Center Deputy Director Duyeon Kim talked about the recent unsettling news from the Korean peninsula last night with CBS News. You can watch the whole thing here. And be sure to check out her analysis on NoH here and here.
The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test- Ban Treaty (CTBT) opened for signature 14 years ago today on 24 September 1996. Signed by 185 of the UN’s 192 Member States, the Treaty is designed to constrain the research and development of nuclear weapons by banning all nuclear test explosions in all environments, indefinitely. Given the undeniable security and non-proliferation […]
Former President Jimmy Carter has departed Pyongyang to return home with missionary Aijalon Mahli Gomes who was sentenced to eight years of hard labor and fined $700,000 for illegal entry into North Korea, according to a statement released by the Carte…
August 25, 2010
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is in North Korea to secure the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a 30-year-old American missionary who was sentenced in May to eight years of hard labor and fined $700,000 for illegally entering the North. Carter met Pyongyang’s nominal leader Kim Young-nam and may even sit down with Kim Jong-il. The trip is significant because the release of an American civilian has once again brought a former U.S. president out of retirement at a time when tensions are high between Washington and Pyongyang as well as on the Korean peninsula. What’s more, it comes at a time when the Dear Leader’s health is said to be deteriorating. History has shown that the political environment tends to warm after a former U.S. president flies to the rescue. Why send Carter now and what can we expect from his trip? Click “read more.”
President Carter is no stranger to freeing hostages in North Korea. He did it in 1994, which in effect defused the first nuclear crisis by bringing the two sides to the negotiating table. He is also well-liked by North Korea and has negotiated with Kim Il-Sung, founder of the regime and Kim Jong-il’s father. Carter is also a symbol of peace and has consistently urged the U.S. to engage North Korea with dialogue regardless of circumstance.
However, Carter has been known to take matters into his own hands and he may be tempted to put his spin on U.S. foreign policy once again. In 1994, he brokered a deal to improve U.S.-North Korean relations in exchange for denuclearization, the scope of which was first brought to the Clinton administration’s attention during a CNN broadcast of Carter’s voluntary trip. Unable to reverse the work of a former president, the Clinton administration had to use Carter’s deal as the foundation of the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework.
Pyongyang may misinterpret Carter’s visit as President Obama’s willingness to move beyond the Cheonan incident and ease pressure against the North. The challenge will be to ensure that Carter does not engage in freelance diplomacy again, especially since his personal views run counter to the Obama administration’s current containment policy, although the door is open for rewarding good behavior.
The Cable reported Carter was chosen because he is not an acting U.S. official. However, Yonhap News (Korean text only) reported that Pyongyang specifically requested President Carter via an intermediary, Professor Hans Park at the University of Georgia, during his trip to North Korea trip early July.
OBJECTIVES AND OPTIONS
U.S. and South Korean officials are tight-lipped on details of Carter’s visit. What’s more, North Korea continues to be a black-box, which is why it is easy to speculate rather than offer concrete arguments based on confirmed facts. Still, some cautious observations about the potential objectives of the different actors involved can be made based on history and present circumstances:
a) U.S. – Private, Humanitarian Mission? The U.S. administration maintains that Carter’s trip is strictly “humanitarian and private,” which were the same words used when former U.S. President Bill Clinton visited North Korea to free two American journalists at a tense diplomatic time. Many North Korea watchers immediately interpreted Carter’s visit as Washington dispatching an envoy, but the State Department has denied this.
If, in fact, Carter’s trip is purely a private humanitarian mission as the U.S. claims, then prospects for a breakthrough depend on Kim Jong-il (see more on this below). It is unclear whether Kim will follow his late father’s footsteps and attempt to engineer another breakthrough in the nuclear saga.
However, the public seems to be forgetting that Gomes walked into North Korea with the intention of getting caught. The missionary was said to have been on a mission: to spread Christianity and covert North Korea. To rescue Gomes may prompt him to head right back to the North. If there are more like him with the same mission, and if this become a pattern, Pyongyang may see it as another money-making opportunity since it slaps fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
b) U.S. & South Korea – Nuanced “Exit Strategy?” Until now, the Obama administration’s rhetoric and actions have made it clear that it is willing and ready to forego dialogue on the nuclear issue until after a North Korean leadership transition. Washington will soon slap more sanctions on Pyongyang and tensions are running high with the North having fired artillery near the de facto maritime border after a joint South Korea-U.S. military exercise. However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly ordered fresh options be examined out of frustration with the current policy.
To date, Seoul has been firm that it will not participate in a resumption of the six-party talks until Pyongyang takes responsibility for torpedoing the Cheonan. However, the South Korean position may be softening. According to South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, “Strictly speaking, the sinking of the Cheonan and our punitive measures against the North, and the resumption of the six-party talks are different in nature.”
c) North Korea – Bargaining Chip? Some North Korea watchers caution that Carter’s trip will be used by Pyongyang to augment its legitimacy internally amid leadership succession uncertainties and bilateral tensions. The regime is also expected to herald the Carter visit as a diplomatic victory in the face of Washington’s tough stance towards it. This may explain why Pyongyang reportedly (Korean text only) vowed to release Gomes if Washington were to send Carter to the rescue. The trip also follows North Korea’s official media report that Gomes attempted suicide, frustrated his country was not doing more for him.
d) North Korea – Avoiding Responsibility? Pyongyang may use Carter’s visit and dangle the prospect of resuming negotiations as another way to avoid taking responsibility for sinking the Cheonan. North Korea may be receiving China’s help to do just that. Beijing has been trying to arrange another round of six-party talks, and Carter’s trip comes on the heels of Chinese nuclear envoy Wu Dawei’s visit to the North. Wu is also scheduled to visit Seoul and Tokyo this week to discuss resuming multilateral nuclear negotiations.
POSSIBLE OUTCOMES & IMPLICATIONS
How might the current impasse look after Carter’s visit? Expect one or more of the following scenarios:
a) Breakthrough? North Korea’s latest behavior suggests that chances are low for the immediate resumption of six-party talks. Against this backdrop, Carter’s visit may be seen as an opportunity for Washington and Seoul to transition from their current policy of containment to one of engagement. However, the Obama administration has held firm to its two-track policy of pressure and talks: it will only engage Pyongyang if the regime agrees to fulfill its past nuclear commitments and returns to the six-party talks. It has also supported Seoul’s position to resume nuclear dialogue after a North Korean apology for sinking the Cheonan. If Carter’s mission does lead to some sort of a breakthrough, the South Korean public will not allow the Cheonan incident to be brushed over lightly.
Kim Jong-il’s next move is anybody’s guess. But Carter’s visit may be the last time he can take matters into his own hands directly with the U.S. as his health continues to deteriorate. It may serve as a face-saving measure for Pyongyang to return to international dialogue in light of upcoming U.S. financial sanctions that could further isolate it from the global community. The trip will also provide a clue as to whether Kim has the will to take concrete steps toward denuclearization. At the least, Carter’s visit could lead to a resumption of direct Washington-Pyongyang dialogue and possibly among all six parties. Nevertheless, the mission will be meaningless for the nuclear impasse if it does not result in a shift in North Korean behavior.
b) Feeding Bad Behavior? Following President Clinton’s trip, Pyongyang initially engaged in talks with Washington but used them to make additional demands and upped its provocations. If this outcome repeats itself following Carter’s visit, then it will have served to vindicate North Korea’s unwillingness to compromise.
c) Inter-Korean Relations? It is unclear whether Gomes’ release will help thaw inter-Korean relations. The release of two American journalists after President Clinton’s visit led to the return of South Koreans, and the same result is widely hoped for this time as well. Four South Korean and three Chinese fishermen are currently being held in North Korea for allegedly crossing into the North’s exclusive economic zone. If they are released, it could serve as an opportunity for the two Koreas to resume dialogue.
– Creativity and strategic flexibility should always be explored in finding a way to break the North Korean impasse. However, the message should remain that countries must abide by certain international rules and agreements. Washington must continue to prod Pyongyang to fulfill past nuclear pledges in exchange for the other five parties upholding their end of the bargain.
– If Carter’s mission results in progress or even a breakthrough, the allies will need to carefully deal with the Cheonan attack so that it does not become a forgotten incident.
– Given Kim Jong-Il’s ailing health, contingency plans must also be made to cushion any shocks as a result of a possible collapse in the North amid a leadership succession. Seoul’s consideration of imposing a “reunification tax” signals that time may be approaching faster than expected.
Anyone following North Korean statements for the first time might be forgiven for thinking that the world came extremely close to witnessing major war several times over the past few weeks. On July 24 the DPRK foreign ministry announced it would respond to joint US-South Korean military exercises with “powerful nuclear deterrence,” saying the drills amounted to a provocation that would prompt a “retaliatory sacred war.” Days later, North Korea said it would have to “bolster its nuclear deterrent” in a “more advanced way” to cope with the increasing nuclear threat posed by the U.S. Then, in response to South Korea’s August anti-submarine exercise in the West Sea, Pyongyang threatened a “strong physical retaliation,” adding that if South Korea attacked it during the drills, it would invite a “most powerful retaliation.” This week, the North fired a volley of artillery shells into waters near South Korea and threatened to use its nuclear deterrent to show “what a real war is like” if deemed necessary. However, there has been no sign of war yet, no clear indication of a third nuclear test and no mobilization of forces north of the DMZ.
The fact that North Korea’s belligerent rhetoric is far from becoming a reality comes as no surprise. As Pyotr Razvin from the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry explains, “North Korea has been threatening to spill seas of blood and destroy imperialists and their marionettes for several decades. I think they could not have kept silent in their current position and they could not have approved of the maneuvers. They had to say something. Now what do they say? They threaten.” This is presumably why one report suggests that most young people in the ROK remain unconcerned about North Korea despite heightened tensions after the sinking of the Cheonan. Indeed, decades of threats make it relatively easy to disregard them. But is there a risk to assume that rhetoric will rarely articulate beyond words?
The ever-widening gulf in conventional military capabilities is arguably the main reason North Korea has been deterred from turning military threats into action beyond a few border skirmishes along the DMZ and NLL. However, threats and warnings in other areas do sometimes materialize. In Octtober 2006, North Korea conducted a nuclear test. In February 2009, it launched its Unha satellite launch vehicle. And in April 2009, it left the Six Party Talks after the UN Security Council condemned the satellite launch and “bolstered” its nuclear deterrent by testing another nuclear device in May.
Should we then be worried about its latest threats and warnings? It seems doubtful that Pyongyang would start a war: it would be suicidal, and its carefully-worded threats suggest otherwise. A July 24<sup>th</sup> Foreign Ministry statement says Pyongyang will “legitimately counter with powerful nuclear deterrence the largest-ever nuclear war exercises to be staged by the U.S. and the South Korean puppet forces,” which merely shows that it sees its nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Similarly, by saying “the army and people of the DPRK will start a retaliatory sacred war of their own style based on nuclear deterrent any time necessary in order to counter the U.S. imperialists and the South Korean puppet forces deliberately pushing the situation to the brink of a war,” Pyongyang appears to be saying it will use nuclear force if it is pushed into an undefined corner. Similar ‘caveats’ are present in their most recent nuclear threats, suggesting a low possibility of a North Korean nuclear attack. .
North Korea’s threat to “boost its nuclear deterrence in an advanced way,” is one potential area that could lead to some realization since similar language was used ahead of its May 2009 nuclear test. However, the question is how? A third nuclear test? Developing its HEU program? Developing a hydrogen bomb? Or merely continuing its plutonium program?
High level North Korean defector Hwang Jang Yop this week speculated that a third nuclear test might occur because Pyongyang ” believes nuclear arms are its most important defensive tool, and the country will not abandon its nuclear ambitions.” While it’s plausible the regime is also developing its highly enriched uranium program, it is arguable that this program is still in its infancy. Many experts also doubt North Korea will use hydrogen bombs, despite a recent claim to have succeeded in nuclear fusion. However, Pyongyng could be suggesting it’s nearing plutonium weaponization – an issue already under considerable debate.
North Korea’s launching of artillery shells this week following South Korea’s ant-submarine drill, while a relatively minor incident, does follow its warning to “counter the reckless naval firing projected by the group of traitors with strong physical retaliation.” While the artillery drill doesn’t quite fit the concept of a ‘strong physical retaliation,’ the international community shouldn’t completely ignore Pyongyang’s warnings. In light of the sinking of Cheonan, future warnings may be backed with more substantive acts if Pyongyang grows confident it can provoke Seoul with little fear of grave military consequences – especially since the South’s military didn’t respond to the artillery shelling in any major way.
Although reading into North Korean threats is like attempting to read tea leaves, one should not be too hasty in dismissing them entirely. It seems unlikely that Pyongyang will trigger war, but it seems to be developing its nuclear program and it may further instigate border clashes. None of this is favorable for South Korea or the region especially if it leads to escalation. North Korea would of course be less incentivized to make threats and act belligerently if it were engaging proactively with the U.S and South Korea. But the current policy of waiting for a Cheonan apology as a precursor to engagement might also take forever. What’s more, Pyongyang’s belligerency may continue and even increase in scale. John Feffer says this approach is like “putting the cart before the horse…The Nixon administration didn’t wait for the perfect moment to engage Beijing [and] as the case of detente with China demonstrates, changes take place either as part of the short-term engagement process or, more likely, somewhere down the line when the leadership can safely embrace the changes as indigenous rather than imposed by outside actors.” With little known about Kim Jong Il’s successor and talk of a potential power struggle when he dies, it seems prudent to talk to Pyongyang as soon as possible