North Korea and the Shadow of Finlandization

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My Twitter thread of Dec. 28, 2019:

The American public should not be under the impression that our problems with North Korea are solely related to its nuclear and missile programs, which indeed threaten not only South Korea and Japan, but the U.S. mainland. As vital as these issues are to resolve after 30 years of their emergence, for the North, they are ultimately tools to achieve survival, security and independence from the interference of its bigger neighbors — an age-old story in the history of Korea.

Korea’s experience is of being repeatedly thrown under the bus by the surrounding major powers from the beginning of the 20th century. This includes China, Russia, Japan — and the United States, which conveniently looked the other way as Japan began to colonize Korea in 1905 while America acquired free rein in its newly-acquired Philippines.

North Korea’s development of threatening military capabilities should be seen in the context of its fundamental fear of being ignored, neglected, even subjugated, by a larger “imperialistic” or major power. This has been the historical experience of the Korean Peninsula for the last 120 years, the problem of being “a shrimp among whales.” For North Korea on a peninsula divided since 1945, its only hope of survival is to gain the world’s attention for all the wrong reasons rather than appear to be what it really is: fundamentally a weak country with limited integration into the world economy that can conveniently be ignored.

Trump’s three meetings with Kim, though they built a modicum of personal trust at the leadership level, have not been matched by detailed progress on the working level that would curtail or end the North’s nuclear program and missile development in exchange for sanctions relief and other tangible benefits. The State Department has nowhere matched the degree of effort and investment at the bureaucratic level in negotiating with the DPRK seen under both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

American distrust of North Korea has been profoundly deep, pervasive and long-lasting, stemming from the bitter experiences of the Korean War of 1950-53. And the North often perceives American negotiating tactics to be tantamount to asking it to strip naked and reveal its defense secrets and capabilities in exchange for the dangling of unspecified potential benefits down the road.

This administration, like its predecessors, fails to appreciate the North’s need to permanently improve relations with the United States so that its newfound relationship with America counterbalances the growing pressure from a rising China that projects itself as East Asia’s hegemon. North Korea is trying to survive and maintain its independence, possibly by also coming to accommodations with South Korea, in a regional environment where China has unprecedented leverage.

North Korea, sharing an 800-mile border with China, fears potential Finlandization by its larger neighbor, where the Kim family is allowed to rule domestically in the North but only within the confines permitted by China (and aligned with China’s foreign policy), where the North Korean economy essentially is integrated into that of northeast China, and the Chinese yuan becomes the dominant if not official currency in the North. For China, a subservient North Korea is the best guarantee to prevent invasions that in its long history often came over the Korean land bridge from Japan.

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Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang in June 2019.

But how much has changed in 2020 compared to the early 1990s? Less than we may think. North Korea remains caught in the same larger predicament as described. To the DPRK, U.S. presidents come and go, because North Korea looks at the United States as a geopolitical entity whose interests are permanent and maintains policy continuity over the years.

The United States must look more comprehensively at the situation on the Korean peninsula, understanding that North Korea requires a reliable and strong relationship with the United States to deter Chinese penetration and co-opting of its political society and economy, and that the nuclear issue can be resolved slowly but in a step-by-step manner to the eventual satisfaction of the United States and the international community. It is also in America’s interest not only to sign a peace declaration declaring the end of the Korean War but to negotiate a formal peace treaty that ends the Armistice Agreement in effect since July 1953.

The North Korea problem will be solved when America takes seriously the North’s strategic circumstances in its broad historical and geopolitical context. When it seriously considers the more fundamental issues of history and regional balance of power, the U.S. will be able to make a lasting contribution towards Northeast Asia’s peace and stability. That should be President Trump’s goal in deciding how to proceed with North Korea from now on.♦

At top: Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping talk in May 2018 in Dalian, China.

For an excellent Twitter thread unroll (also on Dec. 28) by Dr. Artyom Lukin on North Korea’s economic dependence on China, which could greatly reduce its political independence and eventually put DPRK sovereignty at risk, see here.

My interview with ‘China Newsweek’ on North Korea’s Year-end Worker’s Party of Korea Meeting

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I was interviewed on December 30, 2019, by Ran Cao, a correspondent specializing in North Korean affairs with China Newsweek. Here is the link in Chinese only (Bing Translator works better than Google Translate in this case) to my interview excerpts.

And below are my full responses in English submitted by email to China Newsweek just before the report of the WPK meeting, containing key excerpts of Kim Jong Un’s 7-hour speech, was released by DPRK media (in lieu of Kim’s New Year’s Address):

“I predict Kim Jong Un will alter his policy sufficiently to expand his missile testing (but likely not his nuclear testing, which is a solid red line for the U.S.) and to put the blame on the intransigent U.S. diplomatic bureaucracy but not on President Trump himself. He may want it to appear that it’s the long-standing, entrenched American government institutional mindset about the DPRK that is the problem, not Trump’s willingness to make a deal. So his message will be that the door is closing much more in 2020 than in 2019, but not completely closed, because Kim cannot afford to make a permanent enemy of Trump, who is very likely to be re-elected. If an impeachment trial is held in the Senate in January and Trump is acquitted, he has February through June to try to make a better deal with North Korea while the Democrats engage in their primary campaign. From July on, Trump will have to be fully focused on re-election.

“I don’t think he will restart his nuclear program, as stated above, but intermediate and SLBM tests are likely, as are other robust testing of conventional weapons.

“Kim has all but ignored South Korea in 2019, and it appears that will continue. If the ROK were not severely constrained by UN sanctions, it could do more to help the North, but politically it cannot. Therefore, Kim finds the ROK of no significant assistance at this time. Moreover, the South willingly participated in certain down-scaled military exercises with the U.S. this year, which was interpreted by the North to mean that the South was fully in lockstep with U.S. policy.”♦

My ‘Peace & Prosperity’ Arirang TV Interview

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“Peace & Prosperity,” a 30-minute public affairs program produced by Arirang TV, was broadcast on December 13 but is also re-broadcast throughout the week. Many thanks to Dr. Bong Youngshik of Yonsei University for his excellent questions on the rise of tensions on the Korean Peninsula this month and concerns about what 2020 will bring.

Here’s Arirang TV’s write-up for this episode:

“Tensions are escalating between North Korea and the U.S., as the year-end deadline Pyeongyang set for nuclear talks draws near. North Korea announced on Dec. 8 that a “very important test” took place at its Seohae Satellite Launching Ground in Dongchang-ri.

“North Korea’s ambassador to the UN said denuclearization is already off the negotiating table, while U.S. President Donald Trump warned that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could “lose everything” through hostile acts. What is behind the heated exchange of words ? Are we looking at a possible return to “fire and fury?”

“To break down the latest developments, we are joined by Park Won-gon, Professor of International Studies at Handong Global University. To broaden the perspective, we also connect with guest experts on Skype, including Jim Walsh, Senior Research Associate at the MIT Security Studies Program, and Mark P. Barry, Associate Editor of the International Journal on World Peace.”

My Skype interview segment begins at the 17:59 mark:

My Remarks to Newsweek Magazine on “Trump’s Strategy to Walk, Not Talk, Is Making Life Difficult for Both Koreas”

U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he leaves a news conference at the JW Marriott Hanoi, following talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi

Many thanks to Newsweek senior foreign policy writer Tom O’Connor for giving me the opportunity to comment today. Here’s the link to his Newsweek article on “Donald Trump’s Strategy to Walk, Not Talk, Is Making Life Difficult for Both Koreas.”

The Potential U.S. Abandonment of South Korea in a Second Trump Term

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Trump’s sudden abandonment of his allies, the Syrian Kurds, to the Turks and their Arab militias has alarmed many Asian affairs analysts, myself included.

If Trump is re-elected to a second term in 2020, he may withdraw most of the 28,500 U.S. troops in stages from South Korea, leaving just one or two thousand behind so that the U.S.-ROK Mutual Security Treaty remains intact. While today, the U.S. defense perimeter against China includes South Korea (in contrast to January 1950, when it was excluded, which led to the Korean War), the President can insist on a massive drawdown of U.S. Forces Korea because the “South Koreans are rich, can take care of themselves and they don’t need us, and we’ll save a lot of money.”

He will argue we’re selling South Korea the most advanced F-35 fighter jets, transfer of UN Command operational control (OPCON) is smoothly transitioning to the ROK with a 2022 target, and the Japanese and even Israelis can help South Korea with its defense technology needs. The President will state this case in the early weeks of a second term and get his administration to carry it out over four years. As the U.S. retreats to a 1930s-style isolationism, which contributed to the outbreak of World War II in both Europe and the Pacific, South Korea will have to realign itself vis a vis China and Russia, even if its frayed relations with Japan somewhat improve.

As Trump now demands a five-fold increase in the ROK’s contribution to U.S. troop support in South Korea, it’s like blackmail for protection money: “Pay up or we’ll leave.” And it seems the main U.S. interest in maintaining the alliance is to potentially use South Korean troops outside the Korean peninsula in the “Indo-Pacific” theater. Otherwise, let the South Koreans defend themselves. Japan is next to be strong-armed to pay a usurious amount to keep U.S. troops there, and Trump may withdraw from NATO in a second term.

U.S. withdrawal of all but 500 military advisors left South Korea highly vulnerable after its 1948 independence, and the Chinese communist victory in 1949 coupled with placing South Korea outside the U.S. defense perimeter in 1950 set the stage for the Korean War. Today, China won’t seek war, but would seek to Finlandize North Korea and neutralize South Korea until Korea reunites under Chinese patronage.

This is the fruit of “America First.” The Kurds threw potatoes at withdrawing American troops last month. What will our other allies throw? ♦

Mark P. Barry: Brief Bio

Dr. Mark P. Barry is an independent Asian affairs analyst who has followed U.S.–DPRK relations for 30 years. He is Associate Editor of the peer-reviewed International Journal on World Peace and a Lecturer in Management at Unification Theological Seminary (with campuses in New York City and upstate New York).

He visited North Korea twice and met the late President Kim Il Sung in April 1994, and also worked for a Washington, DC, NGO that met Kim Jong Il and improved US-DPRK ties in 2005-06 (especially the Sept. 19, 2005 Joint Statement of the Six Party Talks).

He has appeared on CNN International, the BBC World Service, Arirang News, RadioLIVE (New Zealand), and Seoul’s eFM radio to discuss the DPRK. He has also been interviewed by Newsweek, China Newsweek, The World Weekly, Radio Free Asia Korean Service, and contributed numerous op-eds to the World Policy blog of the World Policy Institute and to NK News.

In 2005, he helped found and direct the Asia Pacific Peace Institute in Washington, DC, an outgrowth of discussions between U.S. businessmen and senior DPRK officials. He also participated in the convening of the first-ever meeting of legislators from China and Taiwan in Tokyo in early June 1989, under the auspices of the International Security Council.

Dr. Barry has spoken on U.S.-DPRK relations before the Korean Political Science Association, the Korea Institute of National Unification, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, and universities in Seoul and the U.S., as as well at military installations. His articles have appeared on international affairs and newspaper websites, in edited books, and in academic journals, including the academic journal of the ROK Ministry of Defense.

He received his Ph.D. in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia and his M.A. in national security studies from Georgetown University (including classes attended at the Pentagon). He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in international relations, global management, leadership, intercultural communication, and modern Korean history. His 1996 dissertation was on “Contemporary American Relations with North Korea, 1987-1994.”

Dr. Barry has editorially contributed to the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine project, which is the result of efforts to envision and define specific borders that respect equally the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians as part of a two-state solution.

He has also written on the history, and managerial and cultural impact of Apple, Inc., and its founder, Steve Jobs.

His popular Twitter feed of curated links on North Korea, the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asian affairs, is: @drmarkpbarry. He can be reached by email at m.barry[at]uts.edu.

Select Korea-related publications (not including pieces on this blog; some links may have expired):

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“On a U.S. President Meeting Kim Jong Un: The Importance of Senior-Level Engagement,” International Journal on World Peace, September 2016 (PDF)

Interview about the 20th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s death with OhMyNews, July 25, 2014, http://www.ohmynews.com/NWS_Web/View/at_pg.aspx?CNTN_CD=A0002016097 [in Korean]

“How South Korea and America wrecked chance for reconciliation with the North,” The Guardian, July 11, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/11/north-korea-america-reconciliation

“Reflections on Missed Opportunities of Kim Il Sung’s Death,” NKNews.org, July 7, 2014, http://www.nknews.org/2014/07/reflections-on-missed-opportunities-of-kim-il-sungs-death/

“Peace Treaty: The Only Solution to the Korean Problem,” WorldPolicy.org, April 8, 2013, http://www.worldpolicy.org/blog/2013/04/08/peace-treaty-only-solution-korean-problem

“The U.S. and the 1945 Division of Korea: Mismanaging the ‘Big Decisions’,” International Journal on World Peace, December 2012 (PDF)

“Pyongyang and Seoul: The Political and Business Capitals of a Unified Korea?” NKNews.org, October 5, 2012, http://www.nknews.org/2012/10/pyongyang-and-seoul-the-political-and-business-capitals-of-a-unified-korea/

“North Korea and the Exit from Totalitarianism,” WorldPolicy.org, August 29, 2012 http://www.worldpolicy.org/blog/2012/08/29/north-korea-and-exit-totalitarianism

“Thoughts on Making Korea Whole,” NKNews.org, August 16, 2012, http://www.nknews.org/2012/08/thoughts-on-making-korea-whole/

“The U.S. and the 1945 Division of Korea: A Legacy of Mismanaging the ‘Big Decisions’ Affecting Korea?,” The Journal of Peace Studies (Seoul), June 2012

“Korean Reunification Would Cast Off China’s Shadow,” WorldPolicy.org, June 11, 2012, http://www.worldpolicy.org/blog/2012/06/11/korean-reunification-would-cast-china’s-shadow

“Threat of Finlandization by China Should Spur Korean Reunification,” NKNews.org, June 6, 2012, http://www.nknews.org/2012/06/threat-of-finlandization-by-china-should-spur-korean-reunification/

“Meeting Kim Il Sung in His Last Weeks,” NKNews.org, April 15, 2012, http://nknews.org/2012/04/meeting-kim-il-sung-in-his-last-weeks/

“An Arab Spring for North Korea?” WorldPolicy.org, March 29, 2012, http://www.worldpolicy.org/blog/2012/03/29/arab-spring-north-korea

“The U.S. and the 1945 Division of Korea,” NKNews.org, February 13, 2012, http://nknews.org/2012/02/the-u-s-and-the-1945-division-of-korea/

“A Window of Opportunity with North Korea,” WorldPolicy.org, January 31, 2012, http://www.worldpolicy.org/blog/2012/01/31/window-opportunity-north-korea

“China’s Rise and the Two Koreas” International Journal on World Peace, December 2009 (book review)

“North Korea Requires Long-Term Strategic Relationship with U.S.,” International Journal on World Peace, March 2007 (PDF)

“America’s Role for Peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Summer 2000 (PDF)

“An Assessment of U.S.-DPRK Relations: Lessons for the Future,” in Two Koreas in Transition: Implications for U.S. Policy, Ilpyong J. Kim, ed., Paragon House, 1998 (PDF)

“The Election of Kim Dae Jung, the American Reaction, and Future Inter-Korean Relations,” NAPSNet Special Report, December 22, 1997

“The U.S. Role in the Korean Reunification Process,” Korea Report, Winter 1996

“North Korea and the United States: Promise or Peril,” in Korea: A World in Change, Kenneth W. Thompson, ed., University Press of America, 1996

“North Korea and the U.S.: Promise or Peril?” Miller Center of Public Affairs, July 7, 1994, https://millercenter.org/news-events/events/north-korea-and-us-promise-or-peril (click to hear audio file)

“Still Possible for U.S.-DPRK Negotiations to Succeed”

I was interviewed by email by Radio Free Asia’s Korean Service on the status of U.S.-DPRK negotiations, as well as on North Korea’s demand that South Korea demolish its tourism facilities in the Kumgang Mountains, and the reported U.S. offer to develop the North’s Wonsan area for tourism.

Here’s the link to the original Korean text. You can use Google Translate to get an idea of the entire content in English, including what other experts said:

미북, 아직 협상 성공 가능성 열어둬” 

And below is what I submitted in full to Radio Free Asia in English last Thursday:

« I don’t see much connection between Kim’s order to demolish South Korea’s Mt. Kumgang facilities in the North and a possible American offer to develop the Wonsan area for tourism. The facilities built by Hyundai after the first inter-Korean summit in 2000 have been poorly maintained, if at all, since Hyundai’s departure, and so the order to demolish these structures and build new ones in North Korean-style is primarily a way for Kim to emphasize his new way of self-reliant leadership — one that does not depend on economic assistance from South Korea. While it’s possible President Trump had hinted to Kim at some point that he would like to help develop the Wonsan region for tourism, which is credible, such an offer as part of the recently halted Stockholm negotiations, if indeed made, would not have had appreciable influence upon North Korea. After all, these are negotiations over their nuclear weapons program.

“There are only two months left in the year. As much as President Trump is enmeshed in increasing domestic political problems that may threaten his ability to remain in office or adversely affect his reelection, North Korea is acting understandably to try to jumpstart the U.S.-DPRK negotiations before year’s end. This is less to do with the American election calendar, and more to do with that every January 1, Kim Jong Un gives guidance to the nation for the entire year. If he indeed is going to set a new direction, one which may temporarily rely more on China and Russia, and keep his relations with Trump on hold, without increasing tensions too much, then from the perspective of his continuing leadership, Kim must provide the direction for the party, state and people from the first day of the new year.

“Kim is less affected by the unpredictability of Trump’s domestic situation than by a sense that the United States is an ongoing geopolitical entity, regardless of who is president, with a great deal of continuity in its policy towards the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia. Hence, Kim may very well believe any future changes in American policy will have less to do with the personality of the American leader than with changes in what the North regards as the correlation of forces within Northeast Asia as they affect the DPRK. In other words, Kim may believe that when the time is right, the United States, regardless of who is the leader, may alter its policy towards the North when it suits U.S. interests.

“As much as working level talks should proceed ahead, and arrive at an interim agreement, I believe Kim wishes to have a third official summit with President Trump as soon as possible. This probably has more to do with Kim’s domestic standing, and as a counterbalance against China, than with alleviating the pressures of economic sanctions. This is why Kim and his spokespeople continue to highlight the special relationship between Kim and Trump, and assign blame for lack of progress in relations to bureaucrats. President Trump is not inconsequential to the improvement of U.S.-North Korean relations, but if he were somehow politically incapacitated, had to resign, or did not win reelection, Kim Jong Un would find a way to proceed ahead to bolster his rule and his position in the region, with or without U.S. help. » ♦