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[Herald Interview] ‘Seoul needs to take initiative on N.K. issues’

Seoul needs to take the initiative in addressing a range of pending North Korean issues as Washington is unlikely to take any bold steps, riled by Pyongyang’s provocative and unruly behavior including a recent hack into Sony Pictures, a U.S. scholar said.
Stephan Haggard
Stephan Haggard

In an interview with The Korea Herald, Stephan Haggard, North Korea expert at University of California, San Diego, urged Seoul to lift its economic sanctions against Pyongyang and promote commercial cross-border exchanges to bring about change in the economic backwater.

“With Washington unable to move, the initiative on the peninsula needs to come from Seoul. I have argued that President Park (Geun-hye of South Korea) should lift the May 24 sanctions,” he said, referring to the sanctions banning inter-Korean economic exchanges, which were imposed after the North’s torpedo attack in March 2010.

“We should let private actors and NGOs decide what they want to do vis-a-vis the North, and force the regime there to make key strategic choices as well. ... Commercial relations have the best likelihood ― even if limited ― of changing the nature of the North Korean economy.”

Stressing the importance of commercial interaction with the isolated state, he pointed out that the world’s strategy to deal with the North should include “getting people in and getting people out.” But he noted the strategy would be a “very long game.”

Touching on the North’s stepped-up diplomacy with Russia to apparently reduce its reliance on China, the scholar said the regime’s moves would not produce much success. “China is too close and too dynamic for North Korea to significantly diversify away from its dependence on the country,” he said.

Haggard also cast doubts over the prospects of two-way trade between North Korea and Russia, noting that an economically -strained Moscow might have to shoulder the financial burden for bilateral projects.

“The DPRK (North Korea) will need imports of capital, intermediate and consumer goods as well as raw materials; Russia is not going to be an important supplier of those items,” he said.

“In addition, North Korea will need wide market outlets if it pursues a more export-oriented strategy, and the natural partner for that effort would be Chinese and Korean ― not Russian ― firms.”

The following is the interview with Dr. Haggard.

Korea Herald: North Korea has recently beefed up its diplomacy with Russia, while its relations with China and South Korea remain shaky or have worsened. What do you think about Pyongyang’s intentions behind its recent diplomacy?

Stephan Haggard: It has been clear for some time that China is losing patience with North Korea, even though it is unwilling to exercise overt ― or at least visible ― pressure to bring Pyongyang back to the bargaining table. But the issue is deeper. Since the onset of the second nuclear crisis in 2002, the DPRK has become increasingly dependent on Chinese trade and investment. The leadership is seeking to diversify relations in order to reduce that dependency at the margin. I don’t believe these efforts will yield much success; China is too close and too dynamic for North Korea to significantly diversify away from its dependence on the country.

KH: China accounts for some 90 percent of all of North Korea’s trade, meaning it is the most important economic partner for the isolated regime. How do you think Pyongyang will strive to improve its relations with China?

Haggard: As just noted, it will be extremely difficult for North Korea to fundamentally reorient its foreign policy away from Beijing. But the Chinese leadership has been quite consistent in stating its preference for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, which at this point means disabling and ultimately dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program. However, North Korea has institutionalized its commitment to the maintenance of nuclear weapons in the announcement of the so-called “byungjin line” in early 2013 ― the simultaneous pursuit of economic development and nuclear weapons. This is the ultimate source of the undercurrent of distrust in China-DPRK relations at the moment.

KH: There has been growing talk of North Korea becoming increasingly antithetical to China’s national interests due to its provocative, unruly behavior. Do you think China’s stance toward the North will change?

Haggard: There is now ample evidence of an internal debate in China about the strategic benefits and costs of its alliance with the DPRK; it has even spilled over on to social media. To date, conservatives appear to have won this debate, however. Despite its stated interest in denuclearization, China has been unwilling to undertake the tough actions that would be required to force Pyongyang back to the bargaining table, such as cutting off financial ties or seriously curtailing oil shipments. The United States and South Korea insist that negotiations can only resume with some concrete sign on North Korea’s part that it is willing to participate in such negotiations, and in good faith. Even restating a commitment to the goals of the 2005 joint statement has proven difficult, let alone more concrete steps such as an unconditional and monitored freeze on its nuclear program.

KH: With Kim Jong-un taking power, the international community has hoped that the North could change course and move toward reform and openness. But its international isolation has only deepened. What do you think are the reasons?

Haggard: I still think it is too early to be pessimistic. My colleague Marc Noland and I, as well as South Korean analysts, have tracked reform efforts over the last three years. There is some evidence that Kim Jong-un tried some modest reforms in 2012, but these did not move forward or were rolled back. Emphasis in the first two years naturally focused on consolidating power. New signs of reform efforts, although modest, are now leaking out. But the regime appears to have placed the greatest emphasis on attracting foreign direct investment when the most important reforms are ultimately domestic.

KH: How do you think Kim Jong-un will make his debut on the international diplomatic stage? Russia expects Kim to attend a ceremony in May in Russia to mark the 70th anniversary of its victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

Haggard: It is a sign of both DPRK-China relations and the deterioration in Putin’s relations with the West that one of Kim Jong-un’s first foreign trips will be to Russia. It is clear that the Xi Jinping is avoiding direct contact. Russia has expressed a willingness to undertake large-scale trade and investment with North Korea, but most of the projects in question involve quite substantial financing that will have to come from Russia. There may be some opportunities for transshipment of coal and other commodities, but I am doubtful that the ambitious targets for two-way trade between the two countries will materialize. The DPRK will need imports of capital, intermediate and consumer goods as well as raw materials; Russia is not going to be an important supplier of those items. In addition, North Korea will need wide market outlets if it pursues a more export-oriented strategy, and the natural partner for that effort would be Chinese and Korean ― not Russian ― firms. The DPRK’s natural trading partners are China and South Korea.

KH: The international community has stepped up pressure on North Korea to improve its human rights conditions. How do you think North Korea will respond to this pressure, particularly the growing calls for the U.N. Security Council to refer the case to the International Criminal Court?

Haggard: China will veto a referral of the Commission of Inquiry report to the International Criminal Court, but the issue is now on the U.N. Security Council agenda; China cannot block further discussion of it in the face of majority support. Although the report is powerful, the human rights community itself is not entirely clear of where to go next. I support efforts by Europe, the U.N. and select neutral NGOs like the Red Cross to take the lead at this point. It is hard for the U.S. or even South Korea to lead on human rights; pressure needs to be accompanied with modest dialogue in which the central message of the COI report can be delivered ― that it will be hard for North Korea to gain diplomatic support if the most egregious rights abuses, like the political concentration camps, continue in place.

KH: How do you evaluate Washington’s policy toward North Korea, which some commentators have called “strategic patience”? Do you think the U.S. will take any bold initiative similar to those it took to normalize ties with Cuba and Myanmar?

Haggard: There are a number of reasons why the United States is not likely to take a bold initiative on North Korea. President Obama was burned by the early missile and nuclear tests in 2009, by the sinking of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeongdo shelling, and also by the breakdown of the so-called Leap Year deal in 2013. In addition, the Sony hack has played a much more significant role in U.S.-North Korea relations than is realized. North Korea apparently believed that they could get away with this hack and deny involvement. But the released Snowden documents from the end of last year confirm that the U.S. intelligence community had surprisingly good information on Pyongyang’s involvement. The Obama administration has been surprisingly confident on the intelligence, and with a Republican Congress in place, initiatives from Washington are unlikely unless North Korea makes a bold move.

KH: It seems that many conservatives in U.S. academia and some in political circles think that the world has no option but to encourage a regime change for the North to give up its nuclear arms. What do you think about this?

Haggard: Regime change is a goal that we all share, but it is not a policy. Both conservatives and liberals in the U.S. would like to see North Korea change. The question is how. The current policy is trying to combine ongoing pressure, including purely defensive sanctions against proliferation, with an ongoing effort to convince North Korea to make a gesture of interest in serious negotiations. I don’t see most forms or pressure currently under discussion, such as increased sanctions, as having much effect. More attention is ― and should be ― given to information strategies that allow North Koreans to have a more balanced picture of both their own situation and the diplomatic setting.

KH: President Park Geun-hye of South Korea has been striving to lay the foundation for national reunification, which she said would bring about an economic bonanza. Do you have any advice on Korea’s preparations for reunification?

Haggard: With Washington unable to move, the initiative on the peninsula needs to come from Seoul. I have argued that President Park should lift the May 24 sanctions. My reasons are somewhat different from those arguing for engagement with North Korea, however. President Kim Dae-jung argued for the separation of politics and economics, and this was farsighted. We should let private actors and NGOs decide what they want to do visa-vis the North, and force the regime there to make key strategic choices as well. Gaeseong is effectively subsidized, (The Mount) Geumgang (tour program) still sits under the shadow of the death of Park Wang-ja (a South Korean tourist shot to death in 2008). Aid can be offered, but commercial relations have the best likelihood ― even if limited ― of changing the nature of the North Korean economy. At some point, President Park will have to make this move, probably through (North Korea’s northeastern port city of) Rason.

KH: Do you think in a tightly controlled police state like North Korea, there could be an uprising or revolt for democracy or anything to trigger a change in the current repressive governing system?

Haggard: In general, I think the chances of rebellion from below are small. There are no independent social organizations, it is virtually impossible to organize because of deep surveillance and it is hard for opponents of the regime to operate from neighboring countries, such as China. The regime has also invested heavily in keeping residents of Pyongyang happy. However, we have seen low-level resistance to the repressiveness of the regime through market activity, listening to South Korean music and DVDs and so on. Under such circumstances, the public may become less tolerant and small incidents could trigger localized actions that push back against the regime and force it to moderate its behavior; this is what occurred in Tunisia.

KH: Many believe increased economic exchanges and interdependence between the two Koreas would help them better understand each other, deter confrontation and encourage a flow of outside information into the tightly controlled hermit state. Do you agree with this? How do you think the two Koreas can step up economic cooperation?

Haggard: I have long argued that our strategy toward North Korea should including “getting people in and getting people out” However, we also need to understand that this is a very long game and the effects will only be apparent over time. I think that more commercial interactions would help: it would put (South) Korean firms into direct contact with North Korean counterparts. It is important to understand that this does not currently occur at all in Gaesong, where relations between the South and North Koreans are tightly monitored. Wider commercial relations and NGO activity stresses the ability of the state to control over point of contact (to promote cross-border commercial interaction).

KH: Out of personal curiosity, what was your motivation to study North Korea? And based on your longtime study of the country, what would be your definition of North Korea as a state? Obviously it is a unique state in many aspects.

Haggard: My interest in North Korea began with the famine, and my book with Marcus Noland “Famine in North Korea: Markets. Aid and Reform.” I was mystified by how such deprivation could occur in the most rapidly growing region in the world, and ultimately found the answer in underlying characteristics of the regime itself. I then turned to the question of refugees, the external face of the North Korean tragedy, in my second book with Noland called “Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea.” When we launched that second book, we also initiated a blog ― blogs.piie.com/nk/ ― which has allowed me to communicate widely about the North Korea puzzle. But I think my main reason for continuing to work on North Korea is that it constitutes one of the great moral challenges of our time; I cannot think of a more repressive regime nor one in which the gains from even marginal reform or liberalization would be so great. Changing North Korea ― even at the margin ― would immediately affect the lives of over 20 million people. That is a substantial prize, and one worth arguing about.

This is the seventh installment in a special New Year’s series of interviews with preeminent scholars on international politics and security. ― Ed.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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