Slave to the Blog: More New Year’s Initiatives Edition
As we argued last week, the new year got off to a particularly busy start, with the main protagonists on the peninsula pulling in different directions. Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech dropped a few hints on reform and made conciliatory gestures toward Seoul. North-South relations were edging forward as a result. However, US policy was dominated by the Sony hack and the announcement of new sanctions. In this post, we follow up a number of these story lines, including a new offer to the US from the North.
First, is it true that the New Year’s speech had anything new to say or was it just more of the same? Opinion on this score was divided. (The full text of the speech can be found here; our interpretation of it here.) 38North has a good point-counterpoint between Chung-in Moon (more positive) and Bruce Klingner (more skeptical). Also on the skeptical end: Josh Stanton takes on Andrei Lankov's observations on reform. We noted interesting comments on the state-owned enterprise sector needing to take care of itself, but of course those hints will depend on implementation.
Many analysts—this blog included—are working off the text of the speech, but DailyNK’s president Park In Ho has an excellent summary of the "look and feel" of the staged speech. His conclusion; Kim Jong Un may have an “Interview” problem after all. He appeared nervous throughout, edits were clearly necessary and the speech reflected little more than a nostalgia for the Kim Il Sung years. New Focus International is now behind a paywall, but they offer an insider interpretation as well.
It is interesting that US skepticism appears to exceed that of the South Korean right, at least if we take the Chosun Ilbo as a marker. Chosun Ilbo calls the speech the “most conciliatory yet,” and legislators across the aisle were generally positive. Hankyoreh is actually more sober, noting a number of roadblocks that include not only US sanctions but North Korean stubbornness as well. All of this was nonetheless enough for Xinhua to put a highly positive spin on the speech, despite ongoing signs of disaffection with North Korea coming out of Beijing.
The question now is what to do about it? Following the speech, the Ministry of Unification issued a short, positive statement. This was followed by an aid initiative that while modest in size was in fact precedent setting. In 1991, South Korea established the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund to finance a variety of initiatives with the North, including the activities of NGOs. Following the sinking of the Cheonan, however, the Lee Myung Bak not only imposed sanctions on trade and investment but also withdrew public support for private humanitarian initiatives; the modest aid that has been granted since 2011 was either undertaken directly or funneled through multilateral institutions. Under the new initiative, three civic groups will receive about $2.7 million from the fund for 17 health, agricultural and livestock farming projects in the North.
What is the South seeking in return? A second statement by the MOU last week suggests that the test of North Korean “sincerity” will be a solution to the issue of divided families. But we can also see the route through which this Northern initiative will collapse of its own accord. At the end of last week, the National Defense Commission issued a statement linking progress on North-South relations to American exercises, on which more below.
For some time, the Park administration has been trying to nest its Trustpolitik in a wider regional process. In the spring of 2013, she announced the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI), a forum for institutionalized cooperation that looks surprisingly similar to Roo Moo Hyun-era ideas. Scott Snyder and Woo Jung-yeop have a new paper for the Council on Foreign Relations that talks about that initiative and how US and South Korean policy on the peninsula may fit together. To date, however, the proposal seems almost entirely stillborn to us, with little regional interest. It seems hard to imagine American support for a multilateral structure in the absence of progress on the nuclear issue.
Which brings us to the Sony hack and the even deeper freeze in US-North Korea relations. We have been holding our fire on the attribution debate, focusing on the wider significance of the hack, the challenges of deterring such attacks, and how such deterrence might be achieved (we cover the sanctions in our New Year’s post). However, FBI Director Comey has now been somewhat more forward with the evidence in a recent speech in New York, and if true it certainly sounds like a smoking gun to us (WSJ, NYT).
Our read of the cyber community critics parallels that of James Lewis at 38North, but in somewhat more sympathetic form. Setting aside conspiracy theories (the US picked the fight to deflect attention from the torture report), sheer coincidence (a feature of some of the "insiders did it" stories), and other fallacies, most critics have simply been cautious. They have argued that the evidence provided by the FBI could be consistent with North Korean ownership, but was not dispositive. But tracking particular posts back to North Korean IP addresses—as Comey claims the US intelligence community has done--would seem to make Pyongyang at least a co-conspirator. We are not at the bottom of this yet. But unlike the invasion of Iraq this was not a fight the President was anxious to pick and his response—although not likely to have much material effect—seems to have been warranted.
Although denouncing the sanctions, the North has nonetheless made one of its periodic non-starter initiatives toward the United States. A statement by the NDC simply listed the standard demands, offering nothing in return: lift all sanctions; stop all hostile acts, including exercises. But through another, unspecified channel, Pyongyang promised to place a moratorium on nuclear tests if the US suspends its joint exercises with the South. The offer was quickly—and rightly—rejected as carrying an implicit threat.
Indeed, even before this offer was made, the Joongang Daily carried a piece on a new North Korean war plan. Leaks on such plans—both ours (OPLAN 5027) and theirs—always need to be taken with a grain of salt as they are triggered by some circumstances that are not clearly specified. But this one sparked a lot of attention as it had a very specific role for nuclear weapons. The plan calls on the North to use nuclear and missile capabilities—perhaps including threats—to blunt South Korean and U.S. movement north in the early stages of the conflict. In addition to conventional capabilities, special operations forces would be used to conclude the war in one to two weeks.
The North Korean plan has fantasy-like elements, but contains one truth: that nuclear weapons complicate conventional deterrence. If any additional justification was needed for the US to reject the North Korean proposal, this was it.