Dealing With North Korea Difficult Amid Possible Succession

CFR’s Scott A. Snyder says North Korea’s recent moves away from the process to end its nuclear programs could arise from new developments on leadership succession and a desire to change the terms of engagement with Washington.

April 28, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Korea expert Scott C. Snyder says that North Korea’s recent behavior indicates it feels constrained by the Six-Party Talks in Beijing, which are aimed at ending Pyongyang’s nuclear programs. He also says that North Korea’s recent launch of a missile, in defiance of a UN Security Council resolution, may be pegged to a succession process. Just as Kim Jong-Il took power after a missile shot in 1998, the North Koreans may be planning to elevate his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to succeed his father.

Some fourteen months ago, the New York Philharmonic was in Pyongyang for a concert that was televised around the world. It seemed a symbol of sorts to dramatize progress achieved between the secretive North Korean society and the outside world. But since last fall relations have gone downhill. And North Korea has now announced it is not going to go back to the Six-Party Talks. What has been going on in Pyongyang?

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The New York Philharmonic’s performance was an important symbolic event. It occurred against the backdrop of an agreement related to steps toward disablement of the North Korean nuclear facilities and an anticipated declaration that the North Koreans were to make regarding other nuclear facilities. But the implementation of the agreement as it went forward revealed bubbles of mistrust on both sides that eventually led to a breakdown and recriminations.

This mistrust started with the North Koreans turning over to the United States a lengthy dossier on its nuclear activities, right? And the United States wanted some verification which North Korea did not provide. Was that the catalyst?

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Yes, that is right. Essentially the deadline for North Korea to present a declaration originally was December 2007. That agreed-upon date passed and at the same time the New York Philharmonic went forward. The North Koreans finally gave a declaration in the summer of 2008. It is a declaration that is focused exclusively on North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor and related facilities, which have been the center of focus in terms of North Korea’s program. But the declaration did not include other sites that are known where North Korea has conducted other types of nuclear activities. So essentially the North Koreans gave what could be called a limited declaration focused on the Yongbyon site. [If you] go back and look at the agreement from February and October of 2007, I believe that the terminology used was “the correct and complete declaration” North Korea was expected to provide. The North Koreans initially agreed verbally to verification measures in a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill in October 2008; then subsequently in a bilateral meeting in Pyongyang. Subsequently, there was a meeting of the Six-Party Talks in December [2008], in which the North Koreans were not willing to codify the verbal agreement.

The North Koreans do want to solidify their position and status as a nuclear-weapon state. And so they have taken measures to try to confirm the perception that they have nuclear weapons and they are not going to easily give them away.

And at the same time, the United States was supposed to take North Korea off its list of terrorist nations, right?

Right. And in fact the Bush administration did finally do that in [October] 2008, much to the frustration of the Japanese who were seeking more rigorous verification arrangements from North Korea.

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There were reports last year of the declining health of Kim Jong-Il, the North Korean leader. It is unclear whether he is better, worse, or even whether he is still in charge. What is your reading of his health?

Yes, a variable that may or may have not affected the North Korean succession process has been the question of Kim Jong-Il’s health. It was reported that he had a stroke in August of last year. He had not appeared between August and November and then by November there were pictures of him from the North Korean news agency that couldn’t be verified externally. Finally, he did meet with a Chinese visitor, Wang Jiarui, the head of the international liaison department of the Chinese Communist Party. He went to visit Kim Jong-Il just prior to the Chinese New Year in January of this year. And so we have an indication that Kim Jong-Il might have been incapacitated for a period of time, but by this year was reasserting his authority and appearing quite vigorously in the North Korean media in public inspections from January of this year. And in fact he appeared at the recent Supreme People’s Assembly meeting. We have seen pictures of him from that meeting. He looks gaunt. He has lost weight and his gait is stiff. But he is there and he shows every sign of being in charge.

What about the succession question?

The dominant or correct interpretation of the rocket launch in April may be to tie it to North Korea’s succession.

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How does that deal with the succession?

In 1998 the North Koreans launched a Taepodong missile on the occasion of Kim Jong-Il’s coming-out, just prior to the Supreme People’s Assembly meeting where he formally and publicly took the reins of power. And at that time there was also the introduction of a new constitution. So there is speculation that perhaps this test may have also coincided with some kind of an effort to shore up and strengthen Kim Jong-Il’s position internally by suggesting that he is in power, and he has accomplished great things for the state, and possibly to also indicate the beginning of a new succession arrangement that is really in the process of unfolding. All the details are not yet fully known.

[Kim-Jong-il] looks gaunt. He has lost weight and his gait is stiff. But he is there and he shows every sign of being in charge.

Is one of his sons likely to replace him?

He has three sons. Just yesterday there was an article from the South Korean media indicating that the third son, Kim Jong-un, had taken a position as a staff member of the National Defense Commission. There has been a fair amount of speculation regarding the third or youngest son as the possible successor in recent weeks. There are two other sons. The oldest son has been living in exile since 2001 when the Japanese authorities stopped him on his way to Tokyo Disneyland. Apparently that didn’t sit well with his father and he has been living in Macao. The second son is twenty-eight or twenty-nine, a few years older than the third son. Both the second and third sons have spent some time in Swiss and Austrian boarding schools, respectively, and there are rumors that the second son has some kind of hormone disorder, so he seems to be out of the running.

Has Pyongyang been as fascinated with the Obama administration coming to power as other countries?

Just as the United States has been following the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration, it appears that North Koreans have been preoccupied with their own transition. At the same time, they have kind of pulled the rug from under the Obama administration in the sense that the Obama administration has clearly signaled a willingness to engage diplomatically with countries that were on the "Axis of Evil" in the Bush administration, but the North Koreans have found ways to put obstacles in the way of that type of engagement.

The Iranians have seemed interested in this possible dialogue. But why would the North Koreans, who seemed at one point to want direct talks with the United States and to sign a formal peace agreement on Korea---why are they shying away from it?

I don’t necessarily think that they are shying away from it but they have an odd way of showing their interest. They have got several objectives that they have been pursuing in the context of this transition and also in the context of their own transition related to their leadership position. The first is a strategic objective. The North Koreans do want to solidify their position and status as a nuclear weapon state. And so they have taken measures to try to confirm the perception that they have nuclear weapons and they are not going to easily give them away. They have signaled that clearly in some of their foreign ministry statements. For instance, just prior to the inauguration of the Obama administration, the North Korean foreign ministry came out with a statement that essentially challenged the idea that there should be a linkage between North Korean denuclearization and U.S. normalization.

They instead stated that normalization is something that should occur quite separate from denuclearization. And of course, the basis for the prior negotiations in the Six-Party Talks was really that linkage, so the North Koreans have had this objective strategically of trying to lock themselves in as a nuclear state. At the same time they are interested in bilateral talks with United States. They are interested in normalization but the model that they have in mind is really--back in 2007 they referred to it as "we want to be like India"--they want the Indian model.

After the North Koreans said they were not going to go back to the Six-Party Talks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States wouldn’t yield to this blackmail. This is embarrassing to China I would expect.

The Chinese have tried very hard to avoid repeating the situation they found themselves in 2006 when they were embarrassed and they lost a lot of leverage after the North Korean nuclear test. So this time the Chinese have essentially focused on just trying to keep all the parties from overreacting. But the North Koreans have taken actions which show that they are essentially taking the Chinese for granted. They are certainly taking Chinese economic support for granted.

The Obama administration did appoint a special representative, Stephen Bosworth, as a part-time negotiator but nothing has really happened since he has been appointed, right?

As the Obama administration’s approach to North Korea has unfolded, there are three themes that one can see. And there are a few contradictions that are going to be needed to be worked out. On the one hand, the Obama administration has committed itself to the Six-Party process, but the North Koreans are really busting that commitment. Secondly, this issue of a part-time arrangement for Ambassador Bosworth could be interpreted in the region as evidence of a lesser commitment by the United States to address this issue. The third [theme] is related to the way the administration has approached Iran versus the way that the administration has approached North Korea. I am sure the North Koreans, when they saw the transcript of President Obama’s New Year’s greeting to Iran, were wondering what happened to their greeting on their Lunar New Year.

Is the issue of proliferation first or is it diplomacy first? What is the relationship between those two? I don’t think the relationship has been articulated in a clear way as it relates to North Korea yet. You know all of those contradictions are really evidence that the administration understandably has other priorities. The North Koreans have tried to push themselves up on the priority list. They have tried to test the Obama administration. Secretary Clinton’s statement suggests an awareness of this testing and a desire to resist allowing the North Koreans to set the terms.


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