The Only Country That Matters for North Korea is the U.S.

 Paul D. Shinkman
  26th-Jun-2018

Over the weekend at a rally in Las Vegas, President Donald Trump claimed to have a great relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un following their summit in Singapore. Their meeting earlier in June focused global attention on the Korean Peninsula and whether Kim will follow through on his promise to take steps to denuclearize his country.

What does the outside pressure look like to North Koreans? And in what countries does Kim appear poised to seek help?

U.S. News recently spoke to Chun Yungwoo, the former South Korean national security adviser, on the sidelines of the Center for a New American Security's annual conference in Washington, D.C. The career diplomat who served under then-President Lee Myung-bak from 2010 to 2013 now leads the Seoul-based Korean Peninsula Future Forum, and offered a unique perspective on the international crisis from within the Korean Peninsula.

What are some of the things you believe people get wrong or don't quite understand about what is happening on the Korean Peninsula?

Generally, the value Kim Jong Un attaches to economic development is underestimated. His policy goal is "byungjin": both nuclear armament and economic development. He's thinking in terms of 40 years, 50 years from now, where he will be. Nuclear weapons are useful in holding on to power for five years or 10 years, but that's not enough if he's going to be in a stable position. He needs economic development.

So now that he's finished nuclear armament, he's really serious on moving to economic development. And that's why I would give him the benefit of the doubt, regardless of the semantics of complete denuclearization. It doesn't really matter. He knows that economic development is impossible without a deal on the nuclear front. That's where his shift comes from.

We hear frequently that the Kim Jong Un administration will do nothing before it feels assured of the survival of its regime. Is that a misguided approach, do you think?

As a matter of preference, yes, since Kim Jong Un doesn't have any trust and no one has trust in him, either. There's a lack of trust, there's no doubt about that.

So when you don't have trust, you're not going to deliver your end of the deal until you pocket what you have to receive. But I don't think he will wait until he will receive all the things that he needs.

So I think basically it will be a reciprocal movement, action for action: No "credit transaction" is possible. Only "cash transactions" are possible.

Are there specific things Kim Jong Un is waiting for before he would consider moving on a particular policy?

I think the U.S. suspension of military exercises – even though it was characterized in a wrong way in substance by President Donald Trump – was a big front-loading of what Kim Jong Un wants, as was Trump's indication of willingness to withdraw U.S. troops from Korea.

This willingness to deliver what Kim Jong Un wants – I think that was too much too early. But I think that will be helpful in reducing the level of his mistrust. As a primer I think the suspension of joint exercises was enough.

So there will be reciprocal steps, and because if Kim Jong Un waits until he pockets a peace treaty, sanctions relief, it will never come. So he will have to move in parallel.

What countries in the region are most influential in this prospective peace process?

No country in Asia is. It's the U.S. alone.

The only country that matters for North Korea is the U.S. because without the U.S. hostile policy, Kim Jong Un and North Korean leaders think that they can prosper. So the only thing that matters for them, that stands in the way of their prosperity and regime security, is U.S. hostile policy.

China doesn't count in their mind, and they don't want China to be a party to the peace treaty because that will open the door for China to meddle in the future, for shaping the future of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea doesn't want that.

North Korea has been the most outspoken opponent against China's participation in the peace treaty. The U.S. and South Korea can live with that, but North Korea, they want China's handouts, they want China's economic assistance. They want sanctions relief, but they don't want China's influence in North Korea.

They had some bad experiences before, a long history of mistrust. They don't trust China as much as the Western world believes. They don't communicate. This is only a recent phenomenon – to strengthen Kim Jong Un's negotiating leverage with the U.S. he pretends to communicate very well with Chinese President Xi Jinping. But in his mind, I think he still has very strong concerns about China's willingness to interfere in North Korea. He doesn't want to be dictated to by China. He believes he can make the best decisions for North Korea, and doesn't need any advice from China.

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