigeru Ishiba, who pulled out of the race, have backed Kono, making him the strongest contender as of this writing.

The primary threat to Kono comes from former foreign minister Fumio Kishida — current leader of the Kochikai faction, historically the most prestigious and moderate faction in the LDP and the preferred candidate of the LDP’s younger generation.

According to a poll from the Mainichi newspaper, Kishida has the support of more than 30% of the LDP’s parliamentary lawmakers. Although Kono is more likely to win in the first ballot, a runoff situation would increase Kishida’s chances to win through factional politics.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who still wields considerable influence, has indicated he will back nationalist Sanae Takaichi, citing their shared visions and conservative values.

On Sept. 16, just before the deadline for nominations, the LDP’s executive acting secretary-general and former women’s empowerment minister Seiko Noda also joined the race. Stating that she is running to show the public “how diverse the LDP is,” Noda’s candidacy is expected to siphon votes away from Kono and make it harder for him to win a majority in the first round, gaming the vote in Kishida’s favor.

In government since 1955 with only a few interruptions, the LDP is indeed far from monolithic. Power shifts between and within LDP factions have brought to government very different political visions within a broad conservative spectrum. Although the campaigns will focus on domestic issues, each of the candidates would bring sharply different directions to the country’s foreign policy.


North Korea is an extremely sensitive issue in Japan and a political minefield for candidates. This is never going to change as long as Tokyo makes the “complete resolution” of the abduction issue a precondition for engagement with Pyongyang on other issues, a lesson Shinzo Abe learned the hard way.

Having been on the front line of the Koizumi government’s 2001 breakthrough with Pyongyang on abductions, Abe focused his own approach to the DPRK completely on the resolution of the issue, even establishing a new dedicated cabinet position when he first came to power in 2006.

But after dialogue with North Korea that began in 2014 collapsed in 2016, the premise that the abduction issue must be resolved first left Abe’s government paralyzed and unable to act when U.S. President Donald Trump started his summit diplomacy with Kim Jong Un.

However, there has been a shift in public opinion over the last decade.

According to a Yomiuri poll, the Japanese public in 2014 wanted policies to address the abduction issue (66%) more than denuclearization (57%) or abandonment of missiles (33%). But already in 2017, these positions had reversed, with more focus on denuclearization (69%) and the missile program (49%) than abductions (46%).

In 2019, when Abe offered Kim a summit without preconditions, his decision enjoyed the support of over 60% of the Japanese population, according to a Kyodo News poll. Tokyo’s request that Trump meet the families of the abductees, showing Abe had not forgotten the issue, was enough to avoid a bitter domestic debate.

This continuing shift in public opinion opens a narrow path for a new prime minister, less tied to Abe’s legacy, to engage Pyongyang. The political blow Abe suffered from the shock of Trump’s summit diplomacy and Tokyo’s belated decision to engage without preconditions may have also created an opportunity for a new leader to chart a new course.


The problem is whether the current candidates would use this opportunity if elected. The answer from Abe’s preferred candidate, Sanae Takaichi, is a clear “no.”

Described as the most “hawkish” among the candidates, she wants to amend Japan’s
Constitution, suggesting an explicit reference to National Defense Forces instead of Self-Defense Forces. For that to happen, Takaichi would need a shift in public support that only a nuclear, hostile North Korea can create. It would be counterproductive for her to engage or even only support any talks with Pyongyang.page5image54027264page5image54029376page5image54029568

Seiko Noda is on the opposite side of the spectrum from Takaichi. Her pacifist views are well-known and were confirmed during a debate on Sept. 18 when she proposed using Japan’s postwar experience as a pacifist nation to mediate between the U.S. and China. But that fact might make it politically harder for her to shift North Korea policy than other candidates.

The two strongest candidates, Kono and Kishida, both called for talks with leader Kim Jong Un during the debate.

As a politician from Hiroshima, Kishida has consistently argued for Japan to promote nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament within the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). He might use any electoral honeymoon to prioritize nuclear talks, and proactively seek to pursue his denuclearization agenda in a U.S.-led multilateral setting.

Japan could move from being a “spoiler” to the “provider” it was under the Agreed Framework, and could finally become a serious stakeholder in nuclear talks. In a previous interview, Kishida had already stated he would follow the U.S. lead on North Korea and, with a green light from Washington, meet with Kim Jong Un.

Kono would be less proactive. Referred to as a “dove” in the party, Kono has been a hardliner on North Korea. However, the need to restore Japan’s ties with its neighbours is expected to drive his foreign policy.

His excellent relations with Washington — the principal reason Abe appointed him to replace Kishida as foreign minister in 2017 — might allow him to pivot Tokyo’s diplomacy toward Asia without upsetting the U.S.-Japan relationship.

In that case, having room to maneuver on North Korea would reap dividends for Tokyo as it seeks to improve relations with Seoul, Beijing and even Moscow. Where others lead, Kono could follow — to his, and Japan’s, advantage.

Glyn Ford & Marialaura De Angelis (2021). Japan’s next leader has a chance to reshape the country’s North Korea policy, NK News, 27 September.

Edited by Bryan Betts

G7 countries made a dangerous and unhelpful statement on North Korea

The joint statement issued by several nations’ foreign ministers at the G7 meeting in London this week is a huge step backwards for North Korea policy, reminiscent of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” rhetoric from the early 2000s. 

Unless quickly walked back and qualified, this statement effectively kills any chance of engagement with Pyongyang.

The G7 countries — which include the United States, the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan — issued a joint statement on Wednesday saying they will work on the “complete, verifiable and irreversible abandonment” of all North Korean nuclear and ballistic missiles. South Korea, attending the high-level meeting as a guest, seemingly signed off on the statement as well.

For the G7, denuclearization is not enough. North Korea must hand over all its weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Some have even suggested that cyber capacities could be viewed as a WMD. Leaving that aside, the implications are that, if the DPRK was headstrong enough to engage and bullish enough to enter into a deal, it would need to open itself to outside inspections spanning the length, breadth and depth of the country — a sort of treasure hunt for nefariousness. 

As a further provocation, the statement unhelpfully calls on North Korea to abandon its ballistic missile programs in accordance with relevant United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. The resolution in question is 1718 from Oct. 2006, which instructs the DPRK to “suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program … in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.” Should North Korea acquiesce, it would mean dismantling weapons programs that are several decades old. 

UNSC Resolution 1718 was heavily influenced by America’s then-U.N. ambassador John Bolton, a North Korea hawk who boasts about killing the Agreed Framework in 2003 and sabotaging the 2019 Hanoi summit between the United States and North Korea. He is also apparently proud of introducing the U.N.’s first sanctions resolution against the DPRK, which demanded that the country hand over its missiles in response to a nuclear weapons test.

I hope Bolton’s got a solid alibi for early this week, because if he didn’t do the drafting of the G7 resolution himself someone was plagiarizing him. If the G7 resolution is not walked back, he may take credit for killing any prospect of a long term deal with Pyongyang under three different U.S. presidents: George W. Bush, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. 

It’s easy to understand why an uber-hawk like Bolton prefers potentially catastrophic regime change over compromise. What’s mystifying is where the State Department is coming from. Early indications are that the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review will offer nothing but hard pills to swallow in Pyongyang.

Washington’s positioning of human rights front and center is further exacerbating things. Most understand that the North Korean people live in grim circumstances, but conflating disarmament with human rights threatens to make a difficult situation impossible. Biden similarly fails to distinguish between unilateral U.S. and the multilateral U.N. sanctions that most interest Pyongyang.

Relying on the U.S. Congress is nearly as unhelpful as the G7 statement. Democrats rejected Trump’s summit diplomacy with North Korea while Republicans merely tolerated it with woeful countenance. With Biden in the White House, Republicans will reject anything Biden does on North Korea the same way Democrats did with Trump. There is also not the slightest prospect of sanctions relief being approved by Congress, as each layer of sanctions legislation passed over the years is tied to mitigation of human rights, religious freedom and democratization. The G7 statement sidesteps this problem by saying, “It is critical that sanctions which target the DPRK’s unlawful weapons development remain in place while its programs exist.” 

The history of U.S.-DPRK negotiations is a story of failure. All of these negotiations — effectively limited to denuclearization — have failed in different ways, but none have failed because they weren’t comprehensive enough. It’s time for Washington’s national security community and the U.S. State Department to quit playing games, get their eyes back on the ball and quickly move past the G7 statement.

Originally published in NK News.

“Where are we, how did we get here and where are we going!?” Speech at World Korean Forum in Moscow

The seeds of this year’s crisis on the Peninsula were sown in 2019 when Kim’s surprisingly magnanimous offer in his 2019 New Year’s Address was disdainfully spurned in Hanoi by Donald Trump. It’s not clear whether it was knowing rejected or whether Washington just missed the sheep in wolf’s clothing. The problem is the New Year’s Address has always been absent an owner’s handbook that Disney observers had with How to Read Donald Duck (Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelard, 1971). More’s the pity. Now we are in a hole and both sides are digging. Pyongyang, despite claims to the contrary, is open and literal in its statements. The problem is the New Year’s Address covers a lot of ground. Instead of taking it as a whole Washington – and Seoul – dismember and dismantle into its component parts, then use it as a political supermarket which can be picked and mixed to spatchcock together the story you choose to tell.

The contrast between Kim in 2018 and a year later was black and white. After the Singapore Summit and Declaration in the 2019 Address, Kim Jong Un sided with the pro-engagement tendency in the Party, taking on the conservative establishment and going out on a limb as he ventured to forge a totally new relationship with President Trump and the United States. 2018’s Address had been all bombast and bravado, threats and ultimatums. The North has been ‘perfecting the national nuclear forces’ and ‘possess a powerful and reliable war deterrent’ ‘capable of thwarting and countering any nuclear threats from the United States’ which ‘prevents an adventurous war’. Pyongyang was ‘ready for immediate nuclear counter attack’ with Kim boasting of his nuclear button and the country’s capacity to strike anywhere in the mainland US – underpinning the threat – “the nuclear weapons research sector and the rocket industry should mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles’. Yet this flamboyant bluster went unheard, overshadowed and drown out by the late aside eliding and sliding a gift to Seoul on the Winter Olympics’ ice. Nelson’s eye had become Trump’s ear.

Then with little institutional memory of the tone and timbre of 2018, the 2019 Address was misheard as continuity not change. There are none so deaf as those that cannot hear. In the long shadow of Singapore, it offered a transformation from the previous year. Mass production of ICBMs and nuclear weapons has beenabandoned in favour of arms conversion as the‘munitions industry produced farm machinery, construction equipment, cooperative products and consumer goods’ in a tanks into tractors moment. Kim abandoned sales, Syria and his “first use” doctrine: ‘accordingly, we declared at home and abroad that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them’. The sword of Damocles was sheaved in a bold gesture of peace. To paraphrase the rebels in The Life of Brian, ‘what did the North Koreans ever do for us?’ – apart from defence conversion, non-proliferation and no first use.

For Kim Singapore had offered a shortcut, ‘If the US responds to our proactive, prior efforts [my emphasis]’ ‘I want to believe our relations with the United States will bear good fruit this year’. Otherwise, ‘if US insists on imposing sanctions and pressure (…) we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country’. What did Kim want? Return on his investment was to be an end to both joint military exercises on the Peninsula and arms sales to the South. ‘We maintain that the joint military exercises with foreign forces, which constitute the source of aggravating the situation on the Korean peninsula, should no longer be permitted and the introduction of war equipment including strategic assets from outside should completely be suspended’. All in parallel with ‘multi-party negotiations to replace ceasefire in close contact with the signatories of the armistice agreement’ to ‘build a lasting and durable

peace regime and advance towards complete denuclearisation’, so US, China, DPRK at the core of a peace process.

If this was the new calculation, Kim’s American interlocutors proved innumerate. Late February’s Hanoi Summit and Trump’s walkout was calamitous. Kim’s three days on the rails home was an epiphany. When he got back Kim set the clock to tick down. Now was not the time. Pyongyang was not ready. Washington was put on the bell, with a forlorn deadline to deliver by the year’s end. Put to the question the early signs were not auspicious. In mid-July US-ROK Joint Military Exercises were underway, with new strategic assets entering the arena in the form of 40 F-35A stealth fighters. Seoul’s military budget – already doubled in a decade – saw its biggest one-year leap in the whole period. All confirming for Pyongyang that their nuclear deterrent was the only answer to short-circuiting their longlost arms race.

By November Rodong Sinmun was pre-empting the case for fresh testing. Stronger self- defence capabilities would enable military resources of men and materials to be decanted into the civil economy. In December Pyongyang’s posse of Foreign Policy experts were corralled to bash Washington. There was no 2020 New Year’s address, but there was that Plenum and Kim’s speech that gained in clarity what was lost in charity. The denuclearisation process with Washington was over, abandoned for the moment, as Pyongyang had seen the future and it didn’t work.

The Foreign Affairs establishment was culled at the Fifth Plenum of the Seventh Central Committee with Kim Jong Un forsaking their engagement paradigm. The whole string, a whole lineage, was cast aside. Ri Su Yong went as Party Vice-Chairman responsible for the WPK’s International Department and his protégé Ri Yong Ho, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, went with him. The fate of Choe Son Hui, the First Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, and close to Ri Yong Ho is unknown, but she has fallen into deep silence. The Foreign Minister is now Ri Son Gwon a hardline former army officer promoted to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) last April. The Committee was reborn three/four years ago to provide Ri Su Yong with a platform that would allow him as its Chairman to concurrently talk to both to Party and Government with a mere doffing of hats. The Vice-chairman responsible for the International Department Kim Hyung Jun, was DPRK Ambassador in Russia from 2014, and is close to Moscow. He was previously a Vice-Foreign Minister, after spending 2002-5 as Ambassador to Jordan, Qatar and Bahrein. He was elected as an alternate member of the Central Committee in 2016 and Vice-chairman last December. East has trumped West and it may well be neither Washington nor Moscow. Yet Beijing is in the frame. The Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Co-operation Friendship Treaty is up for renewal in 2021.

Thus, the Korean Peninsula slides back into the danger zone. Pyongyang and Washington have never mastered their misconceptions of each other. They’re wide and deep. The most fundamental was their mutually incommensurable concepts of denuclearization. For Washington Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearisation (CVID) was the sine qua non, the be all and end all of a one-stop shop in US-North Korea negotiations. while for Pyongyang it was the final accounting, the climax to long drawn out foreplay. Until Washington’s self-awareness catches up with the journey being as important as the destination, that the way-stations in the process can yield more than the final step, the two are foredoomed to mutual incomprehension.

Kim has set his own deadline. He promised to publicly demonstrate his return to deterrence. His scientists and engineers continue to advance the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities.

Pyongyang’s short and medium range missile capabilities continue their steady incremental advance. Component testing for the ICBM’s and the submarine launched ballistic missiles marches onward. There are tight American and Chinese red lines around any new nuclear weapons tests and/or an ICBM launch. So, there will be no missile launch deep into the South East Pacific tipped with a conventional warhead, but the table is far from bare. Kim’s December Plenum speech can be read as ’not yet because we are not ready’, yet it also reads as ’sooner rather than later’ and certainly this year. Beijing’s red lines have more slack than Washington’s. Xi can wear a satellite launch, in a manner that Trump cannot, especially with a solid-fuel first stage that frees future launches from the restraints of time and place, as the North’s need for lingering and infrastructure disappears. While submarine launched ballistic missiles shrinks the space between Peninsula and the US mainland.

Where do we go from here? There is little good news from Pyongyang, Seoul or Washington. Back in April/May there was excited speculation in the West and the rest that Kim Jong Un might have died. Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true. Kim’s lifestyle makes him a poster boy for cardiology. Nevertheless Kim’s ‘official’ death will be at the Party’s convenience. In the previous two transitions there is a distinct lacuna between passing and proclamation. This issue is more who than when. Previously there has been an ‘heir’ – and a spare – with Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un himself. This time there is neither evidence of any preparation, nor the personnel. Kim’s children can barely walk let alone reign. We saw the results of regency with Jang Song Thaek. The three most likely scenarios are a smooth internal transfer of power, Beijing capturing and running the North as a new suzerainty, or a vicious and bloody cabal clash amongst the North’s leadership.

Any succession will be a family and friends affair. Technically – according to the Constitution – the Presidium selects the Party Chairman. There are only three members – one Kim Jong Un himself. The others are the 81-year-old Pak Pong Ju, the former Premier and the youthful 70 year old Choe Ryong Hae, a man from the military. Choe will play a key role, but his work will be behind the scenes, not centre-stage.

In a Pyongyang left to its own devices the sister, Kim Yo Jong doesn’t have the support base in the Party to thrive. Her half-life is short. Young and a woman ticks no boxes. For her to succeed other than as a transition figure is as likely as Ivanka replacing Donald as President. If Beijing – covertly or overtly – intervenes after another invitation to ’save the revolution’, it will be an in-out operation leaving a trusted figure pulling the strings. Both scenarios would benefit from the comfort-blanket of a Kim at the top. Leaving aside the sister, the two pliable candidates are the brothers, either Kim Jong Il’s brother Kim Pyong Il (65), a North Korean diplomat for forty years based in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia until his recall last year, or Kim Jong Un’s elder brother Kim Jong Chul (39), more obsessed with the riffs on EricClapton’s guitar than rifts in the Politburo.

It’s the faction fight where it gets messy and dangerous. While it’s self-evidently in the interests of the wider leadership to protect the current economic and social base, you don’t always get what you want. In an attempt to triumph amongst the ‘court’ cliques some will lean to Beijing. Leaning to Washington or Seoul will be dangerous at best and only possible if in the last three years the CIA has established any kind of channels. It is far from self-evidently the case. In any outside intervention the Chinese will find it easier going with history and geography on their side. The WMDs are closer to China than the DMZ. US or ROK troops would likely meet serious resistance. If it all goes wrong there will be WMDs gone AWOL and Seoul with ten million refugees to feed. Maybe for the moment praying for a long life for Kim Jong Un is the

prudent option. The last best hope might some kind of intervention by the UN Security Council (UNSC) to guarantee no outside interference allowing the North to fight its succession battle without neighbourly intervention.

Would any successor be amenable to a sharp change of direction vis a vis Washington after Kim has abandoned engagement politics? Even the most recent promotions in the Politburo show the further consolidation of the hold of the North’s Military Industrial Complex at the expense of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Precedent suggests it’s unlikely. North Korea is a ship that takes a long time to turn. When Kim Il Sung died in 1994 he was engaged in the early stages of negotiating what was to be the Agreed Framework. Kim Jong Il despite his antipathy early on in the process picked up the negotiations and ran them to a successful conclusion. In 2011 when Kim Jong Un took over from his Father the same was true. The then ongoing negotiations stumbled on to the ultimately abortive ‘Leap-day Agreement’. In the opposite sense when Obama became President in 2008 US pleas by intermediaries to give the new President a chance were rejected as impossible. Decisions were long made and irreversible.

Is there hope in Seoul? Not if Trump is to be believed. As he said at the beginning of the year, ’They do nothing without me’. Certainly the Washington-Seoul Alliance is at a crossroads. For the US the status quo doesn’t work any more. They want to re-figure the alliance politically and financially, sucking the South deep into Washington’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ Strategy designed to confront and envelope China while stiffing Seoul with the bill.

There are three challenges running on different clocks facing the South with respect to the Alliance. The first is the short-term issue of the ‘Special Measures Agreement’ (SMA) regarding Seoul’s contribution to the cost of US participation in the Alliance. This goes beyond any simple accountancy exercise about the resources needed to maintain the 28,000 US troops in South Korea. After all the South paid 92% of the $11B required for Camp Humphrey and spent $13B over the last four years underpinning the US’ Military-Industrial Complex. Seoul, after the one-off deal for 2019, is paying annually $870M while Washington was seeking $5B – recently shaved down to ‘unofficially’ to a mere $4B. It’s mathematics at its most innovative.

The contrivance is to supplement simple costs with premiums for history and technology. First Washington argues that the South sheltering under the US security umbrella was able to deliver the miracle on the Han river that transformed country and economy into a global competitor with the US. This acquired unfair advantage requires financial recompense. Second the capabilities that the US brings to the Alliance far exceeds ‘boots on the ground’ as deterrent to the North – and China. Weapons systems whose development have placed large burdens on US taxpayers, including those never deployed – and never unavailable to the ROK – on the Peninsula, require a proportionate contribution from Seoul.

The second, in the medium term, is OPCON (Operational Control). This is the long promise – serially deferred – that the South Koreans after a lifetime will finally get to command their own troops in time of war. While the South and President Moon favour a date, 2022, Washington preferences transfer of command being ‘conditions based’, tasking South Korea in fresh spending sprees on new – US of course – ultra modern (code for expensive) weaponry, and serial Joint Military Exercises. The purchase of F-35s, that so infuriated Pyongyang, were only the first instalment of what is to follow. Yet, as the US Congress has already signalled, it’s a chimera. There is no way Washington will – in reality – yield the finger hovering over the nuclear button to another. If Parasite winning the Academy Award for Best Picture was hard for Trump to swallow, having a four-star US General subordinate to a South Korean will stick

even deeper in Washington’s craw. In the mean time in a feint the US is discretely trying to add numbers and nations to its wholly owned subsidiary UN Command.

Third there is the attempt to embroil Seoul in the America’s wider regional security plans as it ‘upgrades’ – widens – the Alliance. The Mutual Defence Treaty (Article 3), between Washington and Seoul, does refer to security threats ‘in the Pacific Area’, but even the most generous geographer might bulk at the South China Sea and the Nine-dash line being placed in the Pacific. The US demand for Seoul to develop a ‘blue water’ navy is neither a response to any threat from Pyongyang nor its objective.

One measure of a client state’s servitude is when it puts the national interests of its patron state ahead of its own when they fly directly in the face of its self-interests. Hear the South scores high. The North Korean crisis of late 2017/ early 2018 was a domestic political issue for Washington, not Seoul. The ambiguity as to Pyongyang’s capacity and capability of delivering a nuclear weapon on the US mainland changed little for Seoul except calling into question Trump’s fidelity to the idea of extended deterrence. The idea that Washington might allow New York to be threatened to save Berlin was believable during the US-Soviet stand-off. Trump potentially trading Washington for Seoul is more fabulous.

Moon Jae-in’s backing down in July 2017 over the deployment of further THAAD arrays in South Korea was a sop to Washington. The argument was there was an escalating threat from the North. True, but not to Seoul, rather Washington. These arrays did absolutely nothing to protect the Seoul Metropolitan Area or South Korea but provided additional layers of defence to protect the US and its overseas troop deployments from the threat of Pyongyang or Beijing. All at the expense of alienating China.

Moon Jae-in’s unexpected landslide in April’s elections strengthens his position vis-à- vis Washington enormously. The suspension of all but essential local workers from US bases, and the wider impact of coronavirus, with the withdrawal of last five B-52 Stratofortresses from Guam ending a 16-year Continuous Bomber Presence (CBP) all points to a degraded military capacity in the short-term. The combination of corona and campaign means there’s no longer political space for North Korea on the US agenda. Trump and Biden will not – unless things go disastrously wrong – be trading insults over North Korea in the run-up to November. The question is whether Kim is willing and able to wait until then. It only gives him a slender window of opportunity utterly dependent on the vagaries of the US electoral system. If Biden wins, it’s all too late for 2020. He won’t be inaugurated until late January and even with an alacrity badly missing from the Trump Administration it will be the short Summer before he’s ready to engage. The sleight of hand necessary will be for him to employ the best of the Democratic staffers and still be seen by the North as something more than Obama Redux andsomeone willing to build on Trump’s early foundations rather than destroy them. But that’s a different story.

If Red conquers Blue and the Republicans prevail in the General Election the new ‘Trump at Large’ will need to be freed of those ‘adjutants’ and ‘subalterns’ who previously frustrated his efforts. If he signals he’s willing to re-wind the tape back to Singapore and go forward from there with a new calculation, it’s game on in. This just might be light at the end of the tunnel, but as of yet there is no tunnel. The Peninsula, and the world, needs to find a political span that that will serve to straddle the six months between now and 3 November.

To have any chance of doing this we require Pyongyang back to a table. This won’t be furnished by Washington or Seoul, Beijing or Moscow. The one platform that might work is the UN. Pyongyang and Washington for totally opposite purposes both internally grant that after any early action they need to internationalise the process. The North wants Security Guarantees that might have a passing resemblance to the JPCOA and the US wants an institutional home for the donors that will provide the money for the $15-20B Infrastructure Fund that will anchor the deal. The institution that might eventually carry both is the UN.

There is no suggestion before November of talks or even discussions on denuclearization, rather the UNSC should agree a low-level dialogue with the two Koreas on NE Asia Security in the broad sense of looking at health, humanitarian and agricultural issues post the coronavirus pandemic. Even with few or no cases national economies have been severely disrupted. In North Korea borders have been closed and hundreds of thousands have necessarily been placed in month long quarantine. Around the world trillions of dollars are being found to mitigate the effects. In the DPRK the economic impact coupled with the unintended consequence of international sanctions, explicitly written to allow humanitarian and medical assistance to be provided to those in need but failing to do so is threatening a crisis. The resulting lack of time and resources compromised the planting season with the looming knock-on result for this year’s harvest. All of which threaten a catastrophic conjunction. The dialogue should talk about food and medical aid (including the provision of PPE equipment for medical staff and testing equipment for both coronavirus and Covid -19 antibodies) without need to go through the Sanctions Committee, and sanctions mitigation to allow agricultural assistance in terms of resources, storage and distribution.

Pyongyang will be only too well aware that such a venture has been signed off by Washington. The point is to offer something they want in a format where it can be accepted and delivered without loss of face. There would be no conditionality. Pyongyang will have to write those for itself!

Speech produced mid 2020 for World Korean Forum in Moscow on 29 October 2020.

Why There Are Few Good Options If Kim Jong-un Were to Die

Kim’s death will be when it’s convenient. The North Korean system is a well-oiled machine capable of running for weeks or months without his hands on the tiller of state, so a matter of days is unproblematic. It will barely be noticed. As we’ve seen in the previous two transitions there is a distinct lacuna between passing and proclamation. This issue is succession. Previously there has been an “heir”—and a spare—with Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un himself. This time there is neither evidence that there has been any preparation for succession, nor the personnel. Kim’s children can barely walk, let alone reign. We saw the results of regency with Jang Song-thaek. The three options are a smooth internal transfer of power, Beijing capturing and running the North as a new suzerainty, or a vicious and bloody cabal clashes amongst the North’s leadership.  

Any succession will be a family and friends affair. Technically—according to the Constitution—the Presidium selects the Party Chairman. Currently, there are only three members, one of which is Kim Jong-un himself. The other two are Pak Pong-ju, the former Premier, who is 81 this week, and the comparatively youthful 70-year-old man from the military Choe Ryong-hae. Choe will play a key role, but will prefer to work behind the scenes rather than center-stage. 

Left to their own devices it’s unlikely that Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong has the support base in the Party to survive. Her half-life is measured in months. Young and a woman, she ticks no boxes. For her to succeed is as likely as Ivanka replacing Donald as President. If Beijing—covertly or overtly—intervenes after an appropriate invitation to “save the revolution” seventy years on from their first venture it will be an in-out operation leaving a trusted figure pulling the strings. Both countries would benefit from the comfort blanket of a Kim at the top as the face of the country. Leaving aside the sister, the two more pliable candidates are the brothers. First, there’s Kim Jong-il’s brother Kim Pyong-il (65), who was a North Korean diplomat for forty years based in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia until his final recall last year. Second, there’s Kim Jong-un’s elder brother Kim Jong Chul (39) who is more obsessed with Eric Clapton’s guitar riffs than rifts in the Politburo. 

It’s the inter-faction fighting where it gets dangerous. Clearly it’s in the interests of the leadership to protect the current economic and social base. But you don’t always get what you want. In an attempt to triumph amongst the “court” cliques some will lean to Beijing. Leaning to Washington or Seoul will be dangerous at best and only possible if in the last three years the CIA has established any kind of channels. It is not self-evidently the case. In any outside intervention, the Chinese will find it easier going with history and geography on their side. Furthermore, North Korea’s WMD sites are closer to China than the DMZ. Besides, U.S. or South Korean troops would likely meet serious resistance. Then the last best hope would some kind of intervention by the UN Security Council (UNSC) to guarantee no outside interference, thereby allowing the North to fight its succession battle without neighborly involvement. 

If it all goes wrong there will be WMDs missing and the South would have ten million North Korean refugees to feed. Maybe for the moment praying for a long life for Kim Jong-un is the prudent option.

Glyn Ford (2020). Why There Are Few Good Options If Kim Jong-un Were to Die, National Interest, May 11.

Revisiting Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Address: Missed Signals and Opportunities in 2019

It’s that time of year again. Pyongyang’s version of “The State of the Union” is in early draft as time ticks down towards Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Address. Everything suggests a sharp U-turn for the worse. Pyongyang’s posse of foreign policy experts have been rounded up to bash Washington, Kim Jong Un has made a second political pilgrimage to Mount Paektu and the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the Korean Workers’ Party has summoned an unprecedented late December Plenum of the Central Committee. These actions appear to signal that big decisions are in the works, the implications of which weigh heavy on the North’s end of year deadline for US-DPRK negotiations.

Pyongyang, despite claims to the contrary, is generally very open and literal, if not overblown, in its statements. And typically, Kim’s New Year’s Address covers a lot of ground. The tendencies in Washington and Seoul, however, have been to dismember, dismantle and cherry-pick the address to suit their inclinations, rather than digest it as a whole.

In reading the English transcript of Kim Jong Un’s 2018 and 2019 New Year’s Addresses numerous times, it is only when reading them together that it’s possible to see how much they are at odds with each other. The 2018 address was all bombast and bravado, threats and ultimatums. North Korea, Kim declared, has been “perfecting the national nuclear forces” and “possess a powerful and reliable war deterrent” “capable of thwarting and countering any nuclear threats from the United States” which “prevents it from starting an adventurous war” (e.g., a preventive attack). Pyongyang was “ready for immediate nuclear counter attack” with Kim bragging both about his nuclear button and the country’s capacity to strike anywhere in the mainland United States. To underpin the threat, Kim directed the nuclear weapons research sector and the rocket industry to mass produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. Yet this combative crowing went unheard, overshadowed by the offered opening to Seoul via the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Following the first US-DPRK summit in Singapore in June 2018, Kim Jong Un’s 2019 address took on the conservative establishment around him, going out on a limb to forge a new relationship with President Trump and the United States. In the absence of any institutional memory of the tone and content of the 2018 address, the 2019 address was read by many analysts as signaling continuity rather than radical change. However, in the long shadow of Singapore, it showed a total departure from the previous year. Mass production of ICBMs and nuclear weapons was out; conversion of the munitions industry to produce tractors not tanks, construction equipment, “cooperative products and consumer goods” was in. Kim was seemingly abandoning both sales of nuclear material to Syria and his “first use” doctrine by declaring that at home and abroad North Korea “would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them.” The sword of Damocles was sheaved in a bold gesture of peace with defense conversion, non-proliferation and no first use.

For Kim, Singapore had offered a shortcut to a settlement with Washington. “If the US responds to our proactive, prior efforts with trustworthy measures and corresponding practical actions, bilateral relations will develop wonderfully at a fast pace through the process of taking more definite and epochal measures” and continues with, “I want to believe our relations with the United States will bear good fruit this year.” Otherwise, he stated that if the US, “persists in imposing sanctions and pressure …we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country.”

What did Kim want? An end to joint military exercises on the Peninsula and arms sales to the South and the negotiation of a peace treaty. As he put it, “we maintain that the joint military exercises with foreign forces, which constitute the source of aggravating the situation on the Korean Peninsula, should no longer be permitted and the introduction of war equipment including strategic assets from outside should completely be suspended.” He also called for “multi-party negotiations for replacing the current ceasefire” in “close contact with the signatories of the armistice agreement” to “build a lasting and durable peace regime and advance towards complete denuclearization,” with the US, China and DPRK at the core of a peace process alongside the ROK.

If this was the new calculation, Trump’s walkout at the February Hanoi Summit boded ill for the peace and denuclearization process. Kim’s three days on the rails home gave him pause for thought. When he got back, despite the conservatives having the whip hand, Kim let the games play out. The North Korean position hardened, however, in mid-July after the US-ROK proceeded with joint military exercises, South Korea received the first of 40 F-35A stealth fighters, and Seoul announced a significant increase in defense spending. These developments ran contrary to the mood and commitments agreed to in inter-Korean summit declarations and agreements, essentially moving away from peacebuilding and toward a renewed arms race between the two Koreas. No deal was offered in working level talks in Stockholm and by the time it was announced in November that the US and South Korea would suspend their joint air drill, ‘Vigilant Ace,’ the gesture was too little too late.

Unless something dramatic changes between now and the end of the year, Kim’s New Year’s Address will likely announce that the denuclearization process with Washington will be suspended, if not abandoned, as Pyongyang turns to its own version of “Nordpolitik” and links its future foreign relations with Beijing and Moscow. The North has threatened to lift its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range ballistic missile testing should the end of year deadline pass unanswered. Whether it acts on that threat and resumes such behavior is unclear, though taking those measures should not come as a surprise. How the US responds to such actions is equally unclear, much less how US allies will see the situation. The once ripe opportunity to make progress on building peace and facilitating the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, is now likely to be put on hold, once again, at least until after US Presidential elections next November.

Ford, G. (2019). Revisiting Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Address: Missed Signals and Opportunities in 2019, 38 North, 23 December.

What’s really driving North Korea’s nuclear quest?

orth Korea’s nuclear programme is the direct consequence of the US-UK adventurism of the past 25 years. Burned into Pyongyang’s psyche are the Western interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria. When Muammar Gaddafi surrendered his nuclear ambitions in 2003, in order to be welcomed back into the global community, a suspicious Kim Jong-il was invited to follow his lead. Gaddafi’s death at the hands of Western-backed rebels eight years later vindicated Pyongyang’s scepticism.

The lesson that North Korea learned was that the problem wasn’t having weapons of mass destruction, but rather not having them. Its nuclear experiments were transformed from optional to essential. The regime realised that it was not merely losing a conventional arms race, but in danger of being humiliated. North Korea spends a quarter of its budget on the military but its economy is barely 2 per cent of South Korea’s; as a result, Seoul’s defence budget is five times larger than Pyongyang’s. The US, Japan and South Korea together outspend North Korea by a factor of 50.

Meanwhile, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, must ensure that economic growth continues – GDP grew by 4 per cent last year – in order to keep Pyongyang’s privileged elite content. Yet North Korea is no developing country; rather, it is a failed industrial state. There is no pool of peasant labour waiting for induction into manufacturing. If the economy is to grow and flourish in the country’s “special economic zones”, labour will need to be diverted from the army, rather than from agriculture. Nuclear deterrence saves money and manpower.

North Korea’s nuclear programme has prompted the UN, under pressure from the US, to ratchet up sanctions after every nuclear test and missile launch. In 2013, Kim Jong-un (who replaced his father, Kim Jong-il, as leader after his death in December 2011) resolved to go for broke. The party adopted the “byungjin line”, ordering the “simultaneous development of nuclear weapons and the economy”. Despite scepticism and sanctions, Pyongyang has delivered.

Because of the two recent launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the sixth nuclear test, the US must now take into account the possibility that Pyongyang could hit the American mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile. The full range is unproven, the re-entry technology rudimentary and the targeting unsophisticated. There is, as yet, no possibility of multiple warheads or decoys on any North Korean ICBM, which should make it a comparatively easy target for Washington’s erratically performing missile defence system. In the absence of sophisticated guidance technology, enabling precision delivery, the death toll from a semi-random strike that penetrated the US’s leaky shield would likely be between 10,000 and 20,000 people. The American response would be a thousand times more deadly.

Nevertheless, unless there is some early resolution, the world and east Asia will become increasingly disordered. The US will seek to force the UN to impose a trade embargo on North Korea, while simultaneously assembling a “coalition of the willing” for preventive military action against Pyongyang. Washington will seek to recruit the UK after the Conservative government’s courting of Donald Trump.

Late last year, for the first time, RAF Typhoons participated in joint military exercises with the US and South Korea on the Korean Peninsula. In Operation Invincible, they prepared for overthrowing the Kim regime. At the same time, in northern Wales, US, Japanese and British special forces “captured” the moribund Trawsfynydd nuclear power station in Operation Vambrace Warrior. (A strike against North Korea would lead to the death of millions in Seoul.)

Beijing’s political relationship with Pyongyang is toxic, yet China has the economic leverage to enfeeble its neighbour. President Xi Jinping, however, is aware both of North Korea’s willingness to fight and of the prospect of millions of refugees migrating to north-eastern China, with US troops stationed on the Yalu River. If Washington wants to “save the armistice”, Beijing wants to “save the revolution” and prevent an arms race in the region.

In South Korea, the new progressive president, Moon Jai-in, elected in May after the impeachment of his conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye, finds himself, as he recently told his cabinet, in an “impossible position”. Elected on a platform of engagement with the North, he is now boxed in by Washington and Pyongyang.

Donald Trump’s erratic and solipsistic approach makes it impossible for Moon to do much beyond maintaining close relations with US in the short term. To China’s fury, South Korea might seek to develop its own independent nuclear deterrent.

As for Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not wasting a crisis. Long determined to make his state a so-called normal country, he will seize the opportunity to emasculate Article 9 of the national constitution by removing the “peace clause” to enable full re-militarisation. If South Korea also seeks to become a nuclear state, Japan will follow.

Yet there is a chance to resolve the crisis through dialogue. North Korea is changing under the influence of modest market-based reforms. Pyongyang knows that its position is as strong as it will be with its technological and economic limitations. It is open to a comprehensive solution to the crisis that offers security guarantees, a peace treaty with the US and humanitarian and development assistance.

In 1994, an “agreed framework” with the US offered all of this and more and arrested North Korea’s nuclear programme for a decade. The best hope, in the present uneasy circumstances, is a reprise of the agreed framework – for slow learners. 

Ford, G. (2017). What’s really driving North Korea’s nuclear quest?, New Statesman, 10 September.

The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia by Andrei Lankov

Andrei Lankov, author of The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, originally from Leningrad when it was Leningrad, is currently a history professor in Seoul. He was an exchange student in Pyongyang, is fluent in Korean and a prolific author of articles and books on North Korea; a previous book North of the DMZ (2007) reproduced more than one hundred essays on daily life in North Korea written for Seoul’s Korea Times.

Lankov is a fluent and knowledgeable writer as well as an established expert on the North, and what he tells us about the country is sharply and profoundly at odds with perceived wisdom in the West. First, he argues for the essential rationality of the North. Its prime focus is survival of the regime and—on this basis—its actions are logical. In Lankov’s view, the North’s Korea Central News Agency was entirely right in March 2011 when it said that the lessons of the Libyan crisis were that “peace can be preserved only when one builds up one’s own strength.”

Second, he argues that the market in North Korea now plays such a strong role in the economy that the state is incapable of putting the genie back in the bottle. Nevertheless, the economy is distorted by biases in favor of the military and the party—themselves economic actors—and against the “nouveau riche” kiosk capitalists emerging from the barely permissible margins of the economy. With Marx’s final departure from Kim Il Sung Square in April 2012, the model is management buy-out rather than workers’ control.

No, North Korea is not a pleasant place. There are massive camps filled with those who have fallen out of favour with the regime and those who have ended up on the wrong side of a faction fight. But in The Real North Korea the situation is—slowly—changing for the better. After Kim Jong Il came to power, family punishment was relaxed for all but the most serious crimes. Crossing the border to China had been downgraded to a minor offence in 1996—unless one consorted with the foreigners or South Korean Christian Evangelicals proselytizing the gospel to “godless”. It turns out the average “defector”—as described in the West—is not some fleeing youthful intellectual or reluctant general but a rural housewife in her fifties.

Lankov’s position is that the siamese twins of North and South need separating. This was partially accomplished in the period 1945-51 when millions on both sides of the 38th-parallel line-of-control chose between Moscow and Washington and moved accordingly. At the time, the North was more tempting than the South but millions moved in both directions.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, both sides continued with guerrilla warfare, infiltration and assassination, while the North, at least, organized underground political parties such as the short-lived Revolutionary Party of National Unification in the early 1960s some of whose militants spent over thirty years in jail incognito until released during Kim Dae-jung’s Presidency.

North and South have continued to move in opposite directions and their differences have spilled out over the borders into other countries. The reflection of post-war politics among the Korean diaspora has its remnants in Japan. Some 600,000 2nd, 3rd and 4th Generation “Overseas Citizens of North Korea” remain with their own schools, universities and communities isolated from the Japanese mainstream despite almost 100,000 having returned to the North in the late 1950s and early 60s as much pushed by Tokyo—fearing fifth columnists—as pulled by Pyongyang.

For Lankov, the least worst option for the North would be its incorporation into a wider Korean autonomous state under the suzerainty of the People’s Republic of China. That’s likely to go down as badly in Seoul, where they still routinely appoint governors of North Korean provinces, as in Pyongyang which only formally abandoned Seoul as the capital in 1972. Both sides are “in denial”.

The one thing that is very much off the agenda for economic, political and social reasons is peaceful unification. But the sooner they learn to live together separately, the better for all concerned.

It however remains to be seen whether Lankov’s book will cause the slightest pause for thought in Washington and other western capitals.

Ford, G. (2013). The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia by Andrei Lankov, Asian Review of Books, 7 August.

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