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Foreign Policy

Dealing with North Korea’s New Leader Kim Jong-un

May 01 , 2012

A number of events that have occurred in North Korea (DPRK) within the past few months have captured the world’s attention. The sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il introduced some guesswork about who would succeed him in Pyongyang and how it would affect the nation’s foreign policy. But recent high-level conferences show that Kim Jong-un’s power seems to have been solidified. It signifies that a new era has started in North Korea with Kim Jung-un firmly at the helm.

As the young star emerges onto the international stage it is hard to predict what will happen in North Korea. To some extent, Kim Jong-un seemingly triggered some expectations that relations between North Korea and the United States would improve. Before his father’s death, an agreement in principle was made in Beijing by DPRK Ambassador Ri Gun and US envoy Ambassador Robert King to resume US food aid in exchange for North Korea returning to the Six-Party talks.. When most observers feared Kim’s death would endanger the agreement —some even suggested the agreement would never be activated with the death of Kim Jong-il —the DPRK and the United States issued a February 29 statement. It stated a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests and freezing of the DPRK’s uranium enrichment activities for the exchange for the 240,000 tons of food assistance from the United States.

Ten days later, a delegation led by newly appointed Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Yonghao stated that the DPRK’s new leader “unlike the previous generation, will not fight with the United States but wants peace with the United States.” The statement shocked participants, including the author, who was attending the Track II conference sponsored by a German foundation. Some of the participants were excited after hearing the senior official’s statement. Lee said the message was direct from Pyongyang.

One week later, the world was caught off guard when North Korea announced it would launch a so-called observation satellite aimed at celebrating the centennial of the birth of Kim Il-sung. This action was an obvious violation of United Nations’ resolutions and the DPRK deserved being denounced. The United States was justified for suspending food aid. North Korea may regret the move even more after the satellite failed to launch.

These recent events seem to indicate North Korea will be more difficult to predict. First, Kim Jong-un seems unlike his father Kim Jong-il. When Kim Il-sung died, his son Kim Jong-il stood quietly for three years. This time is different. Not long after Kim Jong-il’s death, his son Kim Jong-un appeared publicly and was not afraid to act during the mourning period.

My guess is that his behavior signifies that he wants to show the world he is different from the previous generation and wants to do something special. Second, he seems desperate to change things or to perform miracles in a short period to consolidate his power. He must have understood that the political system in North Korea does not allow a new leader to perform freely without any constraint. Third, their behavior lacked proper diplomacy. If the new leader would like to make a break from his father’s policy and contact other countries like the United States, he needs to initiate secret talks first through an envoy with an American counterpart. Fourth, the new leader seems premature in evaluating what happens outside his country although he has had some experience studying overseas.

Now the United Nations’ Security Council has issued a Chairman’s declaration denouncing North Korea for the attempted rocket launch. China’s representative supported the declaration, agreeing with the American position because the declaration reflected the common sense of the international community. It is great to see China working with the United States on the issue of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and Beijing should ask the new leader to take bold measures in this area.

Personally, like other experts at the New York Conference, I was somewhat sympathetic to the new voice from North Korea, but I have to express that regional stability should not be harmed. North Korea’s behavior should have been more mature but they need some time to learn and adjust to events outside of their country. China needs to take note that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in recent speeches that the United States and China should join hands to resolve regional and global problems. My understanding is that the United States expects China to do more regarding regional issues including the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula.

Firstly, the United States and China should get together to provide security guarantees for North Korea. I personally believe at the moment that both China and the United States would like to do so because I heard several times that the Americans would like to preserve the regime. China and the United States, thus, have a common stand on the issue.

Secondly, North Korea is also willing to denuclearize the peninsula as the new leader’s representative stated: “the recent agreement in Beijing with regard to plutonium cessation is irreversible” and that “we will take consistent steps to ensure its success. He added that the North’s plutonium program had been “97 percent disabled and if we reverse this, it would be a game changer. As long as both parties abide by the agreement, one can be assured that [plutonium] production is irreversible.” China and the United States can wait and work together to see what will really happen.

Thirdly, we need to note that North Korea also wants Washington to adopt some “new mindset” to move the dialogue to a new level. “Closing the door” is not a way to solve the problem and diplomacy is still a channel. As Kim Jong-un, unlike his father, gave a clear signal in a public speech, China and the United States should take advantage of this opportunity and keep in close contact on the nuclear issue and exchange information with each other.

Finally, as the situation develops and the new leader matures, other countries should be wary of taking an aggressive tone or making another mistake. Such an attitude could trigger a strong response, causing an even worse situation to erupt. To prevent that, China has a heavy responsibility to persuade other parties, including the United States, to refrain from any possible counter-productive actions. The United States and other parties should understand that and work together to manage the situation to fulfill the mission of maintaining stability and security in the Korean Peninsula.


Cai Penghong is senior research fellow of Shanghai Insititutes for International Studies.

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