North Korea’s apparent preparation for a fourth nuclear test is fueling tensions on the Korean peninsula.Though North Korea seems to have delayed the test for now, there are persistent indications that the North may go ahead with it at any time. Changsop Pyon of RFA’s Korean Service interviewed Korea expert Joseph DeTrani about the consequences of any additional North Korean nuclear test and the future of the troubled leadership of Kim Jong Un. DeTrani, President of the non-profit Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA), was U.S. Special Envoy to the Six-Party Talks from 2003 to 2006 and the North Korea Mission Manager for the Office of Director of National Intelligence from 2006 to 2010.
Q: Recently there has been much speculation that N. Korea might conduct a fourth nuclear test. If the North goes ahead with the test, what would be the consequences?
A: Well, another nuclear test would be very, very significant. I think there will be significant consequences. I think those consequences would manifest themselves with the UN Security Council. The likelihood of another resolution would further sanctions imposed on N. Korea. So, another nuclear test is going to be viewed in a very, very negative way by the international community.
Q: Of particular concern is the possibility of N. Korea testing a nuclear device based on highly enriched uranium (HEU). Don’t you think it’s a very alarming signal to the United States?
A: Absolutely. I think it will be an event of significant concern for the United States and the international community. Previous tests, as you know, were plutonium. So, this would be a change, a different approach of using highly enriched uranium which would indicate that North Korea has a sufficient stockpile of highly enriched uranium, sufficient such that they are now testing. And that’s a key concern.
Q: As you know, the key to the success of UN sanctions against N. Korea is China’s full participation and support. Can we expect it if the North conducts another nuclear test?
A: I think if there is another nuclear test, I’m convinced personally that China would be supportive of another sanction. They were supportive of the last UN Security resolution, and I think they would be supportive of this resolution. I think this resolution would further sanctions and would have a significant impact on the DPRK. We’re talking about sanctions that can be imposed on banks, entities, individuals. We saw what happened to BDA dating back in 2005. The impact of Banco Delta Asia was rather significant. In that case, we were talking about approximately 24 million dollars. I think further sanctions would have significant impact on N. Korea’s economy as well as impacting the elites in their society. I believe it would not be in N. Korea’s interest, not in the interest of anybody. They should not test another nuclear device.
Q: As a matter of fact, the Obama administration has been pursuing a strategic patience approach, waiting for the North to show some sincerity on denuclearization. However, such an approach fell on deaf ears as the North continued to enhance their nuclear programs. Given the urgency of this issue, do you think it’s desirable for the US to resume the talks with the North even now instead of waiting?
A: I’m speaking as private citizen now on this matter. The United States reached out to the new government in Pyongyang led by Kim Jung Un in Feb. 2012, and reached a Leap Day Agreement. That was violated by the North Koreans. I think the Obama administration had attempted many times to get them to have meaningful dialogue, but it never resulted in any significant progress. Contrary to that, it resulted in escalation with N. Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches. My personal sense is that if dialogue with N. Korea is not going to result in any progress, why do we enter into any dialogue? When I hear about “strategic patience,” I think strategic patience has to do with “patient enough to see if N. Korea is serious.” If N. Korea shows it’s serious, I think there will be traction, there will be movement, and that’s very critical. So, I don’t think it’s a question of not doing anything. It’s a question of wanting to do something. Given that we had some problems with the Leap Day Agreement in Feb. 2012, if there is dialogue, it should be a meaningful dialogue that results in some progress towards the ultimate goal of denuclearization on the one hand, and on the other North Korea becoming a normal nation state with security assurances and economic assistance, dealing with the international financial community, and ultimately down the road, normalization of relations with the United States, given resolution of other issues.
Q: So, is it imperative for N. Korea to restore trust with the US first for any progress in their relationship?
A: I think what’s necessary is to build trust and confidence in the relationship. I think what North Korea should be considering and hopefully doing would be showing goodwill by releasing Kenneth Bae for humanitarian reasons. And I will go beyond that by saying if we enter into negotiations and start the whole process of denuclearization, during the process the North would not launch missile or conduct nuclear tests. I think that’s very important.
Q: You’ve just mentioned Kenneth Bae, who has been detained since Nov. 2012 on charges of “toppling" North Korea. Do you believe Pyongyang should release Mr. Bae as the first step toward restoring credibility with the US?
A: I think that’s a very good proposal. Going back a number of months, Ambassador King was ready to go to Pyongyang to talk about release of Kenneth Bae, and that never materialized. Yes, confidence building is necessary, and confidence building will render itself to building trust in the relationship. And I think the release of Kenneth Base for humanitarian reasons would be a positive first step.
Q: Now, let’s turn to Kim Jong Un’s leadership. There were some hopes that Kim Jong Un might take a different course from his father’s when he took power more than two years ago. As it turned out, however, he appeared to have stuck to his father’s military-first policy and no reform. What’s your take on Kim’s leadership?
A: That’s a good question. I think initially there was significant optimism that Kim Jong Un, coming on the heels of replacing his late father two years ago, would look at economic reforms, would look at reintegrating with the international community, and would take a different track, different approach. So I think we’ve seen a great deal of disappointment. We’ve also seen a great deal of escalation coming out of N. Korea for the last two years, such as the horrible treatment of his uncle and the announced execution of Jang Sung Thaek. So, there was a lot of disappointment in the leadership of Kim Jong Un. Why? Some would say this is a new leader, a leader who wants to show he’s in charge, and that anyone who questions his leadership and his vision would be removed. And that possibly explains why Jang Sung Thaek was removed. My personal view is he was asserting his authority and showing that he’s in charge. And he certainly made that statement for the last two years.
Q: Kim Jong Un replaced many senior military and party figures as part of his power consolidation for the past two years. Some say Kim’s ‘purge’ drive shows his weakness, not strength. Do you agree?
A: Well, I’m not sure that I would agree with his weakness. I would agree that this shows Kim Jong Un was sending a very clear message that with execution of Jang Sung Thaek and others around him, he will not tolerate any dissension, he will not tolerate different views, he’s the supreme leader, and those who are not in his agreement have no place in his government and would be removed. I think you could say in some way it is weakness because good leadership requires different views and very candid discussion with his senior advisors on lots of issues.
Q: Given that Kim Jong Un introduced economic improvement measures in June 2012, some say he seems interested in economic reform. What do you think?
A: We see some movement in Pyongyang, but it becomes less clear when you look at the provinces. So, I think the economy is an issue that Kim Jong Un is looking at. I’m not sure if ‘reform’ is the correct word. I think he’s looking at the economy to improve things and engender some possible investment, foreign investment in N. Korea. But I think that’s very, very difficult because North Korea, given what happened in N. Korea last two years, is not attractive to foreign investment in my view.
Q: Though there are many obstacles to Kim Jong Un’s economic agenda, perhaps the biggest one seems to be N. Korea’s nuclear development, which resulted in several U.N. sanctions against it. Still, he announced what he called ‘dual policy’ of nuclear development and economic progress. Do you think this goal is feasible?
A: I think if Kim Jong Un is serious about economic reform, he needs to deal with the international community, he needs to attract foreign investment, and he needs to interact more with the international community in areas like science and technology. So, my view is that he needs to break out of where N. Korea is right now, that is, the world of isolation. North Korea has literally isolated itself from the international community. And given what they did to others for the last two years, other countries are not willing to deal with N. Korea. With the exception of the relationship with China, and even China has not been happy with the nuclear tests and execution of Jang Sung Thaek. This is not something China wants. China wants to move towards denuclearization as we all do. So, I think if Kim Jong Un is serious about the livelihood of North Korean people, if he is serious about economic reform, then I think he has to start moving in a very positive way on denuclearization because the international community is not going to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapon state and then deal with them on economic trade terms as a normal nation state. I think denuclearization is the key, core issue here. And if N. Korea is serious about that, moving toward that, then I think the other side would open up more interaction and more investment.
Q: In that respect, what advice would you want to offer him if you’re Kim Jong Un’s trusted advisor?
A: My advice is this: No one, certainly not the United States, has any territorial intentions. No one is looking at regime change. No one wants to see change that would be negative to North Korea’s well-being. What everyone wants is for N. Korea to integrate into the international community. What everyone is hoping for is that North Korea ceases its provocations, nuclear tests, missile launches and gets back to the negotiating table to implement the Sept. 2005 Joint Statement. So, I would say to Kim Jong Un, “Look, there is an opportunity here. Build some confidence by releasing Kenneth Bae, by saying ‘We will come back to the negotiations. We’re serious about implementing the Sept. 2005 Joint Statement. We would also expect the United States and other countries to give us the economic assistance, security assurances, ultimately working on the likelihood of light water reactors, ultimately talking about normalization of relations.” North Korea is isolating itself by their activities, and another nuclear test would further aggravate the situation, and that’s very unfortunate for the North Korean people and also for the international community.