[Prof. Chung Min Lee is dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. In this article written for the Wall Street Journal, 12 March 2012, he examines a proposal made by North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho during a closed-door “Track 2” seminar held in New York last Saturday, 10 March 2012. According to Mr. Lee, the biggest obstacles to any reform intended by fledgling DPRK leader Kim Jong Un are not Washington and Seoul, but his own party apparatchiks. –CanKor]
At the first track-two dialogue between U.S. and North Korean officials since Kim Jong Eun’s rise to power, Pyongyang hinted that a breakthrough in relations might be possible. Meeting in New York City last week, both sides discussed building trust in order to rethink geopolitics on the Korean Peninsula in the post-Kim Jong Il era.
A senior North Korean official stated that “unlike the previous generation, the new leadership [of North Korea] wants peace and will not fight with the United States.” Another North Korean official stated that “the recent agreement in Beijing with regard to plutonium cessation is irreversible” and that “we will take consistent steps to ensure its success. He added that the North’s plutonium program “97% has been disabled and if we reverse this, it would be a game changer. As long as both parties abide by the agreement, one can be assured that [plutonium] production is irreversible.”
In a political system like North Korea’s, such statements cannot be made without explicit approval from the very top. A break from the “previous generation” obviously refers to Kim Jong Il and by inference, Kim Jong Eun’s willingness to adopt his own version of a reset with Washington.
Of course, it wasn’t all sweetness and light. The North Koreans also stated that Washington must adopt a “new mindset” to move the dialogue to the next level and that bilateral talks shouldn’t be mired in sequential negotiations.
Nevertheless, a senior U.S. official welcomed such statements and responded by providing an overview of the conditions under which normalization could occur between Washington and Pyongyang. This official emphasized that if North Korea truly wants a fundamental resetting of the relationship, the new leadership in Pyongyang must take bold measures, including denuclearization and forward movement on related security issues.
If that were to happen, this official said, the U.S. together with China would be ready to provide additional security guarantees. He also conveyed to Pyongyang that “the United States has no permanent enemies” and a new relationship is possible based on key parallel steps.
The North Koreans asserted that it was high time for the U.S. to end its hostile and discriminatory policy toward the North. If Washington signed a peace treaty with the North and dropped current sanctions, then North Korea stood ready to move forward on the nuclear issue. As in the past, the North’s officials insisted that were it not for U.S. “hostility,” they would have no reason to hold on to their “nuclear deterrent.” Importantly, however, the U.S. official replied that there was no chance that the U.S. Senate would ever pass a peace treaty with North Korea without denuclearization.
North Korea under Kim Jong Eun faces daunting economic and political challenges. Most importantly, Kim Jong Eun has to make a fundamental strategic decision that exchanges nuclear dismantlement for normalized relations with the rest of the world, enacting meaningful structural economic reforms, and enabling his impoverished people to emulate what China and Vietnam have accomplished since they enacted their own “open door” policies.
While U.S. officials and experts were sympathetic to Pyongyang’s “new voice,” they also emphasized that any normalization with the North can’t come at the expense of the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance. Indeed, while the South Korean press continues to warn against Washington-Pyongyang ties at Seoul’s expense, this is a red herring.
With a $1.2 trillion economy-Asia’s fourth and the world’s 14th largest-and a more globalized foreign policy than ever before, Seoul’s policies are no longer driven primarily by its contest with Pyongyang. In all facets of the relationship, Seoul has won hands down. And although the alliance continues to be focused on deterrence and defense, it has expanded into a robust partnership that transcends peninsular issues.
So is the recent message from Pyongyang genuine? Perhaps, but as former U.S. President Ronald Reagan reminded the world as he sought to end hostilities with the Soviet Union, trust is always based on reciprocal and verifiable actions. And engaging with leaders who are willing to make history, such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping.
If Kim Jong Eun really wants to emulate Gorbachev or Deng, the main obstacle isn’t Washington or Seoul. His real challenge lies in convincing his die-hard generals and party apparatchiks in Pyongyang that under his stewardship, North Korea can embark on a “third way” that would retain its core political system but also reap the rewards of liberalization.
If Kim Jong Eun can convince his core inner circle including his generals to bargain it away, that would represent the most significant volte face in North Korean history, and the beginning of the end of the Cold War on the Korean Peninsula. If Kim goes down this path, it would be a radical departure from his father and his grandfather. That’s the deeper message that needs to be verified.