Ken E. Gause

The Diplomat’s Zachary Keck spoke with Ken E. Gause, the director of the International Affairs Group for CNA, concerning current tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Zachary Keck

With these most recent crises on the Korean Peninsula, many are arguing that the Obama administration’s strategic patience policy has failed. Do you agree with this argument and why?

I am not an advocate of the strategic patience policy. Past experience has proven that lack of engagement with Pyongyang can lead to the North Korean leadership engaging in provocational behavior. While engagement alone will not prevent North Korea from conducting a brinksmanship strategy, it does give the United States more avenues in which to identify potential crisis points and manage a crisis if it does arise.

It has frequently been said in recent weeks that China may be reassessing its relationship with North Korea. In your estimation is this correct? If so, is China likely to fundamentally alter its policy towards Pyongyang or merely make tactical adjustments?

There has been much talk about China revisiting its North Korea policy. I do not agree with this view. China still holds stability on its border as the number one goal of its North Korea policy. Denuclearization, which has been hinted by some as a goal that may have overtaken stability as the number one goal, is at best a distant second. What might be changing, however, is how China conducts its North Korea policy. At an operational level, the Xi Jinping leadership may have come to the conclusion that with the new, troublesome leadership in Pyongyang, China is willing to push harder than it has in the past. But it will not push beyond the threshold that it believes will destabilize its neighbor.

Some have speculated that Kim Jong-un hopes to reverse his father’s “military first” policy by elevating the Workers’ Party of Korea at the expense of the armed forces. As someone who has written about the military first policy in the past what are your thoughts on this?

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I would argue that the Songun policy is being downgraded in favor of the notion of Party first, but Kim Jong-un must be careful on how he does this and how fast he does it because he is still consolidating his power and needs to be mindful of not getting too crosswise with the KPA high command.

That said, the evidence for this point of view is still evolving. We will not know for another year or two where Songun fits in the North Korean ruling ideology. Its origins go back to the early 1960s so I doubt that it will disappear, just be downgraded and returned to its normal place within the regime’s ideology.

There are several pieces of evidence that point in this direction.

  1. Kim Jong-un’s April 15, 2012 speech, which I see as the Rosetta stone to how he plans to rule, downgraded Songun in favor of the Party and a significant focus on the economy. Kim Jong-un’s phrase “No More Belt Tightening” is code for reform and is directly opposed to Songun. When Kim Jong-il criticized Songun around 2004, at the beginning of the regime’s ersatz attempt at reform, he also made reference, although more obliquely to this concept of belt tightening.
  2. While references to Songun are still found in the North Korean lexicon, they are not as ubiquitous. In early April, Vice Premier Kim Yong-jin referenced Songun in relation to a celebration of North Korean gymnasts—a completely non-military event. So, it continues to seep into the North Korean lexicon. Because of very powerful guard elements within the regime, Kim Jong-un cannot turn his back on Songun. It is also a convenient term in periods such as the current crisis.
  3. The KWP Central Committee Plenum and the 7th Session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly, which took place at the end of March and the beginning of April, seemed to forecast a return to a focus on the economy sometime in the future. Pak Pong-ju and several individuals of the “reformist” ilk have returned not only to the Cabinet, but also to the leading organs of the Party. As Kim Jong-il learned in the early 2000s, economic reform is not possible as long as Songun predominates. I believe that Kim Jong-un has learned this lesson. This may explain why he got rid of Ri Yong-ho, the former chief of the General Staff, last year and has conducted a purge of elements of the high command down at least to the division level, if not below. This may also explain the removal of Kim Jong-gak as the Minister of People’s Armed Forces and Ri Myong-su as Minister of People’s Security and the temporary demotion of Kim Yong-chol (director of the General Reconnaissance Bureau). Kim Jong-un (backed by Jang Song-taek) sent a shot across the bow of the KPA to keep them in line. This may have set back Kim’s consolidation process as he has had to deal with the blowback from this purge.
  4. The increased use of “Party First” and “People First” in the North Korean lexicon. These phrases are often used in conjunction with Kim Jong-un events.
  5. No matter how hard the regime tries to put a human face on the KPA, the North Korean population will never forget the sacrifices it suffered at the altar of Songun during the Arduous March and Great famine of the 1990s. If the regime does not move away from this tainted ideology, Kim will lose whatever faith the people have in him. While the North Korean leadership as a whole may not understand this, I believe Kim’s closest advisors do.

In short, we will not have a definitive answer on the question of Songun for another year or two. If Kim Jong-un consolidates his power, I do not believe he will hold on to his father’s ruling philosophy, but will try to make his own mark—or at least return to his grandfather’s method of rule, which was grounded in the Party, not the Military.

According to Yonhap, at the end of last week Rodong Sinmun featured a commentary that said the country’s nuclear capability afforded it enough security that the country’s energies can be focused on economic development. Do you anticipate this being Kim Jong-un’s focus in the coming months?

The regime hinted at the CC Plenum and SPA that the conjoined policy of nuclear power and economic development will be the goal for the future. I expect that sometime in the future, provided how much progress Kim makes on conducting politics inside the regime, the policy focus will turn toward the economy, maybe revisiting or building on the June Measures that were announced in 2012. For Kim to consolidate power, he needs to do 3 things: conduct politics (which he has done since coming to power), show progress on critical defense systems (which he has done with the successful launch of the missile in December and the nuclear test in February), and show progress on the economy (which he has done nothing more than raise expectations).