Dr. Jae Kyu Park is President of Kyungnam University, former Minister of Unification, and former Chairman of the National Security Council (NSC) of the Republic of Korea. He currently serves as a presidential advisor on Korean unification affairs and as a member of the Presidential Committee on Social Cohesion. He played an instrumental role as the architect of the historic first-ever inter-Korean summit of June 2000. President Park has served as the chairman of the Korean University Presidents Association (2001–2004), ISANG YUN Peace Foundation (2005–2009), and Northeast Asian Forum of University Presidents (2003–2011), among other associations. He also served as President of the University of North Korean Studies (2005– 2009). He currently serves as a presidential advisor on Korean unification affairs and as a member of the Presidential Committee on Social Cohesion. He has received numerous honors and awards, including the prestigious Special Prize of the Jury (for Conflict Prevention) from the Chirac Foundation of France in 2009. In an exclusive interview in downtown Seoul with Dr. Lakhvinder Singh, managing editor of Asia-Pacific Business and Technology Report, Dr. Park discusses the situation on the Korean Peninsula, the growing IndiaKorea ties, and a possible future role for India in peace building between the two Koreas. Below are excerpts of the interview.
Since you are well-known as an expert on North Korea, we would like to begin with some questions on this topic. Following the death of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il, the reins of power in North Korea have been handed over to his third son, Kim Jong Un. Is the third son really in charge in the North or is there much more to it than what is seen?
As you may remember, North Korea held its third delegates meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) on September 28, 2010. Since this meeting, Kim Jong Un’s succession in North Korea has been firmly set. No organization or individual can challenge his authority. From September 2010 to December 2011, when Kim Jong Il died, Kim Jong Un’s leadership succession had been successfully put forward, with no anti-Kim Jong Un factions or persons within the elite having appeared knowingly.
As you may know, the key organizations of control in North Korea are the Workers’ Party (of Korea), the military, and the State Security Agency. These organizations are under Kim Jong Un’s tight control. The WPK 4th Party Conference was recently held on April 11, 2012, where Kim Jong Un was appointed as First Secretary of the Party. In this position, Kim Jong Un is officially the leading official of the WPK Central Committee’s Secretariat. Days later, the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) convened its fifth session. This meeting is essentially North Korea’s unicameral legislature’s annual session. At this meeting, Kim Jong Un was appointed to the new position of First Chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC). His deceased father was given the title of Eternal NDC Chairman. So it seems clear that Kim Jong Un, with these official designations, has complete authority over the key organizations of rule.
With Kim’s youth and inexperience, surely there must be others in North Korea assisting him as leader. Who are those people?
Well, one key person has been Jang Song Thaek. He is now the Director of the Administration Department of the WPK and a Vice-Chairman of the NDC—both positions of some authority. Since September 2010, Jang has mentored Kim Jong Un, paying specific attention to the economy by looking for foreign investment. He has also paid more attention to the remodeling of the city of Pyongyang. Jang seems to be refraining from advising the young leader on matters of military and security, as those are not his domain. That means that military and security matters are under Kim Jong Un’s control.
Aside from Jang Song Thaek, there are other people who appear to be senior mentors to Kim Jong Un. In my view, there are about seven others who are most prominent. They are as follows: Kim Yong Nam, who is President of the Presidium of the SPA; Kim Kyong Hui, sister of Kim Jong Il and recently promoted as Secretary of the Central Committee of the WPK; Choe Ryong Hae, now Director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army (KPA); Ri Yong Ho, the Chief of the General Staff of the KPA; Kim Jong Gak, who was recently appointed as Minister of the People’s Armed Forces; Kim Won Hong, who is Minister of State Security; and longtime foreign policy hand of Kim Jong Il, Kang Sok Ju, who is currently the Vice Premier of the DPRK government, overseeing foreign affairs.
With these senior mentors, there is no confusion or turmoil in North Korea. For the next few years, they will buttress Kim Jong Un’s leadership.
Is there a possibility of a bottom-up people’s revolution taking place in North Korea, as we’ve seen in the Middle East with the Arab People’s Revolution?
Such seems extremely unlikely. The North Korean government does not allow the North Korean people to talk about what’s been happening in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere. There is no public discussion on the people’s revolutions in the Middle East. Almost no information on these revolutions reaches the ears of the North Korean public. There is no domestic communication on the events or international information flow that reaches the people. Overseas diplomats that return to Pyongyang keep silent. North Korean business travelers who travel back and forth across the border are monitored and checked. The government still exercises tight control over the population, and will not tolerate any discussion of the issue or anti-government movement.
In addition, Pyongyang and Beijing are of the same mind on this: a people’s revolution would be unacceptable. So North Korea can expect strong cooperation with China to prevent any such movement from emerging.
With that said, the new leadership is faced with solving the country’s economic problems. If it cannot provide basic welfare for the people—that is, adequate food, energy, and medical service—then discontent within the population could rise. Is the new Kim Jong Un leadership headed for reform and opening of North Korea? If not, where do you think it is headed? Not in the Western sense of reform and opening. And not in the sense of the Chinese experience either.
North Korea’s economic situation is still problematic. The country is progressing toward a position in which the regime will have to deal with the demand for reform and opening. The regime knows it must improve the economy. To do this, North Korea will follow “its own style” of reform and opening. This does not mean reform and opening in the Western sense. It is my understanding that the new leadership envisions reform and opening in two steps. The first is to increase its development of special economic and free trade zones, such as at Kaesong, Hwanggumpyong, and Rajin-Sonbong. The second step will be to apply aspects of Chinese-style reform. Over a decade ago, under Kim Jong Il, North Korea studied and made a plan for reform and opening policy. Kim Jong Il himself visited Shanghai to examine the city’s industry and growth. Under China’s recommendation, North Korea started to study about China’s reform policy, but it was not yet ready to adopt or follow China’s reforms. Instead, Kim Jong Il said that North Korea was starting its own-style reform and opening plan. He implied that North Korea wanted to avoid the “negative effects” a policy similar to China’s would have on the North Korean society. He also said he would not follow Western style reforms.
As I see it, North Korea will continue the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Here they allowed South Korean capital and technology to enter, yet the labor is almost exclusively North Korean. Through its experience with the KIC and the Kumgang Tourist Resort, North Korea found no negative impact on North Korean society. In Sinuiju, North Korea will invite capital and technology from China, and the same from third countries. In Rajin-Sonbong, North Korea will also try to attract Russian and Chinese investment. All these sites are on the border regions, far from Pyongyang. With these new projects with China and Russia, I predict North Korea will proceed with reforms, benchmarking China, but at a cautious pace. This is how I understand North Korean-style reform and opening.
Media reports mention recent food riots in the countryside in North Korea. What do you think of these reports?
It is difficult to say exactly what has happened. It might be that any number of people quarreled in the market. We don’t know exactly. But that’s different from anti-government protests. On the whole, the regime appears to have the society under its tight control.
Will North Korea give up its nuclear weapons?
In my view, getting North Korea to completely relinquish its nuclear weapons will be difficult. After the collapse of the USSR and the German unification in the 1990s, a new slogan appeared in North Korea, coined by Kim Jong Il: “No nukes, no Chosun.” Kim Jong Il persuaded his father, Kim Il Sung, to pursue the development of a “special weapon” to prevent the US and South Korean pressure for unifying the Korean Peninsula. After he received his father’s permission, this slogan gained currency.
But before his father’s death, Kim Jong Il also sought to forgo nuclear weapons development if the US would guarantee the security of the Kims’ leadership and promise economic “compensation.”
This past February, the new regime in Pyongyang made a bilateral deal with the United States—“the Leap Day deal.” North Korea agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests, and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities. IAEA inspectors were supposed to return to monitor the situation at Yongbyon. The United States was to provide North Korea with a large-scale aid package of nutritional assistance. Delivery of the assistance was to be monitored. That would have been welcome progress, but the recent North Korean rocket launch seems to have scuttled that deal. However, despite the launch, the new regime in Pyongyang still seems to want to continue the deal. Under the Kim Jong Un leadership, the chance of North Korea completely giving up its nuclear weapons has been lowered. The recent fall of the dictatorships in Iraq and Libya may have given the leadership in Pyongyang pause, and enhanced the position of the hard-liners in Pyongyang that seek to develop nuclear weapons.
The leadership may be willing to make deals to halt North Korea’s nuclear programs in exchange for immediate economic needs. However, getting them to give up their nuclear weapons completely will continue to be a Gordian knot.
South Korea is going to have presidential elections later this year. What kind of change do you see in the South Korean government policy after the elections vis-à-vis North Korea? What can the next South Korea administration do to normalize relations with North Korea?
Under the incumbent Lee Myung-bak administration, there is, as we say, “no medicine” to change the current impasse in inter-Korean relations. North Korea has stated that it will not work with the current South Korean government.
Once the Lee administration’s term ends, I think North Korea will look to try to return to the period when inter-Korean relations were on a course toward reconciliation and cooperation. With regard to the nuclear issue, I think at that time North Korea will also look to return to the sixparty negotiations.
The Six-Party Talks began in 2003. Eight years have passed since then and many say that nothing concrete has come out of those talks. Do you still have faith in the multilateral sixparty framework or do we need a new model?
The Six-Party Talks has had its failures. But it has achieved some success, in particular with the September 2005 Joint Statement. In any case, there really are no other models. The only and best approach is to continue these talks, with US-North Korea dialogue to take place within their framework. That is the best approach.
It is commonly said that the US always puts it security interests above peace on the Korean Peninsula. In this context do you think America is the right country to lead these talks on the Korean Peninsula?
This is a misconception. The United States has played an important role for decades in maintaining the peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the Northeast Asian region. We can anticipate the US to continue to play a central role in this effort. Likewise, any peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue will require US leadership.
Some reports suggest that North Korea might have spent as much as US$850 million on the recent rocket launch. Isn’t this an immense sum of money for a country like North Korea?
Scientists calculated the costs of making the missile, and I don’t know how much it actually costs to put up a satellite system. But indeed it is a big sum to spend for any country, not just North Korea. So if North Korea has that kind of money to spend on a rocket launch, the assistance which the US is offering in exchange for that program must seem comparatively small.
But as you know, the food problem in North Korea is very serious, and has been for the last two decades. More resources need to be put toward economic development and solving the food problem. However, the missile program appears to be part of North Korea’s long-term security strategy. Making a long-range rocket with a satellite system takes years. It’s not a spur of the moment decision. North Korea first launched a long-range rocket to put a satellite into orbit in 1998. That failed. In 2006 North Korea tested some more long-range rockets. Three years later in 2009, they attempted another satellite launch. It failed, too. We can only assume that after the 2009 launch they began preparing for the next one, which occurred recently. Add it all up, and in total those launches do amount to a considerable sum of money.
After North Korea’s insistence to launch a satellite in April, the recently concluded “Leap Day” deal between the US and North Korea collapsed. Where do we go from here? Is there any possibility of the US and North Korea coming to another agreement in the near future? Or do we need to wait until the presidential elections in South Korea in December?
Actually, there will be two big presidential elections near the end of this year: one in South Korea and one in the United States. A new administration will take over in Seoul. I cannot predict what will happen in the United States. Regardless, the denuclearization effort is too important to just sit and wait for the outcomes of these elections. We must continue to make efforts to have the parties engage in dialogue, meaning that both Six-Party Talks and bilateral US-DPRK dialogue simultaneously need to be reactivated.
China–North Korea relations are very complicated and many international observers fail to fully understand the exact nature of this relationship. What is your take on North Korea– China relations?
Yes, they are indeed very complicated and are difficult to follow even for experts. Nobody can say for sure what the exact nature of the relationship is.
Recent media reports have shown that despite UN sanctions, China recently might have helped North Korea build its long-range missiles. Given this reality, to what extent can South Korea work with China to solve the North Korea nuclear and missile issues?
Actually, according to reports, a Chinese company supplied a truck chassis to North Korea, and this was used to customize a vehicle to transport missiles. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, I cannot see how China could assist North Korea in missile development. In the past, during the Cold War, China and the Soviet Union likely assisted the North Koreans in some capacity; but I do not think that is the case today. It is highly improbable that China would jeopardize its position in the international community by doing such a thing.
Now, what South Korea can do is continue to encourage China to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programs. To maintain peace and security in Northeast Asia, China should strongly persuade North Korea to denuclearize.
Do you see any role for Asian countries to solve the crisis on the Korean Peninsula?
Not just Asian countries, but all countries can play some role. At the recent Nuclear Security Summit held in Seoul this past March, 53 heads of state and government from around the world were in attendance. Every nation is concerned about our global nuclear future. Not just Asian countries, but all UN member states have a role to play in support of international efforts to persuade North Korea to forego its nuclear weapons programs, and ultimately end nuclear weapons as a threat to the world. All member states should support the efforts to encourage North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons in order to develop the North Korean economy. All nations can work to encourage North Korea to open up to the world.
It is said that India is the only country among Asian democracies who has good relations with both Koreas. Given the historical connection between India and Korea, what role do you see for it in helping resolve the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula?
I understand that India established official diplomatic ties with North Korea in 1973, and is one of the few countries to maintain an embassy in Pyongyang. India has provided North Koreans with training in the field of science and technology, and has contributed food assistance to North Korea through the World Food Programme, including a substantial amount last year. I understand that a delegation from North Korea visited India last year to examine India’s experience with setting up special economic zones, and that the two countries have made efforts to intensify their bilateral ties. Perhaps India can work in some positive way to help North Korea figure out that, for the long-term development of the country, it should choose economic development over nuclear weapons development, and open up to the world.
In your view, what role can India and South Korea play in promoting peace internationally? What can the two countries do together?
I can divide your question into economic cooperation and diplomatic cooperation. In economic cooperation, the relationship between the two countries is growing like never before. I understand many South Korean business firms have been looking for business partners in India. This is positive. Greater economic cooperation will mean greater interaction between our societies and lead to greater prosperity for our peoples. Prosperity itself helps promote peace.
Diplomatically, India is a respected member of the United Nations. It has had an embassy in Pyongyang for a long time, and today seems to have good relations with North Korea. The fact that India has good relations with both North and South Korea is significant. It means India can in a unique way constructively support the peace building and economic development efforts on the Korean Peninsula. Perhaps at various levels, India can try to persuade North Korea to forego its nuclear weapons programs and instead pay more attention to developing its economy. If that happens, if North Korea makes that choice, it would go a long way to improving the peace and security both in the region and beyond.
So do you think India could break the cycle in the Korean Peninsula?
India can try to talk about economic development and bring foreign investment to North Korea. As a friendly country, India can also try to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons— but just as a friendly country talking softly to a friend. As a spiritual and historical country, India commands high respect among Korean people on both sides of the 38th parallel.
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