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North Korea's Transition Dilemma

Interviewee: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 27, 2012

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Less than a month since Washington and Pyongyang announced a sweeping accord for North Korea to suspend nuclear weapons activity and long-range missile launches in return for U.S. food aid, Pyongyang announced it was launching a satellite in mid-April, which the United States regards as a violation of the no-missile pledge. Scott A. Snyder, CFR's top Korea expert, says "the United States and North Korea clearly have been talking past each other, and have very different views of what North Korea is proposing to do and whether it is a legitimate action." Snyder says the satellite launch is tied up with leadership transition, and the "issue of international legitimacy and domestic political consolidation are at the crux of the choice that the North Korean leaders are having to grapple with." He predicts that a satellite launch would foment more action from the Security Council, which would in turn prompt a negative response from North Korea--potentially another nuclear test.

The two-day Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul has ended, and as most people expected, a major issue on the sidelines was North Korea's announcement on March 16 that it plans to launch a peaceful satellite. Are we in for another round of bad blood between the two sides?

The United States and North Korea clearly have been talking past each other, and have very different views of what North Korea is proposing to do and whether it is a legitimate action. The United States regards the North Korean satellite launch as the equivalent of a ballistic missile test. It sees that action as having been banned by UN Security Council Resolution 1874, [which] was passed following North Korea's 2009 nuclear test, and President Obama stated very clearly that he saw it as a provocation and as an action that will not be rewarded.

Let's go a little bit into the details of the negotiations that took place in previous months. How did this agreement, which is now in question, emerge?

There had been three sessions going back to July 2011 between U.S. and DPRK [North Korea] negotiators. The initial rounds on the U.S. side were led by Special Ambassador Steve Bosworth, and then Glyn Davies led the final round in February of this year. On the North Korean side, longtime negotiator and Vice Minister Kim Kye-gwan was leading those talks. The result of those talks were two statements issued in parallel with each other on February 29 that essentially outlined respective understandings that North Korea would forego nuclear tests and missile launches, and allow IAEA inspectors to return to Pyongyang for monitoring purposes in return for U.S. provision of food assistance.

Then what happened?

Two weeks later the North Koreans announced that they were going to conduct a satellite launch for peaceful purposes, timed in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the North Korean founder's birth, and this set off an almost immediate strong reaction from the United States, South Korea--almost all of the leading members of the international community. The Chinese response was more measured than many of the others, but essentially the launch was opposed as a violation of the Security Council resolution.

What's so terrible about a launch of a peaceful satellite?

The main concern of the international community is that the same technology that would be used to launch a satellite could also be used to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, and so further testing by North Korea of that technology would refine its capability to deliver potentially a nuclear payload.

North Korea has tried to launch satellites before, right?

That's right. The North Koreans have now conducted three attempts to launch satellites: in 1998, 2006, and in 2009, and the planned one that may take place next month.

Have these satellites been successful?

There is no North Korean satellite orbiting the earth, contrary to the claims of North Korea's official news agency.

The United States have been trying to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, right?

That's right, and the understanding of February 29 was designed as the means by which to get back to the path of denuclearization for North Korea. Obviously, if it is not possible for that understanding to be honored, then there's not a path back to a negotiation process to deal with that issue.

What do you think happened?

North Korea's fundamental dilemma at this point is that anything that they do for ostensibly domestic political reasons to consolidate their leadership appears likely to have negative ramifications for perceptions of their legitimacy internationally.

I actually think that what happened is that late last year, Kim Jong-il, then North Korea's leader, authorized both a negotiation process with the United States and plans to conduct a satellite launch, and so those decisions were made by him. But he died on December 17, and he's not there to make any further decisions about what the right course of action might be, and there's not yet any single decision-maker in place who could make a decision that might be seen as contradicting a course of action that had already been approved by Kim Jong-il.

So Kim Jong-un, his twenty-eight-year-old son who is his successor, doesn't have that kind of power yet?

There's no evidence that any consequential decisions or initiatives have yet been made by a member of the Korean leadership following Kim Jong-il's death.

So the leadership then sat down and weighed everything and decided they should go ahead with Kim Jong-il's plan?

I don't know if they actually sat down and weighed things. I think they're just doing what had already been decided. Certainly, there are institutional and bureaucratic interests that are competing within North Korea to pursue both of these options, but the current circumstance is that there's not an arbiter or a decider among those various interests.

North Korea's fundamental dilemma at this point is that anything that they do for ostensibly domestic political reasons to consolidate their leadership appears likely to have negative ramifications for perceptions of their legitimacy internationally, and likewise, any concessions that the North Koreans offer on the international stage may well not serve the interests of domestic political consolidation.

Are you suggesting that the hardliners in North Korea are trying to prevent concessions?

I'm saying that one of the justifications that the North Koreans have offered for conducting this test is related to the leadership transition, and in that sense, this is really set up as a way of showing the power of the leader, and it's likely very hard in that circumstance and probably not likely that the North Koreans are going to back down. But there will be international costs from moving forward with that particular action. The issue of legitimacy and domestic political consolidation are at the crux of the choice that the North Korean leaders are having to grapple with.

Let's say they go ahead with this satellite launch. Do you think they'll then try to return to negotiations again, or are we back to where we were prior to February?

I think 2009 offers a very clear guidebook for what's likely to happen. A North Korean satellite launch will be met with calls for debate at the UN Security Council, the adoption of some sort of statement or resolution to which the North Koreans are likely to respond very negatively. The North Koreans then may well decide that in response they want to pursue a third nuclear test. That's the way it played out three years ago.

In a U.S. election year, it's unlikely there'll be any great compromises coming out of Washington.

It's not only the U.S. election year; it's also an election year in South Korea, and there's a leadership transition in China. North Korea has been poised to take advantage of this transitional period in ways that they may perceive as allowing them to further their own interests.

How will this affect the South Korean political scene?

There are National Assembly elections in a little over two weeks, and so far it appears that the emergence of this issue actually has provided a bit of support for the ruling party that was facing some very serious losses. South Korea has presidential elections in December, but not all the candidates have been decided yet.

At the Seoul summit, President Obama was able to get Russia and China on board in criticizing North Korea in his bilateral talks on this issue.

It's not clear to me that China is aboard yet. My understanding, at least from the press reporting, is that the Chinese were surprised by the vehemence of the position that President Obama expressed, and they subsequently stated that North Korea should not pursue this launch, but it's not clear yet what the Chinese are willing to do in order to stop it.

Did Obama's visit to South Korea make an impact on that country?

The summit, in combination with the G20 from two years ago, has provided South Korea with an opportunity to raise its profile in the international community, and the fact of the matter is that President Obama wouldn't have been to South Korea three times if South Korea had not undertaken to provide a venue for these international confabs.

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Transcript

Korea Update

Speakers: Victor D. Cha, Michael A. McDevitt, and Scott A. Snyder
Presider: Calvin Sims

Experts provide an update on North Korea, including its relationships with South Korea, China, and the United States.