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UN Sanctions Pushing N. Korea To 'Smile Diplomacy'

Interviewee: Victor D. Cha, Senior Adviser and Korea Chair, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Associate Professor, Georgetown University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
September 3, 2009

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Victor D. Cha, who served on the National Security Council staff in the Bush administration†and was on the team negotiating with North Korea, says UN Security Council sanctions leveled against North Korea after its last nuclear test in May have largely caused Pyongyang to shift to "smile diplomacy, now, as opposed to nuclear diplomacy and ballistic missile diplomacy a few months ago." He says there are signs that North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-Il, is not as crippled as first reported months ago, but that a transition is in the works with his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his likely successor. Cha says some kind of Six-Party Talks will resume, but there will also likely be important bilateral talks between North Korea and the United States.

Several months ago, relations between the West and North Korea seemed on ice after North Korea had missile tests in April and an underground nuclear explosion in May. And now, since the visit of former U.S. President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang in early August resulting in the release of the two American journalists, there's been a series of conciliatory sounding statements and steps by the North Koreans. What's going on in North Korea?

The first thing we have to think about is what is causing the North to be more diplomatic, to be using smile diplomacy now as opposed to nuclear diplomacy and ballistic missile diplomacy a few months ago. It could be a variety of things, but if I had to point to one core causal factor, I would say it's probably the impact of the UN sanctions.

The ones that were imposed in June?

Yes, Security Council Resolution 1874. The provisions in the resolution were quite comprehensive. [They] included an arms embargo and the designation of North Korean individuals for censure, which went further than any other sanctions that the United States unilaterally, or the UN, has ever put on North Korea. I don't think people fully appreciate how important those sanctions were, and in their implementation they've been fairly effective. We saw a ship that was headed to Myanmar going back to North Korea, and days ago the UAE [United Arab Emirates] seized a clandestine North Korean arms shipment destined for Iran. So UN member states are implementing this resolution. And the North Koreans realize this and know that these sorts of sanctions are unprecedented. And for this reason, they're interested in a little bit of coming back to the table to see if they can get some of those sanctions loosened.

"This is a fundamental reform dilemma that [North Koreans] face. They need to open up to survive, but the process of opening up can lead to the collapse of the family's rule."

Now the North Koreans--most recently Kim Jong-Il himself--keep saying that they want a peace treaty with the United States. The U.S. position has always been, "Let's get rid of the nuclear issue and then we can talk about a peace treaty separately." Why do the North Koreans keep stressing the importance of a peace treaty?

In terms of the peace treaty idea, one argument for why they feel this is so important is that they're a small insecure state after the end of the Cold War. They need their nuclear weapons for security and the peace treaty would help relieve some of those security concerns. There's some truth to that argument, but at the same time, as we have found with North Korea in the past, signing a piece of paper is not going to get the North Koreans to give up all of their nuclear weapons. What they want is not so much physical security or the external security of the regime assured, because everybody knows that the United States is not going to attack North Korea. We have absolutely no interest in attacking North Korea. What they really want in terms of security is some sort of guarantee of security for the regime if they were to open up their society and give up their nuclear weapons. For a variety of reasons that kind of internal security is much harder for the United States to guarantee both politically and in terms of human rights.

Are they afraid as they open up and have more trade and outside investment in North Korea the regime will crumble from within? Do they fear a Velvet Revolution like the Iranians are afraid of?

That's exactly right. This is what I wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2002. This is a fundamental reform dilemma that they face. They need to open up to survive, but the process of opening up can lead to the collapse of the family's rule. So, they talk about a peace treaty and security but what they really want is some sort of regime assurance, and that's much harder for the United States to give. I had a research assistant actually go back and research the number of times since 1988 that a U.S. president or secretary of state or national security adviser has stated very clearly and publicly that the United States has no intention to attack or invade North Korea. She came back with fifteen single-spaced pages of citations. A peace treaty for them is just a piece of paper. It's a good rhetorical device to use to try to shift the blame to the United States. But in the end, what they want is a different form of security, which is much harder for the free world to give them.

At the time of the nuclear explosion in May, there was speculation that this was part of a plan to set the stage for Kim Jong-un to take over. And then Kim Jong-Il shows up when Clinton arrives and hosts this dinner and is making all these statements. Is he still around and kicking?

Yes. He seems to be a lot better, physically, than a lot of people thought prior the Clinton trip based on the photos that were showing up in the press. Many people feel, after the Clinton trip, that although he clearly had a stroke, he's recovered somewhat and he certainly doesn't seem to be on his deathbed. He seems to be pretty much in control of things. This doesn't mean, however, that a transition is not in preparation. The stroke was sudden and unexpected. And the leadership realized that they need to get ready. They are in the process of leadership transition but it may not be as rushed as we all thought.

Is the speculation about Kim Jong-un solid? No one's seen him recently, have they?

"One of the things that Obama has done very well is that he got everybody to see the problem as being caused by North Korea and not the United States."

The speculation appears to be that he is the one. But I don't think he would ever rule on his own. He would need a lot of help from his uncle, Chang Song-taek, who runs the secret police, and representatives from the party and from the military who really run the country. But he appears to be the one they're looking to. In internal propaganda he's now called something like the "Brilliant Comrade." Kim Il-sung was the Great Leader, and Kim Jong-Il is the Dear Leader.

These conciliatory steps towards South Korea--did that start with the high-level delegation coming to the funeral for Kim Dae-jung last month in Seoul?

The main driver of that change was the impact of the UN sanctions. If you look at the agreements that were reached by the chairman of the Hyundai Group, Hyun Jung-eun, when she was there [in North Korea] recently, they're largely restarting a couple of tourism projects. The tourism projects are a huge hard currency benefit for North Korea. And if you think about it, tourism is the best sort of hard currency source because you pay a ticket to get in, see something, and you leave. It has no broader impact on the regime but gives the leadership hard currency.

The North Koreans certainly haven't been very warm to President Barack Obama, have they?

No. And one of the things that Obama has done very well is that he got everybody to see the problem as being caused by North Korea and not the United States. By the end of the Bush administration, we were meeting North Korea in bilateral sessions all over the world. We met in Berlin, in Geneva, and we even went to Pyongyang. But at the same time there was still this very popular view that the United States refused to talk, and that the reason North Korea was doing all these things like abrogating the 2007 agreement to dismantle its nuclear program was because we weren't engaging with them. The Obama administration turned that around overnight by simply saying, "We're happy to push forward and meet with them at a high level and move forward via the Six-Party Talks." Then the North did these tests and just like that, everybody said, "Well, screw these guys," and that's how we got such a strong UN Security Council resolution.

Do you think they'll be back to the Six-Party Talks by the end of the year?

It's hard to say. There will be some semblance of Six-Party Talks, in part because this administration and the region realizes that it's the best way to hold North Korea to any agreements that it makes. But I don't deny that there will be some important bilateral discussion.

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