On Monday, I gave a somewhat downbeat assessment of where US and South Korean North Korea policy stood in the wake of the Park-Obama summit. The short joint statement on North Korea did not provide much hope that policy was likely to change, mainly because of North Korean disinterest; President Park was surprisingly blunt on the point.
This view was largely confirmed by testimony given yesterday by Special Representative Sung Kim and Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues Bob King. Sung Kim puts a somewhat sharper edge on the concept of “strategic patience” by noting its three components: deterrence, pressure, and the standing offer to resume talks. Deterrence has clearly been toughened up since 2010, and more recently by the Park administration’s handling of the land mine/loudspeaker standoff. With respect to pressure, Ambassador Kim made reference to Executive Order 13867, promulgated in the wake of the Sony hack. As we noted in our analysis, the EO was noteworthy not for the new firms sanctioned but for the fact that it provided license to sanction virtually any North Korean entity. Although not named, Ambassador Kim provided the example of Ocean Maritime Management, whose ships “have been denied port entry, scrapped, impounded, or confined to their home ports in North Korea, and the shipping firm has lost its contracts with many foreign-owned ships.”
The diplomatic leg of the strategic patience triad is not only the open offer to resume talks, but the coordination among the five parties on what would be required to start them. Despite the debate about preconditions, it is clear that neither the US—nor any of the Five Parties—is ready to sit down in the absence of some signal of a willingness to denuclearize. But these refinements don’t detract from the bottom line assessment of the summit outcome: there seems little expectation that the current stalemate is likely to change any time soon.
For its part, North Korea responded to the joint statement with a Foreign Ministry statement that reiterates its rejection of the Six Party Talks format in which denuclearization comes first; rather, they are once again peddling the idea that a peace treat to replace the Armistice Agreement is a necessary precondition for any discussion of the nuclear issue (“If the confidence building between the DPRK and the U.S. helps remove the source of imminent war, it is possible to finally put an end to the nuclear arms race and consolidate peace.” Is this a contingent promise or not? Who knows?). Those in favor of engagement—including Chung-in Moon--think that the time is right for such an initiative given North Korea’s cooperation on family reunions, which began today. Don’t hold your breath.
An added benefit of the Congressional hearings was testimony from Ambassador Bob King, which provides a summary of human rights developments since the adoption of the Commission of Inquiry findings by the UNGA. He notes that North Korean expressions of concern about the human rights “racket” have become more frequent. On cue, this Foreign Ministry statement about the pending effort to draft another resolution on the issue during the current UN session. One interesting tidbit in the statement: a claim that North Korea tried to engage with the EU on the human rights issue but was rebuffed, an interesting indicator that the regime may be looking for ways to diffuse the pressure. King also makes the pitch for continuing information strategies, which we strongly endorse.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that the assessment of the summit statement stands; not much on the horizon unless Beijing’s new demarche can pull something out of the hat.