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The week that was: Five North Korea articles you don’t want to miss To ensure you never miss out on the best MHI-NK News content, we highlight the top five most-read features and interviews of the week
What an OPCON transfer could mean for the U.S.-South Korea Alliance, By Jonathan R. Corrado

Since 1953, the U.S.-Republic of Korea Alliance has been a guarantor of peace and prosperity in East Asia; now, it’s poised for a revamp. Against the backdrop of a dynamic security climate, DC and Seoul are advancing long-held discussions about further evolving the nature of their military partnership. Two issues could have outsized consequences for the future structure and posture of the Alliance the U.S. and South Korea.

The Armistice Roles of the UNC, the CFC, and USFK.The senior U.S. general on the Korean Peninsula, currently General Curtis Scaparrotti, concurrently serves as the commander of the UNC, the CFC, and U.S. Forces Korea (USFK). The UNC commander leads an 18-nation coalition responsible for maintaining the 1953 armistice agreement.

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The CFC commander is responsible for deterring North Korean aggression and organizing, planning, and exercising U.S. and South Korean forces. During armistice, the Chairman of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff has day-to-day responsibility for defending the country, but the CFC plans, trains, and stands ready to assume operational control in time of war.

The USFK commander leads the 28,500 U.S troops in Korea. These troops do not patrol the Demilitarized Zone or conduct air or sea patrols. The USFK is not a warfighting headquarters. Its main function is to train U.S. troops in Korea, to evacuate all U.S. civilians if directed by the U.S. ambassador, and to facilitate the reception of the hundreds of thousands of troops that would come from the U.S. in case of war.

During armistice, South Korean forces remain under the command and operational control of the Chairman of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and the individual military service chiefs of staff. However, both the USFK and South Korean troops are temporarily assigned to the CFC to participate in exercises, such as Key Resolve, Foal Eagle, and Ulchi Freedom Guardian.

Transition to Wartime.If war became imminent, the presidents of both countries would approve placing their military forces under the CFC, which would then become the alliance’s warfighting headquarters. The CFC commander would lead combined U.S.–South Korean forces to defend South Korea and defeat the threat, but the U.S. commander of the CFC remains “under the firm direction and guidance of both nations’ political and military leaders in a consultative manner.”

Although under the operational control of the CFC commander, both U.S. and South Korean forces would remain under the command of their respective presidents. The CFC commander receives strategic guidance from military authorities of both countries (the Chairman of the U.S. JCS and U.S Secretary of Defense for the United States and the South Korean JCS Chairman and Minister of Defense).

The UNC transitions to a headquarters that receives forces from other countries that are deployed to help defend Korea,  The UNC commander is responsible for the operational control and combat operations of UNC member-nation forces.

Korean Backlash Against the OPCON Transition.

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Roh’s decision triggered widespread and harsh criticism by all living former South Korean ministers of national defense and hundreds of retired generals who accused the president of sacrificing the country’s security. South Korean critics of the original decision assert that it was driven by President Roh Moo-hyun’s ideological agenda to fundamentally alter South Korea’s relationship with the United States and was not based on security considerations.

Delaying or overturning the transition became a quest for conservative South Korean legislators and former military officials, as well as both the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations. The Lee Myung-bak administration characterized Roh’s demand as a naive, ideologically driven political decision that ignored military realities.

Many South Koreans worried that transitioning OPCON and disbanding the CFC would reduce America’s commitment to defending its ally, eventually lead to an unzipping of the alliance, and embolden North Korea to further provocations and attacks. The transition plan exacerbated South Korean fears of abandonment, particularly in light of the increasing North Korean threat and the U.S. policy of strategic flexibility in which USFK units could be redeployed off-peninsula. It is the presence of 28,500 U.S. forces that reassures South Koreans of the U.S. commitment to the alliance.

More recently, perceptions of declining U.S. defense capabilities and resolve have exacerbated these concerns. South Korea and Japan watched with growing dismay as the Obama Administration cut $480 billion from the military budget, and then warned that an additional $500 billion in sequestration-mandated cuts over 10 years would have catastrophic consequences on U.S. armed forces. Yet when sequestration hit, the Administration claimed it could still fulfill American security commitments though admittedly with “additional but acceptable risk.”

Seoul and Tokyo were flummoxed by Obama’s refusal to live up to his pledged military response when Syrian President Assad crossed the U.S. red line by using chemical weapons against civilians a year ago. South Korean and Japanese officials privately comment that they now fear that Obama might similarly abandon America’s defense commitments to them if North Korea or China were to attack.

The Bush and Obama Administrations sought to maintain the original OPCON plan and to review the situation closer to the deadline. The transition plan included an integrated assessment and certification process to ensure South Korean security was not jeopardized. To allay Korean concerns, Washington pledged that its military capabilities, including air combat and strategic intelligence assets, would remain after the OPCON transition.

South Korea Needs to Address Defense Shortfalls

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The transfer of full operational control of South Korean forces to Seoul during both armistice and wartime has also been delayed over concerns about Seoul’s ability to adequately exercise command and control of its forces and to coordinate wartime actions with U.S. and international forces. The decision to postpone the OPCON transition would alleviate some of the near-term pressure on Seoul, but the Park Geun-hye administration needs to clearly articulate plans to redress shortages in the country’s defense capabilities.

General Scaparrotti testified that, although Seoul continues to expand defense spending—this year’s defense budget represents a 4 percent increase over 2013—“it still has not been able to meet the ambitious defense spending objectives of its current long-range defense plan, prompting a re-evaluation and re-prioritization of defense acquisition priorities and future force posture.”The South Korean military still lacks the necessary C4ISR systems and capabilities to overcome stovepiped command structures and to enable interoperability across services. U.S. officials privately comment that at present the South Korean military is not capable of truly joint operations.


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The U.S.–South Korean security alliance has been indispensable in defending South Korea and maintaining peace and stability in Northeast Asia. In recent years, however, an over-fixation on dates and milestones in the OPCON transition has distracted the allies from the need to improve alliance capabilities against the North Korean threat.

Instead, the U.S. and South Korea should focus on transforming the existing military relationship into a more comprehensive strategic alliance. The alliance needs to begin evolving from its singularly focused mission to a more robust values-based relationship that looks beyond the Korean Peninsula.

Without substantial and sustained involvement by the senior political and military leadership, the alliance may not adapt sufficiently to the new environment, including as a hedge against Chinese military modernization. The U.S. and South Korean administrations need to provide a clear strategic vision of the enduring need for the alliance to prevent erosion of public and legislative support.


The cult of Kim Jong Suk: the story of a housewife turned divine figure, By Fyodor Tertitskiy

On December 24, North Korea officially celebrates the 101st birthday of one of the key figures in the country’s historiography, and at the same time the one with the least known biography — Kim Jong Suk, mother of Kim Jong Il. Hailed as one of the “three Commanders of the Paektu mountain,” she has her own personality cult in the North, which includes separate subjects in the school curriculum dedicated to her life.

For many years after 1945, while it was known that she was Kim Il Sung’s wife, her biography was not of any interest to the research community. This is understandable — spouses of heads of states are normally not of direct importance to politics and there are not many people now studying, say, the life of Philip May.

Only with the rise of Kim Jong Il in the 1970s did South Koreans — and the international community — develop an interest in Kim Jong Suk. The following shows how little is known of her — and how the North Korean state struggled to give this simple woman an image of a living god.

A tired woman

Hasil gambar untuk The cult of Kim Jong Suk: the story of a housewife turned divine figure

Existing testimonies suggest that Kim Jong Suk was not Kim Il Sung’s first wife. They say that the first woman the future Great Leader married was Han Song Hui, whom he met in the 1930s in his partisan unit. Han was later arrested by the Japanese, but was released after she pledged to never fight against the Empire again — this humane practice was surprisingly common.

As for Kim Jong Suk, she was born in colonial Korea in a county of Kainei (now Hoeryong city) in 1919 — although for some reason the DPRK later changed this date to 1917 (maybe to create a nice five-year age difference with Kim Il Sung?). The DPRK, naturally, claims that she hailed from a family of revolutionaries who fought for independence, but given that even in North Korea the name of her mother is unknown (she is normally referred to as “Ms. O” – 오씨 녀사), one cannot but start to doubt this claim. Her father, Kim Chun San (김춘산), is also not known to be a person of any significance.

North Korean publications from the late 1940s say that she joined the partisan unit in 1934 when she was merely 14. There is good reason to believe this — the same publications say that in four years, she joined “the Communist Party.” While they did not directly say that this was the Communist Party of China, a falsified publication would have completely avoided such a politically incorrect aspect of her life.

It is actually unknown when Kim Jong Suk married Kim Il Sung. Although judging by existing documents, this happened before the couple fled to the Soviet Union, anything which can even remotely hint at Kim Il Sung’s sexual life is taboo in North Korea — and the date of marriage was never revealed. Instead, the DPRK merely stated that Kim Il Sung liked her for her loyalty, and presents the public with some stories about their life, like when Kim Jong Suk used her own body heat to dry Kim Il Sung’s clothes, and so on.

It is not even known if they had a proper ceremony — it is not as if a guerilla fighter like Kim Il Sung could simply walk into an office somewhere in Fengtian province and ask Manchukuo authorities to register the couple as husband and wife.

After the partisan movement was finally crushed by the Japanese and Manchurian armies, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Suk fled to the Soviet Union. It is not known if they went together or separately, but they both managed to cross the Manchurian-Soviet border safely.

After a few checks, both Kims were sent into training camps, eventually reorganized into the 88th Independent Infantry Brigade of the Red Army. This was the unit where Kim Il Sung served — and Kim Jong Suk lived — for the next few years while serving under the command of one of the former leaders of the Manchurian partisan movement, Zhou Baozhong. This was also the unit where Kim Jong Il was born.

While Zhou Baozhong’s wife, Wang Yizhi, was an active and somewhat ambitious woman, Kim Jong Suk was not. Wang eventually became an officer in the Red Army, and everyone who served in the brigade remembered the energetic wife of Lieutenant Colonel Zhou. Kim Jong Suk, on the other hand, never received any rank and was calmly living with Kim Il Sung. People who knew her remembered her as a simple woman, who never learned Russian or even Chinese, could hardly read Korean (she learned the alphabet only when she was already a partisan), and who was always exhausted from never-ending housework.

One should not judge Kim Jong Suk too harshly, though, as Wang Yizhi came from a much better background. A daughter of a landlord, she joined the Communist Party in the 1920s. Wang had had much more opportunities and had endured fewer hardships than a simple girl from a small town in colonial Korea.

According to some records, Kim Jong Suk used the Russian name Nina at the time, although others say it was not her name but Wang Yizhi’s.

In 1945, the 88th Brigade was dissolved. Chinese servicemen went to China, the Soviets stayed back in the USSR, and Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Suk, and other Koreans went to North Korea — to assume the ruling positions in the new nation.

The funeral

There is little known about Kim Jong Suk’s life in North Korea. People remember that she was still living the life of a housewife, attending to her husband, who was steadily growing in power. There are photos of her with Kim Il Sung and Soviet generals — especially with General Lebedev and his wife Dina, and sometimes with her own young son Yura — when he was not yet called Jong Il. Interestingly, she became a Party member only in 1946, despite being married to the Responsible Secretary of the Bureau for northern Korea — quite fitting, as in 1945 the Party remained very small.

Kim Jong Suk passed away in 1949. Reportedly, she died in childbirth, as testified by Yu Song-chol, a former serviceman of the 88th Brigade, who knew the ruling couple. Later, there were rumors that Jong Suk took her own life, being unable to bear Kim Il Sung’s constant cheating. However, Yu testified that while there were problems related to the Great Leader’s infidelity in the family, it was not related to Jong Suk’s death.

The day Kim Jong Suk died was the first time she appeared in Rodong Sinmun. The following message was published:

We inform that lady Kim Jong Suk, the wife of the Premier of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Kim Il Sung, passed away from a disease at 2:40 in the night on September 22, 1949.

September 22, 1949

Funeral Committee

An obituary about her life outlined the major dates of her biography — joining the partisan unit and the Parties — and stated that the Korean nation has just lost one of its best daughters.

Of course, this obituary is now banned in North Korea for multiple reasons.

First, the date of Kim Jong Suk’s birth, 1919, had later been altered. Second, Kim Il Sung was not in the committee — likely because in the 1940s it would have appeared too nepotistic. Third, more than half of the committee had been staffed with the people who were later purged. Having the Great Leader ignoring the funeral of the Great Mother, and instead having her being buried by Pak Hon Yong, Kim Tu Bong, Choe Chang Ik, Pak Chang Ok and other known “factionalists,” would be unthinkable.

Mother as a political tool

Hasil gambar untuk The cult of Kim Jong Suk: the story of a housewife turned divine figure

After her death, Kim Jong Suk’s image met a powerful competitor in the person of Kim Il Sung’s new wife, Kim Song Ae. For the next decades, the general rule was that the more powerful Kim Song Ae grew, the less prominent Kim Jong Suk’s image became, and vice versa.

While Kim Jong Suk’s death anniversary was remembered in 1951 and in 1952, she disappeared from the North Korean press after Kim Il Sung married Kim Song Ae.

For quite some time, she was not mentioned in the Rodong Sinmun. However, this was not the case for Choson Nyosong — the official outlet of theUnion of Democratic Women of Korea. Kim Myong Hwa — a somewhat prominent North Korean author — published stories about her greatness in 1963, and, notably, in 1967. The latter came immediately after Kim Il Sung’s May 25 Instructions, when the entire DPRK publishing world was shattered by the initiation of a transition from a Stalinist dictatorship to a completely totalitarian autocracy.

Who would be the instigator of such publications? Who would be unafraid to challenge Kim Song Ae and remind the world about the deceased wife of the Great Leader? It is quite unlikely that such a publication would have happened on Kim Myong Hwa’s own initiative — even if she was that bold, such a publication would have never passed censorship without approval from the very top.

This points at a rising cadre in the DPRK’s bureaucracy — Kim Jong Il, who at the time started to compete with his uncle Kim Yong Ju and other Party bureaucracy for the position of the Great Leader’s successor.

While Kim Yong Ju may have been interested in promoting his and Kim Il Sung’s parents — Kim Hyong Jik and Kang Pan Sok — the only significant North Korean politician interesting in elevating Kim Jong Suk would be Kim Jong Il.

By 1969, Kim Jong Suk started to return to the Rodong Sinmun. Interestingly, for the first time, it was done by quoting a Pakistani publication, which may indirectly suggest that at the time, Kim Jong Il had good friends amongst the DPRK embassy in Islamabad.

With the rise of Kim Song Ae in the early 1970s, Kim Jong Suk’s cult had to be subsumed again, and it was revived with the rise of Kim Jong Il. On August 17, 1981, the Central People’s Committee announced that the Sinpha county in Ryanggang Province was to be renamed to Kimjongsuk — a name which has endured ever since. For those who are interested, the county is the coldest place in the peninsula, with weather there being similar to the Svalbard isles to the north of continental Norway.

Postmortal deification

Hasil gambar untuk The cult of Kim Jong Suk: the story of a housewife turned divine figure

Until roughly the beginning of the 21st century, Kim Jong Suk’s cult remained quite moderate, and compared to that of the country’s rulers, it still is.

First, her name did not become a forbidden one. While one cannot be called Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, or Kim Jong Un in North Korea, there was another Kim Jong Suk in DPRK politics. This one was also a relative of Kim Il Sung — his niece — and she, a “wise and influential woman” by Soviet testimonies, was the chief editor of the DPRK’s second newspaper, Minju Choson. Thus the arrival of another Kim Jong Suk — the first lady of South Korea — to Pyongyang in 2018 was not a big ideological problem for North Korea.

Second, it is not mandatory to spell her name in bold letters as with the leaders’ names. In export and outer-track publications, this is almost never done, while domestic media has more freedom — apparently, it is for a writer to decide, as for example, this author has seen versions of the local newspaper Hambuk Ilbo with her name spelled in bold and in plain script. The fact that Kim Jong Suk’s name is occasionally venerated to the same extent as the three main members of the Family is not a state secret — I remember being quite fascinated seeing a bold spelling on a stela in Pyongyang, but my guide said that I should not be surprised, as this is quite normal.

Like her birthdate, the spelling of Kim Jong Suk’s name in Chinese characters was reportedly also altered from 金貞淑 to 金正淑. As the readers can see, the second character was different — probably to match the spelling of Kim Jong Il’s name (金正日), so that it could appear that his “jong” comes from Kim Jong Suk and “il” from Kim Il Sung (金日成).

Her cult became especially intense in the early 2000s when her biography became a separate subject in the curriculum taught in all North Korean schools.

Hoeryong, being Kim Jong Suk’s hometown, obviously has a special place in the cult. Her birthday is celebrated there with significantly more vigor than in other places in North Korea, almost, but still not quite to the extent Kim Il Sung’s birthday is. A house which allegedly was her home is preserved and so is the well her family used to take water from. There is a special museum dedicated to her as well.

Hoeryong also has the main statue of Kim Jong Suk. Located near the town’s library, it was remade at least once — and the current design shows her with 216 rhododendrons. These, as the readers may know, symbolize Kim Jong Il, whose birthday is the sixteenth day of the second month of the year.

Naturally, all these present an asset in ideological education — during a class on Kim Jong Suk’s life, children can be brought to a museum, for example, and told how she taught Kim Jong Il to be a good successor to his father (apparently, her son had this position since the moment he was conceived).

The ideological campaign also encourages local women to follow Kim Jong Suk’s example. By some strange logic, this involves marrying a man who was crippled during his military service — although Kim Il Sung was (more or less) a healthy man.

Then there are her myriad titles, which South Korean researcher Chong Thae-un carefully collected into a list:

  • Bodyguard Commander of the Paektu Mountain (백두산 호위장군)
  • Bodyguard Commander (호위장군)
  • Distinguished Female Revolutionary (걸출한 녀성혁명가)
  • Education and Refinement Activist (교육교양활동가)
  • Extraordinary Female Commander (불세출의 녀장군)
  • Faithful Soldier (충직한 전사)
  • Female Commander of the Paektu Mountain (백두의 녀장군)
  • Fighter of Protective Units (친위전사)
  • Exemplar of a Virtuous Revolutionary (고결한 혁명가의 귀감)
  • Great Commander (위대한 장군)
  • Great Communist Revolutionary Fighter (위대한 공산주의혁명투사)
  • Great Military Woman (위대한 군사가)
  • Hero of the Foundation of the Country (건국의 영웅)
  • Heroine of the Anti-Japanese Struggle (항일의 녀성 영웅)
  • Infallible Sharpshooter (백발백중의 명사수)
  • Military and Political Activist (군사정치활동가)
  • Outstanding Defender (성새)
  • Outstanding Leader of the Movement of Women of Korea (조선녀성 운동의 탁월한 지도자)
  • Outstanding Military Activist (탁월한 군사활동가)
  • Outstanding Political Activist of the Masses (탁월한 군중정치활동가
  • Paragon of Human Virtue (인간미덕의 전형)
  • Phoenix (불사조)
  • Revolutionary Optimist (혁명적 락원주의자)
  • Shield (방패)
  • Stern Military Instructor (엄격한 군사 교관)
  • Supreme Incarnation of the Spirit to Protect the Leader (수령결사옹위 최고화신)

Arguably, this glorification of Kim Jong Suk is even more grotesque than that of Kim Il Sung. Kim Il Sung was at least a person of some importance in the 1930s — a middle-ranking partisan commander, whose raid on the Japanese-Manchurian border in 1937 ended up in the news. Kim Jong Suk, on the other hand, was a girl who did washing and sewing in the unit — and portraying her as some kind of glorious commander is beyond ridiculous.

Apparently, some criminals in North Korea thought so as well. Mother of the Revolution or not, Kim Jong Suk’s ring ended up being stolen from the Revolutionary Museum in 2015 — to the horror of the North Korean police, which had no choice but to give the search the highest priority. It is not known if the search ended in success.

Could things have been different?

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Kim Jong Suk is probably the least-hated person in the Kim family. In fact, I heard people who would gladly have Kim Il Sung murdered by their own hands speaking nicely of his wife. Some of them even thought that maybe if she lived longer, she would have restrained her husband from his worst excesses.

However, this is unlikely to have been the case. There was a case of a Communist tyrant having a kind wife, who tried to stop him from going too far. I am talking about the wife of Joseph Stalin, Nadezhda Alliluyeva. For some minor things, the family connection worked. When Nadezhda approached Joseph, asking to release a Pravda correspondent arrested by the secret police, Stalin immediately issued an order to do so. However, when Alliluyeva saw the horrific consequences of collectivization and begged Joseph to stop the cruel policy, Stalin simply refused to listen, convinced that his wife had been influenced by the opposition. Eventually, Nadezhda took her own life — and Stalin perceived her suicide as a bitter act of personal betrayal.

Even if Kim Jong Suk would have tried to stop Kim Il Sung, one could imagine her having as little influence on him as Alliluyeva had on Stalin. One should also remember Kim’s attitude towards women in general — the reason why the DPRK doesn’t know Kim Jong Suk’s mother’s name is that the Great Leader never bothered to ask for it.

However, there is no evidence to believe that Kim Jong Suk would have even given it a try. In fact, there are no stories of her attempting to save a single life in the 1940s when she was still alive. Given her personality, it would have been quite likely for her to simply keep on living in Kim Il Sung’s shadow — and maybe even eventually start enjoying her personality cult.


Wrapping up 2018: the teetering scale of negotiations with North Korea, By Soo Kim

Pedestrian as it may seem, the metaphor of a scale seems apt in broadly depicting this year’s sequence of U.S.-North Korea interactions. On one end of the scale sits Pyongyang; on the other, Washington. The movable fulcrum, of course, is best personified by South Korea. Throughout the year, we watched this scale of negotiations, diplomacy, and rhetoric slide, teeter, and re-center to find that delicate point of equilibrium for all three parties. But to the dismay of many, sustained equilibrium has proven to be unattainable, in light of the discord between the parties on end goals and intermediary objectives.

In fairness, the expectation to solve this 70-year behemoth of a Gordian knot under a cinched timeline was a gross underestimation of the problem and an overestimation of our own negotiating and strategic prowess.

But, to illustrate this point, a review of the year’s key developments on the peninsula:

Up until January, ratcheting tensions between Washington and Pyongyang brought – as some Korea watchers contend – the two countries to the brink of war.

Recall the famous nuclear button duel between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Kim in his New Year’s address had threatened Washington with his readiness to press the nuclear button on his desk; Trump responded in kind via Twitter that he too had a button, one “much bigger & more powerful” than Kim’s.

The U.S.-North Korea tug-of-war came into full effect

Substance, however, went little beyond Seoul and Pyongyang affirming a new era of peace on the peninsula and working toward the common goal of reunification. “Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” was tucked away at the very end of the Panmunjom Declaration.

To the casual, optimistic observer, this spirit of inter-Korean rapprochement and tempered tensions gave the impression the scale was slowly being leveled – Washington and Pyongyang seemed steadily on the uphill path toward a landmark summit.

In May, however, the U.S.-North Korea tug-of-war came into full effect, with first the DPRK holding in suspense the Trump-Kim meeting by threatening to cancel the talks if the White House were to force “unilateral nuclear abandonment” upon the regime.

Not long after, the North’s vice minister in the Foreign Ministry called Vice President Pence a “political dummy” for his comparison of North Korea to Libya and – despite a date and location for the US-North Korea summit having already been determined – threatened again to pull out from the talks if Washington persisted on its current path of demanding Pyongyang’s denuclearization.

President Moon, who had pledged his role as the driver in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, must have perceived the slackening momentum. In late May, he traveled to Washington to meet with Trump and forestall the cancellation of the Singapore summit.

Trump, in response to the North Korean threats wrote Kim an open letter in which he not only canceled the talks, but reminded Pyongyang of Washington’s own option of “massive and powerful” nuclear capabilities. We were back in the state of uncertainty. And like that, the U.S.-North Korea counterbalancing resumed.

Two days later, Moon and Kim held a two-hour “surprise” second summit – previously unannounced to the public and by Kim’s request.

Fast forward a couple weeks to June, when the much-awaited Trump-Kim summit took place in Singapore. Pageantry and fanfare aside, the summit achieved little in the way of pegging North Korea to a concrete and binding commitment to denuclearization.

The two leaders agreed on four broad points, including the DPRK’s return of POW/MIA remains and the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

President Trump, though unable to provide reassuring answers to questions on the North’s denuclearization, boasted he had achieved what no previous administration had been able to do, that “nuclear is number one” to him, and that he knows when somebody wants to make a deal or not.As weeks – and later, months – go by, with little to show in the way of progress, the scale again began to shift. From Washington’s end, frustration mounts from Pyongyang’s cosmetic gestures to give pretense of denuclearization and refusal to interact with the U.S. at the working level – not to mention the growing perception of its widening rift with South Korea due to differences in their approach with North Korea.

This not only bore implications on Washington’s negotiations with Pyongyang over its nuclear program; it also placed under scrutiny the cohesiveness of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

The implicit objective of the September inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang – the third summit held between the two Koreas in less than six months – had been for Moon to convince Kim to extend a credible gesture pointing to his sincere intent to give up his nuclear weapons.

The third time was not the charm, however, as the summit did much to enhance inter-Korean oneness through a number of cross-border engagement projects, yet contrastingly little in the way of addressing the searing question on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

The Moon administration to keep its North Korea engagement synchronous with denuclearization

And so, denuclearization appeared as the fifth item in the joint declaration, with the DPRK making a promise to dismantle a missile engine test site and dangling the prospect of permanently dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear test facilities pending U.S. corresponding measures stipulated in the Singapore summit.

The policy rift with Seoul becoming increasingly acute, and amid concerns that the busy progress of inter-Korean rapprochement could potentially contradict or weaken the U.S. position on the DPRK’s nuclear program, Washington conveyed subtle but firm warnings to the Moon administration to keep its North Korea engagement synchronous with denuclearization.

Secretary of State Pompeo had expressed discontent with the inter-Korean military pact that would set the two Koreas on the path toward easing tensions on land, air, and sea – long before credible, irreversible steps were taken to reduce the threat from Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.

The November and December reportage on the North’s ongoing missile activity ruffled some feathers among Korea watchers. Divisive positions aside, the international community still confronts a nuclear North Korea not ready to part with its arsenal.

The reality of North Korea’s undeterred missile activity made all the more salient the growing daylight between Washington and Seoul’s positions on handling Pyongyang.

That the Moon administration was pressed to fulfill the last to-do item listed in the Pyongyang joint declaration – paving the way for a Kim Jong Un visit to Seoul by year-end – despite the lack of progress on the longstanding nuclear confrontation did little to advance negotiations with the Kim regime.

Who gets the final word this year? As of now, it appears North Korea has, in typical style, impeccably timed its closing statement for 2018 so as to leave a lingering, unresolved debate with the U.S. and international community.A 20 December state media statement spelling out the meaning and “geography” behind the expression “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” does little to advance the policy debate – in Washington and Seoul, and between – surrounding Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.

The Washington-Seoul-Pyongyang scale continues to toddle into the remaining days of 2018

The statement again conveys that North Korea’s “definition” of denuclearization is a non-negotiable. And in tossing this position over to Washington, Pyongyang is expectant of an accommodative shift and flexibility on the part of the Trump administration vis-à-vis the regime’s nuclear program.

The scale, at this point, is skewed toward the DPRK, as the U.S. teeters to determine a workable response to minimize a fallout in negotiations. South Korea, for its part, has been shifty, cautious to maintain the appearance of backing denuclearization in broad terms, yet has not taken an unequivocal stance in support of a nuclear-free North Korea to tip the scale closer toward equilibrium.

And so, the Washington-Seoul-Pyongyang scale continues to toddle into the remaining days of 2018.

As Presidents Trump and Moon (and to an extent, even Kim Jong Un) deliberate on priorities in the next year, familiar topics will continue pressing – “declaration for declaration,” “de facto nuclear state,” “sanctions,” “military threat,” “end of war,” and others.

As final food for thought, if there’s one takeaway from the 2018 summitries, it’s that words carry enough consequential weight to upset the balance and terms of inextricable negotiations.


Kim Jong Un’s 2019 New Year’s Speech: what to look out for, By Oliver Hotham

The leader’s New Year’s speech has, under Kim Jong Un, become one of the most important events in the North Korean calendar, setting the tone for state policy – both domestic and foreign – for the coming year, as well as expectations of how the country will, or won’t, engage with the rest of the world.

In his January 1st New Year’s speech, Kim Jong Un was almost relentlessly positive in discussing DPRK-US relations, a topic that took up an unusually large portion of the entire address. Rather than reprise the complaints about the negotiations with the US that had been the focus of numerous Pyongyang commentaries in recent months—almost all of them aimed at the external audience and not replayed on domestic media—Kim instead recounted his upbeat personal experience and almost unalloyed expectations as a result of the June 2018 Singapore summit. By doing so, he has deliberately left himself and President Trump maximum space for conducting negotiations leading up to a second summit. At the same time, Kim emphasized for the internal North Korean audience that he is personally committed to moving ahead with the US, and at least guardedly optimistic that progress is possible. This posture was in some ways similar to Kim’s public, personal commitment in January 2018 to engaging ROK President Moon Jae-in, which resulted in rapid progress on the inter-Korean front early in the year.

Hasil gambar untuk Kim Jong Un's 2019 New Year's Speech: what to look out for

Outside observers have paid special attention to the formulation in Kim’s address that:

“…if the United States…attempts to unilaterally enforce something upon us and persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our Republic, we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state and for achieving peace and stability of the Korean peninsula.”

The formulation is vague, and no doubt intentionally so. On two counts it does not commit Kim to any particular course of action. First, the term “new way” is sufficiently vague so that, at least on the face of it, it could mean anything. Kim’s gauzy language gives the North the option of feeding out the real meaning drop by drop when and if it wants. Second, Kim was careful to use a construction that Pyongyang often employs to avoid making a direct, concrete threat from which retreat is difficult, i.e., “we may be compelled,” or “we may have no choice but…” as opposed to the more definite “we will.”

Kim’s use of the term “supreme interests of the state” in the above formulation is unusual. Over the years, the North has most often used that term in connection with arguments of why it needs a nuclear deterrent. Undoubtedly, there are those in Pyongyang who will recall that the DPRK was exercising the “supreme interests” clause when the North first announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in March 1993.

Hasil gambar untuk Kim Jong Un's 2019 New Year's Speech: what to look out for

Timing. A constant DPRK theme since the Singapore Summit has been that progress in US-DPRK relations, on the way to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” depends on the two sides taking “a simultaneous and phase-by-phase course based on reciprocity and equality.” In fact, the North’s accounts of the June summit meeting claimed that:

“The DPRK and US supreme leaders agreed that it is important to observe the principle of step-by-step simultaneous actions in the process of achieving peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

It seems worth noting, therefore, that Kim did not bring up the “phase-by-phase” approach in his speech, and to some extent, even hinted at a way to expedite progress, claiming that:

“If the US responds to our proactive, prior efforts [i.e., presumably meaning not something new on the North’s part] with trustworthy measures and corresponding practical actions, bilateral relations will develop wonderfully at a fast pace through the process of taking more definite and epochal measures.”

A January 2 article by a key and well-informed commentator—Kim Ji Yong—in the pro-North Korean paper in Japan, Choson Sinbo, seemed at pains to take note of the absence (maybe even the oversight?) in Kim Jong Un’s speech of any reference to the “phase-by-phase” approach. Perhaps by way of clarifying, the Choson Sinbo piece claimed:

“The New Year address confirms the supreme leader’s unchanging commitment to implement the 12 June North Korea-US Joint Statement and reiterates the stage-by-stage simultaneous action principle agreed upon at the Singapore summit. There is no need to add something new or make a new proposal.”

As if it were not already clear, the Choson Sinbo article sharpened the message, pointedly noting that, “The New Year’s address contains a very concise and clear message to the occupant of the White House.”

Hasil gambar untuk Kim Jong Un's 2019 New Year's Speech: what to look out for

Denuclearization. Kim Jong Un affirmed it was his “firm will” to “advance towards complete denuclearization.” Curiously—and whether by design or not—he did not clearly say “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the normal DPRK formulation and the one that appears in the Singapore Summit document. The earliest appearing KCNA English version of Kim’s speech rendered this more carefully, noting that Kim had laid out his goal to “establish a new relationship between the two countries, set up a permanent and durable peace mechanism in the Korean peninsula and completely denuclearize it in keeping with the demand of the new century, as clarified in the June 12 DPRK-U.S. joint statement.”

The subsequent, full text English-language versions that were carried by KCNA and appeared on the Rodong Sinmun website, however, failed to link “denuclearization” so clearly and directly with the “Korean Peninsula,” instead rendering Kim’s remarks as:

“It is the invariable stand of our Party and the government of our Republic and my firm will to establish a new bilateral relationship that meets the demand of the new era as clarified in the June 12 DPRK-US Joint Statement, build a lasting and durable peace regime and advance towards complete denuclearization.”

Nuclear weapons production. Kim claimed that as evidence of the North’s commitment to the above goals:

North Korea’s increasing number of missile launches despite U.N. sanctions has drawn more world criticism.

“Accordingly, we declared at home and abroad that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them, and we have taken various practical measures.”

At the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Third Plenum in April 2018, the North declared a total halt to nuclear weapons and ICBM tests and offered a qualified pledge not to use or proliferate nuclear weapons. There was no reference to stopping “production,” at the time, nor has there been anything along those lines since. The closest Pyongyang has come is Kim’s offer in September to dismantle fissile material production facilities at Yongbyon if the US takes “corresponding measures.” Thus, the question arises, was Kim slipping in a pledge to halt “production” while making it appear this was not new and thus not a further concession on his part even before negotiations got underway? It is interesting to note that with Kim’s remarks on stopping “production,” the North has now checked off three (highlighted in bold below) of the eight activities North and South Korea pledged in their January 1992 Denuclearization Declaration not to undertake:

“…test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or usenuclear weapons.”

Clearly, the three highlighted in yellow remain key to eventual total denuclearization.

Hasil gambar untuk Kim Jong Un's 2019 New Year's Speech: what to look out for

Economic issues. Not surprisingly, Kim’s main focus in his speech this year was switch from “byungjin” (the previous policy of simultaneous effort on the economy and the nuclear weapons sector) to total focus on the economic construction—the “new strategic line” adopted at the Third WPK Plenum. To underline the point, Kim twice went out of his way to single out the implications of the new line, especially for the all-important munitions industry. First, he noted the munition industry’s production of “a variety of farm machinery, construction equipment, cooperative product and consumer goods.” Later in the speech, as if to drive home the point, he underlined:

“The munitions industry should, on the one hand, steadily raise the national defense capacity to that of the world’s advanced countries by stepping up the effort for making the defense industry Juche-based and modern, therefore guaranteeing the peace on the Korean peninsula by force of arms, and, on the other, should actively support economic construction.”

As usual, Kim made no overt mention of economic reform, but he did use code phrases that stand for the new policies he has been pushing since coming to power in 2011.

“The Cabinet and other state and economic guidance organs should improve planning, pricing, and monetary and financial management in line with socialist economic law and make sure that economic levers have a positive effect on the revitalization of production and expanded reproduction in enterprises. They should adjust the structures and system of work to raise the efficiency of economic work and to make enterprises smoothly conduct their business activities.”

In the agricultural sphere, he explicitly recognized “sideline” efforts by “individual farmers” as an important contribution to the supply of meat and eggs to the population. Sideline farming has been an important factor increasing agricultural production, and the regime has given it formal, approved status for many years. Recently, in his speech at the 7th WPK Congress in 2016, Kim spoke of the need to develop “individual livestock farming at rural households.” That fits with a broader initiative by Kim to develop what is now known as—but rarely discussed in the media—the “plot responsibility system,” designed to motivate farmers to grow more by, at least in theory, allowing them to keep more. Thus, while his reference to “individual” farming is not new, it reinforces the legitimacy of these efforts and, presumably, will prod local authorities to encourage them.

The Choson Sinbo article filled in something left unspoken in Kim’s New Year’s address but which dominates the regime’s calculations and was presented as a major rationale at the time of the Third Plenum decision on the “new strategic line.” It clarified the linkage between the external security situation and the North’s new, concentrated efforts on economic construction, and the assertion that by successfully eliminating the threat of war, the DPRK was removing the biggest obstacle to rebuilding the economy.


Across the Yalu River: the past, and future, of China-North Korea relations, By John Petrushka

The relationship between China and North Korea has oscillated considerably since 2015. In Beijing, attitudes on North Korea shifted from cautiously optimistic in 2015 to alarmed in 2016, visibly exasperated in 2017 and finally increasingly confident in 2018.During that time, a considerable amount of new information about Sino-DPRK relations under Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping has come to light, and the bilateral relationship has been tested in unprecedented ways.

References to China and North Korea as close as “lips and teeth” and prideful recollections of the “war to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea” abound in Chinese media.

However, the relationship between China and North Korea is much more complex than cursory observation suggests. The economic and regional forces pushing both sides together are the strongest they have been since the Korean War, but deep and possibly unresolvable political rifts underlie the Yalu and Tumen Rivers which divide both nations.

The North Korean buffer as a Cold War relic

Sino-DPRK relations reached a trough in 2017. Nuclear tests in North Korea in 2016 and 2017 caused earthquakes which frightened residents of Northeast China and led Chinese scientists to question the stability of Mount Mantap, the site of the tests. The possibility that a nuclear test would inadvertently cause an eruption of Mount Paektu was even raised in Chinese media in 2017.

China surprised many observers by supporting several rounds of U.N. sanctions against North Korea in response to its 2016 and 2017 nuclear tests. This became a severe impediment to Sino-DPRK relations.

At the time, North Korea’s belligerence was, in China’s perception, playing into the strategy of the U.S. to militarize South Korea, culminating in the deployment of THAAD in 2016. Before that, China enjoyed strong relations with South Korea (which have since resumed).

Chinese observers noted that U.S. and South Korean weapons have advanced enough to more easily overcome the gap between the DMZ and Yalu River if circumstances conspired. Furthermore, there was no assurance that North Korea would not turn its nuclear weapons against China someday.

As a result, in 2017, some Chinese observers discarded the importance of North Korea as a strategic buffer and called on Beijing to rethink its North Korea strategy.

In many ways, those observers are correct—North Korea is less useful as a military buffer than it was during the Cold War. However, North Korea’s significance to China has evolved, and now the country is perceived by Beijing as key to the economic revival of Northeast China.

Kim turns the tables

Hasil gambar untuk Kim Jong Un's 2019 New Year's Speech: what to look out for

March 2018 brought a flurry of Sino-DPRK bilateral diplomacy on the heels of North Korean engagement with South Korea and the U.S. It became clear to the world that, despite their differences, China was unwilling to allow North Korea to slide too far from its orbit, and North Korea still appreciated China’s economic and geopolitical strength.

The precise outcomes of the multiple summit meetings held between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un in 2018 have not been disclosed. However, based on the subsequent developments, it appears likely that North Korea agreed to open its economy to cooperation with China and halt tests of nuclear devices and long-range missiles in exchange for loosening of sanctions enforcement and a renewed campaign for lifting of international sanctions against North Korea on the part of Beijing.

The optimistic outlook: reform and opening

Hasil gambar untuk Kim Jong Un's 2019 New Year's Speech: what to look out for

Beijing has long hoped for economic reform in North Korea along the lines of China’s experience. Pyongyang’s recent apparent interest in this path dovetails perfectly with China’s 2018 commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the launch of its Reform and Opening policies.

China hopes North Korea will follow in its footsteps, as this would provide stability along the border shared by both countries, a powerful demonstration to the world of the applicability of China’s economic model, and a catalyst for the economic renewal of Northeast China, where development has lagged that of other parts of the country in recent decades.

However, this is hardly the first time China has attempted to jump start economic growth in North Korea, and the region of North Korea bordering China is littered with stalled Chinese investments. If Kim’s outreach to China and the world in 2018 has been enabled by his consolidation of power in Pyongyang, Sino-DPRK economic projects may find political backing and success.

If North Korea were to successfully pursue China’s path of development, Northeast Asia would become an economic powerhouse, even if North Korea’s growth did not match that of China. Similarly, if Pyongyang cultivated a stronger relationship with Beijing in the process, their bilateral relationship could become unbreakable.

The pessimistic outlook:  political fault lines

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2018 has seen a dramatic turnaround in Sino-DPRK relations. Given the history of the bilateral relationship, China’s growing regional leadership and North Korea’s apparent interest in engaging with the world, on the surface the two sides seem perfectly positioned to make their alliance stronger than ever.

In reality the relationship between China and North Korea may never progress past an uneasy alliance of convenience. In 2017, reports surfaced suggesting that Chinese officials had met with Jang Song Thaek in August 2012, three months before Xi Jinping was sworn in as China’s president, as part of a planned coup against Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Nam, Jong Un’s half brother who was more friendly toward China, was to be installed in Jong Un’s place.

Kim’s later discovery of the plan contributed to his decision to have Jang executed in December 2013, which caused a deep chill in China-North Korea relations. The February 2017 assassination of Jong Nam, who had long lived in China, also undermined Sino-DPRK political relations.

Tensions between China and North Korea are not unique to the Kim Jong Un era. Kim Il Sung was reportedly enraged by China’s decision to open relations with South Korea in 1992. Mandarin language sources reported in 2017 that North Korean officials were recycling Kim’s 1992 grievances against China as a result of China’s support for UN sanctions in response to North Korea’s nuclear tests.

Despite a shared political ideology and cultural similarities, historians have documented North Korea’s reluctance to align too closely with Beijing even at the height of the Cold War.

In addition, regardless of high-level efforts in 2018 by Chinese officials to smooth over relations with North Korea and promote grassroots exchange, a gulf in mutual perception by citizens of both nations lingers.

Chinese netizens have long poked fun at “fatty Kim the third” on social media platforms. Condemnation of North Korea’s bellicose nuclear and missile tests resounded with a high degree of uniformity on social media in 2016 and 2017.

Even as North Korea has improved relations with China and the rest of the world in 2018, some Chinese observers maintain wariness on social media, wondering if North Korea is going to sell out China in its diplomatic interactions with others or if Kim is simply making a pretense at dismantling the country’s nuclear program.

Sources suggest that distrust of China abounded among North Koreans in 2017. At the time, China received the brunt of the blame for international sanctions against North Korea due to critical editorials in North Korean state media and unflattering pronouncements by North Korean officials. It is unclear whether this had any lasting impact on perceptions of China among North Koreans.

Uncertainty and loss of face

newspaper photo

In 2018, Beijing regained some valuable leverage over Pyongyang, and North Korea continues to hold considerable potential as a partner. However, its strategic value to China is undermined by its strongly negative image in the international community and its hesitance to adopt reforms which would benefit both countries. In material terms, China provides much more to North Korea than it receives in return.

However, from Beijing’s perspective, the most difficult aspect of its relationship with North Korea is the uncertainty. Not only does China have limited influence over North Korea, the events of 2016 and 2017 demonstrated that Beijing sometimes knows as little about what is happening in Pyongyang as anyone else.

While China will blame the U.S. for any North Korean reversion to nuclear tests, it would likely support new U.N. sanctions due to the risk such tests pose for China. In addition, the tests in 2016 and 2017 apparently caught China by surprise and undermined Beijing’s image both domestically and internationally, further compelling China to support U.N. sanctions.

China prefers to maintain stability and face in its foreign relations. North Korea’s willingness to make overtures to South Korea and the U.S. in early 2018 apparently without consulting China and allow its officials to publicly criticize China, in addition to the executions of pro-China officials and nuclear tests, is anathema to Beijing.

However, unpredictability strengthens North Korea’s international stance and Kim’s style is not to mince words. This contrast will continue to act as a drag on Sino-DPRK relations.

Possible outcomes

Given the geopolitical tectonics in Northeast Asia and current trends in North Korea’s relationships with regional powers, there are three possible trajectories for Sino-DPRK relations in the coming years:

  • Embrace – Robust political and economic interdependence develops between North Korea and China. North Korea abandons (or at least suspends) development of nuclear weapons. China successfully lifts international sanctions against North Korea and spearheads international investment in North Korea;
  • Balance – Sino-DPRK relations remain positive but North Korea balances its reliance on Beijing with engagement with Russia, South Korea, the U.S., and other partners. Sino-U.S. tensions and regional frictions continue to complicate China’s efforts to fully engage with North Korea;
  • Retrenchment – North Korea’s diplomatic opening of 2018 does not last and is not accompanied by economic engagement. Facing unabated international pressure and not getting everything it wants from China, North Korea resumes nuclear testing and provocative actions. More international sanctions and a chill in Sino-DPRK relations follow.

China earnestly hopes for the first outcome. Denuclearization of North Korea (or at least a cessation of its efforts to build nuclear devices) is important to China, as is having a stable and successful partner along its Northeast border which can support its economic revival and link China more closely to the Korean peninsula and Japan through its One Belt, One Road and regional infrastructure initiatives.

China is maintaining vigilance in case the lattermost possibility materializes. It has shifted military forces to its Northeast in recent years and enhanced the security of its border with North Korea. The latter is an effort to stem the flow of migrants fleeing across the Yalu and Tumen Rivers but the former represents readiness for conflict, however unlikely, on the Korean peninsula.

In addition, China has consistently laid all blame for the current stall in U.S.-DPRK rapprochement at the feet of the U.S., which Beijing accuses of having given nothing in exchange for the many concessions (namely its vague commitment to denuclearize, suspension of nuclear tests and closure of the Sohae satellite launch facility) made by North Korea in their current negotiations.

However, of the three possible outcomes, the second is most likely at present. North Korea continues to rely on China and finds value in its partnership with Beijing, but history suggests that North Korea is reluctant to draw too close to China (or any one other power) and maintain a balance in the interest of maximizing its own benefits. Political rifts and mutual negative perceptions will undermine the powerful potential of an ironclad Sino-DPRK relationship.


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China has long sought to lead the international community and the DPRK in negotiating a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue. In 2015, Chinese officials often reiterated the importance of restarting the Six-Party Talks, with the likely objective of economic engagement to follow a solution to DPRK nuclear development.

China now seeks to be North Korea’s lead partner in opening to economic engagement with the world as well as steer North Korea’s bilateral interactions with South Korea, the U.S. and others. As global attention to the North’s mothballed nuclear program fades, China hopes there will be no need for a formal process to curtail DPRK nuclear development and focus can shift to the North’s economy.

Despite concern on the part of the U.S., enhanced DPRK cooperation with China would deliver significant economic benefits to the North Korean people and further stabilize the region.

Though human rights violations would continue in North Korea and the U.S. would have a harder time gaining a geopolitical foothold there, these are unlikely to change in the short term regardless of developments in Sino-DPRK relations.

China offers much to North Korea. It has political, economic and military power not nearly matched by North Korea’s few other partners. In addition, China has demonstrated willingness to give North Korea more than it receives in return, as well as flexibility when North Korea takes provocative actions or engages with Beijing’s rivals in China’s absence, as was the case in March 2018.

However, no matter the potential upside, North Korea is unlikely to lean heavily on China and will remain a burdensome partner for Beijing.




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