Challenges to Korean unification

Sokeel Park, the Seoul-based director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea (LINK), a defector assistance group, said for many refugees, “transitioning from North Korea to South Korea, especially if you’re from a provincial town in North Korea, is like coming out of a time machine into the future.”

Many North Korean defectors struggle to get employment and adapt to life in South Korea. If integrating North Koreans into South Korean society one at a time is hard, the task of full reunification seems next to impossible.

“We really haven’t had this debate on a formal level for years …What happens in terms of unification?” said Wol-san Liem, director of Korean Peninsula affairs at the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU). She said some are now talking about a potential two state system — “separate but equal countries with good relations” — that would once have been unthinkable.

“For a lot of young South Koreans, the idea that we are one with the North Korean people is becoming a kind of ancient fiction or myth,” said Park. Most are “basically happy living separate” and unwilling to face the huge costs of reunifying with North Korea.

Economically disadvantaged North Korea, cut off from the world by decades of sanctions, would always be the weaker partner to the South, and there are fears this could lead to South Korean corporations and private interests running roughshod over their northern neighbor. A sudden flood of cheap labor could negatively effect South Korea too, driving down wages and allowing employers to cut benefits.

Estimates of the cost of reunification to South Korea range from around $500 billion to several trillion dollars, and putting even that specific a price on it is difficult, given the impossibility of guessing how the process would play out.

[CNN]

North Korean defectors say unification requires closing a huge cultural chasm

When Ken Eom first arrived in South Korea, he had to get used to hearing a lot of stupid questions. “Is there alcohol in North Korea?” people would ask the former North Korean soldier, who defected in 2010, aged 29. “If people were so malnourished, and couldn’t get rice, why didn’t they just eat ramen?”

The experience was alienating. It was “like they thought I was from an Amazon tribe,” he told CNN.

Now, a historic meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in has brought the Peninsula closer together than it has been in years. While many South Koreans welcome warming ties between the two countries, deep suspicion of Pyongyang’s intentions and hostility to the Kim regime remains, not least among the small but substantial community of defectors living in the South.

The chasm Eom feels with his southern compatriots, almost nine years after making his hazardous journey, shows that the matter of unification, and what it means for people on both sides of a border far stronger and less permeable than the Berlin Wall ever was, remains unclear.

Travis Jeppesen, a longtime North Korea watcher, said “(There needs to be) an acknowledgment of the vast differences that have emerged in the two societies since the division began in 1945…” he said.

[CNN]

Kim Jong Un’s latest play for peace actually a declaration

North Korea’s recent promise to halt nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests looks like an overture for peace, but a careful reading reveals that it could indicate Kim Jong Un is ready for nuclear war.

“This is very good news for North Korea and the World – big progress!” President Donald Trump tweeted of the announcement.

But look at Kim’s stated reason for pausing tests. North Korean media quoted Kim as saying: “No nuclear test and intermediate-range and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire are necessary for the DPRK now, given that the work for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets was finished…the development of delivery and strike means was also made.”

Basically, Kim says North Korea has stopped testing because it’s done testing.

While North Korea has never fired an ICBM at range, and only fired its Hwasong-15 ICBM twice, Hanham and other experts think it’s already achieved sufficient capability to threaten the US.

On the issue of nuclear testing, Robert Manning, a North Korea expert at the Atlantic Council, told Business Insider there’s a “fair amount of evidence” that suggests if they tried to test another nuclear device in the same location, they would destroy the entire site and possibly collapse a mountain. According to Manning, Kim is “making a virtue of necessity and hoping we’re stupid enough to think it’s a concession.”

Of the upcoming Trump-Kim talks: “I think the fear among a lot of Korea watchers is when you have a summit between two leaders, if things do not go well, there’s little to fall back on,” Jung Pak, a senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, told MSNBC on Saturday.

So while Trump and much of the world cheer North Korea’s decision to stop testing while talks are going on, something that almost certainly does help the peace process, it’s important to remember what Kim’s nuclear weapons mean to him.

[Business Insider]

North Korea suspends nuclear missile testing, aims to focus on economic development

North Korea says its quest for nuclear weapons is “complete” and it “no longer needs” to test its weapons capability, a significant development ahead of diplomatic engagement with South Korea and the United States.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said Saturday that “under the proven condition of complete nuclear weapons, we no longer need any nuclear tests, mid-range and intercontinental ballistic rocket tests, and that the nuclear test site in northern area has also completed its mission,” as quoted by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA.

The announcement appears to signify a remarkable change in policy for Kim, following a relentless pursuit of nuclear and ballistic weapons as a means to ensure his regime’s survival — although some analysts remain skeptical, pointing out that Kim hasn’t tested a missile since November.

The news comes six days before a meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a precursor to a much-anticipated planned encounter between Kim and President Donald Trump expected to take place in late May or early June.

Vipin Narang, an associate political science professor and nuclear proliferation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said, “The aim of this, in my view, is to make it exceedingly difficult for Trump to say the North is uninterested in talks and walk away,” he said. “Kim is doing everything he can now – in a reversible way, mind you – to ensure the summit happens.

Kim stressed at the party meeting his desire to shift the national focus to improving the country’s economy, which has been hit hard by international sanctions and the “maximum pressure” strategy pushed by Trump.

[CNN/India Express]

North Korea drops withdrawal of US forces as condition of denuclearization

North Korea has dropped its long-held demand that the United States withdraw forces from South Korea in exchange for denuclearization, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Thursday.

“North Korea has expressed willingness to give up its nuclear program without making (a) demand that the (US Forces Korea) forces withdraw from the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said in a meeting with the press, adding that any proposed troop withdrawal would be a “condition that the US cannot accept.”

The concession comes as President Donald Trump insisted Wednesday he’d be willing to leave a highly anticipated summit meeting with Kim Jong-un should it fall short of his expectations.

In a similar vein, Kim signaled in March that he would not oppose joint US-South Korean military exercises. The annual war games have been a sore point for the North Korean leader, who sees them as a direct provocation to his country’s security. US military leaders have refused to put the drills on the table as a negotiating chip.

The South Korean leader, President Moon Jae-in, is due to meet Kim Jong-un next week for a historic summit in the Demilitarized Zone.

[CNN]

CIA Director Mike Pompeo secretly met with Kim Jong Un

CIA Director Mike Pompeo visited North Korea more than two weeks ago for a secret meeting with leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, sources confirmed to CNN.

Pompeo, who is US President Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, didn’t take any officials from the White House or State Department with him on the trip, only intelligence officials, one source said Tuesday.

The White House declined to comment on Pompeo’s visit, which took place around April 1. The Washington Post  reported that Pompeo went as Trump’s envoy to lay the groundwork for direct talks between Trump and Kim about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

The two leaders are set to meet in late May or early June, in what would be the first face-to-face encounter between a sitting US President and a North Korean leader.

An administration official familiar with Pompeo’s encounter with Kim told CNN the North Korean leader had been “personable and well prepared” for the meeting, which took place but added there was a sticking point over the location of his meeting with Trump.

President Trump told reporters on Tuesday that five locations are being considered. Previously, US officials have floated the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar; the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea; a neutral European capital like Stockholm or Geneva; a location at sea like Jeju island or a ship; Southeast Asia, including possibly Singapore or Malaysia; the South Korean capital Seoul; or the North Korean capital Pyongyang, a seemingly unlikely choice that no US official has yet ruled out.

[CNN]

The risk of Trump’s talks with North Korea

Excerpts of an Opinion piece by Jake Sullivan, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who served in the Obama administration as national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden:

What will happen if President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet? Many experts believe that a rushed and ill-prepared summit is likely to fail, prematurely discrediting diplomacy and putting us on a path to war.

Another scenario is just as plausible: Trump and Kim move quickly to strike a barest-of-bones “grand bargain” that commits Washington to address North Korea’s concerns in return for Pyongyang’s promise to pursue denuclearization, with the details to be worked out later. An all-sizzle-and-no-steak deal of this kind would be classic Trump, giving him the optics of a diplomatic “win” while doing little to reduce the threat posed by Kim’s nuclear program. This could prove a trap for the United States, but Trump may well fall into it.

First, in any high-stakes summit, the laws of diplomatic physics create momentum that drives leaders to reach a “declaration” or “accord,” even if it means defining down success. And Trump has always shown that he’s keen to trumpet “wins” even when the substance doesn’t bear out the claims. For him, it’s the choreography and drama that matter; he can leave the real substance for later, and for others.

Then consider the zone of possible agreement. Like his father and grandfather, Kim has apparently signaled that he is open to mouthing the word “denuclearization,” at least as a bargaining maneuver to alleviate sanctions pressure.

There is a real risk that this kind of outcome would work much more to Pyongyang’s advantage than Washington’s. Our partners would take their foot off the sanctions gas. South Korea would naturally accelerate its engagement with the North, including its economic ties. China, fearing that U.S.-North Korean engagement would weaken its hand, would scramble (even more than it already has) to offer incentives to increase Beijing’s influence with Kim.

North Korea would be implementing a new version of its old playbook: Make a series of promises in exchange for economic breathing room — and break them later. This could easily raise the risk of war in the medium term.

[The Washington Post]

Direct talks underway between US and North Korea

The United States and North Korea have been holding secret, direct talks to prepare for a summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, a sign that planning for the highly anticipated meeting is progressing, several administration officials familiar with the discussions tell CNN.

Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo and a team at the CIA have been working through intelligence back-channels to make preparations for the summit, the officials said. American and North Korean intelligence officials have spoken several times and have even met in a third country, with a focus on nailing down a location for the talks.

The North Koreans are pushing to have the meeting in their capital, Pyongyang, the sources said, although it is unclear whether the White House would be willing to hold the talks there. The Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar has also been raised as a possible location, the sources said.

The talks between intelligence officials are laying the groundwork for a meeting between Pompeo and his North Korea counterpart, the head of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, in advance of the leaders’ summit. Officials said the decision to use the already existing intelligence channel was more a facet of Pompeo’s current status as CIA director as he awaits confirmation as secretary of state than a reflection of the content of the discussions.

The Chinese have also provided a briefing to the White House after Kim and President Xi Jinping met in Beijing late last month.

Trump is due to meet in two weeks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Mar-a-Lago estate. Abe is expected to come bearing a list of concerns about opening talks with Kim.

[CNN]

Trump ‘choices to avoid disaster’ at North Korea summit

Excerpts of a commentary by Leon E. Panetta, former Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA under President Obama, and former Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton:

While North and South Korea are obviously preparing and taking substantive steps to improve their leverage in any future negotiation, President Trump appears to be doing little to fully prepare for the complex issues that will have to be addressed at any summit.

It is no secret that this president has little diplomatic knowledge or experience nor does he have the patience to devote the time necessary to fully prepare for a high level summit. Without a comprehensive and well thought out strategy working closely with our allies, this president is likely to walk into a summit believing that the strength of his personality alone plus his gut instincts will be enough to prevail. That is a recipe for disaster.

Added to this is the large turnover of key personnel in critical national security positions, some of whom will have to go through a time-consuming nomination process in the Senate. Under a more stable White House, it would be difficult enough to fully prepare for that kind of high level meeting. Instability plus lack of time make it almost impossible to lay the necessary groundwork for one of the most important foreign policy summits in the history of this administration.

The reality is that the president has two choices to avoid disaster: 1) assume that the summit will largely be a photo op with Kim Jong Un, with an agreement on a broad framework of issues to be considered in future negotiations, and a decision on a place and time for an agreed set of negotiators to begin discussion on the specifics of a possible agreement; or 2) postpone any summit until designated negotiators have determined that there is in fact a set of elements and conditions that can be agreed to that will result in the denuclearization of North Korea.

The president indeed deserves some of the credit for bringing about this situation due to the increase in sanctions and his relationship with President Xi. But to be successful, it will take time, serious preparation, careful planning and extensive consultation with our allies. Tweeting will not do it!

[CNBC]

North and South Korean leaders to meet for historic summit on April 27

The leaders of North and South Korea will meet on April 27 for the first time since 2007, the two countries announced Thursday after high-level talks. The landmark meeting between President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un will be held at Freedom House on the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), according to the joint statement issued after the talks.

The summit will be seen as a victory for Moon, who has long been pushing hard for diplomatic relations with North Korea. He said at his swearing-in ceremony in 2017 “for peace on the Korean Peninsula, I will do everything that I can do.”

Footnotes:

  • The last Inter-Korean summit was held in October 2007, when then President Roh Moo-hyun met Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il.
  • In January, the North Korean government unexpectedly resumed communications with South Korea and agreed to talks, sending a team to South Korea’s Winter Olympics.
  • When Kim Jong Un’s sister joined the Pyongyang delegation to the games in February, she was the first member of her family to step onto South Korean soil since the Korean War in the 1950s.
  • The Kim-Moon summit will precede a bombshell encounter between the young North Korean leader and US President Donald Trump — the first time a sitting US leader has met with a member of the Kim dynasty.

[CNN]