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Never Say Never

19 January 2016

(Photo: KCNA)

(Photo: KCNA)

North Korea’s fourth nuclear test surprised a lot of people. That surprise unleashed, among other things, the notion that Kim Jong Un is erratic, an especially loose cannon with no advisers who might counsel restraint because they have all been kicked aside or died. If that were true, one might wonder about the North’s first two nuclear tests, which took place under Kim Jong Il. Presumably, if we accept the “erratic Kim Jong Un” thesis, the earlier tests took place because the old advisers thought nuclear tests were a good idea, and not because they feared contradicting the leader. But how would we know the difference?

Consider for a moment: What if, as things seem to be headed, Beijing (although furious with the North for the test) is still not prepared to go along with seriously tough UN Security Council sanctions? How will Kim Jong Un look then? Like someone who reviewed the odds, looked at the history of Chinese reaction to the North’s first three tests, and decided the risk was worth taking?

The argument that the North’s policies are hard to predict because Kim Jong Un is “erratic” is relatively easy to make but tough to defend if examined closely. To do so, first of all we would have to posit that “predicting” North Korean policies, i.e., knowing which way the ball was going to bounce at any particular time, was easier when Kim Jong Il was in charge, and before him, Kim Il Sung. After over 40 years in these rocky fields, I think I can say this has rarely been the case; the North Koreans have always been good at pulling fast ones. Even so, if plotted on a graph, over the long term the dots have traced recognizable, fundamental policy lines. In other words, though it’s tough to predict what will happen on any given day, it is possible to see trends over time. Over the past four years, under Kim Jong Un, that is still the case. The recent nuclear test was a surprise only insofar as we didn’t know exactly when it would occur. Barring something to stop it (and there were at least a few windows of opportunity that might have been explored since the third test in early 2013), there was going to be a fourth. The question was when. The answer, of course, became perfectly obvious a few minutes after 10:00 AM (Korea time) on January 6, 2016.

How do those who think they see “erratic” moves from Kim Jong Un make their case? One way—well presented by Sam Kim in a January 12 article on Bloomberg News—is to attack the question from a relatively dormant flank, i.e., the quality and courage of the leader’s advisers. Before December 2011 when Kim Jong Il died, few outside observers looked at the issue of the leader’s advisers. If anything, the question was put in terms of the “inner circle,” most often short lists of those people who partied with the leader. Pondering what sort of advice they might have given was not usually considered. The problem is, we have never known who was, is, or will be actually “advising” the leadership and thus influencing policy. Perhaps it would be better to say we’ve known “next to nothing” because in the late 1990s, there was good reason to believe that Kang Sok Ju, then the First Vice Foreign Minister, in his own careful way, had at least some influence with Kim Jong Il in shaping policy toward the United States. Over the past two years, it has appeared that late Kim Yang Gon may have had somewhat similar influence (how similar is the interesting question) with Kim Jong Un.

We can all pretty much agree that no regime is completely at the mercy of one man’s (or woman’s—no reason to leave out Catherine the Great or Elizabeth I here) fits of temperament or folly. History will support the notion that the loss of a key, trusted and wise adviser frequently ends up depriving a ruler of an important intellectual/emotional prop, at least for a time. The argument that Kim Jong Un lost something important when Kim Yang Gon died late last year is a useful hypothesis, and may even be a testable proposition. Still, Kim Yang Gon likely had able deputies. We can only wait and see whether and how policy changes toward South Korea with him off the stage. It is worth noting that the first Rodong Sinmun article on South Korea after Kim Yang Gon’s death showed no change in the North’s public approach toward Seoul—not a decisive indicator but one worth taking on board. It is also worth noting that monitored DPRK media have yet to react to President Park’s January 13 statement on the nuclear test, a statement that would otherwise seem to be a fat target for a rhetorical broadside from Pyongyang.

Details, details.

From late August through today, the North has been exceedingly careful in its public treatment of President Park Geun-hye. It virtually ignored the US-ROK summit in October, including an unusual US-ROK joint statement specifically focused on North Korea and warning Pyongyang of “significant measures” by the UN Security Council in case of a ballistic missile launch or nuclear test, and praising President Park’s “principled approach” to resolving last August’s DMZ incident. Its initial reaction to the stalemate in the North-South talks in mid-December was brief and mild. Moreover, DPRK media have virtually ignored the South’s resumption of DMZ loudspeaker broadcasts (the North, instead, has apparently decided to bury the South in a blizzard of its own balloon-delivered pamphlets). Similarly, there has been virtually no public reaction to the January 10 low-level flight of a US B-52 over Osan Airbase. (Contrary to what some Western press reports claimed, it was not acknowledged in a January 11 Rodong Sinmun article which said only that the US was “talking about projecting a nuclear strategic bomber squadron into South Korea.”) Why are such details important? Because they show months-long and carefully sustained calculation, not erratic swings.

Since Kim Jong Un assumed power in December 2011, North Korea’s economic policy, its approach towards South Korea and even its approach toward the US have remained within the normal range of oscillation.

The fact that the North’s policies—or at least, the public presentation of them—may have tacked over the course of several months does not make the decision-making behind them erratic. “Erratic,” if the word means anything, would be abrupt, almost inexplicable swings over short periods of time to significantly different policies. But we have not seen anything like that. In North Korean terms, “erratic” is not periods of calm punctuated by loud explosions. Nor is “erratic” to be found in the ups and downs of boilerplate propaganda.

A question worth pondering is, how does one distinguish between “erratic” and “opportunistic,” or perhaps better put, “quick on their feet?” Consider:

  • In summer of 1992, Kim Jong Il began planning withdrawal from Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). When he finally pulled the trigger in March 1993, he was out in the field with his troops, expecting a military strike by the US. Only when his foreign ministry noted international calls for the North to return to the NPT did Pyongyang work out new plans. By April, Kim was engaged in a diplomatic ballet that would eventually lead to talks with the United States and an agreement to suspend the NPT withdrawal. Erratic?
  • In the spring of 1994, the North withdrew spent fuel rods from its reactor at Yongbyon, knowing full well the extent of the crisis that would entail. Some of Kim Jong Il’s advisers urged him to do it, others counseled strongly against it. Kim went ahead. Erratic? Bull headed? Crazy like a fox?
  • In early 2013, Pyongyang declared the nuclear issue off the table. Months later, the issue was put it back on the table in a June 16 statement from the National Defense Commission, a surprise even to some DPRK officials. Erratic? Calculated?
  • On January 6, in the DPRK Government statement announcing the fourth nuclear test, Pyongyang declared that, “As long as the United States’ heinous hostile policy toward the DPRK is not eradicated, our suspension of nuclear development or nuclear abandonment cannot happen under any circumstance.” Although not unqualified, that formulation would seem to have taken off table the North’s previous offer from January 2015—to temporarily halt testing in return for a temporary suspension of US-ROK joint exercises. Nine days later, a Foreign Ministry spokesman’s statement said that the previous offer to stop the testing was still valid, possibly foreshadowed by a Rodong Sinmun article on the 11th that seemed to fiddle with the “as long as” formulation. Erratic? Tacking? Taking advantage of signs that Beijing was looking for reasons not to go along with Washington’s call for new, tough steps against the North?

Perhaps rather than retreat to “erratic,” a better observation is that one should never say never when dealing with the North.

The idea that Kim has gunned down all of his close advisers holds no water. If someone has information suggesting that former defense minister Hyon Yong Chol was a close or influential adviser to Kim, I’d welcome hearing it. As far as I can tell, he was neither. Jang Song Taek may have been influential for a while at the beginning of Kim’s reign, but he was probably under close watch, and was falling out of favor for nearly a year before he got the axe. Sam Kim mentions in his article that Choe Ryong-hae was sent down for “reeducation.” Kim Jong Il also banished people from the court for months at a time, too. Even Kang Sok Ju was sent down once or twice. They came back, as has Choe, who returned after only a few months, identified as a party secretary.

Grist for Many Windmills

The following are six hypotheses to mull for now, and test over the next several months. (Many thanks to Isabella Francisca Uria for helping think through these six hypotheses.)

  1. After a year of signaling interest in engagement on the nuclear issue to the United States and receiving no positive response from the US, the fourth test was essentially an “attention getter” to bring Washington to the negotiation table in response to crisis as has been the case in the past. (Note: A key problem with this hypothesis is that if the North’s upcoming party congress is meant to be a flagship event to highlight economic progress, by conducting another nuclear test, Kim has all but ensured that the external atmosphere surrounding the congress is liable to be quite negative. This might suggest hypothesis #2.)
  2. Kim Jong Un intends to get the markets back under close control, and will now have a good reason to do so in light of increased international pressure, sanctions, etc. (This is not my favorite explanation, but we can wait and see.)
  3. The purpose of the byungjin policy was explicitly to build up the nation’s security through nuclear development to the point that it would be possible to divert resources from the military and concentrate on the economy. It is possible that Kim will use this test of a “hydrogen-bomb” to declare victory and state that North Korea has developed a sufficient deterrent to allow for shifting focus to the economy. In fact, a January 7 article in Chosun Sinbo—the newspaper of the pro-North Korean organization of Koreans in Japan which often carries articles directly reflecting views in Pyongyang—included this line. (Note: Taking this tack would potentially help to soften the blowback from China, as the Chinese are strong proponents of economic reform in North Korea.)
  4. North Korea has concluded that negotiations with the US will not be possible in the waning months of the Obama Administration and in analyzing the current election season is bracing itself for a seemingly inevitable hostile policy from whoever succeeds the current president, from either party. Therefore, Pyongyang is setting the stage to make clear to whoever comes to office in January 2017 that it possesses a strong and credible nuclear threat, and must be taken seriously.
  5. The test was planned for a particularly inopportune for the Chinese who are addressing their own issues, including softness in their economy and a major, multi-year reorganization of the armed forces. It also seems to have been carried out to demonstrate maximum independence from the Chinese. (Beijing says that, unlike in the past, it did not receive any advance notice of the test.) If the North wanted to stir several pots at once—Sino-US, Sino-ROK, ROK-US—the test turns out to have been a good way to do it.
  6. Give the devil his due: Dictators are erratic, and this decision was erratic but, if North Korea’s luck holds, not irretrievable. If there is anyone who knows how to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, it is the North Koreans.

Is there a bottom line? Kim Jong Un is young, but not as inexperienced as many outsiders continue to think. He was raised in utter privilege, and is no doubt used to being obeyed. If he is still, to some extent, learning the ropes, he now has 5 or 6 (or even 7) years of experience under his belt at or near the top of the regime. He does not seem all that different from his father at the same age, who also had a reputation for impulsive behavior and wild living. (So, as a matter of fact, did the young Henry VIII). Whatever Kim Jong Un’s level of maturity or immaturity in the eyes of outsiders, and whatever the tonal shifts reflected in official North Korean statements over the past four years, the policies of the DPRK since he took power have not been noticeably out of line with what have been historic norms. This—in some sense the essential interests North Koreans believe they must defend—is what we have to deal with, difficult though it might be, and scaring ourselves with dancing shadows on the walls of a cave of our own making will, in the end, lead us nowhere good.

Reader Feedback

6 Responses to “Never Say Never”

  1. Peter says:

    I thought the constant points to highlight a lack of erratic behavior were too one-sided.

    I’m left not knowing whether an interlocutor could successfully come up with 6 points that “do” illustrate erratic behavior. I was hoping you would counter yourself to bolster the argument. Without that it felt too one-sided and like someone had a large barrel to push and wasn’t going to stop and smell the other side.

    Small niggle: multiple references to ancient kings and queens just seems wrong to me. For one, Henry VIII or whoever, has little relevance to anyone outside the UK and it seems so limited to come up with such specific references in this, wildly different, context.

  2. keve says:

    Dr. Axel Berkofsky…..stereotyping entire population of 25 million NoKorean population based US media which echoes negative toned-statements from few defectors selected by South Korea NIS(National Intelligence Service) and politicians are not very wise and incomplete. We can all agree that 25 million NoKoreans are effected by nuclear posturing by US which applies economic sanctions that much of NoKorea population disapprove of.

    But I do agree with you on high expense of obtaining nuclear capability at the expense of ordinary citizens, but NoKorea is NOT alone on pursuing Nuclear deterrent at the expense of general ordinary population and ignoring the poor. Many nuclear nations, including NoKorea, chose the option of protecting peace with nuclear deterrent is better than risking war, wars which for example destroyed the economies of Iraq, Libya, and Syria where ordinary populations are fighting for survivor let alone worrying about the economy.

  3. Dr. Axel Berkofsky says:

    Hi, am familiar with Mr. Carlin’s arguments and respect his knowledge on NK.
    However, I wonder what he means when he writes:

    “This—in some sense the essential interests North Koreans believe they must defend…”

    Whose interests? Certainly not those of the ordinary people who suffer from the dictator and his entourage. Plus too much intelligent talk about whether or whether or not he or they are ‘erratic.’ Let us call them what they are: playing nuclear state at the expense of the North Korean people.

    Best, Axel Berkofsky

  4. Ray Cunningham says:

    Thank you for a more rational approach. The mainstream press so often misses the mark.

  5. Joaquín Gutiérrez says:

    Thank you for such an enlightening analysis.

  6. David Steinberg says:

    It is good to read rational, nuanced thought on North Korea for a change.

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.