The negotiations to retreat almost fully on the chemical-weapons issue in Syria have certainly kept John Kerry busy, but that’s hardly the only area in which he’s been working of late. In a lower-profile offer this week, Kerry dangled the prospect of a non-aggression pact with North Korea in exchange for verifiable denuclearization. Such a pact would be the largest step toward a settlement of the Korean War and normalization in decades, assuming we could verify anything in the DPRK:
Advocates of engagement say negotiations are needed to slow North Korea’s nuclear development that has continued apace despite tighter sanctions. But there are few champions in Washington for talking with the Kim regime, particularly following its threats this year of nuclear war. The administration is also swamped in high-stakes and politically risky diplomacy on Iran nuclear program, Syria’s chemical weapons and the Israel-Palestine conflict.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, however, indicated last week the door for negotiations with the North remains open.
“We are prepared to have a peaceful relationship with North Korea, we are not engaged in regime change, we are prepared to sign a non-aggression agreement – providing North Korea decides to denuclearize and to engage in legitimate negotiations to achieve that end,” Kerry said during a visit to Japan.
In Berlin, the North Koreans outlined ideas on how denuclearization could unfold in phases, in exchange for progress on political, military and economic concerns, said former State Department official Joel Wit. “It’s very preliminary but it shows they are thinking about how denuclearization could happen,” he said.
The offer comes with a couple of significant conditions even before verification. First, the Kim regime would have to put a moratorium on any further space launches, which North Korea insists are peaceful exploration but which the UN sees as tests of ICBM technology for a nuclear-weapons platform. The US also wants a freeze on plutonium and uranium production, with inspectors to verify at least that much good-will effort. Any serious plans to denuclearize by the North Koreans described in the AP excerpt above would have to include at least that much as a prerequisite for the US and the rest of the six-nation panel at the forefront of negotiations.
So, what was the public response to this from North Korea? About what you’d expect:
North Korea on Saturday issued a fresh warning of an “all-out war”, urging the United States to stop military drills and what it described as “nuclear blackmail”.
In a thinly veiled threat to strike the United States, the North’s National Defence Commission (NDC), chaired by leader Kim Jong-Un, said the US government must withdraw its policy of hostility against the North if it wants peace on both the Korean peninsula and the “US mainland”.
“(The United States) must bear it in mind that reckless provocative acts would meet our retaliatory strikes and lead to an all-out war of justice for a final showdown with the United States,” a spokesman of the NDC was quoted as saying in a statement carried by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency.
“We emphasize again that the United States must withdraw various measures aimed to isolate and strangulate us. Dependent upon this are… peace and security, not only on the Korean peninsula but the US mainland as well.”
Pyongyang wants the US to stop holding joint military exercises with South Korea and Japan in the region, and usually gets belligerent in its public statements during such activities. The latest round of exercises involve all three countries and started this week. Essentially, this is the Kim regime clearing its throat, and not much more.
In perhaps a more telling move, North Korea also picked this week to confirm that Kim Jong-un got rid of a hard-liner as the top military leader in his regime:
North Korea has replaced its hard line military chief just a few months after his appointment, the latest in an ongoing reshuffle of top personnel that analysts say is meant to solidify ruler Kim Jong Un’s grip on power.
The name of new military chief, Ri Yong Gil, was revealed Thursday in a Korean Central News Agency dispatch listing top officials who accompanied Kim Jong Un to the mausoleum housing his father and grandfather.
Ri replaces Kim Kyok Sik, the former commander of battalions believed responsible for attacks on South Korea in 2010 that killed 50 people. It was only in May that state media dispatches first identified Kim as the military’s general chief of staff.
Observers believe Ri may have been appointed to replace Kim as early as August, when North Korea was pushing to ease animosity and resume lucrative cooperation projects with South Korea after threatening nuclear war throughout the spring.
The change had been reported as far back as the end of August. The International Business Times noted the sacking of Kim Kyok-sik on August 31st, tying it to the execution of Kim Jong-un’s mistress and her pop-music band as the beginning of a slow-paced purge to consolidate his power. The purge was considered personal rather than policy:
[Kim Kyok-sik’s] head is the latest to roll since Kim Jong-un started a substantial reshuffle of top brass after he took the reins when his father Kim Jong-il died in December 2011.
Chang Yong-seok of the Institute for Peace and Unification at Seoul National University said the sacking was in line with Kim’s efforts to secure his leadership.
“This means Kim Jong-un has almost completed replacing old generals left over from his father’s time with younger generals who are loyal to himself,” Chang told AFP.
In October 2012, Kim Chol, vice-minister of the army, and other senior officers were reportedly executed by mortar fire for drinking alcohol during the mourning period of the late dictator’s death.
It’s possible that it could also be political, and that Kim wants to reorient his regime toward more normal international relations. That would explain the helpful if informal chats on denuclearization this week, but not the Nutty Spring of Kim Jong-un, though. The other possibility is that Pyongyang paid attention to what happened in Syria and what’s happening now between the US and Iran, and figures that this would be a good time to take advantage of the fire sale on American credibility.
Update: I wrote “end of October” where I meant to write “end of August.” It’s fixed now.