Interview: North Korea 'Misreads' the International Community

nk-kpa-soldiers-march-2013.jpg This picture, taken by the Korean Central News Agency on March 20, 2013, shows Korean People's Army soldiers at an undisclosed location in North Korea.

Following North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year speech, in which he expressed hopes for improved relations with South Korea, Pyongyang has offered a series of proposals to the South in what appears to be a disguised peace offensive. Changsop Pyon of RFA’s  Korean Service interviewed Korea expert David Straub about Pyongyang’s “charm” offensive and related issues, including its strained relations with the U.S. Straub, currently associate director of the Korean Studies Program at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, spent 30 years at the State Department, during which he served as chief of the political section at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul and as the Korea desk director, among other positions.

Q: After Kim Jong Un called for improved ties with South Korea in his New Year’s speech adding that the two Koreas should stop “slandering” each other, North Korea offered to take some steps to ease tension, such as halting military drills and mutual vilification. Do you see any sincerity on the part of North  Korea this time?

A: This is the typical, transparently cynical North Korean propaganda machine at work. North Koreans want to have their military exercises, but want to make a big deal of South Korean military exercises. So, before the regular and annual South Korean exercises occur, they typically blast the South and demand that they not be held, and sometimes simultaneously hold out the prospect of better relations. This is the typical and cynical thing North Koreans do, and once the South Korean exercises go on, North Koreans are engaged in various provocations and retaliations. They’ve been doing things this way for a long time.

Q: In other words, you think Pyongyang’s proposals are mostly propaganda?

A: Yes. North Korea has said such things repeatedly for decades with no apparent sincerity.  North Korea has attempted to mislead South Korea and the rest of the world for so many years without the slightest credence in those kinds of propaganda statements. North Koreans are very hostile to South Korea, and they’re extremely cynical, and there is no check on what they say in public in their own country.

Q: As you know, the South Korean government led by President Park Geun-hye has been pursuing a new policy on North Korea, called Trustpolitik. The Park government now seeks to build mutual trust before opening a full-scale engagement with the North. But this new policy hasn’t achieved any tangible outcomes yet. Who’s to blame here?

A: Well, I think it’s virtually entirely North Korea’s blame. South Korea is willing to talk with North Korea on reasonable terms, but North Korea is only willing to talk on its own terms. And its terms are reprehensible. Basically North Korea is implacably hostile to South Korea, and has no intention of dealing with South Korea on what most people of the world regard as reasonable terms. For example, in today’s world, what possible justification can there be for not allowing family reunions on a regular and large-scale basis? Why is it impossible for North and South Korean relatives and friends to exchange letters? This is just absolutely reprehensible.

Q: Let me turn to the domestic situation of North Korea after Jang Song Thaek’s brutal purge last December. Do you see any potential danger that Jang’s demise might pose to Kim Jong Un’s rule?

A: Well, I’m completely agnostic about the domestic and political implications of Jang’s execution. While it’s very difficult for us to know what the implications are domestically, it’s quite clear that the external consequences of Jang’s execution are a disaster for Kim Jong Un’s leadership. From the perspective of outsiders, however, the more important issue is the long-term future of the regime. Kim Jong Un’s words as reflected in his New Year address and other speeches and actions—the actions of his regime since he’s been in power—suggest that the regime is continuing down the blind alley that it was in before. And that has fundamental implications for the situation in North Korea. Sooner or later this is going to cause great problems in North Korea. The problem is, though, is there a way to predict how soon it will happen and what forms it will take?

Q: Retired NBA player Dennis Rodman has visited Pyongyang several times, apparently with the blessing of Kim Jong Un. Do you think Kim received any political benefits from Rodman’s high-profile visits?

A: You know, there were all sorts of debates about Rodman in the media. But I think the Rodman episode is important for what it suggests about Kim Jong Un’s political judgment. I find it extremely difficult to believe that his mingling with someone as bizarre as Rodman can be helpful to him in political terms in North Korea. It’s another disaster for his image in the outside world. You know, it certainly could not, and did not, improve Kim Jong Un’s image abroad. It should have been very easy for anybody to predict that it would not be helpful and and would be very damaging for Kim Jong Un’s image abroad. So I suspect that this was a decision made by Kim Jong Un personally. We know he loves American basketball and people like Rodman, and nobody felt they were in a position to tell him this was a very bad idea.

Q: Although Kim Jong Un did not mention the United States directly in his speech, there is no doubt that he wants to improve ties with the U.S. Is there any possibility that Pyongyang may enter into serious dialogue with the U.S. this year?

A: I don’t think so. The problem is their nuclear program, and they are not even considering giving up their nuclear weapons. There is zero chance that the Obama administration or any future American government is going to normalize relations with North Korea or remove sanctions or accept it as a nuclear-weapons state. As long as the North has nuclear weapons, the U.S. will isolate, contain, and sanction North Korea. [North Korea] might look at India and Pakistan and think, “Well, if we just hold on long enough and threaten others, then eventually we can induce the U.S. to remove sanctions and leave the Korean peninsula.”  But that would be a big misjudgment on the part of North Korea.

Q: Contrary to U.S. demands for full denuclearization, North Korea has been demanding that the U.S. accept it as a nuclear-weapons state. Unless the North recommits itself to denuclearization, do you believe there is little incentive for the U.S. to start any talks at this point?

A: Yes. For the United States to go back to full-sized negotiations with North Korea at this point, given what the North Koreans have done and said, including their efforts to state that North Korea is a nuclear-weapons state in their constitution, would be tantamount to the United States accepting North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state for the foreseeable future. This is not going to happen, because the United States has spent enormous time and energy trying to prevent nuclear proliferation of the sort that North Korea is engaged in. The U.S. is not going to accept North Korea as a nuclear power state because this would cause tremendous concern and problems in South Korea and also with Japan. And it is politically unacceptable in the U.S. Not only conservative Republicans but liberal Democrats, for the most part, are not prepared for the U.S. to enter into formal negotiations without some basis to believe those negotiations might lead to North Korea abandoning its nuclear-weapons program on reasonable terms.

Q:  North Korea has proclaimed it will pursue the so-called ‘Byongjin Nosun’ policy, meaning a dual policy of making economic progress and developing nuclear weapons. Do you think Pyongyang can achieve this goal in defiance of the strong opposition from the U.S. and the rest of the world?

A: No. I think there are two fundamental misconceptions on the part of North Korean leaders. The first is that somehow they can use the nuclear issue to have the sanctions against them removed and to induce the United States to leave the Korean peninsula. But in fact, having the nuclear weapons problem guarantees not only that the sanctions remain in place, but the sanctions will grow tighter over time and also strengthen the military alliance relationship between the United States and South Korea over time. This is a very bad thing for the North Korean leaders, based on misconception. And the second thing is that the North Korean leaders want to believe, and do believe, that the U.S. is their major problem. In other words, they think that the military pressure put on them and the international sanctions against them are led to a considerable extent by the United States. But what they don’t understand and don’t appreciate is that even if those things did not exist, they would still be in a terrible situation, because the rest of the world is completely uncomfortable with the way North Korea does things today.

Q: In that respect, would you want to offer any advice to the North Korean leadership?

A: I think the North Korean leaders need to re-examine their basic assumptions about their current situation, both domestically and externally. And externally, their belief that nuclear weapons improve North Korean security and will contribute eventually to its being accepted as a nuclear-weapons state, with sanctions removed against them, is a fundamental misreading of the United States, South Korea, and international society as a whole.

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