We argued that Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Speech should be put in the “mildly hopeful” category. The entire foreign policy section was devoted to the need to improve North-South relations, albeit with one poison pill and one large omission. The poison pill was the insistence that the US butt out of the process; the omission was the failure to clarify whether North Korea is willing to ultimately give up its nuclear program.
We now have the details of the North Korean proposal, reproduced in full below, and they are fairly modest; indeed, we are surprised that the initiative has gotten the attention it has.
On the positive side—emphasized by Bob Carlin at 38 North and at Hankyoreh—the proposal is offered in the name of the NDC, and thus from Kim Jong Un. It has to be taken seriously; this is not a KCNA editorial.
The proposal has three parts, one of which is a truce with respect to mutual slander—significant given the personalist nature of the North Korean system—the second a proposal for mutual commitment to “halting all hostile military acts against the other side.” Since the second component of the proposal includes specific mention of the five islands, it could be interpreted as a signal of restraint with respect to the Northern Limit Line. The third component of the proposal suggests a quid-pro-quo in which the South convinces the US to forego bringing “dangerous nuclear strike means of the U.S. to south Korea and to areas around it,” in return for a negotiation on family reunions.
The modesty of the proposal mirrors the general problems we outlined in the New Year’s speech, but now with unwelcome detail. The speech’s emphasis on “By Our Nation Itself” reappears as the demand that the ROK cancel the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises with the United States. Key Resolve is a computer-based simulation carried out for two weeks in late February to early March; Foal Eagle is the combined Field Training Exercise (FTX) which follows immediately on the completion of Key Resolve and typically brings about another 10,000 personnel to the peninsula and its immediate vicinity.
We were critical of the way the US signaled its strategic bombing capacity during the exercises last year; the move struck us as gratuitous. Unfortunately, however, the overall context of those exercises demonstrated precisely why they are necessary; if anyone needs a reminder of the sequence of moves, they can be found here from a post in March. But the pattern is a familiar one: missile/satellite test; nuclear test; international condemnation; theatrics.
In the topsy-turvy world of North Korea, the peace offensive coupled with the demand that the exercises be canceled could spell trouble. Since the exercises are not going to be canceled—as the North Korean proposal effectively admits—does it mean we are in for military actions if the South is not responsive?
The second troubling feature of the initiative is the asymmetry in the third component of the proposal. If the South were willing to restrain the deployment of particular forces to the peninsula, the North is willing to talk about family reunions. But no alliance will survive the ability of an adversary to dictate its terms. Under the right conditions, modifying exercises as a signal seems a plausible move. But beyond cheap talk, what have the North Koreans shown in this proposal that would warrant such a gesture? They are essentially promising not to do what they shouldn't be doing in the first place.
The final troubling feature of the proposal is the complete lack of any signal with respect to the nuclear issue. Silence would have been better. Rather, we learn that “it is the stand of the DPRK that the south side should resolutely break with the double-dealing stand of tolerating nuclear weapons of outsiders which are harmful to the fellow countrymen while denying the nuclear weapons of fellow countrymen which protect the nation.” Read literally, does this mean that the South should accept North Korea’s nuclear status?
The response to the proposal pretty much reflected where the respective members of the Six Party Talks are. The South Korean statement had a particularly hard edge, reflecting the gradual drift of Trustpolitik back towards the Lee Myung Bak approach. As Carlin points out, the statement reads like debating points. It does not end with a restatement of the Trustpolitik approach and the more incremental steps that might be taken. An example would be to offer an alternative quid pro quo around family reunions.
The American response was handled by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki and basically reiterated strategic patience. But at least it went back to the September 2005 Joint Statement, acknowledging that both sides will ultimately have obligations. The Chinese response was anodyne, repeating its “can’t we all just get along”? line. However, by coincidence the day before the spokesman had responded to reports that the North Koreans had labeled the joint exercises provocative and asked whether China shared that view. The spokesman sidestepped the question—in effect, did not concur—and simply restated that all sides should exercise restraint.
There is no reason for the US and South Korea to take a belligerent stance toward the proposal. Leaning in to the humanitarian issues seems the most fruitful response. But beyond this, it is hard to see the hopeful thread that should be picked up.
NDC of DPRK Advances Crucial Proposals to S. Korean Authorities
Pyongyang, January 16 (KCNA) -- The National Defence Commission (NDC) of the DPRK made the following principled proposals to the south Korean authorities Thursday upon authorization of the government, political parties and organizations of the DPRK:
1. We propose taking practical measures in hearty response to the warm call for establishing a climate for improved north-south relations.
We officially propose the south Korean authorities to take a practical measure of halting all acts of provoking and slandering the other side from January 30, a day before the Lunar New Year's Day.
2. We propose taking a practical step of halting all hostile military acts against the other side in response to the historic call for defending the security and peace of the nation.
So, we again propose immediately and unconditionally halting all military and hostile acts targeting the fellow countrymen in collusion with outsiders.
For the present the south Korean authorities should take a political decision of canceling Key Resolve and Foal Eagle joint military exercises which they plan to stage from the end of February under the pretext of "annual and defensive" drills.
If the "coordination" and "cooperation" with the U.S. are so precious and valuable, they had better hold the exercises in the secluded area or in the U.S. far away from the territorial land, sea and air of the DPRK. This is the stand of the DPRK.
We specially propose stopping all acts provoking the other side on the ground and in the sea and air including five islands in the West Sea, hotspots where both sides are in acute show-down, leveling their guns at each other.
The DPRK side will show its practical action first for the realization of this proposal.
3. We propose taking a mutual practical measure to prevent a nuclear holocaust from being inflicted on this land.
Our nuclear force serves as a means for deterring the U.S. from posing a nuclear threat. It will never be a means for blackmailing the fellow countrymen and doing harm to them.
We courteously propose the south Korean authorities not to resort to reckless acts of bringing dangerous nuclear strike means of the U.S. to south Korea and to areas around it, taking this occasion as an opportunity.
It is the stand of the DPRK that the south side should resolutely break with the double-dealing stand of tolerating nuclear weapons of outsiders which are harmful to the fellow countrymen while denying the nuclear weapons of fellow countrymen which protect the nation.
If these proposals are put into practice, it will be possible to settle all issues, big or small, arising in the north-south relations including the reunion of separated families and relatives.
We express the expectation that the south Korean authorities will positively respond to our principled crucial proposals.