Panel discusses North Korea’s course forward

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Panel discusses North Korea’s course forward


From left, Kim Young-hie, a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo, Robert Carlin, a former analyst at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and Zhu Feng, an international relations professor at Nanjing University, sit for a dialogue on Pyongyang issues on the sidelines of the Korea Forum for Peace, Prosperity and Unification in Seoul last month. [KANG JUNG-HYUN]

Chinese security expert Zhu Feng points out that China has “never been tougher” on Pyongyang, referring to the implementation of UN Security Council sanctions following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test earlier this year.

Zhu, the executive director of the China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea and professor of international relations at Nanjing University, Robert L. Carlin, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and Kim Young-hie, senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo, had a discussion on the North Korea issue recently on the sidelines of a forum in Seoul.

Carlin, who spent about three decades with the CIA and U.S. State Department, notes that the North Korean Workers’ Party’s seventh congress can provide a “window of opportunity” for the Kim Jong-un regime.

These experts from Korea, China and the United States assessed the efficacy of sanctions on Pyongyang, the cost of a fifth nuclear test for the regime and how to get the regime to return to the dialogue table, among other North Korea issues.

They earlier took part in the Korea Forum for Peace, Prosperity and Unification, organized by the JoongAng Ilbo and JTBC, attended by some 40 leading experts on North Korea issues.

The following is an edited excerpt of the dialogue.

Q. How do you evaluate the effects of sanctions on North Korea? Are the sanctions being felt in North Korea?

Zhu: Basically, I think that, so far, the sanctions are going well. First of all, what we see is a couple of individual countries’ sanctions pronouncement. I think it’s a big addition to the [UN Security Council resolution] sanctions. Beijing also has never been more determined to force the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] to pay the price. We also saw Beijing publicize a list of trade embargos and trade bans [in March]. If you just look through this list, Beijing has never been tougher on handling the DPRK … and in enforcing the UN Security Council resolution … Most important, publically and officially, trade of mineral goods - such as iron and coal - are officially suspended.

In a sense, it is thanks to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un conducting the fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6 that China joined hands with the United States and bring this matter to the UN Security Council. Will it take one more nuclear test to make China angrier than now and enable its own individual sanctions on Pyongyang?

Zhu: One more nuclear test will be a new devastation to our bilateral relations. I think China’s response will not to just react with anger, but to also consider a new coordinated action with Seoul and Washington. China now refuels North Korea’s planes when they come into Beijing. If a new nuclear test is made, if Beijing decided to refuse any [North Korea] plane to [refuel in] Beijing, that will be some sort of termination of international access for the DPRK. It is less likely that Beijing will declare those kind of sanctions alone, but I really hope that any new nuclear test by the DPRK could help build up the momentum of cooperation and collaboration among Seoul, Beijing and Washington.

Mr. Carlin, you have mentioned that you expect “a window of opportunity” to open in May. On what basis do you say that?

Carlin: First of all, there have been signals to that effect both in what the North Koreans have said and what they haven’t said. Up to this point, they have not responded to U.S. officials talking about the possibility of dialogue. It’s a new development for U.S. officials in the last three weeks to speak more positively about the possibility of dialogue. And North Koreans have not responded … Silence coming from North Korea sometimes means they’re preserving room to maneuver. They have acknowledged Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s proposal for a peace treaty, and even in their foreign ministry statement they acknowledged it without dismissing it. So, I think whether or not you want to call it a game or real positioning, they are moving in that direction. Finally, there is the logic of Kim Jong-un’s byungjin policy. The logic of the nuclear and economic wings work together. The first phase is that they build up the nuclear part … in order to provide a defense role strong enough that they can then begin to focus internally. The [North Korean Workers’ Party] congress is a good place for him to do that. The second part of declaring the success of byungjin [North Korea’s dual-track policy emphasizing both economic improvement and nuclear weapons development] is to make some sort of peace treaty proposal. He can do that now more easily because he’s not doing it from weakness. The problem with sanctions continuously increasing is that it makes it less and less likely that in the North Korean mind that they can show a concession. It’s better to let them do this before things get too bad.

Some analysts have suggested a moratorium on North Korea’s nuclear and missile development in return for negotiations in order to reach a peace agreement.

Carlin: The North Korean proposal is a moratorium, which means a unilateral halt to testing in return for a suspension of the next round of joint military exercises.

Isn’t that a good deal for America?

Carlin: We suspended military exercises in 1992, and it didn’t cause the collapse of the alliance or anything. So the North Korean argument is that this will provide space to sit down and talk about all these other issues. The fact that they put a moratorium on the table suggests to me that they’re effectively signaling to us that the nuclear issue is on the table.

Zhu: I think the potential implication of this is to reaffirm the Sept. 19, 2005 Joint Statement, which was a milestone. China is proud of this because it was one of the rare concrete consequences generated from the six party talks … My view is that what the DPRK wants is bilateral talk with the United States … but the real test is how the United States would like to talk [with the North Korea] bilaterally.

Are there people who believe in “collapsism” in the United States and China, and is such a theory feasible and realistic?

Carlin: It seems to me collapsism is not a basis for policy. It’s a hope that something would happen, but I don’t think we have any good examples of being able to engineer such a thing, much less control the ramifications of the collapse of a regime, as in Iraq or Syria.

Zhu: The prospect of the DPRK’s collapse is strong in China. But it’s the worst case scenario that Beijing is trying to prevent. The most important thing is not the collapse of the Kim Jong-un regime but the collapse of North Korea. And we will be concerned about the negative effects, for example, the flocking of refugees [into China], uncontrollable smuggling or misuse of fissile materials and, most importantly, how to demilitarize more than 1 million North Korean troops... It’s really scary, so China always prefers some sort of domestic regime transformation to any collapsing prospects.

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