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.