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Decoding the Korean Peninsula Missile Rhetoric
Decoding the Korean Peninsula Missile Rhetoric
North Korea Must Apologise for American Tourist Warmbier’s Death
North Korea Must Apologise for American Tourist Warmbier’s Death
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un looks on during the test-fire of inter-continental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, North Korea, on 4 July 2017. KCNA/via REUTERS
Commentary / Asia

Decoding the Korean Peninsula Missile Rhetoric

Fiery rhetoric between North Korea and the U.S. adds risks to Korean peninsula tensions, but should not cause panic. Outside players should maximise the potential benefit of an established pattern of de-escalation in the fall. They – and Pyongyang – should also back South Korea’s offers of dialogue.

North Korea once again captured the world’s attention when it boldly warned that it is ready to fire missiles over Japan toward the U.S. territory of Guam. The unusually specific and unacceptable North Korean declaration rattled governments in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. But Pyongyang’s real target is not Guam, but to ensure it remains at the centre of the conversation. In this it has been significantly aided and abetted by U.S. President Donald Trump, who took with gusto to the unwise practice of trading direct threats with the Kim Jong-un regime.

Both sides have been contributing to an unhelpfully febrile and tense atmosphere. North Korea’s threat to launch missiles into the sea off Guam followed President Donald Trump’s alarming injunction that North Korea would face “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen” if it were to continue to threaten the U.S. Pyongyang’s statement in turn prompted President Trump to assert that his comment about “fire and fury” may in fact not have been “tough enough”. As the logic of one-upmanship intensifies, risks of miscalculation and misinterpretation inexorably are driven upward.

Amid the rhetorical escalation, some U.S. officials sought to introduce a sense of measure. Defense Secretary James Mattis, speaking in California on 10 August, reiterated that the U.S. seeks a diplomatic solution to the current standoff, echoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s words from a week prior that the U.S. does not want regime change in Pyongyang. The two men then joined forces to make the same point in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, declared in South Korea (Republic of Korea, ROK) last Monday that the current standoff should be resolved “without a war”.

In other words, by looking beyond Trump – not always an easy thing to do – there is evidence of a U.S. wish to talk its way out of the current crisis. Less so in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). In the DPRK, regime officials are obliged to speak in one voice, that of the supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, and that voice regularly has chosen to respond to most forms of pressure with extreme vitriol.

Still, in its own way, North Korea also has conveyed signs of its desire to keep the Korean peninsula situation under control. Like the Trump administration, Pyongyang has been showing two faces at once. This is cause for confusion, but also of some reassurance.

[North Korea] intends to try to divide global opinion and keep the world guessing about its intent.

Take the recent release from detention of a Canadian pastor, Lim Hyeon-soo. Lim’s release suggests that, North Korea’s extreme bellicosity aside, the regime neither wants nor plans to fight or lose control of the situation. Rather, it intends to try to divide global opinion and keep the world guessing about its intent. For Pyongyang, foreign captives are an insurance policy of sorts. They are not ordinarily allowed to leave on the cheap. By letting pastor Lim go – a step that, upon his return to the pulpit last Sunday, Lim called a “gesture of goodwill in the face of so much rhetoric” – the implicit message from North Korea is that it seeks to keep events from going too far.

A few relatively moderate statements by Trump’s subordinates to counterbalance the U.S. president’s own repeated and dangerous bluster, coupled with a detainee’s release in the midst of North Korea’s highly incendiary words and actions, hardly are cause for comfort. But they are indications on which the international community should build.

However, that building will have to wait, at least for a while. Over the past several weeks and months, analysts and policymakers have offered a range of intriguing proposals for addressing the nuclear conundrum in a manner that addresses Pyongyang’s security concerns. But such proposals ignore Pyongyang’s and the peninsula’s peculiar calendar at their peril, since bad timing risks dooming them to failure. In the immediate future, dynamics are very likely to remain negative and North Korea impervious to forward-leaning ideas. On Monday, the U.S. and South Korea will begin the Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint military exercises that Mattis and Tillerson went the extra mile to defend in their op-ed. North Korea, unavoidably, will react to what it will perceive as a provocative action in the southern half of the peninsula.

Afterward, however, if history repeats itself, a degree of de-escalation could follow in the fall. In April 2013, when North Korea went so far as to unilaterally close down the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a deal eventually was reached and the manufacturing zone jointly run with South Korea returned to full operation in the middle of September. Likewise, after a feverish summer in 2014, three senior North Korean officials – Hwang Pyong-so, Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Yang-gon – made an unexpected appearance at the 17th Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea at the beginning of October. The visit resulted in the highest-level inter-Korean dialogue to take place during the term of former President Park Geun-hye.

No matter how insightful, proposals must take into account the fact that North Korea moves to its own rhythm.

No matter how insightful, proposals must take into account the fact that North Korea moves to its own rhythm. Putting forward a creative suggestion today risks eroding the credibility of those who make them, as they assume that North Korea is an object entirely responsive to outside forces. As the country moves to harvest season – corn, potatoes and soybeans at the turn of September, and then rice in late September and October – the country’s military will be mobilised to assist. This in turn will compel local media to shift the focus of their propaganda. It is hard to maintain a sense of strain and imminent conflict in the ranks while ordering units out into the fields.

History might not be a perfect guide, of course, given the unusual circumstances we now face. North Korea has reached the point of perfecting its missile systems. It may well be unwilling to subordinate the pace of testing to political calculations when it is so close to the goal-line. As for the U.S., whose president has elevated unpredictability to an art form, it is hard to turn to the past for reliable instruction regarding the future.

But other actors can and should play their part in pushing for restraint as soon as the time is ripe. That begins with South Korea. South Korean officials I have met in Seoul in the past weeks clearly believe that wild words are no substitute for a measured approach. Nobody in the political world or civil society here in South Korea has an appetite for further deterioration. That is not surprising. The pain and suffering of any misstep would fall disproportionately on South Korea. That is why the government is holding to a strategy that combines deterrence with patient outreach. The approach includes ongoing inter-Korean discussion on a range of matters, including sporting exchanges in taekwondo and the remote possibility of North Korean involvement in the 2018 Winter Olympics, which will be held in the South Korean mountain town of Pyeongchang early next year.

It is important for the U.S. to stand four-square behind South Korea’s attempts to spur dialogue.

True, South Korea has a weak hand to play, and North Korea has been dismissive of its efforts to date. The North’s representative on the International Olympic Committee, Chang Ung, said during a visit to the South in late June that time is running out, even if the political will to work together is there (which it currently is not). In the same vein, the North’s foreign minister told his South Korean counterpart at the ASEAN Regional Forum in early August that the South Korean policy “lacks sincerity”. But, remote as the prospects may seem today, it is important for the U.S. to stand four-square behind South Korea’s attempts to spur dialogue. Should Washington convey the impression that it is ignoring its alliance partner, it will only further diminish any incentive for – or pressure on – Pyongyang to pay it any heed.

Ultimately, a robust U.S.-ROK alliance, and the joint message that they have the will and capacity to defend themselves, is essential to avoid any dangerous miscalculation in Pyongyang. But deterrence alone cannot suffice. The apparent decision to scale back modestly the U.S.’s participation in the Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercises – in terms of numbers of personnel and types of deployed military assets – is one way of sending a de-escalatory message. When tensions abate, as they should, the focus should shift to actively seeking new avenues for dialogue with South Korea in the lead, and to supporting inter-Korean engagement in the sporting arena and elsewhere. For its part, Kim Jong-un’s North Korean regime should show a modest degree of responsibility and accept the small steps forward publicly offered by Seoul.

Otto Frederick Warmbier, who had been detained in North Korea since early January, attends a news conference in Pyongyang, in a photo released by Kyodo on 29 February 2016. REUTERS/Kyodo
Commentary / Asia

North Korea Must Apologise for American Tourist Warmbier’s Death

A public apology for death of American tourist Otto Warmbier is the best way for North Korea to show it did not plan this tragedy, keep over-zealous public security officials in line and improve the chances of any dialogue with the outside world.

The death of an American tourist just days after he was released from North Korean custody and repatriated to his home in Ohio has cast another long shadow over relations between Pyongyang and Washington. 22-year-old Otto Warmbier was in a coma when he departed the North Korean capital last week, and had apparently been in that condition for over a year. He appears to have been released and sent home only in order that he might die with his family around him, rather than in the unbending isolation of distant Pyongyang.

It is unclear how Warmbier ended up in a coma, and the entirely reasonable decision of his family to refuse an autopsy means that we probably never will. From a humanitarian standpoint it is of no consequence. Warmbier died at the hands of the North Korean government, and that is all we need to know. He was not sentenced to death at his Pyongyang show trial in 2016, he received a sentence of fifteen years’ hard labour, nominally for trying to steal an item bearing a propaganda slogan from his hotel on a New Year’s group tour. Yet he ended up dead all the same. There is no acceptable excuse for this. The fact that Warmbier did not actually die until after he got home to Ohio is spurious, useful only for permitting the North Korean authorities to keep his demise out of official statistics.

However, the question of what happened and who was responsible for it matters for other reasons. It is highly unlikely that the North Korean government had a strategic plan that included the death of Otto Warmbier. It is therefore helpful to understand the institutional dynamics that resulted in the tragedy, since these may afford international actors greater leverage in future attempts to negotiate with the North Korean government.

The removal of Kim Won-hong from his post as head of the Ministry of State Security in February this year potentially may be relevant here. The Ministry of State Security is the institution that punishes North Korea’s extremely long list of nominally “political” crimes. It manages the country’s notorious network of political prison camps, generating the sense of pervasive fear that buttresses the regime’s power.

It is highly unlikely that the North Korean government had a strategic plan that included the death of Otto Warmbier.

Extraordinarily, a South Korean legislative committee revealed at the time of Kim’s removal intelligence that said he had been censured by the ruling party for human rights violations. This would ordinarily be an implausible rationale for removing the head of arguably the single most brutal institution in all of North Korea. Without human rights violations, the Ministry of State Security would cease to function. Unless, that is, the punishment of Kim was designed to send a message to third parties.

The Warmbier tragedy is reminiscent of the summer of 2008. Early one morning in July that year, a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean tourist, 53-year-old housewife Park Wang-ja, who had stepped outside the permitted bounds of the Mt. Kumgang resort in the North Korean half of Kangwon province. Facing an untenable security situation, newly inaugurated South Korean President Lee Myung-bak immediately halted all inter-Korean tourist projects.

Then, as now, the actions of a member or members of the North Korean security services were utterly unacceptable. Yet, although a public apology for that incident was repeatedly demanded by the South Korean authorities, it was not forthcoming. Instead, more than a year later, then-leader Kim Jong-il only went so far as to promise Hyun Jeong-eun, the chair of the Hyundai Group, that the incident would not be repeated and that measures would be taken to ensure this. His words were deemed entirely inadequate by the South Korean people, horrified at the killing of Park for something as seemingly trivial as walking on the wrong side of a line.

In recent years, the North Korean government has occasionally shown itself capable of public displays of honesty, and even something akin to remorse.

This time, the North Korean government must make the right choice. If it was not Pyongyang’s intent to send Warmbier home in a coma, then a senior official in the North Korean regime should apologise for the actions of the state security service. This can be done through one of several existing channels for U.S.-Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) communication, for example North Korea’s office at the UN in New York.

This is not as implausible as it at first appears. In recent years, the North Korean government has occasionally shown itself capable of public displays of honesty, and even something akin to remorse. When a missile launch failed on 13 April 2012, the failure was reported in a comparatively accurate and timely manner. When an apartment building collapsed in Pyongyang in 2014, the head of the Ministry of People’s Security, North Korea’s police, Choe Pu-il went before the public to apologise for its incompetence. His symbolic contrition was reported by the daily publication of the ruling party, Rodong Sinmun.

An apology for Otto Warmbier’s death is more than the right and proper thing for the North Korean government to do. It could have additional positive effects. An apology from the top of the ruling party would help signal a desire to limit the political dominance of the Ministry of State Security within the North Korean institutional structure, the core of which also includes the Party Organisation and Guidance and Propaganda and Agitation departments. This is an appropriate step at a time when there is the latent possibility of a dialogue emerging in the coming months between South Korea and elements in the North Korean government who may be predisposed to a flexible approach to the outside world.

If Kim Jong-un and the senior elites who run the DPRK regime through its core institutions are at all interested in changing the framework of relations and conflict-prone dynamics of North East Asia, they know what must be done.