12/20/2013 - 10:25

North Korea’s strange, bloody mistake

Gi-Wook ShinDavid Straub

Gi-Wook Shin

Gi-Wook Shin is the director of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center; the Tong Yang, Korea Foundation, and Korea...

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David Straub

David Straub has been associate director of the Korean Studies Program at Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific...

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Much of the commentary on young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s execution of his uncle, Jang Song-taek, has speculated on the domestic political implications, but it remains to be seen if the incident represents a consolidation of Kim’s power or burgeoning political instability. It is already clear, however, that the incident has further damaged the regime’s already terrible image abroad and will almost certainly reinforce the Obama administration’s policy of rejecting nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang.

With North Korea having rebuffed President Obama’s “outstretched hand” by testing a nuclear device in 2009 soon after his inauguration, violating the 2011 Leap Day deal with the United States on a missile launch moratorium before the ink was dry, and proclaiming itself to be a “nuclear state” in a 2012 constitutional revision, American leaders were firm—even before Jang was executed. There is no point in returning to the Six Party Talks in Beijing, they feel, until North Korea convinces them it is actually willing to negotiate an end to its nuclear weapons programs.

After all that had happened, American officials believed that resuming nuclear negotiations would be widely regarded as tantamount to accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and that North Korea would use the talks as cover to continue to develop its nuclear weapons technology. Instead, the United States and South Korea are working closely to maintain international sanctions pressure on Pyongyang to force it to change its strategic calculation, and hoping that China’s increasing frustration with Pyongyang will prompt it to align more closely with their tougher approach.

For its part, Pyongyang has long appeared to believe that if only it held out long enough, eventually the United States would have to accept it as a nuclear weapons state, like India and Pakistan. To gain this recognition, the regime felt it needed to appear to the outside world as internally united, to show that it was growing its economy despite sanctions, and to win sympathy in the international community for its argument that it is forced to maintain a nuclear deterrent against an American security threat.

Unfortunately for the North Korean game plan, the Jang incident confirmed the international community’s worst suspicions about the extent of North Korea’s political, economic, and social troubles. A purge by itself would have soon been forgotten abroad. Far more of a problem externally for North Korea are the apparently gratuitous nature of the execution and, even more, the publication of the charges against Jang. The regime’s 2,700-word indictment of Jang is stunning in its apparently unwitting contradiction of decades of North Korean domestic propaganda about perfect governance.

For example, regarding the economy, Jang allegedly confessed that “the present [North Korean] regime [is]… not tak[ing] any measures despite the fact that the economy and the country and people’s living are driven into catastrophe” and that “the [standard of] living of the people and service personnel may further deteriorate in the future.” The regime also charged Jang with sabotaging massive apartment and other construction projects for the elite in Pyongyang, suggesting that even these pet projects of Kim himself were failures.

American and South Korean officials undoubtedly took careful note that Jang intended to “grab the supreme power of the party and state by employing all the most cunning and sinister means and methods, taking advantage of the ‘strategic patience’ policy and ‘waiting strategy’ of the US and the south Korean puppet group of traitors [italics added].” Here, in a single sentence, the regime has confirmed that there are lethal divisions within the North Korean leadership, and that American policy toward the country has been considerably more effective in putting pressure on the regime than it has heretofore cared to admit.

The charges against Jang must also have offended Pyongyang’s only major foreign supporter. Without citing China by name, the statement blasts Jang for entering into corrupt deals with the People’s Republic of China for the sale of North Korean minerals and for Chinese investment in North Korea. In recent years, Chinese leaders have been increasingly frustrated, even angry, about North Korea’s behavior. The circumstances surrounding the execution of Jang have further raised hopes in Washington and Seoul that China will side more with them against Pyongyang.

Perhaps even more important, this huge misstep on Kim’s part has raised questions not only about his current grip on power, but also about whether he has the intelligence and maturity to survive in the long run. Moreover, as North Korea watcher Andrei Lankov has pointed out, North Korean advisors will be even less willing now to offer frank advice to the inexperienced young leader.

Even before this incident, recent statements by American Six Party Talks negotiator Glyn Davies suggested that the United States was determined not only to maintain sanctions pressure on North Korea, but possibly to increase it until Pyongyang signals a genuine willingness to negotiate away its nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, conservatives in Congress have been pushing legislation that would apply Iran-type sanctions to North Korea.

The mishandling of the Jang incident presumably will reinforce the determination in Washington and Seoul to take a firm line against Pyongyang and makes it likelier that they will increase sanctions against North Korea in coming months. Beijing will not go along fully with these moves, but it will probably not feel especially enthusiastic about increasing business ties with the regime now.

The Jang purge came less than a month after the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, or P5 +1, reached an initial, six-month deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. By next summer, there should be more clarity about whether those negotiations will resolve the Iranian issue. If the North Korean situation does not worsen in the meantime, success in the Iran talks could result in the United States and its partners making a new run at nuclear talks with North Korea, based on the Iran precedent. But if in the meantime the North Korean situation worsens or the Iran talks fail, all bets on a North Korean nuclear deal may be off.