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North Korea’s uncertain future

Charles K Armstrong
5 April 2009

The American baseball star Yogi Berra's maxim "it ain't over till it's over" seems tailor-made for North Korea. The deal to eliminate North Korea's nuclear programme, agreed among the members of the six-party talks (North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan) on 3 October 2007, was on the verge of collapse ten months later - only to get back on track in October 2008. Now, the election of Barack Obama as new United States president will raise hopes of further diplomatic progress; though the tortuous history of the past year alone suggests that nothing can be taken for granted.

Charles K Armstrong  is associate professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University, specialising in modern Korean, east Asian, and international history.  Among his books are Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy, and the State (Routledge, 2002) and The North Korean Revolution, 1945-50 (Cornell University Press, 2003)

Also by Charles K Armstrong in openDemocracy:

"North Korea: the path to a deal" (24 October 2007)A policy redirection

The October 2007 agreement stipulated that North Korea would provide a "complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs" and disable its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. In return, the other parties would (as pledged earlier in the year) resume shipments of heavy fuel-oil to North Korea, and proceed toward increasing economic aid and establishing normal political relations with Pyongyang. As a key symbolic gesture, the United States agreed to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and also to take steps to remove economic sanctions "in parallel with" North Korea's de-nuclearisation actions.

The deal of just over a year ago represented an about-face for the George W Bush administration, which had taken a hardline position on the North Korean nuclear issue for most of the previous six years (see "North Korea: the path to a deal", 24 October 2007) It was predictable that what was agreed came under immediate attack from leading neo-conservatives, whose influence in the administration was clearly much diminished. The hawkish former under-secretary of state for defence John Bolton blasted the accord as "surrender" and called its verification measures "pathetic".

The US vice-president Dick Cheney has also been hostile to a more lenient position towards Pyongyang; in June 2007, Cheney was taken aback in a meeting of foreign-policy experts when he was asked about the administration's decision to drop North Korea from the terrorist list, refused to answer the question and soon left the room.

That is not to say that everyone else involved was happy with the deal. The Japanese, fixated on the question of North Korean accountability for kidnapping Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s, were also less than enamoured with an agreement put in place before this issue is settled.

There are at least three ways of reading the overall redirection in the Bush approach to North Korea:

*as the triumph of pragmatists in the state department over the ideologues in the defence department and the vice-president's office - above all of the perspicacious assistant secretary of state Christopher R Hill, lead negotiator with North Korea

* as a flailing move by an administration desperately hoping for a foreign-policy victory to distract from its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan

* as a last-ditch venture by an unpopular lame-duck president seeking a positive historical legacy.

Also on North Korea in openDemocracy:

Jasper Becker, "A gulag with nukes: inside North Korea" (19 July 2005)

Hwang Sok-yong, "The ghosts of North and South Korea" (16 December 2005)

David Wall, "North Korea and the ‘six-party talks': a road to nowhere" (12 April 2006)

Jane Portal, "Art under control in North Korea" (28 June 2006)

Peter Hayes, "Nuclear little brother: North Korea's next test" (21 July 2006)

Peter Hayes & Tim Savage, "Dr Strangelove in Pyongyang" (10 October 2006)

David Wall, "North Korea vs the United States: a bare table" (15 December 2006)

Peter Hayes, "North Korea and the United States: what deal?" (15 February 2007)

JE Hoare, "Bombs, birthdays and North Korea's future" (9 March 2007)Whatever the motivation, the deal did represent a major step forward in a North Korea nuclear crisis that has been ongoing since 1993, when Pyongyang announced its withdrawal from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The immediate results were clear in the disablement of the Yongbyon facilities, which began (under the supervision of US officials and nuclear experts ) a month after the agreement was signed. North Korea agreed to submit detailed documentation about its nuclear programme by the end of 2007; in the event, Pyongyang missed the 31 December deadline, but did submit declaration documents in May and June 2008.

North Korea's declaration did not cover all the issues Americans had wanted; in particular it does not address Pyongyang's suspected highly-enriched uranium programme and the question of proliferating nuclear technology to Syria. Nevertheless, Washington announced it would start the forty-five-day process to take North Korea off the terrorist list, and (on 27 June 2008) North Korea imploded its cooling tower at the Yongbyon reactor. Three days later, the first shipment of a pledged 500,000 tonnes of US food-aid arrived in North Korea.

An unresolved issue

Then things began to go wrong - or as Yogi Berra would have said, it was déjà vu all over again. US administration officials questioned the completeness of North Korea's declaration and the adequacy of verification procedures. On 11 August, the US said it would delay the removal of North Korea from the terrorist list until an adequate verification protocol was reached.

In response, the Pyongyang media in turn accused the Bush administration of "sinister intentions" and harshly criticised US-South Korean joint military exercises. But Pyongyang saved its greatest vitriol for the conservative South Korean government (installed in February 2008 after the election of Lee Myung-bak as president two months earlier), attacking Seoul's hardline policies toward the north.

In a now-familiar game of brinkmanship, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) said it would stop dismantling its nuclear facilities and accused Washington of reneging on the deal. In early September, North Korea took steps to restart the Yongbyon plant, while Christopher Hill visited Beijing and Pyongyang to deal with the situation. In the end the agreement was salvaged: on 11 October, Washington announced it would drop North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and North Korea allowed in inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and resumed dismantling its facilities.

Still, the North Korean nuclear issue is far from over. Washington has the option to return North Korea to the terrorist list if the nuclear agreement does not make adequate progress, and other sanctions (including United Nations sanctions) remain in place. North Korea's nuclear disarmament is not yet "irreversible"; considering how hostile the outside world still appears to Pyongyang, it seems unlikely that North Korea will relinquish entirely its nuclear deterrent anytime soon.

It is no longer entirely clear, however, what kind of North Korea the outside world will be dealing with. Kim Jong-Il's unprecedented absence at the national foundation-day ceremony on 9 September 2008 in Pyongyang was read by many outside observers as a sign that the leader was either dead, seriously ill, or had been somehow removed from power. There was a fever of speculation about leadership succession, power struggles and regime collapse in the western, Japanese and South Korean media. South Korean intelligence suggested Kim had suffered a stroke in August, but the current state of his health was unclear.

But on 11 October, after Kim Jong-Il had been absent from the North Korean media for over fifty days, the DPRK released photos of Kim at a military base. The rumours of Kim's illness or incapacitation revived when the "dear leader" did not attend the funeral on 30 October of one of the DPRK's most important founding figures, Pak Song-chol. Then, on the weekend of 1-2 November, the regime released fourteen photographs of Kim watching a soccer match; and on 5 November, the announcement that he had inspected two military sites was accompanied by further photos. All this does nothing to dampen speculation about post-Kim scenarios.

A sense of trouble

Whereas Kim Jong-Il had been groomed for decades to succeed his father (a fact made public some fourteen years prior to the elder Kim's death in July 1994), North Korea has never been clear on who will succeed Kim Jong-Il, who is now 66 years old. None of Kim's known children appears to be in line for the leadership, and no other individual in the upper ranks of leadership is an obvious choice either. It is possible that there will be a succession crisis once Kim no longer leads the country; but a collective leadership-system - consisting of members of the armed forces, the ruling Korean Workers' Party, and the Kim family - is equally if not more likely.

North Korea survived the death of its first leader in 1994, in the midst of an earlier nuclear confrontation with the US, and further survived the famine of the late 1990s. Whether or not the North Korean political system can survive the passing of the current leader, and a possible second food crisis, remains to be seen. The end of North Korea has been predicted many times before, however, and the imminent collapse of the regime is not something to bet much money on.

Whether the political environment is stable or not, the economic situation within North Korea appears to be deteriorating. On 23 October 2008, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) warned of a "humanitarian emergency" in North Korea in the coming months, on the basis of advice from the head of the WFP's Pyongyang office. North Korea still produces inadequate food to feed its population, and there is little prospect for large-scale food imports or aid in the near future.

North Korea is far from immune to the global financial crisis, This has already caused a reduction in trade with China, North Korea's largest trading partner by far, and it will adversely affect the amount of aid North Korea can expect from other countries. At the same time, Pyongyang has backtracked on the path of economic reform it began in 2002, by imposing new restrictions on market activity and reasserting state control of food distribution. This seems to reflect the leadership's concern that continued economic opening might encourage forces beyond its control.

Charles K Armstrong is associate professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University, specialising in modern Korean, east Asian, and international history. Among his books are Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy, and the State (Routledge, 2002) and The North Korean Revolution, 1945-50

Also by Charles K Armstrong in openDemocracy:

"North Korea: the path to a deal" (24 October 2007)

A continuous polity

But the clock cannot be turned back so easily. Thanks to thousands of border-crossers to China and greater access to foreign media, the North Korean people are not as isolated as they were during the famine period of the 1990s. If a new food crisis does emerge in winter 2008-09, it is unlikely to be as severe as a decade ago, but popular discontent may be more difficult to keep in check. Still, it is hard to imagine such popular discontent translating into change at the top of the political system in the near term.

The gap between North Korea's tightly-knit and secretive core of leaders and its mass of impoverished ordinary citizens is not mediated by any organisation outside of the state's control, nor is their yet any sign of such coherent opposition appearing. As for the economy, North Korea's trajectory over the last decade has been one of neither taking off nor crashing, but a zig-zagging path of muddling through. The near-term future is likely to be much the same.

At a deeper level, a transition into a post-Kim era may already be underway - characterised by uncertain leadership, halting economic reform, and an ambiguous de-nuclearisation. This may be only a temporary phase prefiguring much bigger changes to come. But for now at least, the newly elected Barack Obama, when he takes office as United States president in January 2009, will have to engage with a North Korea that is much the same as the one which has vexed American policy-makers for the last two decades or more.

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