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Kim Hee Sang: U.S. and South Korean Dialogue Proposals Undermine “Strategic Patience” Policy

May 3, 2013

Below is a summarized version of an interview with Kim Hee Sang, Chairman of the Korea Institute for National Security Affairs, that appeared on pages 41-43 of NK Vision’s May 2013 issue. Arrangement by Robert Lauler.

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Kim Hee Sang, Chairman of the Korea Institute for National Security Affairs

Recently, following the drastic rise in tensions on the Korean Peninsula both the U.S. and South Korean governments have released statements expressing their willingness to engage in dialogue with North Korea. For example, on April 11 the South Korean Ministry of Unification expressed its willingness for dialogue with North Korea to resolve the shutdown of the Kaesong Complex. Then on April 12, American Secretary of State John Kerry along with President Park Geun Hye made statements urging a move toward dialogue between the U.S., South Korea and North Korea.

However, a number of national security experts have criticized the decision by the U.S. and South Korean governments for making the first move towards talks with North Korea. They believe that such a move has invalidated the “strategic patience” policy established by the Lee Myung Bak government and will ultimately lead to a repeat of the “provocations -> negotiations -> rewards -> provocations” (도발 -> 협상 -> 보상 -> 도발) pattern so common in North Korea’s foreign policy in the past. These experts also believe that the proposal of dialogue will send a wrong message to North Korea that the U.S. and South Korea have succumbed to the country’s demands.

One of these experts, Kim Hee Sang (김희상), was recently interviewed by NK Vision on his thoughts about the current loosening of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the decision by the U.S. and South Korea to propose dialogue with North Korea. Kim was a Ministry of Defense aide during the Roh Moo Hyun (노무현) administration, and is currently the chairman of the Korea Institute for National Security Affairs (한국안보문제연구소). Below is a summarized version of the original interview that appeared on pages 41-43 of NK Vision’s May 2013 issue.

U.S. and South Korean Dialogue Proposal “Rash”

Kim firmly believes that the U.S. and South Korean proposals for dialogue were a mistake. While he concedes that the proposals themselves were the direct cause of the recent drop in tensions, Kim points out that North Korea had no ability to stretch out the crisis indefinitely. The remaining options for provocation by North Korea were, says Kim, “limited to launching missiles stationed on the country’s East Sea coast.”

Kim also criticized the notion held by many leaders that North Korea can be changed through dialogue. He pointed out that Robert Gallucci (chief negotiator during the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis) and Christopher Hill (head negotiator during the Six-Party Talks) had both acknowledged the failure of the last 20 years of policy toward North Korea. Referring to the recent proposal of dialogue with North Korea by the U.S. secretary of state, Kim says, “I find it irritating that Kerry believes he can change North Korea through dialogue.”

Instead, Kim supports the “strategic patience” policy that the previous Lee Myung Bak administration adhered to during its five years in office. Aimed at changing North Korea from the outside through a wide range of sanctions, the policy of strategic patience had continued into the Park Geun Hye government, at least until recently. “If the government had shown just a little more patience there would have been a way to overcome this crisis,” says Kim. “North Korea didn’t have many options for conducting more provocations, but the U.S. and South Korea provided North Korea with a way out.”

According to Kim, the North Korean success in bringing the U.S. and South Korea to the negotiation table could make North Korean leaders believe the two allies have succumbed to the North’s demands. This mistaken belief could subsequently lead to more bold North Korean provocations toward South Korea and the international community in the future. “Does the U.S. and South Korea really think that it will be possible to talk about North Korea’s wrongdoings and pursue measures to prevent them in the future during dialogue that the two countries have proposed themselves?” asks Kim. “I think that these recent proposals for dialogue have washed away any impact the “strategic patience” policy had accumulated over the last five years.”

Kim believes instead that the proposal for dialogue should have come from the North Korean side first rather than the South Korean or American side. “It’s just not right for our side to propose dialogue first, considering the fact that North Korea has both committed various provocations and continued to make threats toward South Korea,” argues Kim. “We should make North Korea propose dialogue first and accept it after examining their proposal. If we propose dialogue first we won’t be able to censure them for their nuclear test or ICBM launch. Having done just that, it looks like the U.S. and South Korea have simply decided to overlook North Korea’s provocations.”

Kim Hee Sang, Chairman of the Korea Institute for National Security Affairs

Domestic Instability and Desire for Unconditional Aid behind Recent North Korean Provocations

Kim believes that North Korea has been raising tensions recently as a result of the country’s domestic problems, particularly the instability of the Kim Jong Un regime. “I think their first motive was to keep tensions up so they could remove the instability of the regime,” says Kim, noting that the American intelligence community believes that Kim Jong Un’s North Korea is weaker than that of Gojong’s (고종: the first emperor of the Korean Empire) Korea after the empress (황후) was killed by Japanese assassins. “Kim needs to have North Koreans to be in awe of him in order to complete his domination of power. They must genuinely respect him and fear him. However, while Kim may in fact be feared by ordinary North Koreans, I don’t believe he will ever be respected,” Kim argues. “Most of his closest advisors probably view him as nothing more than a greenhorn.”

Another possible motive behind North Korea’s recent provocations may be an attempt to force the new Park Geun Hye government to revert back to the Sunshine Policy and provide the country with unconditional aid, Kim says. “The unprecedented use of the nuclear threat appears to be their strategy to become recognized as a nuclear power by the international community. They are attempting to remove discussions of denuclearization from the table and move towards discussions over military reductions,” he continued. “This is a natural desire by the North because the country has long wanted to conclude a peace treaty with the U.S. While this kind of external provocation may have succeeded in securing domestic solidarity and strengthening Kim’s position, it has failed strategically in the long-term.” This failure is due to China’s changing policy toward the country. “China has begun to correct its position toward North Korea,” says Kim. “Anti-North Korea feeling seems to have become deeply set in Chinese society. That such a strong supporter of North Korea economically and diplomatically has begun to change its position shows that North Korea’s provocations have failed.”

Future North Korean Provocations Will Be Asymmetrical

Kim warns that North Korea will likely conduct another provocation in the near future. “South Korea has proposed dialogue, but it doesn’t seem like Kim Jong Un will pass this period by quietly, especially considering the threats he has been making over the past couple of months,” he says. However, Kim also argues that North Korea will not be able to conduct long-range mortar attacks like they have in the past. This is because North Korean leaders are now aware that the South Korean military will respond aggressively to any act of provocation by the country, particularly localized ones. “The North Korean regime’s foundations will shake once the South Korean military responds,” says Kim. “North Korea will have to think twice before committing localized provocations because American B-2s, B-52s, F-22s, nuclear submarines and other cutting-edge weaponry have operated here. The U.S. and South Korean agreement to respond jointly to localized provocations further decreases the chances North Korea will conduct such provocations.”

In the end, Kim argues, North Korea will be forced to resort to more asymmetric provocations or acts of aggression where it is not immediately clear who is the aggressor. “The recent cyber terror provocations are one example, and shows that South Korea is extremely susceptible to terror attacks against its infrastructure,” says Kim. “Provocations against transportation, communications or the electricity grid cannot be easily traced to North Korea. This is worrisome since North Korea is in possession of various asymmetrical military forces, including chemical weapons, special forces and submarines.” Yet, Kim argues that nuclear weapons still represent the most salient form of asymmetric weaponry in the North Korean arsenal. “Kim Jong Un regards nuclear weapons as crucial to the continuance of his regime, so the only way to solve the nuclear weapons issue is either regime change or destruction.”

Kim argues that the South Korean government needs to actively use asymmetrical forces at its disposal to enact change in North Korea. “The best way to do this is use methods of psychological warfare, like installing speakers and electronic displays near the North-South Korean border,” says Kim. “We need to further increase funding for civilian radio stations broadcasting to North Korea.” Kim also emphasized the importance of using North Korean defectors, Korean-Chinese (조선족) and North Koreans still living in North Korea as part of this campaign of psychological warfare. “The more success stories of resettling in the South are disseminated in North Korea the more we’ll be able to employ North Koreans. The key to securing asymmetric power in the country is to win over the hearts and minds of North Koreans.”

Ultimately, Kim says, the current state of North-South Korean relations is abnormal and must be changed. “First we need to make sure North Korea understands that provocations and threats will lead to nothing and that they have to take responsibility for such actions. While this may take time and could potentially lead to another rise in tensions, this is a process we will need to go through and overcome for a better future.”

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