US experts debate Obama’s DPRK policy options

[Now that the volume of international outrage following the 12 February detonation of the DPRK’s third nuclear test has faded, the international community is waiting to see whether the Obama administration has any new ideas on how to meet this challenge. As always, Washington-based Chris Nelson takes the pulse of the American policy community, challenging his “Loyal Readers”, i.e. North Korea experts, to comment. The following is taken from the 19 February 2013 edition of The Nelson Report, with kind permission by the author. –CanKor.]


White_HouseRepeated here is the message from a senior informed source we ran in Friday’s Nelson Report (2/15), so you can make sense of the consequent Loyal Reader comments which follow:

The Obama Administration has never had an ideological problem with talking to the North Koreans – directly or multilaterally — and has been pushing without success since early 2009 for authentic and credible negotiations. The problem has been North Korea’s unwillingness to negotiate over its nuclear program, let alone to provide anyone with reason to believe that it will abide by any commitment it makes.

The purpose of the Feb 29 understanding last year was to put in place a moratorium that would open the door to negotiations — but the North immediately blew that up. So: Read the rest of this entry »

Much ado about style over substance: Kim Jong Un’s New Year

Continuing the theme of channeling his grandfather’s charisma by reversing his father’s aloofness, the young DPRK leader Kim Jong Un read his first major policy speech on New Year’s day. During his 19-year reign, “dear leader” Kim Jong Il (Jong Un’s father) substituted the traditional New Year’s pronouncements of “great leader” Kim Il Sung (Jong Un’s grandfather) with a “joint New Year’s editorial” published by the official newspapers of the Korean Worker’s Party, the Korean People’s Army and the Party’s youth wing.

Kim Jong Un delivers 2013 New Year message (Photo by KCNA)

The young Kim Jong Un appeared before television cameras to read the lengthy speech, which will be the subject of intensive study within North Korea. But as can be seen by a sampling of “expert” opinions, this annual summary of DPRK policies is also carefully dissected by DPRK-watchers the world over.

The full text of the speech (courtesy the Korean Central News Agency KCNA) can be read at the following link: New Year Address Made by Kim Jong Un.

To see the young leader reading the text (with the voice of an interpreter in English) please watch the video at the bottom of this article.

Here follow some early commentaries about the significance of this speech by a number of (mostly American) experts as assembled by Chris Nelson taken from the 2 January 2013 Nelson Report:  Read the rest of this entry »

Secret US-DPRK Talks? Chris Nelson Deciphers Recent White House Comments

[A number of statements by US Administration officials in recent weeks have some experts wondering whether there are secret US-DPRK talks happening through back channels and what might be the contents of such talks. In the 24 May 2012 edition of the Nelson Report, Chris Nelson ponders the significance of comments by Ben Rhodes, US deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, as reported by Yonhap news agency. We reprint the Yonhap story below, followed by Chris Nelson’s commentary, with kind permission of the author. –CanKor]


That other major “war and peace” problem, N. Korea, also may be the subject of renewed discussions, at least… it seems very premature to talk about “negotiations”. We confirmed in Tuesday’s Report S. Korean and VOA accounts of a “secret” Administration mission to Pyongyang at the end of April, just prior to the failed ICBM/satellite launch.

(For current coverage in the ROK, see “U.S. Officials in Secret Visit to N. Korea Before Rocket Launch” in the English version of Chosun Ilbo.)

Yesterday, an official White House briefing, and then in Tokyo, State Dept. Special Envoy Glyn Davies, who was not on the mission, can be argued to have indirectly confirmed both the trip, and the purpose we had speculated in last night’s Report… that is, interest on both sides in trying to walk the situation back to the 2/29 agreement, including US food aid as a buy-in for resurrecting the agreement to freeze nuclear weapons and missile tests. Read the rest of this entry »

NK Blows Off Leap Day Deal With Missile Ploy, by Chris Nelson

Test firing of an Unha-2 missile (photo by KCNA)

[Chris Nelson of the Nelson Report gathered a number of reactions from North Korea experts on what seems to be an about-face by the DPRK on an agreement made 29 February 2012 for a moratorium on missile tests. What exactly happened here? There are a number of theories with disturbing implications. Has the young Kim Jong Un just made his first mistake in international relations? Is this the result of two factions in the ruling elite working at cross-purposes? Was the fledgling leader unclear that a satellite launch bears a striking resemblance to a ballistic missile test? What will this mean for US AID food assistance deal. If the food part of the Leap Day deal is scuttled as a result of the satellite launch announcement, can the US Administration continue to claim that humanitarian assistance is unrelated to strategic and military issues? These and other questions are mulled over by a group of Chris Nelson’s “loyal readers” in Friday’s Nelson Report (16 March 2012), reprinted here by permission. –CanKor]

In barely 24 hours, the situation with N. Korea has gone from skeptical but hopeful to downright furious…and deeply worried a crisis confrontation is coming soon.

The Obama Administration denounced the move as “highly provocative…in direct violation of UN Security Council Resolutions…poses a threat to regional security and would also be inconsistent with North Korea’s recent undertaking to refrain from long-range missile launches.”

The sense of crisis deepened as informed sources learned of the “back story” leading up to Pyongyang’s declaration last night it planned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung’s birth with a satellite launch on April 15…a missile launch in clear, explicit violation of existing UN resolutions supported by China and the other 6 Party Talks participants. Read the rest of this entry »

Chris Nelson Takes Issue With Andrew Natsios’ OpEd in the Washington Post

[Under the heading “The North Korea Nuke/Food Conundrum” Chris Nelson critiques an OpEd entitled “Stop feeding North Korea’s nuclear ambition” by Andrew Natsios that appeared in the 8 March edition of The Washington Post. Andrew Natsios is currently a professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. He was administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) from May 2001 through December 2005. He is the author of the 2001 book entitled “The Great North Korean Famine”. The following critique is taken from the 9 March 2012 edition of The Nelson Report, with kind permission by the author. –CanKor.]

US-AID food aid at a Kindergarten in Popdong, DPRK (photo by Erich Weingartner)

Another terrible, conflicting example for the international community is food aid to N. Korea, currently being negotiated as part of a larger US effort to regain some negotiating leverage with Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon, missile and proliferation threats far beyond the confines of the DPRK.

W. Bush’s AID Administrator, Andrew Natsios, has an OpEd in the Washington Post this morning which illuminates the risks of fatuousness “goo-goo” demands for “humanitarian assistance” from regimes which are the embodiment of inhumane governance…although he takes a while to wander through a thicket of his own mistaken assertions.

We’re going to indulge in a fairly extensive deconstruction of his discussion, as it manages to illuminate, even when wrong, key dilemmas inherent to deciding “what is the right thing to do?” when dealing with difficult regimes, especially regimes which can fight back. Read the rest of this entry »

US-NK Talks: No Expectations, No Breakthroughs, by Chris Nelson

[The following is taken from three editions of The Nelson Report, with kind permission by the author. –CanKor.]

22 February 2012: Day 1 US-NK Talks… No Expectations

US special envoy Glyn Davies (L) speaks to the media after the first day of bilateral talks with DPRK in Beijing on 23 February 2012. (Photo by Mark RALSTON, AFP/Getty Images)

Coincidence, but predictable… both Iranian and N. Korean nuclear ambitions are on the table now, the former with potentially dire consequences for failure, the latter, frankly, expected to be just more of the same.

US-N. Korea “exploratory” talks are now underway in Beijing, and preliminary conversation with Administration sources makes clear there has been no advance indication from Pyongyang that the situation is back to its potentially positive elements just prior to Kim Jong-il’s death…much less ready to pick up and move forward:

“Chris, there’s a reason these talks are called ‘exploratory’, and it’s because we just don’t know whether the North is ready to take real steps in the direction of denuclearization, better relations with neighbors, and all of the humanitarian/ human rights issues we care about. Not pessimistic or optimistic, just realistic…”

You will recall that the weekend before Kim’s demise, a US announcement was expected the following Monday of “nutritional assistance” in return for some movement on nuclear issues, to be followed at the end of the week by Special Envoys Glyn Davies and Ford Hart to Beijing, to test the 6 Party Talks waters. That meeting has just begun, and upon arrival, Davies told the press that resuming the 6PT is really up to the North, adding that he, personally, wants “to talk about the future, not about the past”. Read the rest of this entry »

Known Unknowns by Chris Nelson

[The following is taken from the 3 January 2012 edition of The Nelson Report, with kind permission by the author. –CanKor.]

The funeral parade is now over, and the official titles, as of this weekend, are all now awarded…and all to the Boy General, every single one, from the looks of it…and China has hastened to declare its fealty. (…)

So…is this really real? There’s no conceivable way to tell for the time being, and perhaps not for months, given the deliberate opacity of the ruling elite in Pyongyang, so we urge caution in reading any quotes from experts using flatly declarative verbs, adverbs and adjectives. (…)

With the above cautions in mind, here’s “known unknowns” we keep on our List:

  • Will the new Leadership in Pyongyang continue the tentative outreach to the US which seemed to have advanced to the point of imminent announcement of a food for strategic concessions deal, a “first” in such overt linkage by the US…only to be put “on hold” by the sudden demise of Kim Jong-il?
  • Similarly, will the new Leadership continue the positive back-channel contacts which were poised to produce a US announcement that special envoys Glyn Davies and Ford Hart would be dispatched to Beijing with an eye toward whether a new round of 6 Party Talks could be launched in the next few weeks or months? Read the rest of this entry »

Kim Jong Il Dies…now what? by Chris Nelson

[The following is taken from the 19 December 2011 edition of The Nelson Report, with kind permission by the author. –CanKor.]

The body of DPRK leader Kim Jong-il lies in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace (Photo Reuters)

Our personal take is that uncertainty, and N. Korea, unfortunately always belong in the same sentence.

The Obama Administration must focus on two immediate problems: first, the obvious strategic risks created by the uncertainties… until it’s known if designated successor Kim Jong-on will be accepted by the power elites… the US, the ROK, Japan and China need to be ready for almost anything, so they need to be talking with each other;

Second, the Administration faces the problem of putting on hold, pending clarification of the obvious questions, what had increasingly started to look like a possible resumption of bilateral negotiations as a lead-in to possible resumption of the 6 Party nuclear talks.

It HAD been planned today to announce a massive food aid deal explicitly linked to nuclear/6PT issues, not humanitarian, so look to see if that goes ahead. The explicit strategic link to food, long overdue, is significant and bears scrutiny, if it takes place, since it heralds apparent White House acceptance of the link between weapons-related promises and benefits which it had been firmly resisting to this point, based on the DPRK’s record since the Bush Administration (Syria, HEU, nuke tests, Cheonan, etc.). Read the rest of this entry »

US-NK Talks constructive, but… by Chris Nelson

[The following is taken from the 17 October 2011 edition of The Nelson Report, with kind permission by Chris Nelson. An update by Chris was added to the bottom on 26 October. –CanKor.]

US special envoy Stephen Bosworth in Pyongyang (Photo: Reuters 2009)

US sources confirm Special Envoy Steve Bosworth will meet with his N. Korean counterpart next week in Geneva, Oct. 24-25, as a follow-up to last week’s State Visit by S. Korean president Lee Myung-bak, and consultations with President Obama and his foreign policy advisors at the NSC and State.

No official announcement from the Administration as yet, but sources here say they’ve been privately informed of the plans for Bosworth to explore the DPRK’s readiness to resume the 6 Party talks under conditions laid down by both Washington and Seoul which, some observers predict, will be partially met….thus throwing the ball back into to the US/ROK court on whether to proceed. Read the rest of this entry »

US Admiral Mullen on DPRK stability threat by Chris Nelson

[The following commentary is taken from the 14 July 2011 edition of the Nelson Report, with permission of the author. –CanKor.]

Out there in the real world, at least the version known as Asia, Adm. Mullen wrapped up his very interesting four days in China with a visit to ally S. Korea, and jumped right into the domestic ROK debate over N. Korea…saying the Kim Jong-il/Kim Jong-un succession process helped prompt last year’s DPRK sinking of the Cheonan.

U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left, speaks to incoming commander of combined U.S.-South Korea forces, U.S. Army Gen. James D. Thurman during a change-of-command ceremony for the United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command, and United States Forces Korea at a U.S. military base in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, 14 July 2011. (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)

U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left, speaks to incoming commander of combined U.S.-South Korea forces, U.S. Army Gen. James D. Thurman (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)

Warming to a theme he’s been stressing to China since last December, Mullen spoke about “the whole provocation cycle” facing S. Korea, warning that the “threat remains very real” as the DPRK continues to improve its nuclear weapon capabilities, adding “I’m not convinced they won’t provoke again. I’ve said for a long time that the only thing predictable about N. Korea is their unpredictability”.

His conclusion: “We have a sense of urgency to essentially work on planning to deter the North from further provocations. Whether they will be deterred or not, that’s to be seen.”

So what’s Mullen up to here? Read the rest of this entry »

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