=Changes in Pyongyang/Washington, business as usual=
Moon J. Pak
Over the past six months, there have been changes in the structure of North Korea’s government, signaling a shift from an emphasis on military might to an emphasis on economic development. But it does not seem that anyone in Washington has noticed.
During the first half of 2016, there were significant political activities in North Korea, and changes in its ruling party, military, administration, as well as its executive and legislative branches. These structural changes included some shifts in the country’s governing structure, in its national priorities and highest leadership.
This restructuring included personnel shifts at all power levels. It still supports the national priorities as promulgated by the leader, Jong-un Kim. Kim sits in a position very similar to the supreme leader position occupied by his late father (Jong-Il Kim) and grandfather (Il-sung Kim). The admiration for this office is observed by the North Korean people with near-religious fervor.
These changes were presented at the Seventh Worker’s Party Congress of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) held in Pyongyang on May 6 through 9, and adopted unanimously by its delegations. People came from all corners of the country to attend this historic event. The last Congress was held 36 years ago.
One of the significant changes was the emphasis on the power of the Party over its military which is a deviation from the “military first policy” of Jong-un’s predecessor, Jong-il Kim.
Even the name of the Party’s highest ruling committee, headed by Jong-un Kim, the National Defense Committee, was changed to the National Affairs Committee. This name change is the most direct indication of the emphasis the leader is placing on the nation’s economic development and improvement of the quality of life of its citizens.
Given the international and geopolitical situation, changes that favor economic development must be done with careful balance to maintain the country’s strong defense posture. The Kim administration is now discussing what it calls a “parallel emphasis policy” through which the country will shift some of its conventional defense resources to development of the nation’s economic foundation without compromising its national defense.
North Korea spends nearly 30 percent of its GDP on national defense, the highest in the world. This however, is roughly equal to 25 percent of South Korea’s defense budget. It maintains 1.2 million men in arms with supporting military infrastructure, including an Air Force and Navy.
In facing South Korea, North Korea is also facing the U.S. military, which stands behind it. The U.S. actually maintains the wartime control over the South Korean military and has multiple bases on the peninsula with over 18,000 troops, under the so-called “UN Command.”
The U.S. also maintains an unknown number of so-called strategic nuclear weapons on the peninsula and is currently building a naval base on the island of Jeju that, when completed, can harbor its fleets. Currently, the U.S. government wants to locate new Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a missile defense system, ostensibly proposed as a defense against a North Korean missile attack but most clearly aimed at China and Russia. There is great opposition to this in South Korea, because it is obvious to South Koreans that such armaments are not necessary to defend its nation. North Koreans do not need a high altitude missile, since South Korea is three miles away across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)!
However, the most important and ongoing defense threat from North Korea’s perspective is the annual Joint U.S.-ROK military maneuvers carried out at in the Western Sea, in disputed maritime territory off the western coast of North Korea. It blatantly includes a landing exercise on how to invade the North Korean coast, and a Navy Seal training called the “decapitation exercise,” clearly suggesting a rehearsal for taking out North Korea’s leader.
North Korea is now a nuclear power. Its motivation for nuclear armament was a direct consequence of the multiple, repeated, overt nuclear threats made against it during the past 63 years by the U.S. North Korea’s nuclear power was employed, not as an aggression against the U.S. or any other country, but to nullify the threats made against it by the U.S.
North Korea has strongly signaled that it wishes to turn its nation’s resources toward economic development. However, the nation’s leaders have a dilemma. To shift any significant part of its conventional defense expenditure toward the building of economic foundation, North Korea must depend on the presence of an effective and formidable “nuclear deterrence.” It must maintain and improve a nuclear weapons system, so that the threat of it is persuasive enough to deter any military threats imposed by its enemies, the U.S. and South Korea.
This is why, particularly during the past six-months, the North Koreans have been active in their efforts to further develop nuclear weapons system. They have been doing work such as testing of a hydrogen bomb, testing of delivery modalities of various size missiles, especially the Hwasung 3 long-range model, developing atmosphere re-entry capability, working on a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) technology, and a intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology.
In the U.S. media, as well as in U.S. official statements, North Korea’s nuclear weaponry development is depicted as a senseless, random provocation by a volatile immature young leader. Indeed, it is due to the young leader’s plans that nuclear weapons are being further developed. But it is an ambitious and desperate effort to maintain a nuclear defense while improving the country’s economy and the people’s living standards. It is not a rash act; it is a deliberate attempt to protect North Korea while raising its people’s well-being, hence the “parallel emphasis policy.” And it is unlikely to change in the near future.
Additionally, it is of great importance for the world to note that, for the peace and reunification of the peninsula, that the young leader has made a series of proposals and announcements that reflect some postures toward reconciliation and compromise with the South. This was done after first solidifying his leadership in the Congress, then reorganizing the party and the internal government structure.
Jong-un Kim has declared that North Korea will never be first in initiating a nuclear attack which is contrary to many shrill statements made in the media about North Korea’s intentions. The leader also offered a moratorium on the country’s nuclear weapons testing program, if the U.S. places moratorium on its joint military exercises with the South Korean military near the waters of North Korea. He has even suggested that such maneuvers may be acceptable to North Korea if the location were moved farther away from North Korean shores!
Offers were also made directed to South Korea; the North Korean leadership proposed the re-establishment of the direct line of communication between the two Koreas, as well as the reestablishment of regularly-scheduled joint official meetings. More importantly, a proposal was made to organize a Joint Conference to be held either at Kaysong or Pyongyang on August 15, on day of liberation of Korea from the Japanese colonial rule in 1945. Such a conference would be attended broadly by Koreans from South, North and overseas, to discuss and adopt a plan of peace and reunification of Koreas. Invitations to the meeting were sent to governmental as well as civilian entities in South and overseas, including organizations and individuals from a wide political spectrum, indicating the sincerity of the intention of the North Korean organizers.
The U.S. and South Korea have responded negatively to these hopeful and refreshing offers. The two countries are indicating that nothing has changed on their side. They either ignored, or immediately rejected the various offers, or shrugged them off, saying that such overtures represent the routine North Korean propaganda material.
Furthermore, the Obama administration has recently announced an action of extreme provocation against the young leader at this critical time. It has placed a personal U.S. sanction on Jong-un Kim, vaguely based on so-called human rights responsibility issues. This shows once again that nothing has changed in Washington.
It is important for the U.S. government to be cognizant of these subtle shifts in North Korea. There is a key window of opportunity during which the U.S. can take conciliatory policy actions, as it did in dealing with Cuba and also Vietnam, and move toward a peace treaty with North Korea. The U.S. should stop its war mongering, lift the sanctions and embargos old and new, treat North Korea’s leaders, people and political and economic system with respect, and accept that nuclear deterrence is here to stay.
More responsive interaction between the U.S. and South Korea toward North Korea could eventually lead to a peaceful re-unification or coalescence of the two Koreas, and emergence of a national entity that could be a powerful partner in the realization of the true “Asia Pivot Policy” for the U.S.
(Korean Quarterly, Vol. 19, NUM 03, Summer, 2016)
Moon J. Pak is the senior vice-president of the Korean American National Coordinating Council (KANCC), which facilitates cultural and professional exchanges between the U.S. and North Korea.