Sue Mi Terry: North Korea Is a “Mystery” Under Kim Jong-un
Sue Mi Terry is a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute. From 2001 to 2008, she served as a senior analyst on North Korea at the CIA. “We know very little, even less about Kim Jong-un than we did about Kim Jong-il,” she told FRONTLINE.
This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 9, 2013.
There was hope that Kim Jong-un would be different and introduce some kind of reform. Have we seen any?
Unfortunately we have not seen the important changes that we need to see. I think some engagers were hoping after Kim Jong-il died, after Kim Jong-un came in, that there would be some sort of reform.
But, I mean, why would he reform, just because he spent couple of years in Switzerland? So did [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad. [They] were all Western-educated. That’s not an indication that they’re going to reform.
I thought that he would just have no choice given how young he is, being surrounded by the same advisers, Kim Jong-il’s advisers, that he had no choice, and just [given the] systematic structure of the North Korean system, he had to continue his father’s policies.
What we are seeing in terms of some of the tinkerings, you know, we got excited. These Disney characters, and how he enjoyed watching young girls with sleeveless shirts and dancing on the stage, and building a stage and building amusement parks, this is not a sign of true economic reform or any kind of reform.
We’ve seen earlier this year, culminating with a third nuclear test in March 2013, that he is following in his father’s footsteps, and we’re not seeing any kind of change. Just give me one [piece of] evidence of real change.
So it has literally just been a continuation of his father’s [policies]?
More or less continuation. You saw with [the] Feb. 29 “Leap Day deal” you’re familiar with, that gave us a little bit of hope, that things got quite excited. But that deal fell apart in a couple of days when North Korea went ahead with a satellite launch.
Before that deal [fell] apart, we were hopeful, and I think that’s why the Obama administration decided to go ahead with that deal, because the argument was at least this was Kim Jong-un; this would be the first agreement with him. All other previous deals were with his father.
So we were hopeful, but once that deal fell apart very quickly, we probably understood that we’re now dealing with the same kind of regime. Then it got even worse with the recent provocations that I just mentioned.
What do you think his motivations were for the recent provocations?
I think it’s really hard to tell, because even from the North Korean perspective and North Korean standards, they really went over the line threatening to attack the United States with nuclear weapons. When watching this, I thought, wow, even for North Korean standards, this is really over the top.
I’m not sure exactly what the reasons are — probably because he is trying to show his mettle, trying to further consolidate his regime to show that he’s tough, that he can be tough. Probably a nuclear test was in the offing anyway, and he just continued with what was already decided before.
But partly it’s [that] they always do this periodically, right? You’ve heard everybody talking about this cycle of provocation and then upping the ante in the face of international condemnation and then sort of returning, pivoting back to some sort of peace offensive leading to negotiation and reaping concessions — North Korean standards for decades now.
We’ve now seen, predictably after this whole cycle of provocation, pivoting back to peace offensive, now they are dealing, talking to South Koreans. They’ve just agreed to reopen Kaesong Industrial Complex. They’ve just now said they’re going to hold family reunions. North-South family reunions, they [had] been suspended.
So now they’re trying to talk to the United States again, trying to return to the talks. So this is a very predictable thing. It’s just that the intensity of the recent provocations were even greater.
Is there any danger that the rhetoric could spill over internationally? We’ve seen in previous years that there have been offensive actions. Do you think that it is purely rhetoric, or there is reasonable ground that something could happen?
I think there’s reasonable ground to fear some limited back-and-forth across the border. I don’t think it will spill into a general war situation. North Koreans are [not], and they’ve never been, overly ideological. They’re not like terrorists. They’re not like Al Qaeda. They’re not suicidal.
They know that if it leads to a general war that North Korea will be defeated in a matter of days and weeks. South Korea is capable on their own, without the United States’ help, to completely defeat North Korea, and North Korea knows this.
Regime survival is of utmost important interest, and they have no interest in risking that. They want their provocations to lead everyone to be scared of North Korea. …
There’s always a fear of limited back-and-forth, particularly with the new South Korean government, [President] Madame Park Geun-hye. She seems very principled, and she says she’ll retaliate this time. …
Isn’t one of the problems that if there isn’t a back-and-forth, to put it bluntly, North Korean lives are kind of more expendable to the North Korean regime than South Korean lives are to the government in South Korea? The regime doesn’t have to publicize to its own people if it does lose 100 soldiers, for instance.
Absolutely, and that’s what the North Koreans are banking on, and that is exactly why the United States and South Korea have not reacted to North Korean provocations for decades. North Koreans are used to getting away with literally murder.
Look at all the provocations before: multiple assassination attempts on South Korean presidents; that the second assassination attempt killed the current president’s mother, First Lady [Yuk Young-soo], [President] Park Chung-hee’s wife; the Burma bombing that killed almost half of the South Korean Cabinet members; and the 1987 Korean airliner bombing that killed all 150 people onboard.
We now think about recent provocations and we [think], wow, this is over the top. When you think about the past, they’ve done things that are far worse. That’s why they were on the list of the terrorist-sponsored states, because of the Korean airliner bombing. But what was the Korean government’s response, South Korean government and United States? Absolutely, virtually nothing.
And in March 2010, even in the aftermath of the Cheonan sinking, when North Koreans sank the South Korean vessel Cheonan, killing all 46 South Korean soldiers onboard, [President] Lee Myung-bak talked very tough, but they still did not respond to the Cheonan attack either.
Only when North Korea shelled the South Korean island Yeonpyeong there was a limited firing back. But even still, that didn’t lead to any kind of North Korean casualties. So North Koreans are used to getting away with all their provocative acts precisely because they are banking on exactly what you say: American lives and South Korean lives are more valuable. … I think [these are] very calculated actions by the North Koreans.
And what do you think the worst-case scenario from an American perspective is? …
I think from the American perspective, [it’s] if they become fully nuclear-capable power. They’re already a nuclear factor, or nuclear power. From the American perspective, it’s really proliferation.
I don’t think any Americans truly believe — I’m talking about American policymakers — that North Koreans are ever going to use nuclear weapons against America or South Korea or Japan or anywhere because of the reasons I just talked about. North Koreans are not crazy. They’re not suicidal.
They want proliferation of the regime, but we are afraid of proliferation. We call North Koreans “serial proliferators” because they proliferate absolutely everything for money. They have a history of proliferating. They proliferated with Syria, Iran, Myanmar and so on.
So the worst-case scenario is that they will sell their nuclear capability, know-how and technology, and it will somehow end up in the hands of terrorists. I think that’s our worst fear.
You worked for the CIA for a number of years. Compared to other countries, how good is our intelligence about the really deep, internal workings of the North Korean regime?
I’m afraid we know very little. North Korea is called a “hard-target” country. It is the hardest of a hard-target country to really understand what’s going on, and that’s because human intelligence, where we run human access, it’s impossible to run it. We can’t send Americans into North Korea to run around. North Koreans themselves cannot travel freely internally, so how can you send outsiders into North Korea?
That means the only way to have any North Korean human access is to convert them when they’re outside of North Korea. But their security practice is top-notch. There’s no single North Korean that can just run around by themselves. … They all travel in pairs, minimum pairs. They go to the grocery store, they go to take the subway in pairs. You cannot even separate them.
The ones that go out abroad are the elites. They are the ones that are most ideologically trained, and they have family members back home, and you know the practice of sort of rounding up all the family members. Up to three generations get punished for your own acts, so it’s impossible almost to convert them.
But let’s say you do convert them, and we have human access, but they’re midlevel officials. You’re a midlevel North Korean official working in Kuwait. What do you know about [what] Kim Jong-un is thinking? … So it’s really impossible to know the inner workings of the North Korean regime, what the top elites are thinking.
There is nothing more than what we would like to know than what Kim Jong-un thinks. But what does Jang Song-thaek really think, his uncle? Is he really supporting Kim Jong-un? We know that he used to be allies with Kim Jong-nam, the oldest son who is now living in Macau. But could the top-level military guys truly believe in Kim Jong-un and believe that this guy, the four-star general who has never served one day in the military, can they truly follow this guy?
Or are there actual reformers? Are there splinters in the group? But these are the kinds of questions that are just impossible to know because we lack human intelligence, and even the signals intelligence is not really effective in North Korea. We don’t have enough Korea specialists that are linguists.
So the bottom line is it’s really a hard-target country. It’s very opaque. It’s very isolated. And unfortunately we have very little information, and it’s like putting together pieces of puzzle, but we have very limited pieces, and we don’t even know if those pieces are for this puzzle. It might be for some other random puzzle. So it’s a very difficult country to understand and analyze.
… There’s also the technological problem. Even if you have converted someone and they’re there, how do they then get the information out?
Absolutely right. And it’s not only North Korean officials. You will hear about this when you talk to North Korean defectors. The way the North Korean regime keeps the regime going, one of the reasons is this pervasive security apparatus and fear tactics, right? So a lot of them told me that it’s OK that they sacrifice their own lives, fine, … but it’s the whole family members. It’s up to three generations.
When the senior-most North Korean defector, Hwang Jang-yop, defected to South Korea, some of his relatives were rounded up in North Korea and were sent to prison camps. These guys didn’t even know they were related to Hwang Jang-yop. When the security guys came knocking on their door, they said, “Well, I’m related to Hwang?” It was like, the ninth cousin. This is how North Korea operates. …
So we just don’t really know.
We know very little. It’s really sad, but when Kim Jong-un first became known, the agency CIA had this one picture of Kim Jong-il’s boy with that bratty grin, and that’s what we were working with. That’s the photo we had.
What we knew about it was already in The New York Times, the sushi chef, Kenji [Fujimoto], who wrote about Kim Jong-un and some of his classmates with The New York Times guy, and it wasn’t really much more than that.
Given that North Korea is potentially a big kind of foreign policy threat —
It is very scary. … But it’s just really hard to get at the most critical questions, and that is regime intention. What do you intend to do? And obviously misunderstanding intentions can lead to just not understanding the whole country, how it works.
This is why after Kim Jong-il died, … so many people came out one way or another. “Oh, we’re going to reform,” or, “North Korea is now going to fall apart,” and none of this came to fruition. It didn’t turn out to be. It’s very, very difficult.
The same thing happened when Kim Il-sung died. We said, “Oh, now it’s going to fall apart.” At the time, Kim Jong-il, “Oh, he’s a playboy; he drinks cognac; he runs around with women. He doesn’t have Kim Il-sung’s bravery or know-how, and North Korea’s going to fall apart.” And he ruled for 20 years.
Now we know very little, even less about Kim Jong-un than we did about Kim Jong-il, so I think the future is truly a mystery.
In terms of the way that the administration deals with the regime in Pyongyang, how much back-door discussions go on, or is there none?
The back-channel discussions with North Koreans, there have been a few. There’s a New York channel. [Ambassador] Joe DeTrani, [the former senior adviser to the Director of National Intelligence], has a channel himself, but it’s not as frequent. Also, it has to be on this now cycle, which is the end of the provocation, the peace offensive cycle. So there are a few, but it’s not as often as you’d think. …
The week before last, [Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues] Ambassador [Robert] King was refused entry, which to an impartial observer seems extraordinary.
… We don’t know exactly why North Koreans always do what they do. Why is Dennis Rodman the only American “official” that Kim Jong-un has met with? He’s not even an official. I mean, he’s the oddest. To think that [is the] one American that Kim Jong-un spent any time with, that’s pretty bizarre to me.
But how can you explain other bizarre behavior? Why are they building amusement parks? Why are they building a ski resort? What about this horse-riding facility? These are the things that Kim Jong-un is now focusing on. … He is a big kid just running the show. …
… On the subject of [imprisoned U.S. citizen] Kenneth Bae, what’s your understanding of their motivation for keeping him? Is there more to it than meets the eye?
It’s whenever you have an American hostage that could always be dangled out in front as prelude to some sort of negotiation, it’s just another card that he can play. That’s how [he got] Bill Clinton to come, former head of state visiting North Korea. Great propaganda value.
And then you can act magnanimous and release the girls. Remember the girls that Bill Clinton released? So it’s sort of just another thing that they do as a leverage to negotiate with Washington. I don’t know if there are any other sinister reasons than that.
Just gives them some kind of leverage. And I guess they don’t have many cards on their —
They don’t have many cards. I think they’ve sort of used [them] up. Since the first Obama administration, I think they really just overplayed and misplayed their hand. At least with the George Bush administration there was a lot of talk about, “Oh, the hard-line Bush administration.”
When Obama first came in, I think they just thought, hey, because when Obama first came into the office, he had much more of a friendlier tone. Do you remember when he said, “I’m willing to meet Kim Jong-il at any time, any place”? You know, willing to work with you guys.
I think they just really misplayed it. Within the first six months of the Obama administration, they had a series of provocative steps. They set the nuclear test, long-range [intercontinental ballistic] missile test, complete withdrawal from the Six-Party Talks, saying that they would continue with the uranium enrichment program, which really compelled the Obama administration to say: “Wow, stop them. We need a thorough North Korea policy review.”
Then what emerged from that is this thing called “strategic patience.” I think from the North Korean perspective, it did not go as they expected. The Obama administration held firm on not returning to the talks. I think the North Koreans banked on the Americans returning to talks, because even under Bush, we were returning to the talks. …
We are always returning to talks after they do something provocative, and I think that’s something they were banking on, so they were caught a little bit off guard by the Obama administration’s policy and stance. …
What is strategic patience? What does that mean?
There are a lot of folks who criticize this policy. Basically, I think it means that we’re not going to play this same old game anymore. Just because you say jump, we’re not going to jump. Just because you act provocatively, we’re not going to just then return to the talks. We’re just going to emphasize this patience and have a longer-term view.
The problem is, and the criticism of this policy is, that while we’re doing that — that’s fine, we’re not going to return to the talks because they act badly; we’re not going to reward bad behavior — but the problem is they’re continuing to build their nuclear capability while there’s no momentum. There’s no talk while they are building their nuclear capability.
So some folks criticize this policy as, you know, it’s a non-policy; it’s not giving anything. But the problem is with North Korea there is no right solution. There’s no one approach that’s going to survive. If we knew it, it would have been solved. This has been decades of this problem that has been going on from the Republican administration to the Obama administration, from Clinton to Bush to Obama.
And we tried almost everything. We tried negotiating. Even Bush, who is always being accused of being a hard-liner, really changed his tactic in his second term. Yes, in the first term he was hard-line. Remember the 2000 “axis of evil” speech that really didn’t start off the North Korea-U.S. relations in the right footing?
But after the first nuclear test, Bush really switched policy and tried to work with North Korea, returning to the Six-Party Talks over and over. And in the last year of the Bush term, we even de-listed North Korea from the terrorist-[designated] list at the expense of really straining our alliance relationship with Japan to really get somewhere with North Korea. So it’s not true that Bush was really hard-line way. We tried everything, and it hasn’t worked.
There is no easy solution, and a lot of academics like to criticize, but then what is the right policy? If you ask them, “Then tell me one option that [will] be good policy,” they’ll [say], “You know, there is no real recommendation that’s realistic.”
So it’s really the land of bad policy options, and in light of that, I think what the Obama administration is doing is at least saying: “We’re not going to just reward bad behavior. We’re not going to just play the same old-time games.” But at some point, you have to come up with something that’s more than that, right?
Were you at the National Security Council under Obama as well?
Yes, my first six months.
… In that six months, did you feel that there was a shift and people had a different approach?
Well, the shift was this: When I was at the National Security Council under the last year of George W. Bush’s term, and we’re trying to tell the North Koreans that if you want a deal, let’s make a deal now, they kept thinking that with Obama, they would have a better deal because he sounded like more of a conciliatory candidate, just the way the campaign rhetoric was going. But we had been already, by that point, dealing with North Korea, trying to negotiate, and Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice and [former U.S. Ambassador to Korea] Chris Hill and these people who had been working with North Koreans really wanted some sort of agreement.
So when President Obama came into office, I think the North Koreans thought they would have a better, more easy policy, and that just did not turn out to be, because before we could do anything, they just came in [to office]; he needed to get acquainted with the world’s issues. North Korea is not the only problem in the world, right? North Koreans got very impatient, and there was a string of provocations in the first six months, which then compelled Obama and his security team to do a thorough review.
But President Obama was not interested in changing policy dramatically. When President Bush came into the office, his practice was going on “ABC policy.” You’ve heard of it? “Anything But Clinton” policy. So when President Bush came in, he said, OK, everything is going to be re-evaluated, including North Korea policy. So when we were very close on the last Clinton year — Clinton was almost very close going to North Korea for a meeting with Kim Jong-il — so we’re very close, but when President Bush came in, he completely reversed the policy.
But President Obama didn’t do that. He came into the office; he thought Six-Party Talks, multilateral talks, it’s a good thing, so we’re going to continue with Bush’s second-term policy, which was not hard-line at all. It was working with North Korea. It was going to the Six-Party Talks, multilateral framework. So President Obama was willing to continue with that and continue with dialogue. And even more than that, he thought, OK, I’m willing to meet with Kim Jong-il.
But then again, I think North Koreans thought they would get better results if they acted provocatively, and I think they miscalculated very badly on that.
How about the intelligence in terms of feeling the pulse of the population and how they feel about Kim Jong-un, … that he’s not quite taken seriously?
It’s really hard to tell, because the only people we can talk to are the defectors. It’s really hard to get a pulse of what everyday North Koreans think, because whatever they think, they would not share it with you in any case because of this whole fear, fear for security apparatus, right? They can’t criticize the regime.
But I think what you’re saying is probably true, because at least there was genuine reverence for Kim Il-sung as a founder of North Korea, and he had tremendous charisma. Also Kim Jong-il. They’ve learned to live with him for 20 years, so who is this person who just came into power out of the blue?
And most North Koreans, they just never even heard of Kim Jong-un until he became the leader of North Korea, because they didn’t have enough time to have the succession process built as they did with Kim Jong-il. It only really took off after Kim Jong-il had his first stroke in 2008.
So a lot of people haven’t even heard of him, and now you’re sort of parading this 29-year-old guy, who, again, did not serve a day in the military, who does not even have his own tight relations with people because he spent years abroad. So I think that would make sense for people to say.
Korean culture is a Confucian culture, even for North Korea. Reverence for age, experience, these things matter. And he has neither the experience and he’s not old. So how can you respect a 29-year-old person? If you ask the North Koreans, I think they will say that they do, because they don’t want to be sent to political prison camp. But I doubt that people genuinely feel toward Kim Jong-un [what] they did for Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
People talk about him trying to physically emulate his grandfather.
Yes. There’s all kinds of rumors that Kim Jong-un even had cosmetic surgery to look like his grandfather, which is obvious it’s a rumor; we can’t prove that. But certainly his style seems to be more like Kim Il-sung as well. He’s embracing children. That’s a photo opportunity with kids, you know, holding the children. He’s making public speeches, which Kim Jong-il has never really done. …
And his father, Kim Jong-il, was much more of a recluse. He didn’t give public speeches; he doesn’t go to hold little babies and let them take pictures; he doesn’t mingle them. He is just always go and visit military units.
It is clear that Kim Jong-un’s style is much more like his grandfather. He’s trying to emulate his grandfather because he probably knows that his grandfather was much more genuinely popular with the public.
In terms of hope of change for North Korea, how important is technological advances — becoming easier for people to get USBs and DVDs and those kind of things — as a kind of window to the outside world? How important do you think that is in terms of changing people’s minds?
I think it’s important because information has to come to North Korea. North Koreans lived for so long with an absence of real information about the outside world. One of the ways that the Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un regime is able to continue with this system is by a monopoly of information, right, by really excluding outside, unwanted information from coming in and educating the public. In that way it’s very important in terms of public awareness that these DVDs and South Korean soap operas and so on are coming in.
And I’m very happy about that, since increasingly more information is seeping through the Sino-North Korea border, but I am skeptical that it’s necessarily going to lead to some sort of a big change that we are all hoping for, because I’m not sure that that kind of change would come from bottom up.
Even if let’s say the public is more aware of the outside world, is that more or less necessarily going to lead them to have a revolution like the Arab Spring kind of revolution? The way the Korean system is set up right now, they don’t have any kind of mechanism to do that. Several people cannot even get together, mobilize so that they can even talk about it.
With what’s happening in the Middle East, there’s Twitter; there’s Facebook. People can get mobilized; they can get together. There’s no mechanism, no structure for North Koreans, every citizen to do that. And again, the pervasive security apparatus, they will round everybody up.
They still know you will probably fail. Any kind of uprising will fail, and all your relatives, your kids, your grandkids, will be sent up to a political prison camp.
So I’m not sure. I want more information to come into North Korea. I’m not sure it’s going to lead into regime change or any kind of popular revolution. I think if there’s going to be any kind of regime change at all, it still has to come from the elites, the way the situation is in North Korea right now.
Is there any prospect of that whatsoever?
We don’t know, because first of all, any type of coup attempt is very difficult in North Korea. And in any case, if we know about it, that means the coup has failed before it happens, right? That means Kim Jong-un certainly knows about it. So if we find out, it will be after the fact.
But it’s because it goes back to this regime-intention thing, what the elites are thinking. What is Jang Song-thaek thinking? What [are] the military guys thinking? And I think right now, elites have vested interest in keeping the system. They’re in all of the same boat as Kim Jong-un. So if Kim Jong-un falls, they’ll know what happens: So [will] they. Because of their own interest and their vested interest in status quo, I think this will continue for a while. …
How important is the spread of the markets in terms of loosening people’s attachment to the state? …
I think it is very important. There is two things that’s going on here, like more information coming through, which is still very important in waking North Korean people’s mind. They’ve been told basically a bunch of lies their whole lives.
And basically this free market — and I think it’s something increasingly harder for Kim Jong-un to control. Now that in the markets [mostly] they are using the foreign currency, or it’s U.S. dollars or the Chinese currency that’s being used, not the North Korean won, and they cannot control it.
When they tried to do this currency reform several years ago, it was a total disaster and fiasco. That’s the first time when Kim Jong-un tried to rein the markets in, and it was the currency reform. It was the first time we really saw dissent.
People are outside protesting this, which was [shocking] not only to the Kim Jong-il regime but to the outsiders, too. We thought, wow, there is a potential for that, because they were so upset by the North Korean regime’s attempt to rein in the markets, so I think that’s something that’s now sort of slipping. They can’t control it.
I think it is important for the North Korean lives. They have no choice because the state [has] completely failed in providing anything. They can’t provide infrastructure, anything. It’s now literally up to the people in terms of their own survival.
And I think North Koreans are proving to be very resilient in that way. So the two things that are very positive that are coming out of North Korea [are] that more information [is] going into North Korea [and] this free-market thing. Neither of them are now, I think, controllable by the North Korean regime.
What does America do, or what could they do to try and help both those processes, and do you think that it’s doing enough?
The free markets, it’s something the Americans can’t do much about. Information, I think we can try to work on that more to find innovative and creative ways, even covertly, trying to get information into North Korea. And I think that’s a good thing. In terms of U.S. policy, I think the long-term process has to be that.
So the short-term plan is whether we decide to return or not return to the talks. It has to be more tactical, because I don’t believe the North Korea regime is going to actually change in terms of nuclear and foreign policy. It doesn’t matter if you return to the talks or if we don’t return to the talks. They’re just not going to give up nuclear weapons.
So being mindful of that, if we decide to return to the talks, it has to be that tactical maneuver on our part to contain the nuclear crises, so to slow down the nuclear weapons program because they’re never going to give that up.
But while we do that, there has to be a long-term plan. A longer-term plan comes down to more information going into North Korea, educating North Korean people, and dealing with humanitarian concerns more.
I think with all this focus on nuclear crisis, we have not concentrated enough or focused enough on the humanitarian front, or the defector concerns, the prison camps that hold 200,000 civilians that are outside of the criminal penal system. One of the camps, Kaesong, is 540 square kilometers. It’s three times the size of Washington, D.C.
But we have not addressed any of these issues, so we need to really focus more on trying to get the information into North Korea, addressing the humanitarian concerns, even to maybe work immigration to accept more North Korean defectors and refugees into the United States if they want to come. Most of them want to go to South Korea. …
China is hugely important. What view do you think China has of Kim Jong-un?
I think China is not happy with Kim Jong-un. There was no love lost either with Kim Jong-il, even his father. China had a genuine relationship with Kim Il-sung, where there was a genuinely brotherly relationship, but increasingly, during the Kim Jong-il years, China was getting just, they want less and less to do with North Korea because [of] their behavior.
I think they have less respect for Kim Jong-un. China is now increasingly showing displeasure with the North Koreans and even going out as far as to criticize. I think she should be even trying to make a veiled criticism of Kim Jong-un during the height of the crisis earlier this year.
So China is showing an indication that is at least moving a little bit away from North Korea. Now fundamentally, China’s priority and China’s interest is different from America’s interest, meaning that while we both care about denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and that’s our number one interest from a U.S. perspective, that is not number one in China’s perspective, right? China’s perspective, China’s number one priority, is stability of the North Korean Peninsula, is to prevent regime collapse, to prevent influx of refugees that will come to China over the China-North Korea border.
So because of this fundamental difference in our priorities, I’m not quite sure if China is really going to push North Korea to the point that is going to lead to any kind of regime collapse, because they absolutely feel that.
I think the hallmark for Washington and Seoul is to try to continually talk to Chinese and have them understand that their interest will be better met with a fundamentally different North Korea, and perhaps even unified Korea, that South Korean-led is not necessarily against China’s strategic interests. I think we need to make them fundamentally understand that themselves for their policy to truly change.
I think we do have an opportunity here for South Korea, with the new president, Park Geun-hye. She speaks Mandarin somewhat; her background — she’s a China specialist. She had a very successful summit with Xi Jinping. In fact, China and South Korea this particular moment are growing close with each other. She even went to China before Japan. She hasn’t even gone to Japan yet.
So there is an opportunity here for President Park Geun-hye to really try to make them understand, hey, a South Korea-led unified Korea is not a bad thing for you. In any case, this is not working out for China’s interest, so we need to continually work on that. …
What do you think China’s worst fear is in terms of what could happen?
I think China’s worst fear is regime collapse leading to unified Korea, which will have whole disastrous consequences, including a flood of thousands of refugees trying to flee to China, destabilizing the peninsula, destabilizing the border area and so on.
Then unified Korea with American soldiers near the border, I think that’s their worst fear. And that’s why I think it’s important for Washington and Seoul to continually talk to the Chinese, saying it doesn’t have to be that way.
Do you think China is well enough tapped into the North Korean elite to be able to bring about regime change or at least to encourage reformers?
I think they might know a little bit more, but I doubt they know a whole lot more, and I doubt they’re willing to meddle in domestic politics like that. In domestic affairs of North Korea, it’s really hard to identify those reformers, because if the Chinese know, Kim Jong-un knows who these guys are, and then their lives will be in danger. Even Jang Song-thaek himself was sent to prison camp because he was becoming too powerful and he was reform-minded. …
It’s just very, very difficult. I think China would just sort of rather work with Kim Jong-un and sort of have North Koreans behave the way they want North Koreans to behave, which is following the economic reform path as they did, stop creating this nuclear crisis.
But they will get increasingly more frustrated if North Koreans don’t follow their advice, as we’ve seen this year, getting increasingly frustrated. And that was clear when they started criticizing Kim Jong-un and they took some steps to show their displeasure. But I do think there’s an opportunity for Seoul and Washington to continually work with Kim Jong-un on this issue.