North Korea Under Kim Jung-Un: Five Minutes with Ambassador Robert King

After speaking at the new Director Speakers Series organized by Georgetown University’s Asian Studies Program, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Ambassador Robert King to discuss North Korea's current political environment, the country's human rights situation and nuclear program, as well as prospects for change.

GJIA: Human Rights Watch described North Korean citizens as some of the world’s most brutalized people, and the United Nations Commission of Inquiry previously accused North Korea of crimes against humanity. Has the state of human rights in North Korea changed at all with Kim Jong-Un’s ascension to power?

RK: It certainly hasn’t improved. A lot of the brutal activities that are being conducted by Kim Jong-Un are similar to what his father and grandfather did. There may be some variation in terms of the intensity and frequency of the human rights abuses, but not much. One of the things particularly noted lately is the rising number of public executions, purges and demotions of senior leaders reported by the South Korean press over the past couple of years. This may have something to do with the change of regime. When a new leader takes power, he sometimes eliminates the officials who were appointed by the previous leader to make sure that all of his officials are loyal and obedient, and this kind of purge could lead to an increase in the number of executions and purges.

GJIA: Following the widespread famine in the 1990s, a large part of the North Korean population suffered from malnutrition despite large amounts of food aid delivered by the UN. Have North Korean agriculture and food availability reduced the incidence of malnutrition since the famine?

RK: The UN reports significant problems with supplying adequate food for the North Korean population. There’s still widespread malnutrition and the impact is still being felt in North Korea. Agricultural inputs are a problem – fertilizer, good seed, good breeding livestock, etc. The Chinese provided many of these things as assistance in the past, but they are providing less now. The North Koreans choose to expend vast resources for nuclear weapons, missiles, military infrastructure and a lavish lifestyle for the elite, rather than for better food for their people. This is a country that, in an average year, still does not produce enough food for its population. The other problem is the available food is not sufficiently nutritious. There is frequently a shortage of protein, as there is very little meat, and it’s hard to get eggs or fresh vegetables. The amount of rice and corn produced in a good year still does not satisfy the need. The agriculture system is poorly structured and does not provide the right incentives to increase output of the needed crops. It is still a serious problem.

GJIA: Is there a chance that the systemic human rights abuses perpetrated by the North Korean government, such as forced labor in the prison camps and repression of political expression, might lead to a popular revolt against the regime? Or do these abuses simply strengthen the regime’s hold over the country?

RK: It is hard to tell. In some countries, regimes respond to civilian unrest by adjusting to the demands of the people. One thing is clear: Kim Jong-Un’s primary concern is with the people in Pyongyang – that is, the leadership and the elite. In the last couple of years, Kim Jong-Un has built a ski resort, a fancy aquarium, and a big indoor swimming complex. Luxury goods are increasingly available. These are all things that he is supplying to take care of the needs of the most influential members of society. This shows Kim Jong-Un is attentive to the needs and the wants of people, and cognizant of what he must do to remain in power. My guess is that he is also paying a little attention to the the non-elite, although far less. As the non-elite become more aware of better living conditions, greater access to information, and the ability to travel in China and even in South Korea through greater public information , he may be forced to make changes or there could be consequences for the regime.

GJIA: Does the cult of personality surrounding Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong- Un remain embedded in North Korea society? As the standard of living in North Korea remains low, and North Koreans slowly rely more on the market and less on the government for their goods, are North Koreans starting to lose respect for their leaders?

RK: I don’t think that there’s any question that the personality cult surrounding the leaders is still extremely important in the North Korean system. Just this past May at the 7th Party Congress, Kim Jung-Un received another title in addition to being the Supreme Commander, he is now also the Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea. By elevating him with another position, the government is adding to his persona as the most wise and powerful man in North Korea, and solidifying the foundation of his rule. The legitimacy of the regime is very much linked to the legitimacy of the Kim family, and that’s still very critical to how the system works.

GJIA: How stable is the current regime and is there any viable opposition to Kim Jong-Un’s leadership?

RK: We’ve seen nothing to indicate that there is any kind of serious organized opposition. This is a regime where, for a period of time after the death of Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-Un’s uncle, Jang Sung-taek, was assumed to be the “regent” keeping things in place and helping the new leader establish his position. However, within a year or so Jang Sung-taek was publicly executed. At an expanded meeting of the Politburo with a large audience which was televised, Jang was forcibly dragged out of the room by police officers. This was broadcasted on national television.

A visitor to Pyongyang that I spoke with was at a very posh Pyongyang restaurant the night it happened. In the restaurant a large flat-screen TV was showing the evening news. When Jang was dragged out of the meeting, the entire restaurant went deathly silent. Immediately after, everybody got up and left, in complete silence. This televised arrest had the effect that Kim Jung-Un wanted. People saw the man who had been seen as North Korea’s number two was humiliated and arrested at a party meeting. Reports circulated later in the South Korean Press that Jang Sung-taek was executed. In light of his execution, is anybody going to stand up against Kim Jang-Eun when they saw what he did to his uncle?

GJIA: In 2003, multilateral talks with North Korea began after the country withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. These talks, called the “Six-Party Talks,” included North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, and the United States. The Six-Party Talks hoped to result in North Korea dismantling its nuclear program. However, in 2009 North Korea withdrew from the negotiations. Over the last ten years, North Korea has conducted multiple nuclear weapon and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles tests. What is the current state of nuclear negotiations with North Korea? Is there any hope to resume the Six-Party Talks?

RK: At this point, there are no negotiations going on. The last negotiation ended in an agreement that was brokered on February 29, 2012, known as the “Leap-Day Agreement.” However, this agreement was broken by North Korea within a week of its Negotiation with the announcement that it would test a long-range missile, and there have not been nuclear discussions since then. We have expressed interest in trying to move forward with the conversation and continue the discussions of denuclearization, but the North Koreans have been unwilling to join those conversations.

Ambassador Robert King has been the Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues since 2009. Prior to his appointment, Ambassador King worked on Capitol Hill for 25 years – mainly as Chief of Staff to Congressman Tom Lantos (D-California). He was concurrently Staff Director of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U. S. House of Representatives (2007-2008), Democratic Staff Director of the Committee (2001-2007) and held various professional staff positions on the Committee since 1993. Ambassador King holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and has authored five books and more than 40 articles on international relations topics.