The Jamestown Foundation presents an interview with Il-Kwawg Sohn, a former
high-level North Korean official. Mr. Sohn discusses the current multilateral negotiations and the diplomatic strategies of the main participants.
Q: What do you think are some of the demands North Korea (NK) will be making of the United States during this round of six-party talks?
A: First, North Korea will continue to demand the security and guarantee of
their regime and at the same time try to elicit more economic aid from the US.
More importantly, NK will certainly try to tie the cessation of nuclear activities with the withdrawal of US troops from the Korean peninsula, a non-aggression pact with the US, a normalization of diplomatic relations, and ultimately the elimination of US influence on the Korean Peninsula. Interestingly, it is the South Korean (SK) government that brings up the issue of regime guarantee for the North. NK, with Chinese and Russian assistance, plans to include the South in a non-aggression pact. I also think the resumption of oil and food aid from the US will be on NK’s list of demands during the second six-party conference.
Q: Does the North Korean leadership resent having to discuss these issues with the US through multilateral talks? Does it viewing the six-party format as
inimical to its interests?
A: NK has always maintained that the US is the aggressor, and that therefore
they should negotiate their security issues with the US alone. NK’s ultimate
goal is to unify the Korean peninsula: first by removing US troops from the
Korean peninsula, and second by absorbing the South using force. The NK
leadership has stated that all other parties in attendance, especially Japan and South Korea, should not interfere with US-NK negotiations. I believe that the US will benefit from its strong alliance with Japan and SK. However, the US will not reap many of these benefits at this stage, with SK supporting Kim Jong-il.
Q: What tactical recommendations do you have for the US in these negotiations?
A: The US should not bend on the issue of the complete elimination of NK’s
nuclear program. The US must find the weakest points in NK’s strategy of gradual elimination of their nuclear programs, and be prepared to counter it step by step. It must insist on complete verification and free access to the nuclear facilities anywhere and anytime, as well as develop a strategy for dealing with NK’s inevitable resistance towards inspections. Also, the US must do its best to gain the support of the other parties at the conference.
Q: What should be the US government’s first priority in dealing with Kim Jong-il’s regime and North Korea?
A: The US should raise the issues of human rights, illegal drug trafficking, and
refugees in China – not just the nuclear issue – in order to press NK. Talk about the people in NK, not about the regime: human rights, freedom, and democracy. Any attempt by the US to solve the nuclear issue by force, will inevitably be perceived by the conference participants, and the international community more generally, as an act of US aggression. If, however, the US raises the issue of human rights, etc., at the conference, it will deflect this potential criticism; notwithstanding the fact that human rights violations in NK are horrendous, the worst in the world in both magnitude and viciousness.
Q: One of the weaknesses of the US position in the upcoming talks is that the
South is no longer as supportive of the US negotiating strategy as it was
previously. Do you think that this is true, and in your opinion does South Korea
present more of a help or a hindrance to the US negotiating position?
A: It is true: South Korea will be on the side of North Korea at the talks. SK
will ask the US to be more flexible toward the North, for instance, by asking
the US to provide of economic aid and security guarantees if NK promises to
discontinue its nuclear program.
Q: What do you perceive as the strengths and weakness of the United States negotiating position in the upcoming talks?
A: Strengths: The US has Japan’s complete support both on nuclear disarmament and with regard to human rights abuses (especially given the issue of Japanese abductees). And for its part, the US must insist that human rights issues be a part of the agenda.
Weaknesses: South Korea will be a problem: playing the part of the middleman, but ultimately supporting the North. The US should have separate talks with SK and make it clear that it will accept nothing short of complete forthrightness from the South.
Q: Should the United States even engage Kim Jong-il in negotiations and peace efforts, or should their primary efforts be aimed at undermining and contain Kim’s regime?
A: The US must use the time before President Bush’s re-election to build the
case against North Korea. President Bush, once the election is over, must then side with those in the administration who favor a hard-line stance against NK. Kim Jong-il will push the US as hard and long as he can to gain his end: unification of the peninsula under his rule. The US must never forget this when negotiating with the North. There is no other way but to eliminate Kim Jong-il for the security of Korea, and also for the security of the US.
Q: Do you think that the North’s position has been strengthened vis-à-vis the
United States due to the emergence of anti-Americanism and pro-North sympathies in South Korea?
A: It is absolutely the case that the South Korean government has strengthened the NK regime with their appeasement policy, whereas the US position has been weakened drastically due to the anti-American movement in the South and the relocation of the US troops. US troops along the DMZ was a major issue for Kim Jong-il, and Roh Moo-hyun’s government worked very hard on the relocation, despite the unease of ordinary South Koreans over the shift. I believe that the South Korean government no longer represents its people. This is not a long-term
appeasement policy; it is a policy of blatant anti-Americanism.
Q: Do you think that China can play a constructive role in bringing about regime
change in North Korea, or will Beijing use its alliance with North Korea to
continue to support Kim’s dictatorship?
A: China does not think much its alliance with NK. Its role will be largely
dependant on how the US approaches this issue. One of the possible outcomes of a regime change could be the instillation of a Chinese-backed puppet regime following Kim Jong-il’s elimination. High-ranking NK officials are demanding real reforms and wanting to open up the country to the outside world. We have to remember, though, that China does not want South Korea or the US at their border, nor does it want trouble with ethnic minorities along that border. However, if the US stands firm on nuclear disarmament and human rights, China will not risk its relationship with America – it has too much to lose now.
Q: How would you describe Kim’s relationship with the North Korean military? Does he consider the military to be reliable or not?
A: While it is true that Kim Jong-il is totally dependent on the military, it is
also true that Kim Jong-il’s most loyal officers control the military’s upper
echelons. As a result, he has absolute control over the people and the army
through the military and party elites.
Q: What is the biggest internal threat/challenge to Kim Jong-il?
A: The economic disaster brought on by Kim Jong-il’s policies has lost him
whatever legitimacy he may have had in the eyes of the people. Furthermore, NK’s economic collapse has precipitated a mass exodus to China. More than 1,000 people die in NK everyday from starvation. They do not care whether they get arrested at the border or not – they continue to cross. China beefed up the border patrols with 160,000 troops, but to no avail; North Koreans still cross
by the thousands. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 400,000 North Koreans now live in the northeastern part of China. When they get money, they go back home to feed their family, and then return to China for more.
Nor are the upper classes happy with Kim Jong-il. Since the death of Kim
Il-Sung, respect and trust within both the party and military elite for Kim Jong-il has consistently diminished. However, despite all this, it is still not possible to remove Kim Jong-il from within. The people of NK live in constant fear. Everybody informs on each other, and nobody can predict what would happen
if Kim Jong-il were to die tomorrow. His grip on the military and the people is
absolute. The only approach can be the support of the defector organizations in
SK, and consistent international pressure regarding the drug trafficking and human rights among other issues.
Q: How likely is Kim to institute economic reforms in an effort to boost the economy when it is likely that these reforms will result in increased freedoms
for North Korean society?
A: Kim Jong-il will never open up, because it would be the end of his regime. His policies and gestures toward the US and SK are exactly that: gestures. Internally, NK is preparing for a confrontation with the international
community. Reform would allow the people of NK a glimpse of the outside world. NK is a living hell on earth. Once they have seen the other side, they will
never be able to go back – there would be a revolution. Kim will never open up
his country to the outside world.