KIM JONG-IL’S bold moves to strengthen his grip on the Workers Party, the Army, and the bureaucracy in North Korea mark an important victory for the advocates of economic reform and improved US ties in the Pyongyang regime. The Obama administration should quickly signal its readiness for a resumption of denuclearization negotiations, linked to the normalization of US-North Korean relations.
If Kim Jong-il should suffer another stroke and is incapacitated or dies, North Korea might well face a crippling power struggle between newly emboldened reformers and the old guard. But for the remainder of his rule, he has greatly strengthened his ability to carry out the reform and denuclearization agenda that China has been pushing him to pursue.
Kim Jong-il appointed his favorite son, Kim Jong-un, as the deputy vice chairman of the key National Defense Commission, and his sister and her husband to key Army and Workers Party posts. He also promoted First Deputy Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju to the powerful position of deputy prime minister, a move of special importance to the United States.
Kang was the architect of the 1994 nuclear-freeze agreement with the United States under which North Korea suspended its production of nuclear weapons from 1994 until 2002. He has long been the principal voice for accommodation with Washington in the Pyongyang regime and will now be in a position to untangle bureaucratic obstacles to promoting domestic reform and diplomatic overtures to the United States.
While little is known about the views of Kim Jong-un, who is only 27, there is no doubt about the reformist credentials of Chang Song Taek, Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law, who will be the highest-ranking of four assistant vice chairmen of the Defense Commission as well as chairman of the Administrative Bureau, which runs the Workers Party.
Chang’s attempt to organize a reformist youth league in the Workers Party triggered an Old Guard backlash. He was in disfavor until the 1996 famine gave Kim Jong-il an excuse for winking at the eruption of private farm markets that soon began trading in consumer goods, smuggled from China and South Korea. Chang became the moving force behind the subsequent expansion of both an increasingly overt market economy and of a loosening of economic controls over small enterprises.
His reformist campaign led to the growth of a new middle class of some 50,000 small entrepreneurs and traders. When the Old Guard, trying to go back to a traditional command economy, pushed through a disastrous currency revaluation last year that outraged the new middle class, Chang consolidated his power as the leading critic of the currency revaluation and successfully got it reversed. This was an important turning point that may well have provoked Kim Jong-il’s decision to confront the Old Guard.
Reporting on his recent visit to North Korea, former President Jimmy Carter said he received “strong signals’’ that Pyongyang wants to restart the negotiations on denuclearization that got off to an encouraging start in the final weeks of the Bush administration. But there is no point in restarting negotiations unless Washington recognizes why the talks broke off.
Pyongyang had agreed to disable the Yongbyon plutonium reactor in exchange for a clear commitment in the six-party negotiations led by China: Japan would provide 250,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to complete the pledge of one million tons promised to North Korea in return for the disablement. But the right-wing government then in power in Tokyo had never liked the six-party process and wanted to maintain tensions with Pyongyang to justify its hawkish foreign policy and big defense budgets. So when the United States agreed to remove North Korea from the US terrorist list to break a deadlock in the negotiations, Tokyo seized upon this as an excuse for canceling its fuel oil commitment. The talks broke down, and Pyongyang stopped work on disabling the reactor, which is where matters stand now.
To get talks restarted, the United States should encourage the new Democratic Party government in Tokyo to fulfill the fuel oil commitment, or, failing that, to work with the other parties to the six-party process to do so. Once this issue is resolved, the US goal in the negotiations should be to cap the North Korean arsenal at the existing level of five nuclear weapons and to link progress toward complete denuclearization with steps toward the full normalization of US economic and political diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.
The Bush administration’s negotiating demand was “Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Denuclearization,’’ dubbed “CVID.’’ To which the North now counters with “Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Normalization’’ (CVIN).
North Korea is still likely to insist on CVIN — but the new balance of forces in Pyongyang might well foreshadow a newly flexible response on what this means — when, and if, negotiations resume.
Selig S. Harrison is author of “Korean Endgame,’’ and director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy.
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