The US and North Korea have agreed to a deal that would send over 240,000 tons food aid to North Korea in exchange for a moratorium on their nuclear program and missile testing. Yul Kwon speaks with Stanford University's David Straub about the agreement.
To help us understand what this agreement means, we're joined on Skype today by David Straub. Mr. Straub is associate director of the Korean Studies Program at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. Among other diplomatic jobs, he was head of the political section at the US embassy in Seoul and ran the State Department's Korea Desk in Washington, DC. Thanks for joining us today, David. Now first of all, the Al Jazeera report says that this deal was in the works even before Kim Jong-Il died and his son was thrust into power. What can you tell us about that?
David Straub, Stanford University:
Well, that's basically correct. The US and North Korea were negotiating last year, and I think they were close to finalizing this agreement during the month of November, just before Kim Jong-il died. So I think the fact that they've now finalized the agreement suggests that there's a great deal of continuity in North Korea under the new leadership. That's the good news. It would have been bad if they had not been able to finalize this agreement. It would have suggested that there are serious problems with the new leadership.
So Kim Jong-un isn't exactly making a U-turn in terms of policy. But have circumstances in North Korea changed or worsened in the past year such that the regime is more anxious to make a deal now rather than later?
I don't think the situation has seriously deteriorated in North Korea, but it's probable that the new leadership there would like to show other people and the elite, as well as the people as a whole, that they're able to manage external threats and challenges. And also, North Korea is chronically short of food, and so under this deal, they're going to receive 240,000 tons of US food aid over the next year, and that will help alleviate the food shortage.
Secretary of State Clinton sounded very cautious when she announced the deal, characterizing it as a "modest first step," and saying that the US will "watch closely and judge" North Korea by its actions. From your experience in dealing with North Korea, do you feel that this level of caution is warranted?
Yes, indeed. The North Koreans have, in their own mind, good reasons to keep nuclear weapons. And over the years, they've negotiated with US and others about eventually giving up those weapons, but so far, all they've been willing to do is negotiating suspension of various programs, various kinds of talks on the margins that have never led to them completely giving up their nuclear weapons. And in the meantime, they get various concessions and aid. So yes, we need to be realistic and cautious when dealing with the North Koreans.
In contrast to the US, which gave a more tepid and cautious tone, North Korea by contrast, seemed a lot more positive when it released its statement about the moratorium. Was there anything about the statement that surprised you?
In the North Korean statement, they do say that when six-party talks are resumed, that the priority will be put on lifting sanctions on North Korea and providing North Korea with light-water nuclear reactors to provide energy. Now that's not in the American statement. And in fact, if you look at the North Korean statement, it doesn't say that there was agreement with the United States about this point. This is the North Koreans putting their negotiating position on the record.
A moratorium on the nuclear program and missile testing implies that the stoppage is just temporary and that it could resume at some future point in time. What do you think the US could do to try to facilitate a more permanent solution?
Well the moratorium is indeed just a temporary measure. In fact, in the North Korean statement, it says that the moratorium on nuclear tests and missile launches will continue only as long as the talks are continuing. That means, obviously, continuing to North Korea's satisfaction. But what this does do is move us a step closer to being able to hold another round of six-party talks in Beijing on ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. And when we get there, if and when we get there, then it will be up to the six parties to have some very tough negotiations to try to reach a comprehensive agreement that will finally end North Korea's weapons programs.
How do South Korea's upcoming elections play into this week's announcement?
South Korea this year has national assembly elections and a presidential election. And South Koreans have long been very divided by how to deal with North Korea. On the right, the position is typically similar to the United States. That is, North Korea must first move to give up its nuclear weapons, and as it does so, we'll be willing to remove sanctions and provide some assistance. The left in South Korea believes that North Korea will not respond positively to that and that the best way to get North Korea to give up nuclear weapons is to provide it with assurances, aid, and eventually to make North Korea believe that it no longer needs nuclear weapons to be secure. There's a possibility that the left will win the elections in South Korea, and if they do, they're going to pursue that kind of a policy, which usually is called a Sunshine Policy, that's significantly different than the policy of the Obama administration or of previous US administrations for the most part. So by having these talks with the North Koreans and possibly resuming six-party talks, the United States will be in a better position to try to cooperate with its South Korean ally if the progressives do win the elections this year.
Thanks, David. David Straub is a former diplomat and Korea expert. In 2009, he helped Bill Clinton gain the release of two American reporters who'd been captured on the border with China.
While Former President Bill Clinton's hospitalization is currently the focus of much media attention, the health of political leaders has recently been an imperative topic in Nigeria. On Feb 9th, Nigeria's parliament transferred temporary presidential power to VP Goodluck Jonathan, ending almost 2 1/2 months of political uncertainty after President Umaru Yar'Adua refused to cede power during his hospitalization in Saudi Arabia. The image of a nation is inextricably related with the image of its leader, so the situation in Nigeria raises a larger question. When a leader becomes seriously ill, is it best for a government to come clean and share the gravity of the situation, potentially leading to a worried population? Or to remove the President from power and install a leader who is more physically fit? Is it unethical to hide the full extent of the leader's illness, or to even deny that there is any illness at all?
By their very nature, totalitarian regimes seek to limit information considered damaging to the nation, and promote an often quasi-religious cult of personality around their central leaders. It is believed by American sources that Kim Jong-Il, North Korea's leader, is extremely ill. North Korea's government vociferously denies any claims that Kim is sick, and accuses western sources of creating such rumors to undermine the government. Curiously, South Korean government and media officials have also downplayed allegations that Kim Jong-Il is ill, in hopes of maintaining an image of a strong North Korea for their own political purposes.
Totalitarian regimes hardly have a monopoly on lack of disclosure when it comes to the illness of a President. Democracies, including the United States, have downplayed the full extent of a President's illness: FDR's battle with severe polio restricted his ability to walk, although the vast majority of Americans were unaware of his illness. This was partly due to a media that shied away from detailing the disability of a wartime president, an act unthinkable today with an American media fixated on every detail of a president's personal life. The secrecy surrounding FDR's illness was far from unique in American history.
So, how well did Nigeria handle the crisis? On one hand, there was a noticeable lack of information from the government about the state of Yar'Adua's health. There was also a nearly two month period in which the Nigerian political apparatus failed to come to an agreement on how to handle the president's absence. This lack of action led to allegations that politically powerful pro-Yar'Adua factions were stalling to keep him in power.
On a positive note, the fact that the presidential handover was accomplished without a coup d'état is notable for a nation that has seen no less than 8 coups during its 50 years of independence. Unlike Cuba's undemocratic transfer of power from one brother to another, at least Nigeria's transfer was within parliamentary procedure (Max Siollon's blog gives an excellent overview of Nigerian legislative procedure, showing the nation's commitment to its democratic infrastructure and the rule of law. Perhaps most importantly, opposition groups were not prohibited from demanding to know the full extent of their president’s illness, which is a positive sign in any democracy.
For this week's Global Pulse episode, Mr. Clinton Goes to Pyongyang, host Erin Coker asks the question: Did Kim Jong Il win this one? Share your thoughts and read our blog post, "Bill Clinton's Unique Position as U.S. Humanitarian and Diplomat", below!
Did Kim Jong Il win this one? After being held in North Korea for several months, two American journalists finally returned home, thanks to Bill Clinton's deft negotiations with Kim Jong Il. Ultimately, the release of the two young women served the interests of both of these poweful men on the international political stage.
One question that remains is whether it should have been the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, negotiating the return of U.S. citizens. An article on CNN's website commented that, "Former presidents are used as envoys and undertake humanitarian missions all the time," and, "Hillary herself has said she considered her husband a trusted adviser and could even consider using him where appropriate." In the world of international diplomacy and humanitarianism, acheiving the goal is more important than who achieves it.
Bill Clinton might be the perfect candidate to create an opening on the crucial nuclear issue. As a former president and husband of the current Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, he is in a unique position to be a humanitarian ambassador. He also has charm and recognition that allow him to gain access to the most difficult of places.
The video below, from Al Jazeera English, outlines the U.S. media debate sparked by the visit. Not surprisingly, the Obama administration is calling it a humanitarian mission, while former Bush administration officials say Pyonyang is using the reporters as "pawns" to "enhance [the] regime's legitimacy." You decide:
Having to contend with a new U.S. administration and a newly unsympathetic South Korea, Kim Jong Il's North Korea is running hot and cold - offering friendship and denuclearization one day, threatening war and hurling insults the next.
SOURCES: KBS, South Korea; RT, Russia; Press TV, Iran; New Tang Dynasty TV, U.S.; Fox News, U.S.; BBC, U.K.; CCTV, China; North Korea Central Broadcasting, North Korea; The Economist, U.S.; Time Magazine, U.S.
- Global Pulse -
This week Global Pulse examines escalating tensions between North and South Korea, with reports emerging from Seoul that Pyongyang is preparing to test-fire its Taepodong-2 missile, whose 6,700 mile range could reach as far as Alaska. Is this primarily, in the Economist's view, another Kim Jong-Il "hissy fit," designed to steer the gaze of a world in crisis back to North Korea? A Reuters analysis after all points out that North Korea's 2006 attempt to fire a Taepodong-2 missile "fizzled" shortly upon launch. And the Washington Post speculates that Kim Jong Il may be most intent on extracting concessions from the new Obama administration, rather than kicking off a calamitous war.
Does the world have a major conflict to contend with in the Koreas? Or is this simply more bluster from an aging autocrat? Check out this week's episode and let us know your thoughts in the comments section.