Is North Korea Changing under Kim Jong-un?

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Is North Korea Changing under Kim Jong-un?

Almost everyone expects a softening of North-South relations in 2013. Optimists point to Kim Jong-un’s attractive young wife and seemingly modern lifestyle. There are also signs that Kim is shifting power away from the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and towards the Korean Workers Party and his own family. His uncle, Jang Song-thaek, is demonstrating more influence.

When Japanese officials met with a North Korean delegation recently in Mongolia, they found their counterparts far more confident and relaxed, in contrast to prior negotiations when the North Korean diplomats were clearly under the KPA’s thumb and merely read prepared remarks. The Japanese side attributes the new diplomatic attitude to Jang. Meanwhile, two front-companies for the KPA have been taken over directly by the State and the KPA Chief of Staff, Ri Yong-ho, was abruptly retired. As all these changes are occurring, the North is undergoing a new propaganda campaign extolling the virtues of Kim Jong-un; a sign that his overall control could be solidifying.

Is change afoot in North Korea? Unfortunately, none of these developments suggests any diminishment of the danger posed to the Republic of Korea by the North.

Recent reports indicate that ROK officials interdicted a Chinese ship in Busan that was carrying North Korean ballistic missile components to Syria. It is important to note three related facts in this case: first, missile or weapons trade with North Korea is a violation of UN Security Council resolutions 1619 and 1874; second, Syria is currently engage in the brutal massacre of its own people; and third, North Korea was behind the Syrian nuclear reactor complex at el Kibar, which the Israel Air Force destroyed in September 2007. Rather than reducing its proliferation activities, North Korea appears to be intensifying its collaboration with other dangerous states.

Will Kim Jong-un be any more flexible on the nuclear question? The deputy permanent representative from the DPRK answered that question recently when he condemned the UN for attempting to sanction the North, since his country is “already a nuclear weapons state” and should be treated as such. Nor is the KPA any weaker as an institution. While Ri Yong-ho may have been retired, the general responsible for the attacks on Cheonan and Yeongpyeong, Kim Kyok-sik, was just promoted to four star rank and will likely be promoted to Deputy Chief of Staff. He had been temporarily sidetracked not because he organized the attack on Yeongpyeong, but because he did not handle the firm ROK response effectively.

All indications are that Kim Jong-un ordered that attack in the first place. A consolidation of Kim Jong-un’s loyalists in the Army hierarchy does not mean the KPA will stop getting what it wants in terms of nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. Even the shift of two front companies from the KPA to the state is not necessarily encouraging, since most illicit activities such as counterfeiting and drug smuggling are already run directly under the Party leadership and the Kim family.

Pyongyang must be reasonably pleased with the international situation it faces as well. In the South, Lee Myung-bak’s policy of reciprocity is being repudiated even by the conservative candidate for President, Park Geun-hye. Insiders in Beijing report to the media that after the 18th Party Congress, Xi Jinping will continue China’s equidistant policy between Pyongyang and Seoul. Rather than demand changes in Beijing’s policy of acquiescing to North Korea nuclearization, President Lee chose at the East Asia Summit to refuse a meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda and instead joined Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao for a meeting that featured shared Sino-Korean criticism of a supposed return of militarism in Japan.

Pyongyang could not have written a more favorable set of developments among the other states in Northeast Asia (or one more unfavorable for U.S policy). Meanwhile, the Obama administration spent most of the trip to the East Asia Summit talking not about the North Korean problem, but the unraveling Middle East situation. The growing confrontation with Iran will do nothing to encourage a harder line with North Korea in the White House, as Pyongyang has likely calculated.

So if there is a new round of engagement and dialogue with the North, the Republic of Korea must enter it with a sober assessment of what - if anything - has actually changed in North Korea’s behavior. Talking to the North is never bad in itself. There are possibilities for gaining insights and possibly laying some groundwork for future agreements when conditions are more propitious.

Right now, however, there is little to suggest conditions are right for substantive results. Kim Jong-un is attempting to consolidate his power; pulling the illicit activities under his own direct control; promoting generals responsible for attacks on innocent civilians in the South; instructing his diplomats to assert that the North’s nuclear weapons status is irreversible; and teasing the Japanese as a preliminary step to talks with Seoul and eventually the United States, which North Korea still sees as the big prize and an easier target given troubles in the Middle East, discord among U.S. allies in Asia, and continued support for Pyongyang from Beijing. These are not the ingredients of a new diplomatic breakthrough with the North.

* The author is a senior advisor and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Michael J. Green

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