May 24, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: North Korea and the Six-Party Talks: The Past is Prologue

As of late May 2012, North Korea — the more common reference for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea — remains a geopolitical conundrum of the first order. Through no more than three degrees of separation, it is a country of major diplomatic, military, economic, and political interest for almost every global and regional power around the globe. For its unabashed role in sponsoring terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology, North Korea was included, along with Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, in the so-called axis of evil identified by then-President George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address. In the course of its deftly managed strategic game of nuclear cat and mouse, it has repeatedly gained economic rewards, much-needed food aid for its starving population, and, perhaps most importantly, time to continue developing a viable intercontinental ballistic missile system that would enable it to strike at South Korea, Japan, and even the West coast of the U.S, all the while giving up very little of lasting importance. And it has achieved all of this while operating its own brand of incestuous communism that recently saw supreme power passed down to the third generation of a family dynasty.


A Transition, But Little Change

The 29-year old Kim Jong-un ascended to the pinnacle of power in the Hermit Kingdom upon the death of his father, Kim Jong-il — himself the son of the country's first (and only) president, Kim Il-sung — in December 2011. The fact that this transfer of power occurred so uneventfully surprised many Korean analysts who predicted that the leadership of the all-powerful Korean People's Army would finally wrest away control of the country. Then again, such forecasts must take into consideration the context in which such events might unfold, and the context in North Korea is unlike that found practically anywhere else.

For the average citizen, North Korea is a country with a standard of living and record on human rights that are among the lowest in the world; in contrast, for members of the military, it is a nation where, in response to a horrific famine that killed more than a million people in the early 1990s, Kim Jong-il responded by declaring a policy of Songun, or "military first." As a result, while there are 47 countries in the world with a larger population, North Korea ranks in the top six for the size of its armed forces, an achievement made possible by spending as much as 25% of its annual gross domestic product (GDP) on the military. (By comparison, South Korea's military expenditures account for only an estimated 2.7% of its GDP.)


The Six-Party Talks: Competing Interests

Responsibility for shaping North Korea's nuclear ambitions is the province of the Six-Party Talks (which involve North Korea, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S.). Few would argue that these negotiations, which have been ongoing since 2003, have been materially successful by any measure. The problematic nature of the Six-Party Talks may be best understood by comparison to the P5+1 (the Permanent Members of the U.S. Security Council plus Germany) talks with Iran over its nuclear program. While the P5+1 approach negotiations, such as those held this week in Baghdad, with a relatively coherent vision (that is, preventing Tehran from achieving its goal of developing a nuclear weapons capability) such a unifying vision simply does not exist among the powers negotiating with North Korea.

• China, which has far less influence on Pyongyang than many seem to believe, views any engagement with North Korea — and the other nations — from the perspective of how that might support Beijing's plan to systematically establish itself as the predominant power in the Pacific (while simultaneously doing what it can to diminish American influence in the region).

• South Korea understandably has the most intimate interest in dealing with North Korea, largely due to the fact that Seoul, its capital city and the center of its economic miracle, would suffer devastating damage from the very first salvo if war were to break out. More importantly, however, the potential power inherent in a united Korean peninsula remains at the forefront of thinking in both the public and private sectors in South Korea. As a result, actions and agreements arising from the Six-Party Talks are thus viewed through the lens of how it might further — or inhibit — the realization of that grand, long-range objective.

• Along with its geographic proximity to, and controversial history with, the Koreas, Japan cannot help but have an abiding interest in helping to keep North Korea benignly within its borders (and, perhaps, keeping the two Koreas from ever unifying and thereby becoming a quite formidable competitor). Tokyo is also pursuing the repatriation of Japanese citizens who were been kidnapped by North Korea over thirty years ago, allegedly to help members of the North Korean intelligence services master the Japanese language.

• Russia's interests are far more prosaic. At this state of its fitful reformation, it simply seeks to remain strategically relevant in the Asia Pacific region.


Recurring Themes in U.S. —North Korean Relations

The leading roles in this enduring geopolitical drama, however, are clearly played by the U.S. and North Korea. Without interruption, Washington has been at odds with Pyongyang — and Pyongyang with Washington — since the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950. After fighting a bloody, three-year "police action," the U.S. has maintained a substantial military presence in South Korea ever since (currently capped at 28,500). Although the distrust of, and ill-will toward, North Korea has been a consistent American theme since 1945, the manner in which that distrust and ill-will have been reflected in U.S. foreign and military policy has been uneven.

For its part, North Korea's strategy for dealing with the U.S. has been far more predictable, underscored as it is by a single, overarching outcome: it desperately wants to be treated by the U.S. as an equal (which explains, in part, Pyongyang's long-standing obsession with building a viable nuclear weapons capability). And while the prospect of a reclusive life under a Stalinist government relic and a moribund economy divorced from the advances offered by the age of globalization is unattractive, there is one advantage: changes in strategy and policy need not change with the times. Themes such as Juche (self-reliance) that worked for "The Great Leader" (Kim Il-sung) more than a generation ago and more recently for "The Dear Leader" (Kim Jong-il) can remain the centerpiece of the domestic and foreign policy for "The Great Successor" (Kim Jong-un).  

As noted above, the U.S. represents the flip side of this policy coin. While North Korea has been led by three generations of the Kim family since 1945, twelve different American presidents have occupied the White House during this same period, each with very different foreign policy priorities. Those policies have moved much like a sine wave, from engagement to non-engagement, from robust military posturing to peace offerings, and from external pressure and sanctions to food and medical aid.

Perhaps the only recurring American policy theme is also the one that may be the key barrier to success in negotiations with North Korea. Not unlike the U.S. demand for unconditional surrender by the Germans and Japanese during World War II (a strategy that arguably extended the war in both theaters by more than a year), Washington has demanded the "complete" and "irreversible" destruction of North Korea's nuclear weapons capability, which, as described previously, is precisely what Pyongyang believes is the only means for it to secure a seat at the table of regional, if not global powers.

For those who live in North Korea, there is little tangible difference between 1962 and 2012. The Internet, iPods, Facebook, and Twitter — central features of life for many in the West and, increasingly, in China — are immaterial. Similarly, for observers of the Six-Party Talks, there seems to be little difference between 2003 and 2012. The parties alleged to be responsible for the lack of substantial progress are so varied and interconnected that it is almost impossible to keep track. Japan blames China for "enabling North Korea's misbehavior." South Korea blames North Korea's "inflammatory rhetoric." Washington threatens to tighten sanctions further if North Korea doesn't "abandon its atomic program." North Korean, in turn, threatens to expand it nuclear capability if Washington introduces new sanctions. The U.S. thinks China is not doing enough to influence Pyongyang. China thinks the U.S. has too much influence in the Pacific. Outside Moscow, no one believes Putin's return to power in Russia will be of any import on the Korean Peninsula.

And over six million North Koreans require food aid just to survive.

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