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What do experts make of the North Korea challenge? 5 takeaways from a Brookings event

Fred Dews

Boasting four nuclear tests during the past six years, plus scores of ballistic missile tests, Pyongyang has recently enhanced both its technical capabilities and its anti-American rhetoric. On October 10, the Center for East Asia Policy Studies and the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings hosted leading U.S. experts and former officials to share insights into the Kim Jong-un regime and to unpack possible policy solutions. Here are five key takeaways from the day’s conference.

1) KIM JONG-UN HAS GONE TO GREAT LENGTHS TO RESEMBLE HIS GRANDFATHER AND ADVANCE NORTH KOREA’S FOUNDING MYTH THAT IT FACES A WORLD OF BELLIGERENT ACTORS.

Evan Osnos, nonresident fellow with Brooking’s China Center and a foreign policy writer for The New Yorker magazine, explained that “there is nothing new about the idea that … North Korea presents a self-mythology about war and the significance of war in its narrative … but there [are] some important distinctions in the way they talk about it now.”

“These are not differences of kind so much as perhaps differences of emphasis,” Osnos said.

Osnos noted that today, only a small percentage of the North Korean population experienced the Korean War, and Kim recognizes that he must increase efforts to promote the national mythology to a younger generation of North Koreans. In this vein, he has inaugurated a “more lavish war museum,” that includes a statue of Kim Il-Sung—the North Korea’s revolutionary founder and the current leader’s grandfather—which is intended to resemble Kim Jong-Un.

2) KIM IS STRIVING TO PORTRAY HIMSELF AS A MODERN LEADER. 

Jung H. Pak, senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at Brookings, observed that, although Kim has sought to align himself with his father and grandfather, he has also distinguished himself as a more open and cosmopolitan chairman. “This is not your grandfather’s dictatorship,” she remarked, describing how Kim is “determined to be a modern leader of a modern North Korea.”

Pak called Kim “more transparent” than his father, recalling that, in April 2012, the regime publicly acknowledged a failed satellite launch—a previously unprecedented admission. She added that, unlike his predecessors, Kim “is in public with his wife, hugging, holding hands, linking arms with men, women, and children.”

Pak also pointed out the leader’s comfort “with technology … handling cell phones and laptops, and talking earnestly with nuclear scientists, and overseeing scores of missile tests.”

3) PYONGYANG’S RISING CLASS OF ELITES PRESENTS A POTENTIAL CHALLENGE FOR KIM AND AN OPPORTUNITY FOR WASHINGTON.

Audience members asked panelists about Pyongyang’s class of ultra-wealthy North Koreans—a group that Osnos estimated to be small but not insignificant. “These are the 10 percent that matter,” he explained, stating that rising expectations from this class could threaten the Kim regime.

Jean Lee, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, echoed this idea, making clear that Kim must “give [the elites] the creature comforts that they are experiencing when they travel overseas.”

She noted that “most of the Air Korea flights I took were packed with North Koreans who were traveling to China or via China … [These people] are getting exposed to the outside world,” and purchasing luxuries, such as cell phones, in the process.

Pak weighed in, suggesting that U.S. sanctions could exploit tensions between the “historical” elites, who represent descendants of revolutionaries, and the newer “monetized” elites, the so-called “money makers.”

4) PYONGYANG’S ATTITUDE TOWARD BEIJING HAS CHILLED.   

Multiple panelists cited examples of internal North Korean rhetoric that indicates a deepening wedge in the Sino-North Korean relationship. Osnos remarked that the North Koreans with whom he met in Pyongyang “regard China’s approach to North Korea as essentially treating them like a pawn in this much larger dynamic with the United States.” He added that “they are fundamentally distrustful of the idea that China has their best interests at heart … [they have said] that China treats them like the dirt between their toes.”

Author

In a later panel, Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow in Brookings’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies and the John L. Thornton China Center, reinforced this idea, asserting that “the North Koreans have openly now, in very authoritative ways, begun to talk about China as an enemy.”

5) RENEGING ON THE IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL COULD DAMAGE PROSPECTS FOR FUTURE NEGOTIATIONS WITH NORTH KOREA.

Jake Sullivan, a former national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, discussed the policy lessons he learned from his negotiations in advance of the Iran nuclear deal and how the current administration could apply those takeaways to the North Korean case. Sullivan emphasized that the preservation of the Iran nuclear deal has implications for Washington’s negotiations with its allies and Pyongyang. “If the United States makes a deal with a nuclear aspirant … and then walks away from it, it definitely directly undermines our credibility both with other nuclear aspirants … and with our negotiating partners.”

“There is no doubt in my mind,” he reiterated, “the harm [that] would accrue from walking away from the Iranian nuclear deal … on any future effort to bring about a stable negotiated solution to the North Korean nuclear question.”

The event included introductory remarks from Vice President and Director for Foreign Policy Bruce Jones, and Ryan Hass, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow. Hass moderated the panel discussion that featured Jung Pak, Evan Osnos, and Jean Lee.

Pak moderated a second panel on lessons from history that included Pollack, Sullivan, Michael Dobbs, an author and journalist, and David Cohen, a partner at Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr, LLP.

Avril Haines, former deputy national security advisor, gave a keynote presentation.

Watch the full event here: https://www.brookings.edu/events/the-path-forward-for-dealing-with-north-korea/

Miranda Lupion contributed to this post. 

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