Why North Korea Still Needs U.S. Security Guarantees before Proceeding with Major Reforms

There have been signs of minor economic reforms in North Korea, but without meaningful security guarantees from the United States, extensive reforms are unlikely.

By Sungtae "Jacky" Park
Contributor

In his address to the U.N. General Assembly on October 1, North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Pak Kil-yon warned that the Korean Peninsula “has become the world’s most dangerous hotspot” and reiterated Pyongyang’s consistent position that “not a single problem including the nuclear issue of the Korean peninsula can be resolved without the elimination of the hostile policy of the United States.” It is not uncommon for North Korea to ratchet up tension while making indirect suggestions about negotiating with the United States. Nevertheless, Pyongyang’s need to establish stable and possibly peaceful relations with Washington is particularly important now because Pyongyang has been flirting with economic reforms.

Despite Pyongyang’s ability to hold onto power with a combination of a brutal internal security apparatus and a cult of personality, North Korea’s economy has been on a race to the bottom since the end of the Cold War, and the regime’s long-term sustainability has become increasingly questionable. There is a constant fear in the North Korean regime that the country’s deteriorating socioeconomic condition might one day lead to mass social unrest. The fact that Kim Jong-un was virtually unknown to most North Koreans before he was named the successor to Kim Jong-il and has only begun to build his own cult of personality also puts the twenty-something leader’s legitimacy in doubt. Consequently, the need for economic reforms has become very clear for many in the North Korean regime.

After ousting Ri Yong-ho from power, Chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army and a strong supporter of the “military first” policy, Kim Jong-un and his supporters seemed to be well on their way to making major economic reforms in North Korea. Yet a rare Supreme People’s Assembly meeting on September 25 (only its second meeting) produced no new economic reform, indicating Pyongyang’s cautious attitude. However, certain areas of North Korea’s economy, particularly the agricultural sector, have indeed seen a modicum of reforms, despite the lack of public announcement.

In its current political climate, North Korea can proceed with only minor economic reforms for two reasons. First, reforms inevitably lead to decentralization of power and ideas; any policy changes that are too rapid or overreaching may severely destabilize the country. Second, Pyongyang remains focused on devoting its resources to national defense because of its concern that the United States might invade North Korea or subvert the regime from within. According to Charles L. Pritchard, who was directly involved in negotiations with North Korea, Kim Jong-il told Madeleine Albright in 2000 “that in the 1970s, Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader, was able to conclude that China faced no external security threat and could accordingly refocus its resources on economic development. With the appropriate security assurances, Mr. Kim said, he would be able to convince his military that the U.S. was no longer a threat and then be in a similar position to refocus his country's resources.”

For North Korea, normalization of relations with security guarantees by the United States is a prerequisite for any major reform. Half-hearted assurances by Washington will not suffice given the United States’ history of invading or subverting other countries in the interest of regime change. As such, Pyongyang’s objective since the end of the Cold War, primarily using its nuclear diplomacy, has been to normalize relations with Washington and sign a comprehensive peace treaty.

Given the uncertainty of North Korea’s current political situation and the campaign season in the United States, one can expect no major diplomatic breakthrough to occur this year. After the domestic situations stabilize, however, the United States will have a fresh chance to improve its relations with North Korea and bring Pyongyang back into the international community.

In order for any future negotiation to be successful, at least a few conditions will need to be met. First, the negotiating leaders must be domestically strong and be able to make bold moves. Second, the negotiations are better off bilateral (U.S.-North Korea) than multilateral (the Six-Party Talks). The other countries involved, particularly China, have their own priorities, even as they share U.S. and South Korean interests in denuclearization and stabilization of relations with North Korea.

Leaders on both sides will also have to overcome the mistrust built by failed negotiations over the past years, as well as the fear of another failure. Small confidence and trust-building measures, as well as backdoor talks, may be required before negotiations can succeed. Yet diplomacy remains the only viable option in light of the fact that further confrontations may indeed escalate to more dangerous crises.

Sungtae “Jacky” Park is a M.A. Security Policy Studies student at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He has previously published for CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) and Brandeis International Journal.

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