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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

What are the North Koreans doing?

by | May 20th, 2013 | 06:37 am


Considerable attention focused last week on the visit to Pyongyang by Isao Iijima, special assistant to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. As I observed in a post last week, the Japanese public places marginally greater concern on abductees than on the North Korean nuclear program and the abductee issue has been a focal point of Abe’s career. Normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and North Korea will also be accompanied by a multi-billion dollar financial settlement, so it is not entirely surprising that the Abe government and the Kim Jong-un regime would re-engage.  Reactions to the secret meeting from US and South Korean officials ranged from tight-lipped to open annoyance.

The real surprise is that it was the North Koreans who disclosed the meeting, publishing the above photo of Iijima bowing to Kim Yong Nam, head of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Perhaps we should not be so surprised, however. As David Straub, former State Department official and now at Stanford’s Stanford Shorenstein Center, observed in Chris Nelson’s newsletter:

“Iijima has now left North Korea. The North Koreans not only reported on his visit, they actually broadcast the video AND audio of his meeting with Presidium Chairman Kim Yong-Nam!

The North Koreans undoubtedly knew this was supposed to be a secret visit. They have betrayed confidences before, including several times when Jack Pritchard and I visited New York for exchanges in the New York channel authorized by the Secretary of State in 2002-2003.

What the North Koreans have to gain by this is not clear to me. There may be some propaganda value domestically in broadcasting it, and they may derive pleasure in seeing the Japanese leadership squirm and also feel they have driven a wedge between Japan, on the one hand, and the US and the ROK, on the other.

But the actual result now will likely be to kill this Japanese initiative, and to harden Abe against dealing with the North Koreans during his tenure, which, given his polls, could be extended. As Professor Lee at Tufts says, the North Korean leaders seem to live in their own “virtual world,” unable to make judgments that reflect the real world.”

I made a similar point with respect to the United States last week: as a result of North Korean threats, twice as many Americans as South Koreans believe that the North Koreans can hit us with a nuclear weapon, and less than a third as many discount the bluster.  Whatever the motivation, the result of North Korean threats is to enormously narrow the Obama Administration’s room to maneuver. As Straub observes, perhaps the North Koreans gain some minor tactical advantage with these moves. But the long-run impact is to reduce the likelihood of constructive relations with other countries, and, by extension, to further the DPRK’s dependence on China.

I have been hesitant to join the KJU-is-a-spoiled-brat-with-nuclear-weapons crowd. But this sort of behavior, along with the closure of KIC and the Rodman over Schmidt choice, really makes me wonder about the capacity of the North Korean leadership and how decisions are being made in the country.