Perspectives on DPRK blast against ROK President Lee by Nelson, Witt, Revere et al

[The following is taken from the 31 May 2011 edition of The Nelson Report, with kind permission by Chris Nelson. Joel Witt is Editor of our “Partner” 38North, a project of SAIS (Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University). Evans Revere was the US State Department’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and former CEO of the Korea Society in the USA. –CanKor.]


The official DPRK news service, KCNA, delivered a harshly worded blast declaring that it would “never” negotiate with ROK President Lee…so we pulsed our Loyal Reader Korea Network for thoughts, and have some “on the record” responses from former PDAS Evans Revere, and former Clinton-era nuclear negotiator Joel Witt, plus a cross section of the “must be protected” experts for your consideration, below.

THE KCNA BLAST yesterday…here’s the “action points” of the KCNA release…remember, this is considered the “official” international mouthpiece for the Kim Jong-il regime:

The statement clarified internally and externally the following principled stand of the DPRK:

1. The army and people of the DPRK will never deal with traitor Lee Myung Bak and his clan. It is our stand to let them wait for “contingency” as long as they please according to their “waiting strategy,” sticking to their “theory of principle” on the basis of their own judgment till they face their self-destruction.

2. The DPRK will launch a nationwide offensive to put an end to the moves of the Lee group to escalate the confrontation with the DPRK. The all-out offensive of the army and people of the DPRK is a merciless one. The trend of the times will prove that hot waves for genuine democracy will rage in the base of the group.

3. The army and people of the DPRK for the present will take practical actions to cope with the confrontation racket of the group. As the group put a check bar on reconciliation and cooperation, denying dialogue and contacts, the Korean People’s Army will cut off the North-South military communication in the area along the East coast which has been maintained to provide a military guarantee for the North-South passage and close the communication liaison office in Mt. Kumgang area as the first step.

As already warned by the DPRK, it will take a physical action without any notice any time against any target to cope with the anti-DPRK psychological warfare persistently perpetrated by the group with a foolish aim. [Source: KCNA website, Pyongyang, in English 0712 gmt 30 May 2011 BBC Monitoring]

ALSO THIS JUST RELEASED: “Additionally, it confirms that the ‘peaceful nuclear program’ or peace treaty which Kim Jong Il declares to be crucial when speaking in the international arena are political strategies.”

WHAT TO MAKE OF THIS? We asked our faithful group of informed Loyal Readers, and received “on the record” responses from Joel Wit and Evans Revere, as follows:

JOEL WITT writes:

As you know Chris, I have been saying for some time now that all the talk about how President Lee will want a legacy of engagement with the DPRK is just that, talk. It’s just as likely that the legacy he wants will be the one he has built over his administration based on toughness and standing on his principles with no engagement unless the North changes its ways. Time is running out for him if he wants to change and when I was in Seoul last week, I couldn’t find anyone who thought he was going to change or, for that matter, anyone who thought his successor–whether from the GNP or the opposition–would continue his approach.

If I were the North Koreans, I wouldn’t engage him unless the price was right and Lee isn’t willing to pay their price. And anyone who thinks they are desperate and need to engage is, as I have said repeatedly over the past few years, mistaken. All the speculation about Kim’s trip to China and what he didn’t get is to me essentially not the point. He may not have been given everything he wanted, but I am sure he got a lot and there is no sign that China is going to budge him beyond where he is right now. We keep looking for rays of hope from the Chinese (i.e. all the spinning and speculation after President Hu’s visit to DC earlier this year) and they just aren’t going to appear. As we continue to fight this losing tactical battle the Chinese are winning the war, building their influence in the North and on the peninsula.

And meanwhile, North Korea may not be conducting any provocations but you can be sure they are pushing forward in building their LWR, further developing their HEU program and a number of other activities that aren’t in our interests and that are going to confront us and the region with even more serious challenges in the future.

Finally, I agree that whenever KJI says the North is willing to return to the Six Party Talks unconditionally, in and of itself such a statement isn’t near enough. But that’s not the real point.

Let me ask your readers to chime in on what would be enough if we leave aside the North-South angle for now, for the DPRK to demonstrate “seriousness” on the nuclear issue to restart negotiations? If you take a survey of recent track 2 meetings they have floated a number of ideas ranging from nuclear and missile test moratoria to selling their fresh fuel rods to giving up their HEU program in return for reactor assistance. None of these are of course sufficient to make nuclear negotiations a success but as far as I know, there has been no exploration of whether these offers (or any others they have made) are serious or not. I don’t see how this policy serves our national security interests.


Chris, feel free to note that I agree with the following views:

  • There are indications that KJI’s trip to the PRC may not have been fully successful, but it would be a mistake to misread that as suggesting there has been some sort of “break” with the Chinese. China was, is, and will continue to serve as the DPRK’s lifeline, although there are a number of prominent Chinese scholars who continue to argue that it is time for China to fundamentally reassess its ties with the DPRK.
  • The PRC may not be inclined to give the DPRK all it wants, but it is clear that Beijing is maintaining its close ties with and generally supportive approach towards its North Korean neighbor in the hope that it can persuade (through trade and aid packages) the DPRK to return to the Six-Party Talks; that it can moderate North Korean external behavior (which brought the Peninsula perilously close to military conflict last year); and as a way of expanding influence with the DPRK’s rising generation of leaders, whom the Chinese believe represent the best hope for implementing Chinese-style economic reforms. (I think the Chinese are wrong in this last judgement, but that’s a discussion we can have at another time.)
  • To some degree, the Chinese approach seems to be working, as evidenced by the lack of North Korean provocations in recent months and in the messages emanating from various levels of the North Korean system (including from KJI himself) that the North is prepared to return to bilateral and multilateral talks.
  • These messages have been accompanied by North Korean statements (conveyed through various intermediaries) offering to declare a “moratorium” on the North’s nuclear and missile programs, expressing willingness to “implement” the DPRK’s commitments made in the September 19, 2005 agreement, affirming the DPRK’s “commitment” to the “goal” of denuclearization, and to “resolve” the uranium enrichment issue.
  • I used quotes around some of the key words in the previous sentence because these are the actual words the North Koreans used, but also to convey my profound skepticism about these North Korean offers. For example, accepting a moratorium would effectively mean that we would be locking in place the gains that North Korea has made in its nuclear and missile programs since late 2008 — is that something the U.S. should do?
  • As I and others have told the North Koreans in recent encounters, the DPRK’s actions and rhetoric over the past 2 1/2 years have destroyed what little trust there ever was that the North would actually live up to its commitments. Hence the deep skepticism of the Obama Administration (which I share) about the recent “moderation” of North Korean rhetoric and its various offers.
  • Nonetheless, I continue to believe that bilateral and multilateral talks with the DPRK may be useful, including as a way of exploring whether there is any substance and credibility to the recent North Korean proposals, and as a way of conveying to the DPRK our own bottom lines — directly and without filters. Talks might offer a way to engage new actors in North Korea and might also offer an opportunity to deal directly with the one actor who really makes a difference in the DPRK and with whom we have had little or no contact in recent years, Kim Jong Il. Talks could also be used to find out what specific commitments the DPRK is prepared to make to demonstrate that it is serious about denuclearization.
  • In this connection, talks could be used to establish concrete interim steps that the DPRK would have to take to demonstrate its seriousness. (Obviously, the U.S. and others would have to undertake certain commitments, as well.) This is particularly important since so much of what we have seen and heard from the DPRK since late 2008 (including statements made in recent private conversations) suggests that it is not serious and that the North Korean game plan continues to be to buy time in order to improve its nuclear and missile capabilities and to seek eventual international acceptance of its status as a de facto nuclear weapons state.
  • Talks also don’t diminish our ability to continue to strengthen our coordination with our allies and partners in the region and to put in place the forces and capabilities necessary to defend our interests and our allies. I, for one, like the idea of using talks with Pyongyang to convey clearly and forcefully our determination in this regard. It might be a useful wake-up call for Pyongyang.

ANONYMOUS (a source who requires anonymity for now) writes:

Chris, in the old FBIS (Foreign Broadcast Information Service) days, we had a weekly publication called “Trends in Communist Propaganda.” The key word was “trends,” that is, the value of the analysis was that it rarely analyzed a single speech or commentary in isolation. Instead, the emphasis was on how themes and formulations were evolving and fit (or didn’t fit) with what had been established over time as “routine.” In the case of today’s NDC spokesman’s statement (itself an authoritative vehicle still relatively new and rarely seen), there isn’t enough yet to make any useful judgments.

How does the statement fit with Kim’s China visit, if at all? How does it fit with the fact that one of Kim’s key advisers on inter-Korean issues didn’t go with him to China? What else, if anything, have the South Koreans been up to that isn’t yet public? How much is the statement connected, if at all, to what the North heard from the US food aid delegation?

A few weeks ago Kim met with a senior Russian intelligence official (according to Russian reports, this was largely about economic ideas); when Kim was in China, according to Chinese media, he told Hu: “The DPRK has concentrated its efforts on economic construction and badly needs a stable peripheral environment.” Does the NDC statement fit this in some odd way? An effort to make it clear to both Beijing and Moscow that if they want to see things get better, go bang on Seoul’s door? Or does the statement not fit at all with Kim’s recent activities, in which case, what happened?

Of the three concrete steps listed in the NDC statement, in No. 3, only the east coast is directly noted as the area affected by KPA actions. Nothing to do with Kaesong, Panmunjom, or the West Sea. Why not? Point No. 2 appears to be looking forward to political developments in South Korea over the next year, and No. 1 invites the Blue House essentially to hold its breath and stick with the current policy until hell freezes over.

Nope, time to watch and wait…and maybe consider putting off the next propaganda balloon launching for a wee bit.

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