The diplomatic relationship between the US and North Korea took an intriguing turn earlier this month. In Pyongyang, the National Defense Commission — perhaps the country's most powerful government body — issued a statement titled "US Imperialists Will Face Final Doom." In typical saber-rattling rhetoric, the statement said North Korea is no longer willing to "sit at the negotiating table" with the US.
That was nothing new. But on the opposite side of the globe on the same day, at a briefing at the State Department's Foreign Press Center in New York, a senior US official was cautiously optimistic when discussing the possibility of North Korea opening up to the world, enacting reforms, and shedding its ignominious Hermit Kingdom status.
Fielding two questions about North Korea — including one about Pyongyang's latest threat to respond to any perceived US aggression with a nuclear strike and cyber warfare — Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel said the US is still willing to talk, and that "change in North Korea does not need to be regime change."
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"One of the things that keeps me going is the example of Burma (Myanmar)," Russel said. "There is a country that decided to make a change. There is a case in which a military dictatorship reinvented itself, opened itself, and the result of that shift has been the pouring in of significant development and economic support. President Obama has visited Burma twice. Imagine that."
While the circumstances that led to reform in Myanmar are vastly different than the current situation in North Korea, the possibility of "change without regime change" is something that the entire world wants — perhaps even Kim Jong-un and his country's ruling elites. Russel's remarks offered the faintest glimmer of hope it could happen.
Yet Obama himself said recently that he is waiting for the regime to collapse. "The kind of authoritarianism that exists there, you almost can't duplicate anywhere else," Obama said in a YouTube interview on January 22. "It's brutal and it's oppressive, and as a consequence, the country can't really even feed its own people. Over time, you will see a regime like this collapse."
A North Korean propaganda poster. (Photo via Flickr)
In the same breath, however, Obama noted that the Korean Peninsula would be "severely affected" by war, and that "the answer is not going to be a military solution." Obama, who was being interviewed by a trio of viral video stars at the time, suggested that expanding access to the internet is the key to bringing about gradual change in North Korea.
"It is very hard to sustain that kind of brutal authoritarian regime in this modern world," he said. "Information ends up seeping in over time and bringing about change, and that's something that we are constantly looking for ways to accelerate."
Though the messages were certainly mixed, Obama and Russel's remarks weren't at odds. While it would seemingly be in the best interest of all the major political stakeholders — the US, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea — for a less totalitarian version of the North Korean regime to develop in the coming years (and allow economic reforms that provide basics like food and electricity to its people), there are some serious questions to be asked about the implications of such a scenario.
Does the world really want Kim Jong-un — and the same elite bureaucrats and military leaders who prop up his regime as it continues to commit atrocities — to stick around? And is a Myanmar-like reformation possible, let alone likely?
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The State Department press office declined to make Russel available for an interview with VICE News. But several North Korea experts indicated that some sort of gradual reform was within the realm of possibility, and perhaps the only way to avoid the prolonged suffering of 25 million North Koreans that would follow a total regime collapse — or, worse, a nuclear incident that affects the entire planet.
Ken Gause, an expert on North Korean leadership and director of the international affairs group at the CNA Corporation, a non-profit think tank in Arlington, Virginia, said the current US approach of demanding an unconditional end to North Korea's nuclear program as a prerequisite to any talks will lead nowhere fast.
"Strategic patience is not the right strategy," Gause said. "You need to be engaging with North Korea, you have to bite the bullet and agree to near-term concessions and build up trust and be confident that leads to some slow opening up."
Gause and others who spoke with VICE News believe that Kim's grip on power is weaker than it appears. While the 32-year-old leader has survived the succession process and purged many perceived threats, he must still build consensus among the senior leadership and learn to, as Gause said, "manipulate the levers of power to execute [his] will along informal channels." At least in the near term, that means keeping the nuclear program a top priority.
'In Burma, generals took the lead. Kim Jong-un may be called a young general, but he's not really a general.'
"If he would give up the nuclear program or seriously consider giving up on the nuclear program, he would lose the support of the military," Gause said. "That to him is a much more serious situation that negotiating with the international community."
Russel made it explicitly clear that the US is waiting for North Korea to "come to the negotiating table ready to take the concrete steps, take the irreversible steps that will be necessary to freeze, roll back, and eliminate, ultimately, the nuclear program and the missile program that are outlawed under the UN Security Council resolutions."
He also said cancelling or suspending the upcoming joint military exercises with South Korea — which the North has called a "rehearsal for invasion" — was a "nonstarter" in negotiations for halting nuclear development and lifting sanctions.
"North Korea doesn't have the right to bargain, to trade, or to ask for a payoff in return for abiding by international law," Russel said. "That's not how it works."
The North Koreans have been similarly unbending. Recent satellite imagery analyzed by 38 North, a website affiliated with the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, suggests the North is attempting to restart a plutonium production reactor after a five-month shutdown, though there have been no signs that another nuclear test is in the works. Other imagery suggests the country is developing the capability to launch ballistic or cruise missiles from submarines, and photos released last week showed the test firing of a new advanced anti-ship missile.
"The longer we continue to dilly-dally on the North Korea issue and basically kick the can down the road," Gause said, "the North Koreans are going to continue to build up their nuclear and missile capabilities to a point where all of a sudden we have to take them seriously — where we have to deal with them in a position where you have no leverage whatsoever."
North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003. Since then, the country has engaged off and on in the six-party talks with China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and the US. There have been occasional breakthroughs — most notably in February 2007, when North Korea agreed to close its Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for fuel oil — but a failed missile test in 2009 led to an unraveling that included a vow by North Korea to "never again take part in such talks." Their most recent nuclear test was in 2013.
Russia's foreign minister said late last year after meeting with Choe Ryong-hae, a special envoy for the North Korean leader, that the country "is ready for the resumption of the six-party talks without any preconditions." Thus far, nothing has come of that declaration.
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The North Korean leadership has also made overtures to the South, and Kim is scheduled to visit to Moscow in May. (Russian president Vladimir Putin and Kim are reported to frequently correspond.) But the regime's relationship with China has been on the rocks, and, as Russel joked in his remarks last week, they have "not run out of hyperbole or adjectives or adverbs to use in criticizing the United States." North Korea's relationship with the United Nations has been fraught as well, with its diplomats responding indignantly to a UN inquiry into "systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations."
A former senior US official involved in the six-party talks told VICE News that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), as the country is formally known, has shown zero interest in normalizing relations with the rest of the world, instead seeking concessions that will serve only to cement the power of the current rulers.
"The idea that at the same time that the DPRK announces that they are ready to deploy kamikaze air attacks against US forces in Korea, threatens nuke tests, tests anti-ship missiles, and continues on an enriched uranium production spree — most likely intended for proliferation — causes me to think optimism on a regime politically opening up is not warranted," the official said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about the situation. "North Korea wants to have economic opening while maintaining a hard-line, military-first regime politically similar to Iran."
In many ways, the Soviet Union is a more apt comparison for North Korea than Myanmar. Andrei Lankov, a Russian scholar who studied in North Korea, has argued that North Korea's ruling elites will likely keep their jobs no matter what happens in the coming years, citing the fact that many former USSR satellite regimes are now ruled by ex-communist party officials. They are the people who know how to govern, albeit badly.
"They don't have replacements," Lankov told VICE News last year. "It's a problem, especially in repressive regimes. The Eastern European countries that were more repressive are where the former communists are leaders. Because they did not allow any kind of alternatives to appear."
Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta since 1962, but with nowhere near the iron-fistedness of the North Korean regime. There have been a number of large public protests in Myanmar over the years, as well as open elections — though the military has largely refused to cede power. Myanmar has also seen several armed uprisings, including some that are ongoing. That sort of unrest and political dissent is unheard of in North Korea.
As part of reforms that began in 2011, Myanmar released hundreds of political prisoners — including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi — and allowed workers to form labor unions and go on strike. Perhaps more in line with Russel's remarks about North Korea, Myanmar's government has allowed private banks to engage in the foreign exchange market, opened up the country to foreign investment, and generally liberalized its economy, which is now expected to grow 7.8 percent by the end of the current fiscal year.
Growing North Korea's moribund economy is key to Kim maintaining power, and his only real incentive to engage in a dialogue with the West. According to the Bank of Korea, under Kim's watch North Korea's economy grew 0.8 percent in 2011, 1.3 percent in 2012, and 1.1 percent in 2013 — which is dreadful by most standards but a relative success after shrinkage in the preceding years.
There have been some limited reforms under Kim, such as allowing farmers who grow more food to keep slightly more for themselves, but nothing that approaches the level of Myanmar's. Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific security program at Washington, DC think tank the Center for a New American Security, told VICE News it would be impossible for North Korea to "open up in any of those ways without calling into question the legitimacy of the Kim family."
Cronin speculated that Russel and Obama were engaging in "psychological warfare" with North Korea by publicly discussing the unsustainability of the authoritarian regime. "In Burma you had generals take the lead," Cronin said. "Kim Jong-un may be called a young general, but he's not really a general. You may be sowing seeds for factionalization and dissent in the military by using the Myanmar example."
But a scenario in which a powerful general or group of military leaders decides to take matters into their own hands could lead to significant bloodshed and chaos. As Obama noted last month, that's the last thing any of North Korea's neighbors want.
"There would be civil war probably if that would happen," Cronin said. "The country has been so indoctrinated. Even if there were generals or a general who could take on the family and say 'You've gone too far with the nuke tests, our friends hate us, the economy is poor, our people are starving,' there would be a backlash."
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South Korean news agency Yonhap cited a government source last month saying Kim could potentially attend the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in April, where he would have the chance to meet with other Asian leaders. It would be his first overseas trip, and his debut on the diplomatic stage.
Cronin said that despite the overwhelming evidence that North Korea has no intention of ending its nuclear program or closing its prison camps, the US and other nations must keep trying and hold out hope that "change without regime change," as Russel put it, is possible.
"It's the triumph of hope over experience," Cronin said. "We have to keep trying. Why? Because if North Korea does implode, we could have a regional war, and that's a huge price to pay for this feudal regime's inability and unwillingness to join the 21st century."
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton