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DNI Clapper’s Rescue Mission to the DPRK
DNI Clapper’s Rescue Mission to the DPRK
Why Trump Should Take It Slow With Kim Jong Un
Why Trump Should Take It Slow With Kim Jong Un
Commentary / Asia

DNI Clapper’s Rescue Mission to the DPRK

On 8 November 2014, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea released U.S. citizens Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller into the custody of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence (DNI), for a return flight to the United States. Bae had been detained for two years after being convicted by a DPRK court for committing “hostile acts against the DPRK”. Bae, a Christian missionary, was suspected of having proselytised against the regime, calling for a “religious coup d’état”. Miller was arrested in April 2014 and convicted in September 2014, also for committing “hostile acts against the DPRK”. Miller reportedly tore up his tourist visa upon arrival at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport and asked for political asylum.

Some people expressed surprise at the sudden release of Bae and Miller. But Jeffrey Fowle, another detained American citizen, was released in late October. Fowle had been arrested for allegedly leaving a Bible in the toilet at the Ch’ŏngjin Seamen’s Club, a restaurant and bar for foreign sailors (and North Koreans with cash). Clearly, the detention of the Americans no longer served the purposes of the regime, but Pyongyang apparently requested a visit by a high-level U.S. government official before agreeing to their release. The Obama administration would have been sensitive about sending a high-level official because of possible criticism at home and because Pyongyang could manipulate the visit for propaganda purposes. The administration pointed out that DNI James Clapper was selected for the mission to emphasise that the visit was not to include broader diplomatic discussions.

Some analysts have speculated that Pyongyang decided to release the Americans because the regime is worried about international criticism of the DPRK’s human rights record. The UN General Assembly is preparing to vote on a draft resolution that could include a recommendation for the referral of senior DPRK officials to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The DPRK’s economic dependence on China could also help explain Pyongyang’s recent international outreach and so-called “charm offensive”.

While the DPRK certainly is motivated to deflect international criticism of its sorry human rights record and to diversify its international partners, the impact of Clapper’s visit on the DPRK’s internal affairs should also not be overlooked. The Obama administration was very careful to consider the impact of a high-level visit on perceptions and audience costs within the Washington Beltway. But was the administration as prudent regarding the way Clapper’s visit would be portrayed in Pyongyang?

Washington is right to be concerned about the manipulation of visits by high-level officials. The Korean Workers Party and state media are very adept at stage-managing visits and controlling media reports to ensure that visitors are perceived to be “paying their respects to the peerlessly great men of the Kim ruling family”. In addition, high-level visits can be portrayed as Washington’s recognition of the DPRK as a “nuclear state”, which is a regime priority. To counter this, the Obama administration has been clear it will not engage diplomatically with the DPRK until it is confident that Pyongyang will return to the Six-Party Talks and bargain in good faith to fulfill its previous denuclearisation commitments.

Many analysts have pointed out that the DPRK leadership is hyper-rational and only acts out of self-interest. The Obama administration has said there is no quid pro quo, and that Obama’s personal letter delivered by Clapper to Kim Jong-un “did not contain an apology in any way, shape or form”. But what was the price for sending Clapper? Certainly Pyongyang must have believed it got something out of the deal.

If past behaviour is a guide, the DPRK sought a written apology or admission of wrongdoing. (The most famous case is the capture of the USS Pueblo in January 1968. Negotiations dragged on for almost a year before the crew was released.) The contents of Obama’s letter are unknown; however, even if the president did not “admit, assure, and apologise” for the crimes of Bae and Miller, the regime can cite Clapper’s visit as an admission that Bae and Miller were spies.

That the DPRK has been reaching out to the international community does not mean it is becoming more liberal. The benefits of economic opening, trade, foreign direct investment, and technology transfers should be obvious even to the most conservative hardliners in Pyongyang. However, the Kim family regime has been nervous about subversive ideas entering North Korea from abroad. So the DPRK leadership faces a dilemma. Opening up is necessary for economic prosperity and successful implementation of the pyŏngjin line—the DPRK’s strategy to develop the economy and nuclear technologies simultaneously. However, opening up also raises the risk of social and political instability.

Since Kim Jong-un has been consolidating his power, the regime has increased internal security in the form of increased surveillance against threats from “enemies who wish to topple the DPRK”. Under these conditions, internal security institutions have a strong incentive to provide “more security”, which can be quantified by the number of people arrested, imprisoned, and executed.

We may never know how the DPRK government will depict Clapper’s visit in its internal communications, but if the regime is consistent with past practice, it will describe Clapper as having gone to Pyongyang to “admit, assure, and apologise” for the “crimes against the DPRK”. From Pyongyang’s perspective, Clapper’s mission “proves that Bae and Miller are guilty as charged” and the DNI went to pick up agents who were conducting espionage on behalf of U.S. intelligence agencies.

The Obama administration claims it selected Clapper for the mission, but could Pyongyang have insisted on Clapper? If the DPRK insisted on the DNI and no one else, then sending Clapper to release the Americans probably is worth the cost of Pyongyang’s internal propaganda victory. However, considering the potentially increased risk that future American tourists could be charged with espionage, sending someone outside of the U.S. intelligence community might have been more appropriate assuming Pyongyang did not make Clapper’s presence a condition of the release of the two Americans.

Op-Ed / United States

Why Trump Should Take It Slow With Kim Jong Un

Originally published in Politico Magazine

Any successful deal with North Korea will require an extraordinary amount of patience and attention to detail.

After three months of palace intrigue, speculation and on-again-off-again pronouncements, the Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un is finally upon us. The core question is whether this historic meeting between two idiosyncratic leaders who were just months ago exchanging taunts like “Little Rocket Man” and “dotard,” and one-upping each other’s threats of nuclear annihilation, can help find a path toward denuclearization and stability for the Korean Peninsula.

We both worked in the Obama White House but this is not a partisan matter and we are rooting wholeheartedly for this administration’s success. Nobody will benefit if the leaders walk away from the summit disappointed and frustrated, and there’s certainly some risk of that. If the parties try to accomplish too much in Singapore, or if they fail to identify a realistic game plan for the period that follows, then they could return to the escalating standoff that characterized their relations throughout 2017. But toxic frustration is not the only alternative. As a senior U.S. diplomat recently told us, if the complete failure to reach agreement is on one end of the spectrum of possibilities, and a “bad deal” for the United States is on the other, there is plenty of space for a positive result in the middle.

We agree. In a report authored for International Crisis Group, we try to steer the parties toward a so-called “deep freeze” that each party might be able to claim as its own version of that middle ground.

First, during the summit, the two leaders should agree on a short declaration of principles that sets forth each party’s strategic priorities, putting off talk for now of a full-blown treaty — something impossible to do responsibly in the given time. In Washington’s case, the priority would no doubt be a commitment to denuclearization. Pyongyang, which above all else wants a redefined political and security relationship with Washington, might ask the United States to affirm that it harbors no “hostile intent” toward North Korea. The parties could commit to sustain the testing pause already in place and other confidence-building measures — perhaps a ratcheting back of some aspects of joint U.S-South Korean military exercises. And the leaders could commit to meet again.

It took Pyongyang 70 years to acquire a nuclear capability that it regards as fundamental to its security, and there are limits to how far and how fast it will go down a new path.

But while this would set a helpful frame for future talks, Washington and Pyongyang have generated similar documents in the past, and North Korea’s nuclear program has advanced anyway. So beyond the declaration, the parties need to come up with a plan for what needs to happen after the summit so that the odds for success are better this time around. Here again, the plan needs to be informed by a healthy dose of realism. It took Pyongyang 70 years to acquire a nuclear capability that it regards as fundamental to its security, and there are limits to how far and how fast it will go down a new path. The strategic implications are too great, the bilateral trust deficit is too deep, and the North Korean nuclear program is too big and advanced to follow the path that Libya took in 2003 and 2004, when it dismantled its nuclear infrastructure in short order and shipped much of it to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. That is why we believe it may be useful to aim for a way station that would move the parties in the direction of denuclearization without getting them all the way there in one fell swoop.

Our road map to a “deep freeze” would bring the parties to a verifiable cap on the production of nuclear weapons, plutonium and enriched uranium, and long-range missiles—i.e., missiles capable of striking the U.S. and whatever other missiles the parties agree should be part of the arrangement. We don’t set a time frame but this could be done even within the current presidential term if the parties set their minds to it. The plan has four steps:

  • The first step, which could be done very quickly, would be to flesh out and formally commit to the elements of the current pause that Pyongyang has carried out unilaterally. For example, while North Korea has ceased all missile and nuclear testing, it is not clear whether it intends to refrain from all short- and medium-range missile launches, or from space launcher development. These matters should be clarified.
     
  • The second step, which will take months to negotiate and implement, would involve measures to broaden the scope of the pause and make it more resilient. North Korea would sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, thereby committing itself not to test nuclear weapons. And it would permit outside observers or remote monitoring equipment to be introduced at key sites in North Korea, both to begin answering questions about its baseline capabilities and to create some practical obstacles to the resumption of paused activities. (It’s harder to do the wrong thing if observers are on site.)
     
  • The third step, the most challenging of the plan, would involve expanding the monitoring regime to encompass the entirety of North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile production capabilities, including the science and production base that support these capabilities. By the end of the third step, observers or monitors would be permitted wherever they need to be in order to form a comprehensive baseline of the North Korean nuclear and missile-related activities to be frozen. This step is more difficult than either of those preceding it because it would require North Korea to disclose the location of secret activities to the U.S., which theoretically could use that information for military purposes should relations revert to earlier form. North Korea will almost certainly insist on security guarantees before it permits this step.
     
  • The fourth step would be the establishment of a full production cap and freeze for nuclear weapons, plutonium and highly enriched uranium, long-range missiles and other programs and technology related to the capability to produce them. It might also include limits on the production and stockpiling of components required for nuclear and missile production, such as uranium mining, centrifuge production, and the manufacture of missile engines.
If Washington fails to balance its ambitions with a healthy dose of realism, it could come up empty handed.

In considering this plan, Washington would need to accept that North Korea is not going to move down this path unless it sees the United States taking corresponding measures. For this reason, while Washington has resisted an action-for-action framework for its engagement with Pyongyang, it is the only viable approach. As for what some of those measures might entail, on the political front, North Korea would like to see the United States enter into a peace agreement that ends the Korean War and afford it diplomatic recognition. On the security front, it might want to see the ratcheting back of U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, a written renunciation of any first strike by one party against the other, and a commitment not to deploy nuclear-capable bombers and submarines in or around the Korean Peninsula. On the economic front, sanctions relief (especially in key economic sectors like seafood and textiles) will be important. While some measures may be relatively straightforward for the United States to take early on in the process, it may hold others for later in the game.

Our plan might be seen as too little by some who want immediate results. We too want rapid results, but we also caution against magical thinking. North Korea won’t be threatened into giving up its nuclear weapons, and if Washington fails to balance its ambitions with a healthy dose of realism, it could come up empty handed — and risk a relapse into the crisis mode that characterized 2017. That scary period seems like a long way away from this week’s circus atmosphere in Singapore, but the parties could be back there very quickly if talks fail. We hope prudence and patience guide them instead, and they see that moving down a calibrated path in the right direction is better than racing back to a stand-off on the edge of a very dangerous cliff.

Contributors

Program Director, United States
StephenPomper
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Jon B. Wolfsthal
Non-resident Scholar at Carnegie