Is North Korea Immune from Middle Eastern Turmoil?

In an interview with a German newspaper conducted on May 8, during a visit to Germany, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said, “In the long run, North Korea would be unable to spurn the movement like the Jasmine revolution now taking place in Arab countries, even if for the time being, it may not give direct impact on its society almost cut off from outside information.” This statement, mild as it was, is notable as it is one of the first times that a South Korean leader has speculated publicly on the future of the Kim Jong-il regime in North Korea. As if to underline its isolation from the world, later that week North Korea rejected President Lee’s proposal to invite Kim Jong-il to the Nuclear Security Summit Meeting to be held in Seoul in March 2012. The rejection signifies the North’s determination to maintain its nuclear weapons program, and therefore its continued defiance of international calls for the denuclearization. The North’s isolation will deepen and the internal situation will become harsher for its people – similar in some ways to the situation in Arab Middle Eastern countries before the Arab Spring.

As Kim Jong-il has watched the wave of protests and outright rebellions against dictatorial regimes in the Middle East – and especially NATO’s military intervention in Libya – he has apparently reached two conclusions, one correct and one incorrect. The correct conclusion is that similar unrest could develop in North Korea. The incorrect conclusion is that it must retrench in order to avoid this: Pyongyang is strengthening its grip on its own people, resisting any kind of positive reform, and continuing to disregard calls to negotiate and eventually give up its nuclear program. This is a mistaken conclusion, as it will only lead to more pressure, both internal and external, and in the long run will contribute to the fall of the Kim Jong-il regime.

The Kim regime kept silent about the deepening turmoil in Arab countries until it commented on events in Libya. On March 22, while condemning NATO’s airstrikes on Gadhafi’s forces, a faceless and nameless spokesman of the North Korean foreign ministry said that Tripoli had been duped by the West into giving up its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and was now facing “an invasion tactic to disarm the country.” The North’s statement further argued that “the Libyan crisis is teaching a grave lesson” and its military-first policy with nuclear armament was “proper in a thousand ways.” This statement illustrates two crucial elements of Kim Jong-il’s thinking.

Firstly, Kim was shrewd to spin Gadhafi’s predicament as a justification of his own nuclear weapons program. However, Kim attempted to disguise the fact that the uprising against Gadhafi is not related to Libya’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons program, which took place some eight years ago. Evidently Kim’s allusion to Gadhafi’s situation implies his own deep-rooted concern over the possible impact of Arab turbulence on North Korea and his regime. Like a thief who knows he has committed crimes, Kim feels suspicious and vulnerable. So the regime’s reaction is to tighten its grip on society and maintain its nuclear program as a “deterrent” against illusory outside aggression.

 But continuing to defy the international community’s calls for denuclearization will only increase North Korea’s isolation, which in turn will cause more economic hardship for the North Korean people and increase the chances for a life-or-death rebellion by the people. This is the lesson that the Arab Spring, particularly the Libyan fate, should bring home to Kim Jong-il. Given its brutal governance, economic severity including food shortages and famine, and other hardships which have created pent-up frustration among the people, many pundits predict ensuing future challenge against the North Korean regime.

Nuclear Surrender Never in Pyongyang’s Mind

Since Kim Jong-il was hit by a stroke in August 2008, he hastened the process of installing a successor―his third son, Kim Jong-un. Suddenly preoccupied with the paramount concern of regime survival, the Kim family did not have the luxury of focusing on nuclear negotiation with the United States and others. So North Korea shunned the Six-Party Talks, which have remained dormant since December 2008. As a precondition for returning to the Talks, the North initially demanded that the UN sanctions, imposed on it for nuclear and missile tests, should be lifted. Then, earlier this year, the North began to say it would return to the Six-Party Talks unconditionally. No doubt this was merely a tactic in the charm offensive that followed North Korea’s military provocations throughout last year. For that obvious reason, the United States and South Korea have not succumbed to the North’s deceitful offensive and continued to demand an apology for the 2010 military provocations against the South.

As the Arab Spring began to unfold, North Korea had already shifted its game plan and pulled back from its transparent charm offensive. China has also shown somewhat defensive reaction to the Arab turmoil, which might have led to a second thinking with regard to its leading role on the Six-Party Talks. After holding talks with North Korea’s nuclear envoy on April 11, China reportedly came up with a new proposal, a so-called three-step approach for resuming the Six-Party Talks. The proposal puts inter-Korean talks as the first step, to be followed by U.S.-North Korean dialogue, and then leading to a resumption of the Six-Party Talks. In appearance it is a gradual approach, but simply expecting the two Koreas to begin talking (without addressing the North’s 2010 provocations) appears to be unrealistic at best, or an evasion of responsibility at worst, on the part of China as the host of the Six-Party Talks. The point must be that China has failed to rein in North Korea, which should serve as the groundwork for moving the process and enabling inter-Korean talks. China’s top priority in North Korea has always been stability, not denuclearization, and the Arab Spring may have caused China to come to the same conclusion as Kim Jong-il: that this is no time to upset the status quo, lest the Middle Eastern unrest spread to East Asia.

Nevertheless, North Korea agreed to China’s three-step proposal on the surface, but in substance it hasn’t demonstrated any “seriousness of purpose” about its denuclearization as demanded by South Korea and the United States. The North’s intransigence hasn’t changed, and its recommitment to denuclearization should not be expected, not least because it would be a stark contradiction to the March 22 statement whereby Pyongyang cited the Libya example and confirmed its determination to keep the nuclear weapons program.

The North’s ambiguous attitude about the new Chinese proposal has two sources. One is that North Korea cannot simply ignore the Chinese proposal, and must appear to be receptive. On the other hand, the North may want to dangle the prospect of resumed Six-Party Talks as a red herring to distract outside attention from its internal political and economic mess. Thus, North Korea may publicly proclaim its readiness to return to the Six-Party Talks and may even show signs of seriousness, but it will never give up its nuclear weapons program, at least in the short- to mid-term. 

Kim Jong-il Becoming Desperate in Self-Imposed Isolation

In order to arrange a smooth transfer of power to his son, especially amid the danger represented by the Arab Spring, Kim Jong-il will most probably have to make every effort to stabilize somewhat the North Korean people’s daily hardships in a dire economy. At the moment, he would have no interest whatsoever in considering the fundamental changes in both domestic and external policies that a negotiated solution through the Six-Party Talks would entail. China has made the same calculation – in fact, it was concerned about stability in North Korea over a year before the Arab Spring began, and seems to have shifted to a lower gear in its drive toward the Six-Party Talks, refraining from pressurizing the North to give up its nuclear weapons program. Some critics even argue that China has yielded its leading role in steering the six-party process to South Korea and the United States. China was understandably criticized by the rest of the world for its permissive public response to North Korea’s military provocations in 2010―the torpedo sinking of a South Korean naval corvette and artillery shelling of a small South Korean island. Chinese acquiescence to these destabilizing actions was largely perceived as protection of its ally and neighbor.

In a recent discussion on North Korean refugees, an NGO representative who is well versed in North Korean issues described the current political and economic situation inside North Korea as “beginning to fray.”  It seems very obvious that over the past several years, the North Korean economy has worsened due to the failure to reform the command economy as well as impacts from the global sanctions―both unilateral and multilateral―imposed on the North because of its nuclear defiance. According to this NGO representative, deepening economic difficulties would jeopardize the political unity that has existed among the groups of power elites, who are allegedly already pitted against one another in the struggle for their vested interests. Chronic food shortages have started to cause alienation among the rank and file of the military who are not fed enough, contrary to promises made to them.

Under the dire economic situation and rampant food shortages in North Korea, the Kim Jong-il regime is forced to beg the international community for food assistance. The begging is bitterly ironic, as North Korea has proudly spent huge sums of money to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Given this contradictory enterprise, the North Korean appeal for food assistance seems ignored by most potential donors, who feel more obliged to help genuinely poorer countries. The corollary outcome must be that North Korea runs deeper into economic hardship and poverty in its self-imposed isolation, the solution of which could be found by its opening and economic reform. On his recent visit to China, Kim Jong-il gave a clear demonstration of the fact that he is less interested in the economic reforms Chinese leaders have enthusiastically encouraged through their invitation to him to visit. Kim has rather used his China visit for bolstering his grip on power.

A Broader Strategy Seems Required

In contrast to the turbulence and tension caused by North Korean military provocations last year, the current situation on the Korean peninsula appears eerily quiet. Despite the new input of China’s three-step proposal, no significant sign has been perceived to enable forward progress in the Six-Party Talks to address North Korean nuclear problem. The notorious North Korean threat to advance its nuclear weapons program hasn’t been heard seriously but is now ignored by other concerned parties, somewhat like the boy who cried wolf. To say the least, fortunately the combined retaliatory posture of the U.S. and South Korean alliance as demonstrated by the continued joint military exercises has effectively diminished the trigger-happy attitude that the North displayed in 2010.

The Internet and social media technology have been described as key drivers and enablers of protests around the Middle East. Of course, Internet service is not available to the masses in North Korea, not to mention social media platforms, but as a Korean proverb says, “words without legs can walk 1000 miles,” the lack of modern information technology does not mean that ordinary North Koreans do not know what’s unfolding in Arab countries. In fact, recent accounts from the protesters in Tunisia and Egypt revealed that many of them learned of the protests through word of mouth in the streets rather than through modern technology. Even a small crack in a tightly controlled society could trigger the outburst of massive anger in countries like North Korea. Kim Jong-il clearly realizes the crucial task to plug even small cracks by every means possible, including restricting movement among the population to prevent word of mouth from spreading.

The features that have triggered the Arab Spring―dictatorial governance and the ensuing frustration and economic hardship of the people―are deeply rooted in North Korea. The desire to realize human beings’ fundamental freedoms does not recognize national borders, and can suddenly appear anywhere in the world, even in North Korea. Admittedly, there is a slim possibility that the Arab Spring will be transmitted to North Korea in the near future – but is a question of “when,” not “if,” especially as Kim Jong-il enacts internal policies that will only increase dissatisfaction among his people and external policies that result in increased economic isolation.

In this globalized world, no country is immune from change. North Korea, even with nuclear weapons, is not exempt from this rule. Obviously, the rebellion in Libya has nothing to do with its abandonment of the nuclear weapons program. On the day after the North Korean foreign ministry statement of March 22, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, “Where they’re at today has absolutely no connection with them renouncing their nuclear weapons program.” Gadhafi’s potential demise has undoubtedly been caused by the brutal suppression of the Libyan people and the frustration and economic hardship they suffered, not by his relinquishment of the WMD program. In that sense, North Korea’s public reaction to the Libya situation is not the right answer for sustaining its regime.

Ironically, the continued stalemate in the Six-Party Talks might cause South Korea to come up with a broader strategy that would deal with whole problems of the dangerous regime in the North, beyond the nuclear issue. Seoul, in coordination with Washington and perhaps Tokyo, may choose to increase its defensive capabilities and adopt a stronger posture toward North Korea, increasing the pressure on Pyongyang and deepening its isolation. Measures such as a strengthened ROK-U.S. alliance, a more visible deterrent capacity (perhaps including missile defense), and even more sanctions on North Korea should cause Pyongyang to re-think the cost-effectiveness of its nuclear program and enable it to finally realize that holding on to the nuclear program is a path to ruin, while negotiating them away is the only option for survival.