Korean Denuclearisation and the Possibility of North Korean Political Reform

There aren’t two competing ideas of denuclearisation, probably not even one conception, and could North Korea reform politically?

The Kim-Trump Summit Is a go, and what will become of it is highly uncertain. Indeed, it is possible that the summit will mostly serve as a useful photo-op for both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, at best, or, at worst, a precursor setting the stage for hawks like John Bolton to direct affairs in more dangerous directions. At summit eve I take leave to make two points.

The first point is concerned with the popular idea that there are two competing conceptions of denuclearisation at play between Pyongyang and Washington, and that real diplomatic progress will be made when those differences, somehow, narrow. The second is a point about political, rather than economic, reform in North Korea which you could argue has occurred and provides an opening, however fraught, for future progress toward ending the Kim dynasty.

Both points are not shared with the same confidence, as the second is recognised to be quite speculative. Let me begin with the first.

A recent New York Times article well encapsulated the standard view on denuclearisation. There are two competing ideas, we are informed, where North Korea’s involves reciprocal step-by-step actions from both sides in the Korean peninsula and its vicinity eventually leading to disarmament whereas that of the United States consists of complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament (CVID) before Washington takes significant substantive measures to end what Pyongyang likes to call its “hostile policy.” A step-by-step process is rejected in favour of North Korean front loading.

The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has just reaffirmed CVID as the preferred US position.

This notion of two competing concepts of denuclearisation is misleading. It is misleading, firstly, because until quite recently what we had was North Korea’s conception of denuclearisation, as per above, and Donald Trump thinking that North Korea’s position was CVID and, what’s more, that it was his firm statesmanship that had Pyongyang toe the CVID line. When he realised that wasn’t the case, he walked from the summit. That’s not two competing conceptions of denuclearisation leading to a diplomatic kerfuffle, that’s one clearly articulated conception and a President under some weird warped illusion about North Korea’s conception and his own diplomatic brilliance.

But that isn’t necessarily the point I want to make. The thing is, CVID is not a conception of denuclearisation at all. It is, and always has been, about preventing denuclearisation. CVID in the Korean context was an invention of the bellicose neoconservatives of the Bush administration (and paleoconservatives; I never liked the obsession with the necons notion in much analysis from the time but I’m leaving that aside here).

Indeed the “D” doesn’t stand for denuclearisation it rather stands for dismantlement. The CVID conception was developed by the neocons to undermine the Agreed Framework and ever since then it has been expressly used to undermine diplomatic progress. The first known instance of this was when Jim Kelly, head of East Asian affairs under Colin Powell at the State Department, during Bush’s first term was instructed, by the neocons of Team Bush, to inform the North Koreans that the US rejects a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear activities in favour of “verifiable and irreversible dismantlement.”

Vice President Richard Cheney used CVID to scuttle a Chinese diplomatic initiative thereafter. The neocons instantly undermined the 2005, i.e. second term Bush, six party talks September Declaration, where North Korea agreed to denuclearisation, by compelling the US lead negotiator, Christopher Hill, to make a unilateral statement interpreting denuclearisation to be, you guessed it, CVID. John Bolton, President Trump’s current national security adviser, was front and centre in the use of CVID to undermine denuclearisation throughout the Bush era.

CVID was not, and is not, concerned with denuclearisation. It is an artifice that was used by the neocons to scuttle denuclearisation in favour of a policy of regime change through progressive and graduated external pressure.

Therefore, there cannot be two competing conceptions of denuclearisation at play because CVID is not about denuclearisation, in fact its very opposite if by denuclearisation we refer to a peaceful process. One could go even further and argue that there isn’t really one conception of denuclearisation let alone two.

North Korea does have a formal policy of denuclearisation but one has good grounds for being sceptical about it, as I have written of here. Most nuclear weapon states are formally committed to nuclear disarmament, including the United States via the NPT, but these formal policies obscure a commitment to indefinite nuclear deterrence. Even Obama when he made the Prague Speech on nuclear abolition did so firmly committed to indefinite nuclear deterrence. That speech was more about reviving the Rev Con process of the NPT regime and securing US preferences at the NPT Rev Con that was looming at the time. India even had the chutzpah to declare its commitment to nuclear disarmament when conducting its 1998 nuclear weapon tests. North Korea’s policy can easily be read in a similar vein, and the blowing up of its nuclear test tunnels under Mt Mantap with mere 5kg of explosives rigged to the main tunnels in places preceding entry to outposts of the main tunnel test demonstrates that Pyongyang has left its options well and truly open.

So, rather than having two competing conceptions of denuclearisation we may very well have zero conceptions of denuclearisation. In which case, what’s the deal with the summit? For North Korea the summit in itself is a bonus, Pyongyang has always wanted a high level summit, and furthermore Kim Jong-un needs to show his denuclearisation bona fides to keep his rapprochement with Seoul and Beijing on track. For Donald Trump the summit keeps him at the centre of attention, which is where he mentally needs to be, and is a public relations bonanza that diverts US voters from the harm he is doing US society which is important as 2008 is a congressional election year. The US foreign policy establishment would also be concerned about being locked out of the diplomatic process taking shape in Northeast Asia over the Korean peninsula.

I have always been in favour of talks to defuse the North Korean nuclear crisis, but those talks need to be real talks not bullshit talks.

Okay, what of the second point? Analysts, rightly, have pointed to signs of economic reform in North Korea especially market type reforms. These are low scale and cautious in nature, but they are very real. However, political reform is seen as being barely, if at all, existent. However, we might seek to revise this assessment.

One of the effects of the Korean War is that it led to the Kim Il-sungisation of the Korean Workers Party and North Korean society more broadly. The supreme leader came before all else, and one effect of personality cults, if not their very design, in societies claimed to be socialist, but in reality are anything but, is to erode the role of the party in the political system. During the Stalin era the Communist Party rarely held congresses, the Central Committee also did not meet frequently and when it did meet was a mere rubber stamp, and Politburo members themselves were just staff officers under the command of the generalissimo. Stalin was everything, the party barely anything. In this sense the Stalinists really were an “antiparty group.” Something similar happened in China during the Cultural Revolution unleashed by Mao. The Cultural Revolution was as much an assault *on* the Communist Party as it was an assault *by* the Communist Party.

After the death of Stalin the Communist Party reasserted itself, perhaps best encapsulated in the execution of Beria one of history’s more odious scum. In China the trial of the Gang of Four after the death of Mao symbolised the return of the Party to dominance. That history suggests an hypothesis, namely that political reform will come to North Korea first through a reassertion of the Korean Workers Party against the Kim dynasty, that is to a state of affairs more akin to the days prior to its Kim Il-sungisation before the war.

In 2016 the Korean Workers Party had its first congress in 35 years. Under Kim Jong-un the Party has become more important, and at the last plenum of the Central Committee, the one where our focus was almost exclusively on nuclear affairs, the Party was given and took the leading role in implementing the economic development aspects of the Byungjin Line policy. One could say that this is a type of political reform. Our own ideological fetters blind us to it, it might perhaps be said.

Political reform, then, in North Korea could well come when the Party reasserts itself and becomes the supreme political actor in North Korean society and that includes standing over and above the Kim dynasty. In the North Korean context that would be a radical reform. How that might come about I cannot say, perhaps it is a fanciful idea drawn by one that is overly obsessed with the North Korean nuclear standoff, but perhaps a growing and confident scientific and technical intelligentsia might be one source of this. Another might be the formal end of the state of war in Korea.

Take, say, Yugoslavia. Political developments in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in part, revolved around a struggle between the old guard, represented by Tito and the Partisan generation, and the new guard largely comprised of a more urbane technical intelligentsia. The new guard did not seek to challenge Tito’s formal position, but they felt he should become a distant final arbiter. The new guard, confident of their knowledge and understanding, felt that the old guard needed to move aside. That battle they well and truly lost, with unfortunate consequences for Yugoslavia.

The Byungjin policy is about elevating science and technology to a much higher status in North Korean society. The technical intelligentsia it would create, would it be successful, might also constitute a new guard seeking to relegate the Kim family to a ceremonial final arbiter role on familiar “back off man I’m a scientist” lines.

If it was the war that led to the Kim Il-sungisation of the Party then its formal end and the consequent easing of tensions could lead to a reassertion of the Party. That would be quite the irony. Perhaps both processes working in tandem might see the Party try assert its leading role in society.

This is of course very speculative, and is consciously written as such. However, something akin to a reassertion of the party has been a feature of “socialist” societies caught in the grips of a personality cult. There’s no a priori reason the same couldn’t apply to North Korea should similar underlying conditions prevail.

Anyway. We are at summit eve. Let us see what will go down in Singapore.