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[Hwang’s China and the World] Dealing with North Korea in 2022, not very optimistic

Discourse with Koh Yu-hwan, president of Korea Institute for National Unification

By Choi He-suk

Published : Dec. 20, 2021 - 19:56

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Korea Institute for National Unification President Koh Yu-hwan (left) speaks with professor Hwang Jae-ho in Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald). Korea Institute for National Unification President Koh Yu-hwan (left) speaks with professor Hwang Jae-ho in Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald).

Understanding the other half of the Korean Peninsula, North Korea, is literally arduous as its ‘Arduous March’ reminds. From the emotional 2018 when the peninsula was overwhelmed with the Panmunjeom Declaration to the disappointing meeting at Singapore, today we are standing in the middle of North Korea’s impassiveness and indifference. 

On the motionless circumstance, there exists a possibility of North Korea’s provocation. It seems unpredictable but also might be doable to foresee how North Korea would react to the current state, when South Korea has only a few months of the Moon Jae-in administration left and is ready to welcome the new one. As the Korean Peninsula is right around the corner to meet the new environment it is a timing to check out how North Korea would move. 

Therefore, I have invited the president of the Korea Institute of National Unification, the most professional and authorized national research institution, for deeper insights. 

In April 2020, Professor Koh Yu-hwan from the North Korea department of Dongguk University was inaugurated as the 18th president of KINU. He has served as the Chairman of Peace and Prosperity in the Presidential Commission on Policy Planning and the Senior Adviser for the Office of National Security at Cheong Wa Dae.


Professor Hwang Jae-ho: You have attended the meeting hosted by Woodrow Wilson Center last December with the national policy think tank presidents. I wonder what impression or change you have felt from the atmosphere there.



President Koh Yu-hwan: It was such a large conference with 30 to 40 American experts on the Korean Peninsula in the field. The impression I had the most was that the US is observing this Korean Peninsula situation on its own stance. In other words, it seemed quite difficult to persuade them with Korea’s perspective and to move on toward the mutually agreed solution. It was clear that both Korea and the US has to check the respective national interest balance and compromise at a certain point. Additionally, I personally thought we needed to look back and think again about the way we have walked for the last 30 years to settle North Korea’s nuclear issue.



Hwang: It is commonly referred that North Korea’s motivation in developing its nuclear weapon comes from the US’ hostility toward North Korea. However, it surely must be more complicated than that.



Koh: When it comes to solving North Korea’s nuclear problem, we must consider various and numerous variations and approaches in a complex and comprehensive way. However, for the last 30 years, the US policy toward North Korea was either A or B. As a result, North Korea is still surviving with its 3rd generation inheriting the power, and what we are facing now is North Korea with nuclear power. In the beginning, the approach was based on anticipating North Korea’s collapse, which eventually turned out to be a failure. Later on, the strategic patience which aimed to induce North Korea toward collapse by slowly isolating it through the rewards in exchange for the nuclear freeze, also could not make many outcomes. Moreover, the US did not powerfully step forth neither in resolving the hostile relations between the US and North Korea nor in developing the armistice regime into a peace regime. In between, the US also failed in taking advantage of using China leverage in terms of dealing with North Korea. Particularly, the US recognized that it is possible to restrain and control North Korea’s threat that it has attempted to use North Korea’s threat as one of the pillars in counteracting China, however, if we talk about what specific effort the US had made to denuclearize North Korea by using China leverage, probably the answer is not too positive. Lastly, the fact that both Korea’s and the US’ policies were inconsistent due to the government’s replacement and that we were relatively ignorant to the special aspects of North Korea’s leadership has played a critical and fundamental role in dealing with North Korea.



Hwang: According to what you have mentioned, most of the American experts on the Korean Peninsula assert ‘North Korea’s responsibility’ and Korea and the US are having different angles based on this assertion. Should we understand that the gap in perspective is leaving North Korea at the lower level of the US’ foreign policy priority?



Koh: Indeed. So far, the Biden administration’s top priority is domestic politics. The following concern is China, and apparently, North Korea and the Korean Peninsula seem to be distant from the significances. Furthermore, the US is likely to put weight on analyzing what domestic political effect it will cause if the US chooses the end-of-war declaration, as the Korean government urges. This again represents that the Korean Peninsula concern is contemplated in the aspect of domestic politics when it comes to the US.



Hwang: The current international politics seems steadily showing the transformation toward encampment diplomacy. I wonder how North Korea would respond to these flows. Shall we expect to see an ROK-US-Japan versus North Korea-China-Russia formation again?



Koh: I assume that the current international community will not be divided into military and security terms like how it was back in the Cold War era. Also, since the states are all complicatedly interrelated under the so-called value chain, probably one single variable might be too weak to classify states into the camp. While the strategic competition between the US and China is going on, there must be spaces where they can either cooperate or confront and compete at the same time. Just as how it works to the US and China, one international issue must have multiple layers underneath and multiple angles to approach. Korea also might have a certain area where it can make the balance in the prior stance with its own value chain, rather than giving in to the international situation where Korea must choose either the US or China. Especially, Korea’s capacity in semiconductor, IT, shipbuilding, and others are considerably high, therefore, we have a space where both the US and China must rely on us. In this sense, I presume that such a formation of the past Cold War would not necessarily appear in the New Cold War.



Hwang: Since you have recently visited the US, what opinions on the New Cold War possibility did the American experts share?



Koh: Not many experts were bringing the New Cold War situation to the table. However, they mostly agreed and emphasized building cooperation to counteract the complicated situation that we are standing in, because we are facing non-traditional security, unlike how traditional and military security were valid back in the Cold War era.



Hwang: You have overlooked that North Korea’s policy toward South Korea might change according to the following Korean Presidential election next year. I would like to hear how you prospect North Korea’s policy toward Korea respectively when the conservative or progressive takes the power.



Koh: North Korea issue is the major task for the next administration, regardless of whether the conservative or progressive government enters. In 2018, we all have contributed great effort to solve the North Korean issue with the peace and denuclearization process of the Korean Peninsula. Since then, the Korean government has established its own principle and guide map in dealing with North Korea, which is the frame of the Panmunjeom Declaration and the Singapore Declaration. Over this foundation, the upcoming administration will consider whether to develop the current government’s principles and directions or to build new relations and policy accordingly. However, above all, it is obvious that making decisions to solve the situation with the balance of threat would not be easy for the next administration, no matter which one it is. Because taking the balance of threat kind of approach always risks a massive amount of price and cost. Additionally, taking into consideration that the Biden administration would sustain, the US itself would also cope with North Korea under the Singapore Declaration frame, fundamentally. In sum, it must not be so easy for the next administration to make a seismic change when it steps toward North Korea.



Hwang: You mean there would not be a big difference in dealing with North Korea, regardless of whether the conservative or progressive comes to the power. Then, would Korea’s further direction toward North Korea have a high possibility of change depending on which policy the US chooses toward North Korea?



Koh: Exactly. However, unless the Biden administration makes moves to rapidly negotiate with North Korea without any conditions on the current agenda, I do not anticipate a great change in the US-North Korea relations to reach the point where North Korea desires, for a while. Ultimately the critical point is the fact that how long North Korea can stay still and be patient under this stalemate. Particularly, North Korea’s attitude might change depending on what idea the US can provide to reactivate the current stalemate, along with what kind of mutual cooperation it will have with the new Korean administration. It is only that the Korean Peninsula issue is pushed backward from the US foreign policy priority, and it seems really tough to bring it frontward since the US itself is stuck with the domestic problems. Considering the overall calculations, two Koreas must also think of making efforts to play the main roles in leading and solving the issues in this Korean Peninsula.



Hwang: Normally North Korea used to make provocations toward the US when there was a new administration entering. However, there was none for North Korea when Biden came to power. What could be the reason?



Koh: North Korea’s strategic status in the international society has changed a lot since it has practically completed the development of the nuclear weapon. North Korea is de facto recognized as a nuclear state and is still strategically developing nuclear power. In this sense, there is no essential need for North Korea to make additional provocation which will just give reasons for additional sanctions and restrains on North Korea to the US and international society. After all, we can interpret North Korea’s break of provocation pattern in terms of its confidence that North Korea considers itself capable to control regional security and make the balance of power in the international society through nuclear deterrence.



Hwang: Reminding so-called the ‘North Wind,’ would North Korea become the significant variable in the upcoming presidential election next year?



Koh: Regarding the North Wind, unless North Korea does not make any direct and armed provocation or unless there is any progress in the declaration of the end of the war and holding summits, I assume North Korea would be the most decisive factor for the presidential election. For now, I guess Korean society has already overpassed the era that North Korea plays a large role in inducing the election results. Also, I personally predict the upcoming government transition period will focus on managing the state of affairs under the continuity of the current administration’s policy toward North Korea, while the last transitioning period was clearly showing the differentiated approach in dealing with North Korea. As I have previously mentioned, it must be an enormous burden for Korea to resolve North Korea’s nuclear problem with the balance of threat frame, therefore, the upcoming administration must be the important five years of settling down the policy direction together with the Biden administration. North Korea is also expected to well utilize this period for its own sake.



Hwang: Some are saying that either Kim Jong-un himself or high rankings from North Korea is attending the Beijing Olympics.



Koh: In that issue, I guess the coronavirus situation will be high on the agenda. As Kim Jong-un is seriously emphasizing coronavirus prevention, it would be difficult for him to personally visit China without the pandemic under control. Moreover, he might visit China under the formation of the bilateral talk, such as the Sino-DPRK summit, however, does not seem to attend the international events which is in fact a multilateral meeting. The absolute charisma is the core of North Korea’s leadership (Suryong System), and the multilateral international event is not the perfect place where their dear leader can get the whole attention. However, it is possible for the high ranks like Choe Ryong-hae or Kim Yo-jong to visit China. In this case, the high ranks from Korea’s side might have the opportunity to meet and talk by high chance. Nonetheless, there are considerable variables to calculate, considering Korea’s upcoming presidential election period.



Hwang: If Moon Jae-in administration suggests a virtual meeting before his time ends, would North Korea accept the proposal?



Koh: There could be virtual summits between two Koreas, however, only the perfunctory agendas might be covered if it goes online. Rather than the virtual summit, it seems more meaningful if both Koreas discuss and come up with compromises with the hotline or another way of contact, then have a virtual summit with the announcing purpose. Though, North Korea will go through various considerations on what effect the summit would bring to the Korean government that is heading toward the end of the period.



Hwang: How do you evaluate North Korea’s current coronavirus situation? I would like to hear if there is any chance South and North Korea can cooperate to prevent further epidemics.



Koh: So far, North Korea did not make any official announcement on coronavirus statistics. Personally, I believe North Korea has accepted the coronavirus pandemic as the inevitable obstacle and is considering vaccine as the ultimate avoidance strategy. North Korea claims that it is the ‘coronavirus-free zone’ due to the sanctions and containment policy, however, realistically it is impossible to maintain. Furthermore, the virus-free zone can be fatally hit once the blockade breaks down. In the end, we can say that current North Korea’s responding policy against the coronavirus is just suspending the crisis, and the authority must be stressed with seeking how it has to overcome the situation. Under this flow, as North Korea’s capacity in handling the coronavirus is very vulnerable, inter-Korean cooperation in further prevention and health care can contribute as the turning point to resolve the Korean Peninsula issue. Of course, finding the way that North Korea can accept the offer must come first.



Hwang: How is North Korea’s economy going on including its food security?



Koh: North Korea’s yield this year is around 4.5 million metric tons and it can be an appropriate amount till the end of this year. However, it will soon meet the need for supply of food by importing alternatives, while the trade under current conditions is not happening. The market is already facing the inflation of sugar, oil, and other daily life necessities. Moving on, North Korea is troubled with the marketization which grew some elites into the market powers as they held hands with the corrupted bureaucrats. Among these new powers, new conflicts are raising faces. Considering these aspects in a comprehensive view, we can see North Korea’s economic status is very serious.



Hwang: What stance would North Korea take between the preemptive action and the observation?



Koh: For North Korea, there are numerous factors that it has to count in, such as Korea’s new administration, its relations with the Biden administration, the coronavirus situation, strategic competition between the US and China, and so on. In North Korea’s position, the simplest breakthrough against these complexities was to force the self-help revival under constraints. So far, it is watching the sanction versus self-help in the long term or all-out war, however, this model is infeasible in sustainability. If the US makes an approach and shows its will for the declaration of the end of the war, North Korea would make the following moves, but in case there are no big changes in the current circumstance, it seems North Korea would stick to observation due to complicated calculation.



Hwang: It seems the declaration of the end of the war will be the hottest issue till the very end of the Moon administration. Some argue to implement only the defensive training in the US-ROK joint military exercise to drag North Korea to the table of declaration of the end of the war.



Koh: I guess for North Korea, the matter of first step of defensive training or the second step of offensive training is not a big issue. What North Korea blames is the military exercise itself, regardless of the scale or the frame. Especially, North Korea is requesting Korea to cease the military exercises in exchange, since it has ceased nuclear tests and military exercises. Looking at the past flow of the Korean Peninsula till today, it seemed to have some signals of changes but meets the tension in March and August due to the US-ROK joint military exercise. This has repeatedly appeared for a long time. Indeed, as North Korea has succeeded in the nuclear test, Korea cannot give up the exercises because of returning the wartime operational control issue and so on. Nevertheless, if giving up and ceasing is impossible, reducing or combining two exercises into one can be an alternative.



Hwang: When it comes to the Korean Peninsula security, the Moon administration has picked peace as the main initiative. I would like to hear your opinion on whether the next administration would value the peace or come up with a new dimension of inter-Korean relations.



Koh: Today’s Moon administration is emphasizing peace and talking only about peace since 2017 after the Berlin Peace Initiative. On the other hand, North Korea’s priority card is self-help while the US is stuck with the idea of almighty sanction or sanction first. In other words, this means three countries are fundamentally having different positions that we need to find out the common interest for reconciliation. The upcoming administration must seek this common ground, breaking through fundamentalism. Most of all, if the active policy discussion and cooperation do not take place at the very beginning of the new administration, the policy momentum would run out very soon.



Hwang: You have mentioned that the declaration of the end of the war would also be beneficial to China’s national interest. Then how large of an effect would it bring to the domestic politics in the US?



Koh: When we listen to those who oppose the declaration of the end of the war in Korea, they are mostly concerned about the withdrawal of the USFK and the weakened US-ROK alliance. These two are certainly the national interest to China. From China’s point of view, the Korean Peninsula under the declaration of the end of the war would become a comfortable place where it can play its full influence. I see China as the revisionist power if the US is the status quo seeking state, when it comes to not only the Korean issue but also at the international level.

However, unlike how we expect, North Korea is not actively into the declaration of the end of the war and this is actually closely related to North Korea’s preconditions. From North Korea’s position, it cannot stop thinking about the possibility of betrayal unless the US makes a complete and clear promise, as the Moon administration is heading to the end. Also, from the domestic perspective, we see that Kim Jong-un also needs to maintain a certain level of confrontation with the US to keep its charismatic leadership, therefore, is reluctant to the declaration of the end of the war.

From the US perspective, the number one priority is the strategy toward China. If the declaration of the end of the war is realized, then there will be discussions on the withdrawal of USFK, which goes against its plan to restrain and control China. In an extreme term, I can tell the relations of North Korea and the US is a hostile but dependent one. In this sense, we are standing at a stalemate as both countries are not making progressive moves.



The Geneva Agreement was signed in 1994, when President Koh was a professor at Dongguk University, yet we still could not solve North Korea’s nuclear issue. President Koh saying that we have a lot to look back and reflect on as this issue could not meet a solution until one individual’s life is facing the end, is lingering till now.

North Korea has bragged itself as the strong (kang 强) and prosperous (sung 盛) great (dae 大) state (kuk 國). Building a strong and prosperous state is North Korea’s long will. However, the meaning totally changes by altering only two characters. North Korea is the strong (kang 强) nature (sung 性) fake (dae 代) state (kuk 國). This strong nature or self-esteem can be interpreted as the abnormal state that concerns the regime’s survival as the ultimate priority. The thing is that North Korea’s internal solidarity is amazing despite the worst conditions both from inside and outside. Nevertheless, it surely has a few vulnerable Achilles’ heel.

Regarding the current Korean peninsula, the power can be distinguished into the status quo that is satisfied with the existing order or the revisionist that seeks to build a new order. The conflict between the two is natural, however, a new land form would appear and the tension between the two would rise depending on the new government’s potential stance as the current government is trying to work toward the declaration of the end of the war and resolving the Korean Peninsula and North Korea issue. Despite it might not be very optimistic in 2022, we look forward to greeting the new opportunities from the new policies toward North Korea by the new government.


Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the Division of International Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation and now a member of the Presidential Committee on Policy and Planning. This discussion was assisted by researcher Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.