North Korea’s Unsurprising Surprises

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North Korea’s Unsurprising Surprises

In the first of a series of interviews looking back on 2010, we speak to ICG analyst Daniel Pinkston about events on the Korean Peninsula.

Conspiracy theories persist over the March sinking of the South Korean corvette the Cheonan. Is there any doubt in your mind that North Korea was responsible?

I don’t think so. I can’t think of another explanation that holds water. Of course, I didn’t see it with my own eyes. And there are some people who even if they did see a ship or submarine with Korean People’s Army markings on it would still say it was a CIA or South Korean intelligence operation. But the forensic evidence shows it was a torpedo. Who else would have fired a torpedo? There’s no way to say with 100 percent certainty, but there’s no alternative explanation that even comes close to making sense.

So what do you think was behind the decision to do this? Would this have been planned in advance?

I think they were planning it for quite some time. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened in that area—ships have been sunk before and aircraft have been shot down before, and there have been escalating tensions recently. The North Koreans sent several warnings and signals about this and we did see a naval clash last year. After all, historically, North Korea has executed attacks and provocations on numerous occasions.

Some of the conspiracy theories aren’t even worth addressing, they’re quite silly. However, there were some serious questions, and there were some odd things in the investigation.

Such as?

Such as the blue pin marking on the torpedo, the propulsion system parts recovered from the sea floor. There were a number of problems about how information was slowly released to the public regarding the thermal observation device records, the time line etc. The South Koreans also put up the wrong schematic for the torpedo during the briefing on May 20 even though they knew it was wrong the day before. They just wanted to keep pushing the time schedule. The way they handled relations with the press, opposition party, the inter government agencies…There were a number of blunders. But that doesn’t change where the attack came from—they are completely different issues.

This year saw the appointment of Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as a general. Is there any doubt now he’ll be the successor to Kim Jong-il?

It certainly appears he will be. Arrangements were already being made last year. There have been constitutional changes, elevating of the status of Kim Jong-il and the Kim family cult, expansion of the national defence commission, expansion of the number of members and roles they would play, efforts to resuscitate the economy, suppress or eradicate markets, take control of economic resources so the state could reward loyalists or punish dissidents, military promotion—things like that. It has all been pointing in the direction of a transferring of power to him.

So how much power would he really have?

Much of that depends on his personal ability and how much time he has to establish his own coalition of supporters. The more I look at the North Korean system, the more it’s becoming clear to me that with the institutional structure, the way the party and the military and security apparatus is structured, the leadership is reinforced.

It’s difficult to get your head around if you haven’t been exposed to a system like this. In liberal democracies, market economies, so many things that are usually delegated to the private sector are in the North still controlled by the institutional mechanisms. You have the prominence of the military and the security apparatus. And then you have the Party, and they also have their own security institutions.  They’re all spying on each other and checking each others’ power. So there’s extraordinary inefficiency for the economy and extraordinary misallocation of resources, and if you’re a manager or decision maker at a local co-operative, military unit, or factory, for instance, because of the institutional structure, all the directives and policies you have to adhere to create information barriers. You’re just always stuck.

The way it ends up working with this command structure is that you have to resolve the information problems by getting directions from above. I remember reading years ago government propaganda glorifying the state and Kim Il-sung and talking about how he was the brain, and the rest of the party was the body. We might laugh at that, but when I looked more at the structure, it actually seemed true in many ways. One individual has to resolve the information and resource allocation problems. Even if you’re dissatisfied with that and recognize it’s suboptimal, it’s necessary to have a brain who can unlock those roadblocks.

So the elite—the top 200 families—it’s in their interests to have one dictator to decide and issue directives to allocate resources and move on. Otherwise, they’re stuck in a bureaucratic, institutional sclerosis. So it’s reinforced institutionally. There’s an ideological side to the system, which the media and many analysts tend to focus on, but there’s also an institutional side that reinforces the system in many ways.

You mentioned that a key factor in how much power Kim Jong-un has will be how quickly he can build a support base. Was the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island on November 23 part of an effort to boost his credentials?

That’s only part of it. This issue has been brewing for quite some time—since the end of the Korean War. The North started challenging the ‘Northern Limit Line’ in the 1970s, then more aggressively in the late 1990s. But this particular issue has emerged now for a number of reasons. The North Koreans have some legitimate claims according to international law, and the maritime issues haven’t been resolved because the South Koreans claim the Northern Limit Line is the de facto maritime boundary.

So when provocations serve your interests for building internal morale, it’s easier to manage clashes at sea as it’s less likely to escalate to full scale war or some level of violence you want to avoid. There have been efforts to negotiate and a number of rounds of talks have been held. But they failed to reach a solution and the North Koreans decided to seek military solutions to the issue—they’ve been becoming more aggressive in their military actions to resolve the maritime boundary issue to their satisfaction.

So, this issue didn’t suddenly emerge with the question of the succession. But the succession has become a focal point for the leadership to establish its nationalist credentials, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

What do you make of South Korea’s response? Do you agree with some officials’ view that the live-fire drills are unnecessarily provocative?

Yes and no. I think robust military exercises are necessary, but it depends on how you do them. On the Yeonpyeong shelling specifically, there were a number of signals the North was going to do something —there were movements of artillery and troops and chatter had been picked up by intelligence sources about a military response in that area.

But the South Koreans were eager to do their own exercises as well as combined exercises with the United States, especially after the Cheonan sinking. There were so many weaknesses and problems revealed with the Cheonan that they wanted to address. Also, they had the intention of sending a signal to North Korea that they would face consequences for their provocations.

That was the intent. But one of the problems was they also needed to go to the UN Security Council. China was calling for restraint by all parties, and the US was trying to accommodate Beijing to maintain mutual cooperation on several international issues. The South Koreans were pushing a very ambitious exercise schedule, but the US had other considerations as well, including domestic bureaucratic obstacles. 

I think you need to have a robust deterrent posture, but you don’t have to unnecessarily provoke the North Koreans. You already have, on the political and economic side, a policy or policies that the North Koreans have expressed their dissatisfaction about. So doing things to antagonize them—whether ideologically you think it’s right or wrong—and if this forms the basis of your relationship with North Korea, you’d better expect some provocations on their part.  If you don’t think that’s coming, you’re either naïve or ignorant.  

Looking ahead to the next few years, how optimistic are you about getting North Korea back to the table to talk about their nuclear programme?

I’m very pessimistic about it. A lot of smart people have been looking at this and have been going at it for almost two decades now. I just don’t see the way the current regime is structured, its policy orientation and everything else, why it would have the incentive to give up its nuclear weapon programme. So I’m very, very pessimistic about it.

Daniel Pinkston is North-east Asia Deputy Project Director with the International Crisis Group. ICG’s new report, ‘North Korea: The Risks of War in the Yellow Sea’, can be downloaded here.