Collapse theories of North Korea have repeatedly occurred and disappeared so far. Although many analysts referred to the possibilities of its collapse when Kim Il-sung, the first President of North Korea, had died in 1994, and for several years after Kim Jong-il, the General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea died in 2011, the Kim Regime has been still alive.
It has already been eight years since Kim Jong-un took over power from his father without being trained enough for the leader, but we can't see the sign of its collapse due to early inheritance and incomplete stability of his power in the Party.
The international community continuously worked on to change North Korea all the time. In 1994, the United States and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework with the objectives of the freezing of the North Korea's nuclear programs under the condition of the construction of two light-water reactor power plants and the provision of 500,000 tons of heavy oil annually to North Korea1. In October 2002, however, it turned out that North Korea secretly continued the nuclear programs (and acquired the uranium enrichment technology), which means the Agreed Framework ended up failing.
Also, the Six-Party Talks, which aimed to resolve the issue of the North Korea's nuclear weapons program with six diplomatic director-level participants from the U.S., South Korea, North Korea, China, Russia and Japan, were held as many as nine times from August 2003 to March 2007. But, they produced little progress of stopping the North Korea's developing nuclear program.
In 2018, when he participated in the first meeting between the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea, President Trump boasted that all the issues would be resolved in three minutes after he met with Kim Jong-un, but nothing is changed even now.
Why can't the North Korean issue be resolved? What was the problem? What should we learn from past lessons?
United Nations Sanctions Resolutions
UN sanctions don't work well against North Korea. Many analysts agreed that the most effective approach is only bilateral diplomacy between sovereign states in order to alter the North Korea's attitude.
UN Security Council have ever introduced no less than ten resolutions concerning North Korea but except for ones adopted during Trump's presidency, most of them didn't bring out any significant result until 2016. To be brief, this is because the Council only passed watered-down sanctions due to oppositions of its permanent members: China and Russia.
Before 2016, the sanctions resolutions on North Korea introduced bans on its illegal activities such as weapons trade, producing and selling drugs and fake dollar bills, and although being strict, they allowed inspecting its cargo ships on public seas with its approval. The control could not be tightened by the resolutions, as North Korea had originally committed these illegal activities, hiding from the international surveillance.
However, the environment has been changed since the Trump era began. UN Security Council Resolution 2371, which adopted at the initiative of the Trump administration on July 4, 2017, introduced strict sanctions against “legal economic activities” of North Korea, including bans on exports of coal, seafood, mineral ores such as lead, and restrictions of the number of migrant workers. They cut off the most useful ways for North Korea to acquire foreign currency. Moreover, UN Security Council Resolution 2397 adopted on November 29, 2017, was also effective owing to a provision of limitation of its import of raw petroleum. For three years after these resolutions passed, the sanctions have been active certainly. “The North Korean economy has been in a completely collapsed state due to the UN sanctions since 2017,” said a former executive, in exile in the U.S., of Central Committee Bureau 39 of the Workers' Party of Korea that procures and manages slush fund for Kim Jong-un.
From 2020, as well as the effect of UN's severe sanctions, North Korea has been in crisis with various signs of collapse due to national disasters and the COVID-19. The economy has been on the brink of bankruptcy. The North Korea's total amount of export and import did not reach US$2 million in October 2020, while the total trade with China, which accounts for 95% of its total trade, was US$1.65 million of which imports recorded only US$250 thousand. The assessment shows that the corporate utilization ratio was approximately zero. Furthermore, the National Intelligence Service of South Korea (KCIA) said that the North Korean markets were in panic while the residents relied on the markets for buying daily necessities, including food oil, wheat flour, sugar and seasoning products, which are mainly imported. The prices of those jumped over three times on average, which made people more anxious. Nonetheless, why is the Kim regime still alive?
Lessons from Leaders of US and South Korea
One of the North Korean policies of the Trump administration is that sanctions have to be continued until the country take some substantive actions forward denuclearization, and they were actually maintained and tightened by the administration. I can partially recognize these results, but all the policies were not correct.
President Trump met with Kim Jong-un three times, who did not ensure that North Korea would do something to achieve denuclearization. Kim could establish an image as a normal national leader after these three talks. As President-elect Biden, at a TV debate, said “He's legitimized North Korea.2” During all the time, North Korea, buying time, enhanced the capability of nuclear weapons and improved the technology.
In order to avoid repeating these failures, we need to sum up and judge the past North Korea policies of two leaders: Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in.
First of all, “The Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula” made following the April 2018 inter-Korean summit on April 27, 2018, forms the contents that give North Korea some advantages. It is not too much to say that this declaration makes the steps of the country toward denuclearization more difficult. Two sides have had miscommunication since then.
We can read the following provision in (1) of Chapter 1: The two sides affirmed the principle of national independence which specifies that the destiny of our nation is determined on their own accord….3
Under the circumstances that UN, the U.S. and the international community have imposed sanctions on North Korea, the north side seemingly aimed to overcome challenges by the principle of national independence in cooperation between the two sides. The problem is that South Korean President Moon Jae In signed this declaration, while North Korean leader accepted as a normal strategy.
North Korea has many issues of nuclear and missiles development, human rights and biological and chemical weapons, which are no longer to be resolved only by the two countries, but by the global efforts. South Korea must not help the Kim regime regardless of UN sanctions so that the country fulfills the duty as a member of UN. Nevertheless, President Moon promised to resolve inter-Korean issues on the basis of national independence.
Next, the possibility of denuclearization has been decreased due to mislead by the Moon administration. The declaration says in (4) of Chapter 3 that the two sides confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula4. According to the provision, we can understand that South Korea also has a nuclear weapon and the declaration is targeted at denuclearization of South Korea.
It is clear that North Korea aims to assert the withdrawal of the U.S. forces with nuclear weapons from the peninsula by the means of imposing on South Korea the denuclearization goal despite no nuclear weapon. If he agreed on the provision without knowing it, President Moon would not be eligible to assume the responsibilities for the administration, or if he knew it, it means that he deceived the world.
After the declaration took place, the denuclearization of North Korea has been insidiously changed to the one of the Korean peninsula.
President Moon repeatedly said, in June 2018 after the second talk with the north side, that Kim Jong-un had a strong will to realize a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. But, at a general meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea held on April 20, 2018, right before the April 2018 inter-Korean summit, Kim Jong-un declared “Nuclear possession,” which meant that the country would focus on economic development after the completion of its goal of developing nuclear capabilities and missiles.
The reason why Kim Jong-un accepted the meeting with the south side was to realize the lifting of sanctions by “abandoning a part of facilities for developing future nuclear capabilities such as Nyeongbyeon Nuclear, Science Research Center” while current ones would be reduced slowly with “going along the international spirit of arms reduction” after the lifting of sanctions. Obviously, North Korea is not going to abandon all the nuclear capabilities unless the U.S. does so.
Finally, the Joint Statement between the U.S. and North Korea at the Singapore Summit in 2018 has several problems as well.
The Joint Statement contains four provisions, three of which are as follows:
1. The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
I have to say that these provisions have significant problems in light of order, contents and goals.
Taking the Joint Statement as read, “denuclearization” is written following “establishment of relations” and “building a lasting and stable peace regime,” and moreover, the goal is described as “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Furthermore, the Joint Statement does not refer to other issues than the nuclear problem. The U.S. focused on the nuclear issue so much that it gave a tacit approval to immorality and criminality of Kim Jong-un. In January 2016, American college student Otto Warmbier, who had visited North Korea since the previous year, was detained5. In February 2017, Kim Jong-un ordered to kill Kim Jong Nam, his older halt-brother, by using internationally prohibited VX. The U.S. has not accused North Korea either of these crimes nor of its human abuses, and has treated it as a normal state despite being a state sponsor of terrorism and Kim being its leader.
Jeopardizing Factor is China behind North Korean Issue
What makes the North Korean issue so difficult originally? Although the international community is tackling the issue as a result of nuclear capabilities and missiles, I suppose that a fundamental cause is rooted in injustices of the North Korean regime, and it is incorrect that, in case North Korea accepts “Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization” that the U.S. requires to be achieved, other issues than the nuclear problem can be left resolved: abductions, terrorism, producing of drug and counterfeit dollar bills, weapon trade in the ongoing conflict regions, stealing money by hacking and the oppressions and slavery of the North Korean citizens. In addition, the sanctions targeted to the nuclear problem alone have not been effective completely.
Therefore, “renewed approaches” are necessary to resolve the North Korean issue with specified arrangements of clear process and goals. There is no crucial way to alter the North Korean leader's attitude and diplomacy (dialogues) or pressures can't work effectively. With letting the Kim regime go free, the international affairs could have been unclear and stuck for one to five years and it has been possible that the regime can't be collapsed.
If the international community has a serious intention of resolving the North Korean issue, armed attacks remain only a final approach that even the Trump administration put away. How will the next President Biden deal with the issue?
The Biden administration would return to the diplomacy-oriented policies. At the second presidential debate on October 22, 2020, Biden said he could meet Kim Jong-un if the North Korean leader made moves to reduce his nuclear arsenal6. This means that the U.S. could deal with the North Korea by the circumstances, but his posture, I suppose, would make the diplomacy with the country difficult again.
The next U.S. administration needs to establish its clearer policy of North Korea as early as possible. Whoever takes office in the White House, both behaviors of China and South Korea will largely affect the direction of the North Korea issue.
The UN sanctions did not work effectively because China has protected North Korea with three principles: the stable Korean Peninsula, resolutions by dialogue and complete denuclearization, which have not been changed for over 20 years, whether the UN sanctions were adopted or not. China has supported North Korea, not enough to keep it alive or to kill it. But now, China has got to be unable to protect North Korea without any condition after Trump took office.
Currently, the U.S. sanctions against China have been designed to work in all directions. On December 18, 2019, President Trump signed the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act7, which, seemingly targeted at Chinese enterprises, requires any foreign companies listed on the U.S. markets to submit to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) documents that prove not to be controlled by foreign government, for example, the ratio of government stocks, the list of executives of the Communist Party in the administrative board and no provision in corporate charter related to the Party. More than 250 Chinese companies are listed on the market, including Alibaba, the largest Chinese IT enterprises, some of which were already ordered to exit from the market, for example, the country's top chipmaker SMIC was delisted in 2019.
The U.S. will crackdown China thoroughly. On July 23, 2020, the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated, in his speech, that “If the free world doesn't change – doesn't change, communist China will surely change us8,” clarifying the competitive posture against China in corporation with its allies.
China can't currently afford to pay attention to or to back North Korea. The U.S. has to maintain and further the China policies that the Trump administration has introduced, in order to achieve complete denuclearization of North Korea and Japan's top-priority resolution of deductions.
Next, the Moon administration having a year and a half in office also can't afford to cope with the North Korean issue, faced with various scandals and low approval ratings due to Moon's inability and irresponsibleness affecting its economy and diplomacy. The economy has been backed up by the national finance, in addition to the highest record of unemployment and bankruptcies and the increased foreign companies leaving from the country.
Some South Korean conglomerate companies such as the Samsung Group and the SK Group, has took advantage of a role of “the third dog” ran away with a bone when two big dogs (the U.S. and China) fight for a bone (the trade benefit), while they have been bullied by the left-wing Moon administration. For three years and six months, the Samsung Group has been subjected to over fifty domiciliary searches and the chairman of the Group Lee Jae-yong was sentenced to nine-year prison term at the end of last December9. In addition, President Moon has escalated to lose the national interests fragrantly through closing Wolsong-1, one of the Wolseong Nuclear Power Plants and the North Korea-oriented policies.
Although it's now less than a year and a half until President Moon's term is finished, we can now see a lame-duck administration, for example, the voices from the People Party saying that the renewed administration needed to be established by a party distinct from the left-wing Moon administration, and criticizing the administration asserting that it is something with inability, shamelessness, irresponsibility, immorality, neglection of citizens and democracy, and no prospect. Under the circumstances, the Moon's Cheongwadae needs to gain a solid foothold to aid and support North Korea at risk for collapse, but Moon's centripetal force has been declining, which has shown that Moon could not help Kim Jong-un regardless of mind to do so.
Maintaining the Most Valid Sanctions against Kim Jong-un
Now, there are two ways for Kim Jong-un faced at a triple difficulty: acceptance of denuclearization calls from the U.S. and the international community or rebuilding by its own efforts. Whichever way to be selected, the two options are difficult for him to overcome.
In case that he chooses the latter way, Kim needs to depend on two administrations of South Korea and China, but it could be not expected for them to fully back up North Korea if the next U.S. administration adheres to Trump's policies. Moreover, it is unlikely that the U.S. goals to denuclearization and non-proliferation would be changed in the light of the China policies and global strategies, whoever takes office in 2021. Under the current circumstance with continuous sanctions, the Kim regime has to drive severe road throughout 2021.
Japan has to set the strategies remembering that North Korea is situated in the above landscape, not to pursue result at a rush. It is unlikely that Kim Jong-un would prioritize Japan without any arrangement with the U.S. while Japanese Prime Minister Suga said that he would meet with him without any condition10. Japan has to spend more time organizing the situation that Kim begs Japan to help his regime.
In so doing, Japan needs to focus on the weak point of North Korea, which is not the issues of nuclear nor economy but violations of human rights, namely abductions of people from neighboring countries. The urgent issue concerning North Korea is the abuse of human rights, as the North Korean issue could not be resolve even though the international community overcome other problems instead of it. Japan faced at this issue, therefore, can take the initiative against the North Korean issue, and should play a significant role in the world, asserting that ①the abduction issue is a common challenge in the international community for protecting the universal values, ②the weak point of the Kim Regime is the human rights and ③it is impossible for the country to be changed without the abductions being resolved. In any case, the year of 2021 will mark that the Korean Peninsula, especially Kim Jong-un, is faced with the tougher challenge than ever.
1 “US-DPRK AGREED FRAMEWORK.” Nuclear Threat Initiative. October 26, 2011. https://www.nti.org/learn/treaties-and-regimes/us-dprk-agreed-framework/（January 13, 2021 retrieved）.
2 Griffiths, James. “World reduced to ‘friends,' ‘thugs' and ‘filthy' countries in Trump-Biden foreign policy debate.” CNN. October 23, 2020. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/10/23/politics/biden-trump-foreign-policy-debate/index.html（January 13, 2021 retrieved）.
3 “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula (2018.4.27).” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Republic of Korea. https://www.mofa.go.kr/eng/brd/m_5478/view.do?seq=319130&srchFr=&srchTo=&srchWord=&srchTp=&multi_itm_seq=0&itm_seq_1=0&itm_seq_2=0&company_cd=&company_nm=&page=1&titleNm=（January 13, 2021 retrieved）.
5 Labott, Elise., Cohen, Zachary. “How the US secured Otto Warmbier's release from North Korea” CNN. June 13, 2017. https://edition.cnn.com/2017/06/13/politics/otto-warmbier-north-korea-release-tic-toc/index.html（January 15, 2021 retrieved）.
6 Herskovitz, Jon., Fabian, Jordan. “Biden Says He'd Meet Kim Jong-un Only If Nuclear Arsenal Reduced” Bloomberg. October 23, 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-23/biden-says-he-d-meet-kim-Jong-un-only-if-nuclear-arsenal-reduced（January 15, 2021 retrieved）.
7 “Chinese firms off U.S. stock exchanges” CNBN. December 1, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/12/18/trump-signs-bill-that-could-kick-chinese-firms-off-us-stock-exchanges.html（January 15, 2021 retrieved）.
8 MICHAEL R. POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE. “Communist China and the Free World's Future.” U.S. Department of State. July 23, 2020. https://www.state.gov/communist-china-and-the-free-worlds-future/（January 15, 2021 retrieved）.
9 Kim, Hyung-Jin. “South Korean prosecutors seek nine-year prison term for Samsung chief Lee Jae-yong.” The Globe and Mail. December 30, 2020. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/technology/article-south-korean-prosecutors-seek-nine-year-prison-term-for-samsung-chief/（January 15, 2021 retrieved）.
10 “Address by Prime Minister Suga at the Seventy-Fifth Session of the United Nations General Assembly.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. September 26, 2020. https://www.mofa.go.jp/fp/unp_a/page4e_001095.html（January 18, 2021 retrieved）.