The takeaway from the Senate briefing is that the Trump administration is less averse to negotiations than thought, and has essentially revived strategic patience. The objective, as Admiral Harris put it in House testimony, was to “bring Kim Jong Un to his senses, not his knees.” As this plays out, it is interesting to see what signals of North Korean intent picked up in the US vs. Korean press and North Korea-watching communities, and one big development got virtually no attention in the US: the “election” of a Diplomatic Commission in the recent Supreme People’s Assembly meeting.
We passed on the work of the 5th session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly meeting earlier in the month in part because it was dominated by mind-numbing economic reporting on over-fulfillment of the plan and the tasks going forward. (One small item of interest was a report on the effort to enforce 12-years of compulsory education, a goal announced in 2012).
But buried amidst the other material was the following statement on the Diplomatic Commission and the slate of nominees:
“Deputy Ri Su Yong, vice-chairman of the WPK Central Committee, was elected chairman of the SPA Diplomatic Commission of the DPRK. Deputy Ri Ryong Nam, vice-premier of the Cabinet; Deputy Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country of the DPRK; Deputy Kim Jong Suk, chairwoman of the Korean Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries; Deputy Kim Kye Gwan, first vice-minister of Foreign Affairs; Deputy Kim Tong Son, vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea; and Deputy Jong Yong Won, secretary of the Central Committee of the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League; were elected members of the Commission.”
The Diplomatic Commission first appeared in the North Korean Constitution of 1992, but was subsequently dismantled under amendments made in 1998, according to DailyNK coverage.
Not only is the creation of the entity of interest, but it represents a pretty hefty group of North Korean diplomats. Ri Su Yong is a veteran with long service in Europe. Ri Yong Nam is known as an expert on foreign economic cooperation with a Chinese connection, having graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Ri Son Gwon was a member of the North Korean delegation to the inter-Korean military talks held in October 2006. And Kim Kye Gwan is a well-known diplomat with ample experience with the US, playing a role in the negotiation of both the September 19 joint statement and the 2007 roadmap agreements in his role as chief North Korean delegate to the Six Party Talks.
The DailyNK coverage interviews four or five North Korea experts from the South and the almost universal conclusion is that this small institutional move is in fact significant. But for what exactly? At one end of the spectrum of opinion is that North Korea is laying the groundwork for an inevitable return to negotiations as pressures mount; the inclusion of Kim Kye Gwan could be a signal in that regard. Yet the body could be doing quite the opposite: seeking to stave off negotiations by ramping up counter-diplomacy. Curious Chinese coverage last week noted a North Korean diplomatic approach to ASEAN, calling on the grouping to “help.” Such efforts might reflect a rebuilding of bridges to an important region in the wake of the Malaysia debacle of the Kim Jong Nam assassination and the more pressing need for friends as China recalibrates its strategy. Crafting an exit from North Korea’s isolation seems like a lost cause to me. But does Kim Jong Un believe that?