NCNK Member Digest, Spring 2020 (January - April)

May 1, 2020

The National Committee on North Korea is a non-governmental organization of persons with significant expertise in and diverse perspectives on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Here is a selection of published work authored by NCNK members; this selection is not exhaustive. Read the Winter 2019 Digest here.

Status of Diplomacy and Internal Developments

In a two part series, Stephan Haggard provided a detailed analysis of the Report of the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee focusing on what it portends for diplomacy with the United States and its North Korea’s economic development. In another two part series, Haggard analyzed a leaked draft UN Security Council resolution by China-Russia and what it proposes in terms of economic sanctions relief for North Korea and what it reveals of Chinese motives.

Writing for 38 North, Lee Sigal assessed prominent media narratives of “what went wrong” with US-DPRK diplomacy and argues that it's too early to write off diplomacy with North Korea.

Amb. Robert King examined the latest US-Iran confrontations and what Kim Jong-un might be internalizing from them, especially the US killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Amb King concludes that, “the aggressive US action against one of North Korea’s few friends, as well as the idiosyncratic personal role played by President Trump are likely to make the North even more cautious about making any serious long-term changes in its relationship with the United States.” In another article, Amb. King separately assessed the overall status of US-DPRK diplomacy and notes that despite Trump’s proactive efforts to improve relations, the uncertainty created by his impeachment trial and presidential elections later in the year are likely causing North Korea to act more cautiously following the failure of the Hanoi Summit.

Bob Carlin argued in 38 North that Ri Son Gwon’s appointment as Foreign Minister does not necessarily reveal anything new. He argues that more revealing information about DPRK’s diplomatic approach will come from the fate of other Foreign Ministry cadres like Choe Son Hui, Kim Kye Gwan, and diplomats groomed under Kang Sok Ju.

On the first anniversary of the signing of the inter-Korean Panmunjom Declaration, Amb. Joe DeTrani, argued in The Cipher Brief that the US and others should encourage the leaders of the two Koreas to re-engage and discuss the implementation of the Declaration. DeTrani points to South Korea’s ruling party’s recent landslide election as a public mandate to use the rest of President Moon Jae-in’s tenure to make progress on a peace treaty and economic and humanitarian cooperation.

On human rights, Amb. King drew attention to Japan’s backing away from criticism of North Korea’s human rights records. King notes that Japan has led the drafting and adopting of the annual UN Human Rights Council resolution on North Korea over the last decade, but for the last two years it has stopped taking this lead role and aligned with the US and ROK in softening pressure on DPRK human rights.

Understanding how North Korea is coping with COVID-19

Amid speculations about whether there are COVID-19 cases in North Korea, Kee Park and his colleagues writing in 38 North, urged the public to test assumptions about COVID-19 developments in North Korea. Dr. Park argued that North Korea’s early and decisive move to close its borders, implement aggressive quarantine measures, and institute a widespread information campaign have likely succeeded in containing an initial outbreak in the country, practices he says are now being recognized as the most successful containment strategy for COVID. Park also wrote an op-ed for The Hill arguing that sanctions undermine global public health by preventing expedient aid and cooperation, especially in countries like North Korea. He and his co-author made several recommendations, including the issuance of general waivers and travel permits to send supplies and experts, the establishment of a banking channel to facilitate procurement, and transparent reporting on suspected and confirmed cases.

Stephan Haggard notes in KEI’s The Peninsula blog that humanitarian disasters in closed, authoritarian countries like North Korea can be challenging to the international community, especially when the international community has imposed a multilateral sanctions regime against it. He argues while sanctions have a role in getting North Korea back to the negotiating table, waiving sanctions for COVID-19 relief efforts is the right thing to do.

Andray Abrahmain argued in Foreign Policy that mutual success against coronavirus offers a strong foundation for cooperation between South and North Korea and makes sense for North Korea in the medium term. Relatedly, Andray co-published an article in 38 North with Esther Im situating North Korea’s strict response to COVID-19 within its overall epidemic approach by looking at its past response to SARS and Ebola.

Frank Aum and his USIP colleagues Amb Joseph Yun and Paul K Lee wrote a brief for the US Institute of Peace about the COVID-19, North Korea’s missile tests, and prospects for diplomacy. Ultimately they note that the missile tests conform to the standing pattern of increased tests in the absence of negotiations. They argue that COVID-19 is a wildcard and could provide an unexpected opportunity to provide humanitarian assistance or it could put North Korea on the back burner as the US and world grapple with the global pandemic.

Writing for Foreign Policy, Thomas Byrne, discusses the impact of COVID-19 on North Korea’s economy. With external trade and tourism shut down to stem the spread of COVID-19, Byrne says that North Korea’s issuance of domestic bonds for the first time in 17 years is a sign of its financial weakness. Without reform and access to credit or emergency funding from external institutions, he argues that North Korea’s economy is being pushed to the edge.

Duyeon Kim, writing in the National Interest, argued that addressing the traditional and long-standing security issues on the Korean Peninsula will be put on hold until the US and other key countries are able to manage the pandemic and other domestic issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Kim warns, however, if this environment is mismanaged, it could create a security crisis.

Writing in the National Interest, Ralph Cossa argues that it was good that North Korea declined Donald Trump’s offer for COVID-19 aid. He argues that the Trump administration is not prepared to deliver sanctions relief to North Korea nor would it be expedient to do so merely for a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing.

Amb. Robert King writing for the Korea Economic Institute highlighted how the number of North Korea defectors, especially those resettling in South Korea, are significantly lower than in the recent past. Amb. King points to aggressive and more punitive policies under Kim Jong Un for the decline as well as a media campaign to dissuade defections by framing life in South Korea as difficult for North Koreans. At same time, Amb. King notes a policy shift in Seoul that is less supportive of defectors and less vocal on the human rights issue.

Speculations about Kim Jong-un’s Health

Thinking about what might happen to the North Korean people if Kim Jong-un were to unexpectedly die, Andrew Yeo surmised that “life may get harder before the human rights situation improves.” Looking at the 2011 transition of power to Kim Jong-un, Yeo says that any individual or collective body that takes over will likely exert tighter controllers in order to cement legitimacy and avoid domestic instability.

In responding to the same National Interest symposium, Jean Lee, argued against the idea that North Korea would collapse with a change in leadership. She argues that the system is stronger than we think and that if Kim Jong-un were to become ill, the regime would restrict the flow of information to provide time to put in measures to ensure stability and a succession plan.

Duyeon Kim and her colleague Leif-Eric Easley argued in Foreign Policy that whether Kim Jong-un is dead, sick, or alive, cooperation between the United States and South Korea is essential. They further elaborate on the three scenarios and lay out the interests in and challenges to allied response.

Writing for KEI’s The Peninsula blog, Andray Abrahamian explained how rumors about North Korea develop. He argues, “when it comes to North Korea, demand is high and information from the ground is always low,” leading to a unique interaction with North Korea’s information “black box.”

Jessica Lee published two essays for Foreign Policy on the recent mystery over Kim Jong-un’s condition. In the first published April 24, Lee argues that the information gap in US-North Korea can be dangerous, forcing US leaders to, “make decisions about war and peace on the basis of rumors and misinformation.” The speculation created by the Kim rumors expose this very vulnerability and she argues that the US and North Korea should prioritize opening official diplomatic posts in Pyongyang and Washington, DC.

Tracking North Korea’s Missile Tests and Development

Victor Cha and colleagues at CSIS provided ongoing assessments of North Korea’s missile developments. In early March, Cha reported on North Korea’s first weapons test of the year and noted it was the first test in 95 days and occurred despite US postponement of annual spring joint ROK-US military exercises. Cha later compared Q1 2020 provocations to Q1 2017 provocations during the “fire and fury” era and found that North Korea had launched more projectiles quantitatively than in 2017 and that such missile tests occurred at the same time that North Korea revealed Trump’s COVID-19 assistance offers. Ongoing launches in late March, Cha suggested, could be interpreted as tactical positing to look “strong in advance of receiving humanitarian assistance.” In looking at Beyond Parallel data, Cha noted that NK tests more missiles in presidential election years and that more tests could be expected as a result.