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Need For 'Robust' Tack on North Korea

Interviewee: Charles L. "Jack" Pritchard, President, Korea Economic Institute
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 15, 2010

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The Obama administration should develop a "more robust and total package" to address North Korea's nuclear weapons program and increase consultations with China, says Charles L. (Jack) Pritchard, co-chairman of a new CFR Independent Task Force on U.S. policy on Korea. The March 26 sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan killed forty-six South Korean sailors, and Seoul charges it was caused by a North Korean torpedo. Pritchard says it was retaliation for a clash at sea with South Korea last November in which a North Korean boat was damaged. He says the elevation of Kim Jong-Il's brother-in-law to the de facto Number 2 person in the hierarchy is meant to ease the transition of power to Kim Jong-Il's third son, Kim Jong-Un, when Kim Jong-Il, who is reported to be ailing, disappears from the scene.

The sinking of the Cheonan in the Yellow Sea in March came after the Task Force report was written. A report commissioned by South Korea blames a North Korean torpedo, an allegation North Korea denies vociferously. What do you think is going on? Why the sinking?

This sinking was a direct retaliation by the North Koreans for the most recent encounter between the North and the South in the same area. There's a history of skirmishes there because of the very delicate nature of the maritime border, which is not clearly defined. Rather than an internationally recognized maritime border, this has been an area in contention for a number of years. In 1999 and again in 2002, there were skirmishes between North and South Korean patrol boats, resulting in sinkings and loss of life. A third incident occurred on November 10, 2009. In this particular case, a North Korean patrol boat was moving into or toward what's called the Northern Limit Line. A warning shot was fired by a South Korean patrol boat, at which point the North Koreans fired directly onto the South Korean boat, which produced a sharp response in which the South Koreans inflicted a great deal of damage to the North Korean boat, killing one North Korean and wounding two or three others.

And that led to the sinking of the Cheonan?

Yes. Apparently, that incident caused the North Koreans to order a harsh retaliation, which has come in the form of this torpedo sinking the Cheonan. An investigation [was] conducted by the South Koreans involving the United States, Britain, Australia, and Sweden, which produced a report that says unambiguously that there is no other plausible explanation than that this particular torpedo, which was manufactured in North Korea, was in fact launched by a North Korean submarine.

What has been the response to this report?

The South Koreans have taken a series of steps in response. First, they cut off economic trade with North Korea, with the exception of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the North. Second, they've been in discussions with the United States to improve their intelligence gathering and anti-submarine warfare capability that will surely result in an exercise with the United States to sharpen those skills. And third, the issue has been referred to the United Nations Security Council seeking some type of condemnation and even, perhaps, a new resolution or sanctions.

Internally, the North Koreans appear to find some elements of nationalistic pride in having produced this type of retaliation, resulting in the loss of life of South Koreans.

The North Koreans have vehemently denied, both publicly and in private to the Chinese, that they've had anything to do with this. However, perhaps the best explanation is that internally, the North Koreans appear to find some elements of nationalistic pride in having produced this type of retaliation, resulting in the loss of life of South Koreans. But they used their public denial to manage relations with China, and also to whip up a nationalistic fervor that they are the underdog and they're being picked on by the international community. That's playing well internally in North Korea, and perhaps even is designed to assist and solidify the potential succession of leaders in North Korea.

The North Korean succession has also been in the news since your report was written. Kim Jong-Il's brother-in-law, Jang Song-Thaek, was appointed to a senior post, and the expectation is that Kim Jong-Il's third son, Kim Jong-Un, will succeed him. What do you hear about all that?

There's been a great deal of speculation for many years about what the North Korean succession would look like, since nothing has been put into place. The original leader in North Korea, Kim Il-Sung, publicly named his son, Kim Jong-Il, as his successor and paved the way over a twenty-year period, which culminated upon his death in 1994 in a reasonably successful and somewhat smooth transition. Kim Jong-Il, in the summer of 2008, had a health incident, which we believe to have been a stroke, that caused a great deal of anxiety within North Korea in terms of the survivability of the regime, and they have begun putting in place the mechanisms to ensure as smooth of a succession as possible. That's come in the form an apparent designation of the third son, Kim Jong- Un, who is believed to be twenty-seven-years old.

Also, Kim Jong-Il has done some things to ensure the survivability of his young son when the appropriate time comes. He put his brother-in-law on the national defense commission, the highest governing body in North Korea; they changed the constitution [and] expanded the membership. On June 7, the brother-in-law was elevated to a vice-chairman position on this national defense commission, in effect becoming the Number 2 in power. The interpretation is that should Kim Jong-Il die, or leave the scene, in the near term the mechanisms are there that the brother-in-law would exert primary power in assuring a successful transition, or at least retaining power until the younger son has established himself as the third generation to rule North Korea.

We hear information that the third son is the most like his father in terms of his potential style, and perhaps even ruthlessness. But there is not yet a clear picture of all the components that will make up this third-generation leader.

The Task Force report came out heavily in favor of trying to roll back North Korea's nuclearization. And it somewhat criticized the Obama administration for not doing very much on the North Korean front. Do the latest events have any impact on these recommendations?

Crisis Guide: The Korean PeninsulaThey don't change anything. They certainly highlight the potential for instability in North Korea. And all of that points to the vulnerability that we have with regard to controlling, containing, and eliminating North Korea's nuclear weapons program before something that is more destabilizing occurs. Assuming that there will be a regime change in the leadership, we don't know where this nuclear program would go, how well the controls are on the mechanisms. It reinforces the importance of simply not managing the situation, which this Council on Foreign Relations report suggests that the Obama administration is slightly complacent about doing. And there needs to be a far more robust and total package in trying to eliminate this threat, as we see it.

Is the administration so bogged down with other issues right now that the Korea problem becomes a lower priority? Stephen Bosworth, the ambassador for dealing with the North Korean problem, is still a dean at Tufts and is not a full time envoy like George Mitchell is in the Middle East.

The Task Force fully considered all of these things. We had an opportunity to talk with Ambassador Bosworth in our deliberation, and we much appreciated that. There's an understandable initial response by the Obama administration over the last year or so in not wanting to fall victim to some of the things that have occurred in the past, and they've been very pointed in not chasing after the North Koreans, all of which is commendable. And we recognize that there are other equally important priorities with regard to Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East. However, we think that the issue is sufficiently important and potentially as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than other situations that require a comprehensive approach, to ensure that the current situation does not get worse and that we have an active plan to bring under control and eventually eliminate the nuclear weapons program. You know, one of the things the report calls for is establishing a near-term deadline to accomplish this. The report says we ought to do all these things within five years. That may sound like a long term, but when you are dealing with North Korea and things haven't changed a great deal over a number of years, that's not so long.

The Bush administration thought they had a deal in 2007 and 2008, and it just all slipped away at the end of the term. Why didn't North Korea just finish the deal?

A couple of things occurred. First of all, what became publicly known about North Korean proliferation activities with the September 2007 Israeli raid on the Syrian nuclear reactor that was being built with the technology and assistance of North Korea--[that] should have been a very clear wakeup call which needed to be addressed at the time. That was a de facto movement across a red line for the United States, but unfortunately there were no consequences for North Korea. We can't assume that they won't in the future repeat what they did with Syria.

There are other equally important priorities with regard to Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East. However, we think that the issue is sufficiently important and potentially as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than other situations that require a comprehensive approach.

Secondly, toward the end of the Bush administration, the North Koreans assumed, probably correctly, that the Bush administration, for legacy purposes as they tried to wrap their term in office, were a bit anxious to come to closure on a deal. The North Koreans took advantage of that, and they were the recipients of some good will gestures by the Bush administration in the form of their removal from the "state sponsor of terrorism" list and the lifting of some additional sanctions. Of course, they didn't reciprocate, and that's essentially where we find ourselves two-plus years later--with no additional movement and North Koreans continuing to seek to refine their capabilities by additional attempts to launch long-range missiles and the second detonation of a nuclear device that occurred in May 2009.

Are the North Koreans planning any new nuclear tests?

Well there've been two--in October of 2006 and May of 2009--and that's two too many. One of the things we take a look at in this report is that we really do want to prioritize what's been referred to as the "nos." No export of nuclear technology, no transfer, no proliferation, no more bombs. We don't want them making any more, and we don't want them to improve the quality of their bomb-making capabilities.

Is the Task Force's feeling that the best vehicle for this is still the Six Party Talks in Beijing?

The Task Force recognizes the importance of the regional approach, for which the Six Party Talks is right now the mechanism to do that. It's extraordinarily important that we have on board a collective sense of how to go about this that involves the South Koreans, the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Russians. If you just simply abandon the Six Party Talks there's no guarantee that you'll find a different or better mechanism, but there needs to be additional things, as the report lays out.

What were the most important items in the report besides that?

One of the most important is getting prepared for the unknown, to have a contingency plan. We really do need to step up our consultation with the Chinese. The Chinese have an important role now, and they will have an even more important role in the future. We've been unsuccessful in getting the Chinese as deeply involved as we would like, and the reasons are relatively well-known with regard to the Chinese concerns about stability and causing additional problems with North Korea. Nonetheless, we have to face the reality that there very well could be a regime change in leadership, there could be further instability, there could be further provocations, all of which require a more robust and realistic involvement by the Chinese.

The Chinese have not endorsed the international report on the Cheonan and, I guess, whatever they're saying to the North Koreans they're doing in private.

Well, that's clear. Unfortunately, the Chinese missed a beat by failing to recognize early on the culpability of the North Koreans and finding a way to embrace the international investigation. What's very interesting is an example: Just in the last few days there's been an incident on the Chinese-North Korean border. A North Korean border guard shot and killed three Chinese, which the Chinese are furious about, and have called for a joint investigation, called for an apology, called for the severe punishment of the guard involved. It's too bad that the Chinese didn't feel that same degree of empathy with the South Koreans and call for the same measures by the North to resolve their dastardly attempt with Cheonan.

The North Koreans have already apologized and said they'll punish the guards.

Correct.

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