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Forum Summary: The Shadow of North Korean Nuclear Policy and the Realistic Problems of North Korean Elites

Author: Jee Hyung Lee 

Date: December 2017 – February 2018 

In December of 2017, Meridian 180 held a forum for insights on the North Korean nuclear crisis from an unconventional viewpoint, specifically the viewpoint of the North Korean elite. Professor Seok-hyang Kim of Ewha Womans University posed this hypothetical: Imagine yourself as a member of Kim Jong-Un’s inner circle, born and raised to rare privilege and rank in North Korea. How would you advise Kim when the wrong word could cost you your life of comfort if not life itself, but continuing on the present course be just as disastrous? 

Inaction and evasion

A number of forum participants thought inaction was just about the only possible choice. Professor Sung-In Jun (Hongik University) brought up the option of feigning illness and checking into a hospital, which would be tempting but lead to ruin if Kim found it out. Professor Amy Levine (Changwon National University) wondered if drug addiction might be one way the elites were escaping this intolerable reality and/or making it more tolerable.  Professor Levine drew several parallels between elites in at least the US and North Korea. Hiroyuki Hoshiro (University of Tokyo Institute of Social Science) also said he would give no advice and do nothing in that situation for the sake of his and his family’s safety.   

Seok-hyang Kim initially agreed that inaction was the safest course of action, but she rethought her position in a few days and pointed out that even elites who had done nothing could still be removed from their positions and executed. Even inaction does not guarantee safety in the cutthroat politics of North Korea. 

Reform and Risks

Amy Levine further brought up the possibility of our beleaguered member of the North Korean elite studying cases of internal rebellion to make contingency plans and cultivating allies under the guise of stopping such defiance. In response to Levine’s query Seok-hyang Kim gave information on rebellions against the current regime, such as the attempted coup of August 1956 and the planned march on Pyeongyang by the Sixth Army in 1995-1996. Both attempts failed and the leaders were purged, but the fact remains that the regime is not invulnerable to internal resistance. There are also smaller signs of resistance, such as anti-regime graffiti on the statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, or university students circulating critical pamphlets. Even these small defiances are all ruthlessly quelled, of course, but the simmering discontent is there. 

Based on this information, Jee Hyung Lee (Ewha Womans University) posited that our luckless advisor could leverage the threat of internal dissent by advising Kim Jong-Un that the current course could weaken the regime and foment internal enemies. He, or more rarely she, should make it clear that they could not even imagine rebellion, of course—our advisor’s only concern is to uphold the regime. Meanwhile, outside interests such as the United States and China could support these anti-regime groups without pushing too far, lest they invite another severe crackdown. Seok-hyang Kim agreed that this could be a useful course of action, and expressed her heartfelt wish that the endless threats and violations against North Koreans could be stopped. Professor Grace Kuo (National Cheng Kung University) quoted the Murakami Ryu novel Old Terrorists in arguing that the inaction of the elite could itself increase the dysfunction of the state and, correspondingly, the restlessness of the populace. 

Assuming that Kim Jong-Un could be persuaded that North Korea’s current course is unsustainable and that change is needed for the regime’s survival, Amy Levine wondered what kind of reforms could win domestic and international support. On the domestic front, would open markets work? A stronger social safety net? Internationally, would giving access to international weapons inspectors prove a popular idea? An eco-peace park in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea? Seok-hyang Kim thought human rights education would have far-reaching effects, though it would not be easy to change minds.  

Professor Brendan Howe (Ewha Womans University) started from a rationalist approach to international relations, positing Kim Jong-Un, Donald Trump and others as rational actors who engage in goal-seeking behavior. National leaders like Kim and Trump would have multiple sets of preferences including national, institutional, and personal. Any North Korean advising Kim would have to determine which preference hierarchy dominates, and would have to suggest better ways than nuclear escalation, e.g. economic development, to achieve that preference. Friendly exchanges such as sports matches could also increase exposure to the outside world and smooth relations over. 

Professor Annelise Riles (Cornell University) suggested that our elite reframe the situation as one where Kim Jong-Un’s show of force has brought him victory, ensuring the security of the nation and the regime. With the United States weakened and Trump little more than a joke, Kim could present a powerful and reasonable alternative on the international stage and emerge as a true leader for global peace, nuclear non-proliferation, and anti-imperialism. Surely the Nobel Peace Prize was assured if he took this course of action. Seok-hyang Kim thought that perhaps Kim Jong-Un’s fondest desire was to be the kind of legitimate leader who could sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and be recognized for it. 

Amy Levine followed up on this idea to consider its ramifications. How could Kim Jong-Un and others be convinced that the future of the regime was secure? How would the international community be able to trust North Korea? Would the North Korean elite need to sacrifice some of their benefits and lifestyle, and would this be realistic?  

Relating to these proposed changes in international relations, Grace Kuo pointed out that the North Korean inner circle still needed to negotiate with the outside world in order to bring about these changes and wondered whether they could do so without compromising their appearance of absolute loyalty, which is paramount for their standing and even survival. She also wondered if Kim Jong-Un was even interested in being judged by the same metric as Western liberal democracies, whether status symbols such as the Nobel Peace Prize would mean anything to him. Seok-hyang Kim acknowledged these were both serious problems, and that the difficulties of any solution were very real. 

Patience, Persistence, and Peril  

Jonas Grimheden (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights) remained optimistic, however, and believed that engagement would still work in the long run. He advocated that the United States and other nations unilaterally lower their guards for a revival of the sunshine policy, with persistence being key. Seok-hyang Kim agreed, but also pointed out the difficulty of long-term engagement when the leadership of many of the countries dealing with North Korea, though not North Korea itself, were up for election every 4 or 5 years and were under pressure to produce visible results within that short time frame.  

Under these circumstances, Jonas Grimheden suggested a policy of “active waiting” for some tipping point into irreversible change, which would include as much engagement and interaction as possible without propping up the regime but perhaps strategically enhancing the leader’s self-confidence. (Amy Levine drew parallels to other strategies, such as Obama’s “strategic patience” and “making jam,” a concept proposed by Iris Jean-Klein in relation to Palestinians during the Second Intifada.) Our elite advisor could advise Kim Jong-Un that such engagement had many benefits in increasing his internal and external credibility.  

Seok-hyang Kim agreed this was the best course of action, though difficult for democratic leaders who had to engage in two-tiered thinking, considering both international relations and the short-term political impact on the next election cycle. This could make it difficult for them to shift from waiting to intervention when the moment of change did come. Under these circumstances, the North Korean elite are effectively left with no outside help and may have to prioritize their and their families’ safety. 


Seok-hyang Kim concluded the forum with a summary of the participants’ suggestions, which could be grouped into, first, inaction, which was the most immediately tempting but might not ensure our advisor’s safety in the long run; second, advising reform using the possibility of internal unrest as leverage, a course of action that had its own risks but opens up many possibilities; and third, advising engagement over the long term with the tacit support of North Korea’s neighbors who would engage with the reclusive regime while waiting for some tipping point of change. Professor Kim hoped that these solutions could help serve as a way to change the North Korean elites’ and Kim Jong-Un’s way of thinking, and perhaps to extract themselves from the dilemma of the current crisis.