Interview: Kim's Talks Offer Appears Conciliatory But 'Not Sincere'

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) during an inspection of a military command at an undisclosed location in an official photo released Jan. 13, 2015.

In his New Year speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un indicated that he was open to various levels of talks with South Korea.  He even offered a possible summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, “depending on the atmosphere and conditions.”  Some Korea analysts question Kim’s sincerity, citing the pre-conditions attached to the talks, such as suspension of S. Korea-US joint military drills.

Changsop Pyon of RFA’s Korean Service interviewed Richard Bush, Director of Center for East Asia Policy Studies of Brookings Institution, about Kim’s motivations behind his dialogue overtures. Before joining Brookings, Bush held various positions in the U. S. government, including those of National Intelligence Officer for East Asia (1995-1997) and and Chairman of the Board of the American Institute in Taiwan (1997-2002).

Q: Kim Jong Un spent much of his New Year speech stressing the need to improve inter-Korean relations.  Why do you think he is so eager for dialogue with the South this time?
A: Well, I think, on the surface, it’s positive that he expressed interest in having some sort of dialogue or talks, but if you read on, he has so many conditions, and it’s clear that he expects other people to create the conditions for the talks, particularly South Korea and, by implication, the United States.  And he’s taking no responsibility for the situation that exists in Northeast Asia and on the Korean peninsula when, in fact, the DPRK is the cause of the situation on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia.  So, we should never reject an offer to talk out of hand, particularly when it comes with no conditions, but it doesn’t seem that there is much new here.  So, I think this represents more an effort to hit the ball into President Park’s court and appears to be conciliatory, but I don’t think anybody is going to be fooled by this.

Q: Kim mentioned some pre-conditions for inter-Korean talks, such as suspension of the annual US-Korea military exercises.  Don’t you think the North could use it as an excuse to avoid dialogue with the South?
A: Well, I think they know very clearly we do the exercises all the time.  We don’t rule out suspending the exercises if we believe the conditions are right, but it would take the North Koreans to create the conditions.  

Q: In that respect, some people doubt Kim’s sincerity on dialogue.  Do you agree?
A: Well, in a way, this reveals that this is not a sincere offer.  Maybe they want to be serious in making it, but it’s my understanding that when the US and ROK armed forces conduct their exercises, that puts the strain on the North Korean system.  That means that they have to go on a higher alert because in their mindset exercises are preparations for war.  In response to that, they step up their activities, and that’s expensive.  So, if they could be free of the burden of responding to exercises, there would be some value in that.

Q: Then, what might be the chief goal Kim Jong Un wants to achieve by making such overtures?
A: I think he wants to be perceived as the person who is in favor of reconciliation and peace, and put the burden of an impasse on others, whether it’s ROK or the United States.  As I said, he wants to hit the ball into President Park’s court, but I’m not sure /if anybody takes this seriously.  They know this is a tactic, and I think most objective people understand that most serious offers have come from President Park, and they have not been reciprocated.

Q: Some analysts believe Kim might have sought internal division within the South, given the fact that there have been persistent debates among liberals and conservatives about the wisdom of reaching out to the North.  Do you buy that?
A: Well, I think that’s right.  As I said before, we should not reject an offer for dialogue out of hand, and it should be possible to explore whether these conditions are serious, maybe if there is an effort to engage North Korea and test their intentions.  You can’t rule out that maybe the conditions would go away.  On the face of it, though, the offer is rather a non-starter.  I think a sensible way to begin a dialogue would be for N. Korea to actually respond to something that the South already put forth, that is, to have another round of family meetings.  That’s a concrete achievement that doesn’t get tied up ideology, it’s a humanitarian effort.  That was the case of South Korea hitting the ball into N. Korea’s court.  So, this may be an offer to avoid that proposal.

Q: In other words, North Korea needs to show sincerity about dialogue by accepting Seoul’s recent offer for family reunion first, right?
A: Well, that would be a serious way to get an interactive process going.  If you start on most difficult issues and trying to have dialogue on those, it would not probably go anywhere.  The better way to build confidence and trust would be working on easier issues first, working on economic issues and humanitarian issues first, and create greater trust in a reciprocal way and then move on the harder issues.

Q: Some say Kim Jong Un might want to get big economic benefits from the South by holding the highest level talks, given the North’s very economic difficulties.  What’s your take?
A:  Well, I think there is something to that.  For example, restoration of tourism to Mt. Kumgang is one of the specific things that North Korea has decided in the past in talking about how the environment and atmosphere might improve.  So, when they raised this issue of atmosphere, by implication, at least, that restoration of tourism is one thing they are thinking about, and obviously there are concrete economic reasons for doing so.

Q: Kim Jong Un also said he would be open to have a summit with President Park, “depending on the atmosphere and conditions.”  Actually Kim and Park have been invited to the Victory Day celebration in Red Square, Russia this May.  Aside from the possibility of a summit, do you think it is desirable for them to meet with each other in Moscow?
A: I think there are different ways that state leaders can interact at international meetings.  They can have a brief chat, shake hands, they can have a meeting of a couple of hours, and they can also have something that deserves to be called a summit.  For example, President Obama and President Xi Jinping in Nov. had what deserves to be called a summit.  It was a whole day of meetings including a dinner the night before, and which they talked about serious issues, and for those meetings, a number of agreements were prepared and announced.  So, as for the possible summit between the two Koreas, it would seem to me that the time is not right for that kind of summit.  It’s much more feasible to have a full encounter on the sidelines of the meeting.  The question is whether both sides see any value in it, and what are the conditions for such a meeting.  So, I wouldn’t rule it out, but the most I would expect is rather modest interaction.

Q: Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his intention to pursue simultaneous development of economy and nuclear programs. What does it mean for the US?
A: Well, for the United States and ROK and Japan, it means a continued stalemate because the approach of those countries and pretty much China is that North Korea has to make a choice.  It has to choose between its nuclear weapons program and its desire to improve the economy.  They can’t have both.  If they want to be part of international economy, they have to give up their nuclear weapons.  If they want to continue the nuclear weapons programs, they’re going to be isolated.

Q: As you know, North Korea’s relations with the United States are all time low now.  Recently the Obama administration slapped another set of sanctions on the North for its alleged hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment.  What do you think has made their relations so strained like this?
A: That’s the policy of North Korea.  As I said before, if North Korea truly wants to have serious economic development and incorporation with the international community and benefits from the international community resources, it needs to give up its nuclear weapons, but it has not been willing to make that choice.  In the past, whenever it’s got close to serious choices, it backed away.  Now I personally happen to think that even if they were to make a choice in the direction of economic development, the international community probably would not accept North Korean economy as it is, namely an a economy that it wants to give resources to,  because the economic policies of the regime don’t make sense in terms of economics.  And it was because China changed its economic policies toward reform and opening up 35 years ago that the international community was willing to engage and contribute.  So, that’s the reason for the stalemate.  I’m sure if they gave us serious signal that they want to change the situation, the United States would respond.  Another factor in the stalemate is North Korea’s low credibility at this point.  It has backed out of so many commitments that countries like the United States are less willing to try again to accept another commitment from North Korea because chances are it will be reneged upon.  

Q: Then, what is the first step they have to take to regain Washington’s credibility?
A: Well, I think it would be for North Korea to recommit to the Leap Day agreement in 2012, and carry it out over a decent period of time.  There are specific actions tied with that.  And there are things North Korea should not do.  So, I think that’s probably the starting point.

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