Where Next for N.Korea's Foreign Policy?

      February 03, 2012 13:24

      Han Sung-joo

      How will North Korea pursue foreign relations in the post-Kim Jong-il era? It is not an easy task to predict at a time when it remains uncertain exactly who will take power and through what process. But it is possible to estimate what policy choices North Korea will be given based on the behavior the Kim Jong-un regime has shown so far and from the responses of neighboring countries.

      North Korea held talks with the U.S. over the resumption of the stalled six-party nuclear talks until just a few days before the announcement of Kim Jong-il's death on Dec. 19. During talks in Beijing on Dec. 15 and 16, the North apparently accepted Washington's requirements for the resumption of the six-party talks, including the freezing of its uranium enrichment facilities in Yongbyon and allowing the return of IAEA inspectors to verify this. In return, the U.S. is believed to have pledged 240,000 tons of nutritional supplements and other food aid to the North. Kim's death scuppered the deal, but the possibility has not disappeared completely.

      North Korea's foreign relations have been far more consistent than expected. China's position has been to acknowledge Kim Jong-un as the legitimate heir to the North Korean throne and offer its support, while the U.S., Japan, Russia and South Korea have shown their preference for a stable transfer of power. North Korea has also been trying to show that it has no intention to shift its foreign policy drastically.

      Will North Korea give up its nuclear weapons and pave the way for economic revival as South Korea and the U.S. are demanding? Such a decision would seem extremely difficult to make in the absence of an absolute ruler. But North Korea does have some room to scrap its hostile policy toward South Korea and the U.S. and take a flexible approach with its nuclear weapons program.

      If so, what will it take to make that happen? First, North Korea needs China's political, economic and diplomatic support more than ever after the death of Kim Jong-il. China is calling on North Korea to return to the six-party talks; refrain from provocations that could raise military tensions on the Korean Peninsula; pursue economic reforms; and normalize relations with the U.S. and other countries. It will be difficult for North Korea to ignore such demands.

      Second, the Kim Jong-un regime faces the urgent task of reviving North Korea's tattered economy. To achieve that task, North Korea must pursue economic cooperation and exchange with the U.S., Japan and South Korea and have to show more flexibility in handling its nuclear weapons program.

      But there are negative factors that could hinder North Korea's efforts to emerge from isolation and establish closer ties with other countries. Kim Jong-un and his supporters are busy consolidating their grip on power and may not be able to afford strategic decisions to emerge from isolation. Moreover, it appears that hardliners among the North's top brass have increased their influence over the military. This means that Kim Jong-un or his supporters may have a tough time pursuing dovish policies.

      On top of this, North Korea's top officials may feel a stronger need to hang on to nuclear weapons following Kim's death, to maintain the regime's grip on power. Kim Jong-il strongly believed that nuclear weapons were necessary to maintain his rule. Kim Jong-un and his supporters may feel that giving up nuclear weapons would make them vulnerable to influence from outside forces seeking to topple the regime.

      But North Korea showed a willingness to exercise a certain flexibility at the very last moment before Kim Jong-il died. This appears to have been based on the decision of the late North Korean leader, and this direction could be pursued by his successor if it is touted as Kim's final wish. An assurance from Beijing that there will be no attempts to topple the regime would also help North Korea opt for a more flexible approach.

      The countries participating in the six-party talks would welcome such a decision. They share an understanding of the need to form a constructive relationship with the Kim Jong-un regime to get North Korea to walk the path of peace, reforms and market opening. North Korea must realize that now is the time to accept the friendly gestures of its neighbors and take the opportunity to emerge from isolation and resuscitate its economy.

      By former foreign minister Han Sung-joo

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