Is Kim Jong Il Becoming a Dove?

Date September 6, 2002
Speaker Kenneth QUINONES(Korean Peninsula Program Director, American Research Institute for Asia and the Pacific)


I would have never guessed that Japan's prime minister would go visit Pyongyang. I believe that if there is to be a new security order in Northeast Asia, the priorities must be determined in the capitals of Northeast Asia. For Tokyo, the problem will be to convince Washington, DC to join the new order. Prime Minister Koizumi's task will be like that of former Prime Minister Nakasone-to change Japan's global role. Mr. Koizumi will have to put the emphasis on commercial activity in East Asia.

For 50 years, Korea has been a problem of security, requiring deterrence. This view justified the US-Japan alliance as the cornerstone of US foreign policy toward Asia, the aid to Japan, and the military presence in Okinawa. But since 1990, we have been left with North Korea as the last country in the region to enter the modern world. Japan was the first to adjust to Western power, during the Meiji Era. Then China began its transformation in 1972.

North Korea understands that, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of South Korea's economy, it too must change. North Korea has relied on aid from Moscow and Beijing and on fear from everyone else. In 1990, North Korea lost its benefactor and it shifted to nuclear deterrence. Will North Korea forgo its past and embrace modernity? It is a dilemma, but since 1994, it has leaned toward the modern.

North Korea does have its military, but its capabilities are declining. It cannot afford to buy more weapons and its economy is in shambles. It retains 8,000 spent fuel rods that the US put in safe storage that could yield eight nuclear weapons, but it has so far forgone this option. North Korea is no longer a security problem: it is now an economic problem.

What does North Korea want? Kim Jong Il wants survival. The first priority is to shift to an economic solution to the problem. South Korea's Sunshine Policy was an economic overture. The US still sees the problem as one of security. Here, Mr. Koizumi is showing foresight because it as an economic problem. Mr. Koizumi accepts that North Korea wants economic compensation. Japan will exchange economic ability with North Korea to eliminate the threat. Will Pyongyang be receptive? Yes. North Korea is in a state of transition. Kim Jong Il signed the Agreed Framework with the US and made the decision to forgo building nuclear weapons.

The change has been dramatic. In 1992, North Korea was completely closed and, with little oil, it was literally frigid. Since 1995, however, the country has undergone a profound opening. It is now common to see foreigners living in Pyongyang with their families. Virtually all of Europe has established diplomatic relations with North Korea. The country has reduced its reliance on its former Soviet allies. Pyongyang's computer center was built by Japanese. You can use the Internet to read newspapers and the infection of foreign ideas is growing.

While says it is "revitalizing," not "reforming," it is indeed changing. We can either join in and hasten this transition or deny it. North Koreans are infatuated with computers. We have been bringing in DVDs and videos. For North Koreans, "South Pacific" was profound because it crossed the racial divide. The message of "My Fair Lady" was also clear.

North Korea is pursuing economic change. South Korea has pumped a few billion dollars into its northern neighbor. North Koreans now want dollars and yen, not their own currency. They have established foreign exchange stores. You can buy anything in Pyongyang. The pace of change in North Korea is quickening and we can make it even quicker. North Korea will want to figure out what Mr. Koizumi wants from his trip there-to open the country or to sell Japanese stuff?

This should be the message: "Yes, we recognize that North Korea is changing. But we cannot go back to the old days." North Korea has to go from a military internal to a civilian external economy.

Bill Clinton deserves credit for understanding the change in Korea. But Secretary Albright was manipulated during her visit. Kim used Albright's visit to take her to the enormous 150,000-seat May Day stadium, as if to say, "Look what I brought to town." Koizumi should not bow to Kim-my advice is to be polite but formal. Kim had exploited Albright's friendliness; he is like a 19th century monarch. Koizumi should just give him a strong handshake.

What should Koizumi bring back? The less we expect, the better. He deserves credit for taking the initiative, but he should not make a lot of promises. Kim De Jung made the mistake of committing to too much. We should put North Korea on the path toward durable peace and make the bet on the future. North Korea sees what it is doing as a struggle for its survival. Condemnation will not change the society.

Questions and Answers

Q: How would you characterize North Korea's transition? Will it be like Vietnam's transformation? What about North Korea supplying arms to Iraq? Do others in Washington, DC share your view?

North Korea's change will have to be complete, even philosophical. North Korea rejects China's model of shifting from communism to a command economy with elements of capitalism. North Korea is too small for this approach. You cannot say "capitalism" is the answer. They have gone to quasi-socialist countries and have looked at South Korea's transition. North Korea will take some elements of China's model, but ultimately it will track closely with the transition of the economies in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam. Missile proliferation is a serious issue, but their technology is quite old. Nevertheless, nuclear missiles do not have to be accurate to create a lot of damage. China and our friend Pakistan also proliferate, but it is a political calculation. Which proliferater do you want to accent? The best policy is to make North Korea's missiles useless or to make sure that Kim Jong Il understands that if he launches a missile, his country will be destroyed. Remember: if you emphasize the importance of missiles, the price of disarmament goes up. I am confident that, in the US policymaking community, cooler heads will prevail.

Q: What is Kim Jong Il's relationship with his military?

There is high tension between the military and civil sectors in North Korean society. It takes days for information to flow up the chain of command. Kim is in control, but the bureaucracy is real and Kim is not a superman. It is like Kim is in a cart drawn by two horses-one being civilian, one military. Sometimes he has to let the military horse out front for a bit and then jerk it back in its place in order to get anywhere.

Q: Why did Kim visit Russia a couple of times recently?

Last year's trip was significant. I have heard from Russians that Kim wanted to see the impact of Gorbachev's reforms on Russia. These are study tours. Kim is starting to realize that leads the poorest country in a region of prosperity.

Q: North Korean educators are starting to use the word "reform." What is the UN's role in the country's opening?

Yes, there is change and the change in the lexicon reflects that. The UN has achieved rapid acceptance in North Korea and has become a conduit.

Q: Can you comment on the US's current hard line approach toward North Korea?

Well, I am a Democrat. I do think that Brent Scowcroft was one of the best national security advisors. I am uncomfortable with President Bush's approach toward North Korea and toward the international community. It is a unilateral superpower approach. We have gone from multilateral to unilateral on Iraq. We hear the word "determination," not "negotiation." Bush's approach is increasing the likelihood that North Korea will arm itself with nuclear weapons in order to deter the US. If the US crosses the demilitarized zone, North Korea will not simply standby.

Q: Might Koizumi's visit create distance between Japan and the US?

Yes, Japan is stepping out of its traditional low profile role. If Koizumi makes progress, he cannot go back to subordinating Japan's role. Washington is on a diplomatic limb here. Either Japan keeps the situation calm or the US will apply its unilateralism to Northeast Asia, which would be grave indeed.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.