The North Korean regime has surprised the outside world again by hastily sending Gen. Choe Ryong Hae, Director of Army General Political Bureau, to China as its top leader Kim Jong Un’s special envoy. Gen. Choe’s surprise visit on May 22 came amid much speculation that Sino-North Korea relations are at an all-time low due to Pyongyang’s missile launches, nuclear tests, and streams of provocative acts against the U.S., South Korea, and the international community, despite China’s warnings. Changsop Pyon of RFA’s Korean Service interviewed David Straub, a former State Department official and current Stanford scholar, about Kim Jong Un’s intentions and motivations behind the dispatch of his close aide to China, believed to be North Korea’s most important ally. Before taking up the position as the Associate Director of the Korean Studies Program at Stanford’s Asia-Pacific Research Center, Straub served in the State Department for about 30 years—12 years of which were spent dealing with Korean affairs.
Q: During his recent visit to China as Kim Jong Un’s special envoy, Gen. Choe Ryong Hae expressed that North Korea would be willing to open talks at various levels, including the stalled six-party talks. Do you believe Choe’s remarks signal any change in North Korea’s policy on this issue?
A: There is no reason to believe there is a fundamental change on the part of North Koreans at this point. The North Koreans, as we’ve seen repeatedly, can change their basic positions on a dime. They frequently say “We will never do an X,” and then a few months later, they say, “We’re willing to do an X.” This is almost tactical. In this case of Choe’s visit, the North Koreans really began to feel the increasing pressure from the international community on them for their behavior. Particularly the North Koreans had in mind the Chinese government’s instructing and encouraging its banks to cut back its dealings with North Korea under its statements by senior Chinese officials about its behavior in recent weeks and months, the upcoming U.S.-China summit in the first week of June, and the China-South Korea summit at the end of June and so forth.
Q: Do you think the North Korean leadership dispatched Gen. Choe because they felt some sort of shift in China’s traditional attitude?
A: I think the North Koreans felt that the trend is not in their favor.
Q: Some analysts believe Gen. Choe might have wanted to secure Xi’s invitation for Kim Jong Un’s visit to China. What do you make of it?
A: It’s most likely that Kim Jong Un and the North Korean leadership tried to do two things: the general one trying to placate China, and the specific one trying to prepare the stage for the eventual first visit by Kim Jong Un to Beijing.
Q: Contrary to general expectations, Gen. Choe didn’t clearly express whether North Korea would commit itself to denuclearization in his meeting with China’s top leader Xi Jinping, even though Xi emphasized the importance of the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Why did Gen. Choe fail to mention that?
A: Indeed, Choe didn’t clearly express willingness to negotiate the denuclearization. In fact, he didn’t express any willingness to discuss it at all apparently. It remains the official position of the North Korean state that they’re a nuclear weapons state, and they’re unwilling even to discuss the possibility of abandoning their nuclear weapons program. We saw in the press coverage of this visit a reflection of that as the Chinese press quoted its own leader Xi Jinping repeatedly stressing the importance of North Korea’s giving up its nuclear weapons program, while the North Korean media has not said a word about denuclearization in its coverage of Choe’s visit to Beijing.
Q: As you mentioned, North Korea is trying to placate China, yet it wouldn’t listen to China’s emphasis on the need for its denuclearization. How do you evaluate North Korea’s double stance toward China?
A: Well, this may be an irreconcilable problem. If, as most observers of North Korea believe, North Korea is not willing to consider giving up its nuclear program, then it’s an irreconcilable difference between North Korea on the one hand, and the United States, Japan, South Korea, and to some extent China on the other hand.
Q: Given Xi Jinping’s tough position on North Korean denuclearization, China and North Korea might face some friction on this issue in the days ahead. Do you think such friction will create more cooperation between Washington and Beijing?
A: Yes, the new leadership in China does appear to be concerned and upset about the new leadership of North Korea and its behavior. And I think the new leadership in China is developing a new working relationship with Pyongyang, and this is a formative time for the Chinese government. And during this important formative time North Korea has given it a lot to think about. Meanwhile, I think the Obama administration has pursued a very wise and far-sighted strategy regarding North Korea. I think it ought to reassure China of America’s intentions: namely, the United States does not have intentions in regard to North Korea or on the Korean peninsula as a whole that are at odds with China’s interests. And to the extent that the new Chinese government recognizes that, the likelihood of the Chinese government being more willing to work with the United States to try to induce North Korea to give up nuclear weapons will increase.
Q: Due to the recent signs of a shift in China’s relations with North Korea, there’s some cautious optimism that China and the U.S. will find more room for cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue. Do you agree?
A: You know, there’s been much speculation over the past decade that China’s fundamental attitude toward North Korea would change, but it hasn’t. So, I think we need to be careful about engaging in wishful thinking that China will suddenly change its basic approach. China, as by far the most important foreign partner of North Korea, has significant potential influence on North Korea, and even if China does not fundamentally change its approach, if it becomes more open to discuss with the United States and South Korea about basic issues, and gradually becomes more willing to cooperate with the United States and South Korea in trying to induce North Korea to behave better, that in itself is very important and significant. And of course, once on such a path, continued convergence of views and positions on North Korea becomes a possibility.
Q: Turning to the six-party talks aimed at Korean denuclearization, what is the U.S. position on the resumption of the six-party talks? There is little likelihood that Washington will come to the negotiating table just for the sake of the talks. What is your take?
A: The U.S. government position has been for some time now that the U.S. is unwilling to resume the six-party talks as long as North Korea takes the position that denuclearization is not on the table. After all, the six-party talks were convened in 2003, and the first purpose was to stop North Korea from developing its nuclear weapons. And during the course of the six-party talks the goal was not achieved. North Korea went on developing and testing three nuclear devices. So, I’m confident that the United States will not agree to return to the six-party talks unless the North Korean government makes it clear that it’s sincerely willing to engage its negotiations, of which part is denuclearization of North Korea.