David C. Kang, Director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California, joined the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs via telephone to discuss the latest developments in North Korea and the implications of increased North Korean provocations on the Asia-Pacific region.
GJIA: Have recent provocations under Kim Jong-un—such as increased ballistic missile testing and the threat to test a nuclear weapon—continued the historical trend of North Korea’s aggressive posturing towards the United States, or is there a new security dynamic at play?
DK: I view the North Korean provocations as essentially continuing the same kind of trend as in the past. The United States and North Korea go through repetitive cycles. North Korea acts in a threatening manner, such as by conducting a nuclear test or shooting a missile. The United States becomes concerned. Both sides react—for example, the United States does something symbolic or punitive such as impose sanctions against North Korea, and Pyongyang retaliates with an even threatening posture. But then both the United States and North Korea realize that a war is not feasible, so they eventually let things cool down and find ways to interact. In this case, South Korea and North Korea are currently talking, so we are actually at the good part of the cycle. Six months or a year later, something else will happen and we will go back into the dangerous part of the cycle. At this point, I do not see a whole lot of a difference in North Korean policy under Kim Jong-un. Part of the reason is that he is showing he will not be intimidated any more than his father was. I do not see anything necessarily new about what he is doing.
GJIA: Given North Korea’s nuclear test last year and apparent preparations for further tests, have non-proliferation efforts with North Korea failed? Can the United States salvage its attempts at nonproliferation in the region?
DK: Fifteen years ago, I was much more optimistic about both North Korea and the United States being able to come to some kind of modus vivendi. My sense is that the last ten or fifteen years have convinced both Pyongyang and Washington that they are never really going to be able to live with each other. I do not see any intention or willingness on North Korea’s end to denuclearize. They have made their decision and the question has now become about how to manage a nuclear North Korea without causing the situation to deteriorate.
What can the United States do? There is not a whole lot of pressure it can bring to bear. This goes back to my first point about cycles of interaction. When the United States tries to pressure North Korea, Pyongyang counters with pressure of its own. Increasing pressure does not work either. Eventually the two sides get to the point of asking whether they will start a war—except the United States is not going to start a war, so there is an upper limit to the amount of pressure it can exert. At the same time, there have not really been any attempts to reach out to North Korea as part of a long-term strategy. Nobody wants to do it, so the United States is essentially stuck with strategic patience. But the changes within North Korea over the last decade are quite fundamental in terms of economic development and openness. The economy is growing slightly every day—that is where the change is going to come from, but not because of an active U.S. policy.
GJIA: Can Chinese action potentially change North Korean behavior? If so, is there anything that may encourage China to increase pressure on North Korea?
DK: No. In my opinion, the idea that China has leverage over North Korea and can be convinced to use it on behalf of the United States is one of the biggest myths in U.S.-North Korea relations. China has indicated very clearly that they do not want a nuclear North Korea, but they have also made it very clear that they are not willing to pull the rug out from under Pyongyang in order to ensure a denuclearized North Korea. We see increasing frustration on the Chinese side—China does not like Kim Jong-un, and it does not approve of what North Korea is doing—but it is clear that China will continue its economic engagement strategy, increasing trade with North Korea and attempting to encourage North Korea to change its ways. However, China does not have much leverage over North Korea either.
GJIA: What has South Korea’s strategy been for dealing with the current regime in North Korea, and how is this current approach different from strategies in the past?
DK: Both China and South Korea are more willing to consider various types of economic engagement or diplomacy than the United States is. This does not mean that South Korean President Park Geun-hye will follow a very firm engagement strategy, but she is more willing to consider ways in which North and South Korea can interact. China is similar in this manner. Both South Korea and China are willing to consider joint economic zones, trade, and even family reunions between their citizens. At the same time, President Park is maintaining a very strong deterrent against North Korea, but it is not clear whether it will be more successful. Nevertheless, President Park is more willing to talk to North Korea than the previous South Korean President, Lee Myung-bak.
GJIA: What does Kim Jong-un’s purge of Jang and his supporters reveal about the stability of the regime? What are the potential ramifications of an internal power struggle within Pyongyang?
DK: There are two takes on the Jang purge: one is that the purge shows weakness, and the other is that it demonstrates strength. I lean toward the side that interprets the purge as a show of strength. Over the past year or so, there have been a lot of disparaging remarks ridiculing Kim Jong-un and calling him a “chubby little boy.” This is precisely why he conducted the purge in such a public manner. The purge was a way for him to show everyone, both externally and internally, that he is not a chubby little 28-year-old boy, but rather that he is the leader of North Korea and that, if you cross him, nobody is safe. This was a show of power. It was a clear warning to everyone else as to who is in charge, and I think it was quite successful. Four, almost five months later, we do not see a whole lot of movement. There was an expectation that many more generals or other top-level officials would be purged in some fashion—they would not necessarily be killed, but they would at least be rotated out. Except this has not been the case. There is a much younger composition of the top organs of the party, but I do not see a whole lot of instability.
Dr. David C. Kang is a professor of International Relations and Business at the University of Southern California. He also serves as the director of the Korean Studies Institute at USC. His latest book, East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute, was published by Columbia University Press in 2010.
Dr. Kang was interviewed by Zachary Burdette on 29 April 2014 via telephone.