NCNK Member Digest, Summer 2020 (May - August)

October 26, 2020

The National Committee on North Korea is a non-governmental organization of persons with significant expertise in and diverse perspectives on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Here is a selection of published work authored by NCNK members; this selection is not exhaustive. Read the Spring 2020 Digest here.

Prospects for Resumed Negotiations

Frank Aum writing for the US Institute of Peace argued that US-DPRK negotiations and relations would remain deadlocked for the remainder of 2020 primarily because neither side is willing to demonstrate any flexibility from maximalist positions. Aum suggests that Pyongyang will likely wait until after the November elections before deciding on a path forward.

Stephan Haggard analyzed Kim Yo-jong’s July reflections on the state of diplomacy and found that as a whole the statement seems to reject another summit or working level negotiations, but sought to preserve the personal relationship between Trump and Kim. He ultimately inferred that North Korea is playing out the clock until the November election to see who will win.

70th Anniversary of the Start of the Korean War

Several NCNK Members provided commentary to the National Interest in a series of commentaries in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War and the question “Do you believe that the Korean War will finally come to an end before its next major anniversary in 2025?” 

Jessica Lee argued that there is growing support for the US to move away from open ended conflict and that such trends may help to develop consensus towards finally ending the Korean War, which she argues started the trend of endless wars for America. In a related article for the Quincy Institute, Lee made the case that there is a growing transpartisan consensus for peace on the Korean Peninsula and need to end the Korean War. 

Bridget Coggins wrote that with the Korean War over in all but the formal sense, the Armistice limits the potential for real peace for the two Koreas and that a better, more realistic and diplomatically-minded set of signatories will help to ensure that the War finally and formally comes to an end. 

Stephen Noerper argued that ultimately there needs to be a “Korean solution to the Korean divide, but the international community can cooperate and coordinate to the Peninsula’s benefit.” 

Andrew Yeo argued that a peace treaty cannot guarantee an end of future conflict and that only unification of the two Koreas can ensure full and true closure of the Korean War, which he argues seems unattainable by the 75th anniversary. 

Amb. Joseph DeTrani agreed that a peace treaty could be achievable by the 75th anniversary of the Korean War, but that lack of trust has undermined negotiations and resultant agreements. To that end, argues that a new strategy that focuses on “actions-for-actions” is necessary. 

Stephan Haggard argued a peace agreement seems unlikely by 2025 because there is no clear path to an agreement that would be acceptable to all parties. Given the sequencing challenge proven by past negotiations, Haggard suggests a path towards peace might be found by putting everything on the table. In a related piece for KEI’s The Peninsula blog, Haggard further examined North Korea’s conception of a peace agreement/peace regime by looking at its use of the term “peace regime” over time. 

Charles Armstrong, turning to history, reminded us that the Korean War was a culmination of a civil conflict between two rival regimes, each supported by one of the Cold War superpowers. He suggests that American retreat from overseas military commitments may offer the two Koreas a new opportunity to deal with each other directly, without foreign interference. 

Scott Snyder argued that only a major disruption that shakes up peninsular, regional, and global trend lines will open the way for the end of the Korean conflict by 2025, but “the primary source of disruption these days is North Korea, which desires to use its role as disruptor not to end the Korean conflict but rather to enhance its prospects for power and survival.”

Rocky Inter-Korea Relations 

Drawing on analysis of DPRK’s commentary in KCNA and Rodong Sinmun Bob Carlin argued in 38 North that increasingly anti-South Korea statements represent a choreographed campaign rather than an impulsive response of displeasure against South Korean NGO balloon launches. Carlin notes, “Pyongyang rarely acts on the spur of the moment.”

Frank Aum weighed in with USIP on deteriorating inter-Korea relations and North Korea’s destruction of the Liason Office, arguing North Korea acted to escalate tensions and increase pressure on South Korea and the US. Aum cautions that “North Korea will continue to use lower-level provocations and inflammatory remarks to increase pressure,” but that it would be unlikely that it would resort to major provocations like nuclear or ICBM tests to avoid significant retaliation. 

Writing for KEI's The Peninsula blog, Amb. Robert King examined North Korea’s recent, harsh attack on North Korean defectors and their balloon launch campaigns. He argues such leaflet campaigns have limited impact and that a more compelling motivation for North Korea’s broadsides is growing impatience with South Korea and an effort to pressure Seoul into providing important concessions immediately. 

Duyeon Kim provided a broad overview of the inter-Korea situation for the Crisis Group, chronicling rising tensions and why North Korea has suddenly paused its anti-South Korean threats

COVID-19 Experience

Brad Babson provided a broad overview of the state of North Korea’s economy for 38 North and argues that while the pandemic has exacerbated negative trends in North Korea’s economy, core issues remain related to trade under sanctions, balancing spending, and state management of the economy. 

Thomas Byrne compared and contrasts South Korea and North Korea’s economic resilience to coronavirus in the National Interest, arguing that fundamentally North Korea is unprepared to respond to shocks to the system and that its public finances have been pushed to the edge, with no fiscal buffers or access to credit to cushion the blow. 

Amb Robert King provided an overview of North Korea’s public handling of the July incident of a man returning to North Korea across the DMZ, who they said was positive for COVID-19. Amb. King notes blaming a defector returning from South Korea as the source of the first admitted case in North Korea is a convenient spin for a country that has insisted there are no cases in the country, much to the world’s skepticism. 

A Potential Biden Administration 

Several NCNK members weighed in on a National Interest survey of what kind of North Korea policy a potential Biden administration might take on.

Amb. Bob King responded that given his deep foreign policy experience, Joe Biden would deal with North Korea in a serious and responsible way. King suggested Biden would likely use a broader range of diplomatic efforts to pressure North Korea and more sophisticated and nuanced engagement with China on North Korea cooperation. 

Charles Armstrong highlighted Biden’s campaign as a “restorationist administration,” but cautioned that returning to Obama-era pressure policies would be unsuccessful. Armstrong argued that a more useful Democratic presidential example the Biden administration should look to is Clinton and its 1994 Agreed Framework success. 

Duyeon Kim argued that Biden faces a particularly tough set of challenges to reconcile on North Korea: increased WMD capabilities, diverging US-China priorities, diverging US-ROK priorities, and weakening trilateral cooperation between US-ROK-Japan.  

Miscellaneous Topics

In light of the ongoing media attention to Kim Jong-un’s health, Andray Abrahamian examined the media cultures that shape the English language news about North Korea. 

Following the widely anticipated release of John Bolton’s book on his recent time at the White House, Lee Sigal cautioned journalists and readers to be critical of Bolton’s retelling and not to take his account at face value given his bias and history of undermining arms control agreements.

Following Kim Jong-un’s call to convene a rare Party Congress in early 2021, Stephan Haggard explored explanations for this surprise announcement, which he argued will likely address North Korea’s flagging economy. He acknowledged other theories that the Party Congress could reflect Kim’s intent to revitalize institutions or timed in anticipation of the outcomes of the US elections.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Victor Cha and his colleague Katrin Katz argued that Kim Jong-un’s brief disappearance showed the need for the US to adopt a regional security strategy to deal with potential instability in North Korea, especially securing WMDs and responding to a humanitarian crisis.