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Working Out a Strategy on North Korea

Interviewee: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 12, 2011

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South Korean President Lee Myung-bak will visit Washington (RTTNews) this week ahead of a vote on a U.S.-South Korean Free Trade Agreement. The visit will feature an October 13 meeting with President Barack Obama and a speech by Lee to the U.S. Congress after the expected passage of the FTA. Lee and Obama will likely discuss how to "coordinate strategies toward North Korea," says CFR Korea expert Scott A. Snyder. The United States wants to see North Korea take "preliminary steps" to show its commitment to denuclearization before Six Party Talks are resumed, says Snyder. Relations between the United States and South Korea are at a "high point," he notes, and tensions between the two Koreas have cooled since last year's North Korean sinking of a South Korean frigate and its shelling of a South Korean island.

What other issues besides the trade agreement are on the agenda?

Both presidents will return to how to effectively coordinate strategies toward North Korea. Both governments have been on the same page in focusing on denuclearization [of North Korea] as a priority. In recent weeks and months, there has been the beginning of an effort to reengage in diplomacy with North Korea; the two presidents will want to affirm that their respective approaches are well-coordinated as they continue to talk to North Korea about coming back to the table on denuclearization issues.

The Bush administration had rather vigorous involvement in the Six Party Talks, but a deal never came to fruition. Obama was greeted by a nuclear test a few months into office. There really hasn't been too much contact, has there, between this administration and North Korea?

No. The North Koreans set the tone for the Obama administration with their early challenge: the nuclear test and the missile launch (NYT) that occurred within months of Obama's inauguration. Since that time, the administration has described its policy as one of strategic patience. They have talked about getting back to the negotiating table at Six Party Talks. But they also have insisted that North Korea take preliminary steps to show its commitment to denuclearization as an agenda item for those talks, and the North has been quite reluctant to take such steps.

What kind of steps?

The main one is the administration wants to know that the North Koreans are willing to move forward on denuclearization. Specifically, they're looking for the shutdown of a uranium-enrichment program that is being developed inside North Korea, and a North Korean commitment not to engage in future nuclear or missile tests as an indication of North Korean seriousness about denuclearization.

They want these statements and actions before another round of Six Party Talks?

That's right. The discussion that has occurred so far has really been about what actions North Korea could take to restore the basis for pursuing those Six Party Talks.

North Korea's position is that they're willing to come back to Six Party Talks without preconditions. Many people view that as a wonderful way for North Korea to pocket the progress that they have made in terms of establishing itself as a nuclear power while pushing off the objective of denuclearization.

What is North Korea's public position?

North Korea's position is that they're willing to come back to Six Party Talks without preconditions. Many people view that as a wonderful way for North Korea to pocket the progress that they have made in terms of establishing itself as a nuclear power, or as a nuclear-capable state while pushing off the objective of denuclearization.

So there's a great amount of cynicism or skepticism in the disarmament community about North Korean intentions?

It's safe to say that, based on the prior experiences of negotiating with the North Koreans in the 1990s and in the Bush administration. The North Koreans haven't stood by what they have agreed to in the past, and as a result there is real skepticism that North Korea would perform according to their commitments in any future negotiation.

There seem to be conflicting stories about the food situation in North Korea. I've seen reports of tremendous famine (Guardian) because of bad weather over the summer. But I've also seen reports saying it's not as bad (Yonhap) as some people say.

Some North Koreans are desperate for food. The most recent direct reporting that has occurred regarding North Korea's food situation has been via a group of U.S. NGOs who went to the north to deliver flood-relief supplies last month. And they came back with reports that conditions are deteriorating in the areas that they visited. The U.S. government also made a visit last May, but it has not come to a final determination about whether to give food aid to the North.

Who made the visit?

It was Robert King, the special envoy for North Korean human rights, who led that delegation back in May. But there has not been a decision. Another related development is that South Korea offered to give flood relief, but so far the North Koreans haven't taken the South Korean government up on that offer.

Last year there was a sinking of a South Korean ship, the Cheonan, and a North Korean shelling of the South Korean island Yeonpyeong. Are tensions between the Koreas still very high?

This year, the North Koreans have been focusing more on trying to renew dialogue. Thus far, the provocative actions that we saw from last year have not been repeated. We know the Chinese have weighed in to a certain extent. We know that the United States and South Korea have strengthened their commitments to deterrence against North Korean provocations. All these factors probably play into a calmer situation this year. In addition, the North is preparing for the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of its founder, Kim Il-sung, in April of next year. So the primary attention internally in North Korea appears to be toward preparations for that celebration. Then also there's the leadership consolidation process going on, designed to support the announced succession of leadership from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un.

Do we know anything more about Kim Jong-un (Third Age)? He has been touted as the successor to his father, Kim Il-jung. What has he been doing in the past year?

We know that he has accompanied his father on inspection tours. And there have been reports of shifts in personnel in North Korea, in particular generational shifts that could be connected to building support for the leadership-succession process.

Any guess about what kind of leader he would be?

The priority for the regime and for the family is to maintain its grip on power, and that, to a certain extent, limits options, because reform would carry with it risk. At the same time, it's clear that the current situation as it exists in North Korea cannot be sustained. So any next-generation leader in North Korea is likely to have to face that contradiction squarely.

How are current relations between South Korea and the United States?

This is a high point in the U.S.-South Korea relationship, and it is buttressed by the fact that President Lee and President Obama appear to have very good personal chemistry with each other. It raises the question going forward of what can be done to try to strengthen the institutional underpinnings of the relationship so as to sustain the goodwill and level of common interest that appears to have been built in recent years.

What explains the good relations, since until now the Free Trade Act has floundered?

First, there's a convergence of interest, especially under the Lee administration. The core of that has been that the United States and South Korea have been in lockstep in their approach to North Korea. A second factor has been that under Lee Myung-bak, South Korea has been more active in addressing global issues. South Korea has pursued this set of opportunities globally in ways that converge with and reinforce U.S. interests. For instance, we saw South Korea host the G20 and work very closely with the United States last year to address global financial issues. We've seen South Korea contribute a reconstruction team in Afghanistan. We see South Korea selected as the host for next March's nuclear security summit, which is a signature Obama administration initiative.

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