DPRK Briefing Book: Testimony on North Korea
James Lilley, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, March 12, 2003
Appearances in Korea can be deceiving. A foreigner’s impressions and generalizations about Seoul or Pyongyang can be misleading. Pyongyang resembles Wal-Mart and Times Square. Kim Jong-il is interested in the Swedish Economic Model.
Korean folklore touches on this in this anecdote: A foreign missionary comes across an old Korean walking down a road with his wife six paces behind. The foreigner explains to him that they should walk together, as they are equals. The Korean answers, “This is our way, for a thousand years.” He moves on. Six months later, the missionary encounters the Korean again. This time his wife is walking six paces in front of him. The missionary says, “You are equals. There is no need for her to walk in front of you.” The Korean replies, “This road is mined.”
We often deal with North Koreans with a particular negotiation in mind. Our knowledge of them is based on the latest intelligence reports. I want to walk back further and select 2 out of many Korean traditional concepts that influence their approach to us and to the world. Nunchi: the character and intentions one sees in another’s eyes.
Han: The Korean melancholy view of the world. A shrimp among whales. Resentment of arrogant officials, hatred of colonization by larger powers, a wife’s dislike of an overbearing husband.
Why nunchi? Kim Daijung looked into Kim Jong-il’s eyes in Pyongyang in June 2000 and must have seen things we foreigners can never see: desperation, fear, arrogance, insecurity, all with unique Korean characteristics. The U.S. knows about his military hardware, but Kim Daejung looked into his soul. This has both positive and negative aspects, as Korean history has demonstrated. In the late 16th century, Hideyoshi, the great Japanese shogun, was preparing to move out militarily against his neighbors. The Chosen Dynasty sent spies and envoys to Japan to observe his nunchi. They saw in Hideyoshi the eyes of a rat and declared that no invasion would happen. The Koreans, however, did not measure his spears, which were longer than theirs. Hideyoski struck Korea with initial success. Today we primarily measure North Korea’s weapons systems quantitatively to assess their intentions. Our South Korean friends, however, tend to emphasize character as a gauge of intentions. Therein lies at the root of some of our current differences.
The concept of Han focuses on the immediate “big guy.” Bullies on Korea’s periphery have been around for a long time. Now, the local big guy runs over little Korean girls with lumbering weapons carriers. Anti-foreignism, anti-Americanism lie below the surface but can flare up dramatically over a single incident.
What are the historic characteristics of North Korean regimes with which we are dealing? Korean dynasties are not ephemeral; they tend to last a long time. The Chosen Dynasty was around as long as the Ming and Manchu dynasties together. Corruption, foreign intervention, weakness and incompetence characterized the Chosen for its last hundred years, but the dynasty lasted and lasted. Korean leaders, bad as they have been, have had long tenures. Kim Ilsung’s tenure was about 50 years. Kim Youngnam, the current SPA president, has been around as a leader since 1960. Collapse of a regime in Korean History is uncommon. Using discipline, toughness, and insularity, the cunning Koreans have survived. However, they have had to fight for what they wanted—or some big guy would have taken it away. By estimates, Korea has had 900 invasions in the last 1000 years. A political vortex exists in North Korea, and until democracy came to South Korea, it characterized the South. A centralized rule from the top prevailed with minimum local autonomy. Part of this was brought about by the homogeneous nature of the Korean people.
Foreign contrivances—such as roadmaps, frameworks, armistice treaties—in the North Korean view are to be circumvented and undermined. North Koreans see them as devices to lock in foreigners but not to restrict Korean behavior or actions. These foreign agreements are primarily useful in getting what the Korean regime needs to survive and to flourish. The conditions are met only insofar as they accomplish these purposes. Power, not trust, is what has gotten the North Korean compliance such as it is. The 1953 Armistice, the most successful of the foreign contrivances, worked not because we were trusted—but because we and South Koreans were strong enough to inflict damaging consequences on North Korean circumventions. The 1968 Blue House Raid, the submarine infiltrations in the late 1990s, the recent gunboat intrusions, the Rangoon assassination bombing, the sabotage of KA-858 are examples of North Korean provocations, their plans, and what they are capable of carrying out.
A few comments on contemporary North Korea: Kim Jong-il and his military are basically in synch. He is the great symbol of leadership. He has the legacy and the legitimacy the military needs, and he in turn needs their power to maintain his most precious commodity—his survival. He needs the military for the security of the state against foreign threat as well as to maintain domestic stability. Out of 1200 generals, 1100 are probably his. In addition, there are perks: promotions, access to his luxurious palaces, high-grade consumer goods, and travel overseas.
Although Kim Jong-il is no Kim Ilsung, he is the single dominant leader of North Korea today. Unlike his father, he has to work in tandem with other forces, particularly the military. He is less able to inflict his will.
Kim Jong-il’s handling of his current challenge—his so-called “ratcheting it up”—almost parrots what his father did in 1993: pull out of the NPT, kick out the IAEA inspectors, fire a missile, threaten to turn Seoul into a sea of fire. Kim, however, has added in elements of an earlier crisis in 1968. In 1968, North Korea seized the Pueblo. In 2003 Kim directed his MIGs to try to get a U.S. reconnaissance plane, but unlike his father—he failed. In April, 1968, Kim Il-song’s pilots shot down an EC-121 with all aboard lost. This was a great risk by Kim Il-song. Whether Kim Jong-il escalates terrorism against the ROK as his father did in 1968 (in the failed Blue House Raid) or creates a new more aggressive approach (in 1968, it was tunnels under the DMZ) is not yet clear. Kim would probably be more likely to keep his focus on U.S. targets and the threats the U.S. represents to arouse supportive elements in South Korea who are against the U.S. presence. As in 1969 in Vietnam, the U.S. may be diverted by another major war—this time Iraq in 2003, and this could create a favorable environment for the North Koreans to act.
A word about the North Korean view of bilateral talks with the U.S.: this has had some support of Russia, China, and the ROK, and in the U.S., as well in the arguments of the “why not talk” crowd. What is there to lose, they say. Kim’s goal is to make the U.S. threat the issue and to divert emphasis from their weapons of mass destruction. The North Koreans are pressing for a non-aggression pact, saying withdrawing U.S. forces is a prerequisite for lowering pressure. Before bilateral talks with the North, the U.S. needs to work with its friends and allies in the area, notably Japan, ROK, China, and Russia to develop a coordinated program of incentives and disincentives in dealing with North Korea. To jump in prematurely before China is ready to engage fully would probably accomplish little. Korea is not a U.S. problem—it is a regional one.
Kim Jong-il has a failed economic system. He is on life support from the outside in terms of oil and food. Ungrateful as North Korea has been for past aid, this time it is complicated by a starving population, even including cadres. Kim’s moves so far on economic reform in July 2002 have failed badly, his attempt to get the Japanese reparations package, for which he lusts, backfired in the Abduction Cases issue. His economic zone in Sinuiju started out as a fiasco and certainly irritated the Chinese. Kim still has the generous hand of South Korea reaching out—but now hopefully in a more measured and balanced way. Huge bribes and grotesque one-sided tourism deals to Kum Gang-san lost large amounts of money for Hyundai, and the ROKG. Hyundai is reported to have funneled $1.7 billion direct to Pyongyang. South Korean’s Sunshine Policy is viewed by the North’s leadership as a dangerous subversion, according to the highest level defector Hwang Jong yup, who is the most complete source on Kim Jong-il. A takeover of the North by the South, Kim Jong-il believes, should be resisted at all costs, even if it means less aid.
Perhaps the most disconcerting development for Kim Jong-il is the possible coming together of surrounding states—ROK, China, Japan, Russia, and the U.S.—in a loose coalition. This group of states has already agreed in principle that the Korean Peninsula should be free of Nuclear weapons and should have economic reform. The potential use of economic leverage on his WMD programs is a frightening prospect for Kim and is one of the greatest dangers that North Korea has faced in the past 50 years.
According to Hwang Jong yup, after the disastrous starvations of 1995 and 1996, Kim Jong-il was desperate and talked of strike on the South, which he had persuaded himself could work. He did not do it then. He fired off a three stage missile instead which then lost him his Japanese contacts and hopes for immediate reparations worth by some estimates to be over $10 billion.
A recent internal KWP document that has surfaced in the Japanese press describing KWP concerns about internal corruption and dissatisfaction among the population. The flight of hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees to China has dramatized public desperation in the face of continuing economic hardships. The combination of factors could move Kim in the direction of more desperate external moves and to divert attention from domestic failure. In this, he will get the support of his military.
As was the case in 1968, Kim Jong-il lacks support from Russia and China—who had backed his father in 1950 and for years after. This undercuts his strength and his maneuverability.
So will he raise the ante with provocations? Most probably, he will. Will he focus on the U.S. and not on the ROK? Most likely, he will. Will he risk a major confrontation with the U.S. by striking out at U.S. installations, military, air, ground and naval hardware? He will try but will probably stop short of a casus belli. He recognizes his main vulnerability is his economic weakness and dependency. Again, Hwang emphasizes that this is where Kim Jong-il can be undone. He has to keep economic aid under continuing tight control, and he must arrange to get credit for it. But it remains his Achilles heel. And it is the most likely instrument of regime change.