The Yongbyon nuclear site before demolition of a cooling tower on June 27, 2008. (Photo: Newsweek/Kyodo/Reuters.)
On June 30, US President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un agreed that the US and North Korea would soon resume working-level negotiations over the North’s nuclear program. The ultimate outcome of these discussions remains to be seen, but it seems clear that a key component of any future arrangement will be dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear facility. In March, South Korea’s Unification Minister, Kim Yeon-chul, advocated reintroducing a program based on the US experience with Russia and other countries with Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons through steady exchanges of economic incentives. It is an open question whether such an effort goes beyond dismantlement to include conversion of resources at the Yongbyon nuclear facility to assist in the DPRK’s economic development. For example, one possibility would be the establishment of programs to redirect weapons scientists to civilian programs, as was done in Russia, Ukraine, Iraq and elsewhere. More ambitious schemes raised by the North Koreans would seek to convert the Yongbyon facility into a peaceful scientific research center. Regardless of the approach taken—whether there is a single-minded focus on dismantlement or consideration of more ambitious plans for economic revitalization—remediation will be an essential first step.
Phases in the Environmental Remediation Process
Environmental remediation includes minimizing contamination and removing radioactive, chemical and physical hazards to levels that would permit alternative peacetime activities. At Yongbyon, it must include decommissioning the radiochemistry building, uranium centrifuge cascades and 5 MWe reactor. Regardless of the exact approach, a remediation strategy should reflect a clear North Korean vision of a desired end state and an understanding of the challenges to realizing that outcome and how to overcome them. The scope of the effort can be determined only after concluding a complete characterization of the site. This undertaking will require time, money and multi-national cooperation to address hazards, safety precautions, resource requirements, and radioactive waste processes and storage. This cooperation will help improve trust among the involved countries and provide a foundation for further nuclear dismantlement and economic growth. Characterization and remediation of Yongbyon should be conducted in six distinct phases of work:
Figure: Ronald K. Chesser.
Phase I—Science Diplomacy and International Team Building
The first phase would involve a preliminary visit of principal investigators to Yongbyon to assess logistical support, establish key DPRK contacts that will facilitate the assessments, determine access needs and evaluate local laboratory capabilities and protocols. This phase would enable face-to-face discussions between the US and DPRK administrators and scientists responsible for overseeing the cooperative efforts for site and facility characterization. It is also anticipated that field assistants and analysts from the DPRK would be assigned to help conduct preliminary fieldwork. The US team would seek to make contacts at scientific and technical institutes in North Korea to buttress collaboration and training.
A broad scoping survey would be required to supplement a comprehensive site characterization. The results should be sufficient to provide a general understanding of potential hazards at the prospective work sites as well as to assist the assessment team and DPRK collaborators to: 1) determine the radiation dose environment and potential hazards and safety concerns in which the characterizations will take place; 2) estimate the geographic and numerical scope of the required sampling regime; 3) determine the number of assistants required for fieldwork and level of training needed for collaborative personnel; 4) assess on-site laboratory capabilities and response times; 5) evaluate the skill levels and work ethics of North Korean field assistants and laboratory personnel; 6) provide insights for the feasibility of ultimate site objectives, including unrestricted use, restricted use and mixed use; and, importantly, 7) ensure that field teams have access to the sites required for a complete environmental characterization.
Subsequent to the scoping survey and analyses, the principal investigators from the US and DPRK would formulate work plans, timetables and logistical support requirements for the site characterization at Yongbyon.
Phase II—International Team Coordination and Training
In the second phase, an international team of experts would be assembled to convene a workshop focused on detailing work plans for all teams. The specific partners would be determined after the scoping survey data are complete and agreements have been reached on the scope of work. After the labs have been identified, the international team would meet to discuss lab and personnel responsibilities as well as equipment needs and financial arrangements. If DPRK personnel are unable to travel outside North Korea, the team meetings would be held at or near Yongbyon. Representatives from each cooperating laboratory, as well as field survey/sampling teams, database personnel and regulators, would also attend. Personnel training would be provided to ensure knowledge of safety and emergency procedures. Training would take place in the classroom and in live exercises with trainees carrying out their assigned responsibilities under the supervision of the organizers. Training would also include assessment of environmental samples and statistical evaluations of standardized tests to ensure that the sampling meet established criteria.
Phase III—Site & Facility Characterization Work
Field/facility sampling would be the most demanding and labor-intensive part of site characterization. The size and complexity of Yongbyon dictate that multiple teams will be required to complete this process in a reasonable period. Also, field sampling would require extensive and carefully-managed recordkeeping to ensure that quality assurance is maintained, and databases are accurate.
Proposed field survey teams comprised of both North Korean and international personnel would also need to review work plans and work would not begin until safety concerns of the regulators have been satisfactorily addressed. Data collected during field sampling, including physical samples of soil cores, water, vegetation, swabs from scrap/equipment and various materials, would be transferred to database personnel. Laboratory teams would then perform analyses of these samples and the results would be cross-checked with the same samples collected by cooperating US/Russian/European labs to determine whether there are potential problems in techniques or equipment calibrations and detector readings at the North Korean laboratories. Engineering safety assessments of designated buildings would be conducted on a room-to-room basis using prescribed work plans. Remedial actions would be taken until each room has met prescribed safety protocols.
Phase IV—Analysis, Documentation and Reporting
The objectives of the fourth phase are to conduct complete analyses of all physical samples, make recommendations for equipment purchases and procedures to bring the DPRK laboratories into compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)-compliant labs, write a collaborative report detailing environmental contamination and hazards at Yongbyon, and discuss the subsequent stage in characterizations needed to dismantle and/or disable specific nuclear facilities. Recommendations for several critical decisions would be made at this time, including:
Zones that may qualify as unrestricted use, limited activity, or restricted activity, including signage and fenced areas to restrict activities.
Priority criteria for site cleanup/remediation to meet future use objectives.
Laboratory and engineering needs to meet remediation and dismantlement needs.
Formulation of plans to dismantle the selected building and sort the resulting waste stream to determine zones and travel paths that will serve as waste storage areas.
Personnel requirements for initiating remediation and dismantlement and expanding collaboration and training.
Completion of this phase will permit assessment of the engineering requirements for dismantlement of buildings and more complex post-dismantlement characterizations in accordance with international standards.
Phase V—Staged Characterization during Facility Dismantlement
Characterization does not end after the environmental report is submitted to the regulatory body. Prior phases of characterization can only report contamination evident from surface inspections; the active dismantlement of structures may also expose previously undetected contaminated materials. Thus, aerial releases must also be monitored for on-site and off-site exposures. The extent of the effort required for such staged characterization will depend on historical uses of a facility. Reprocessing and chemical facilities will require much greater scrutiny than administrative offices; nevertheless, staged characterization will require all field and laboratory resources utilized in the prior phases of work. For the high-priority facilities at Yongbyon, this will represent the most challenging, time-consuming and hazardous phase of characterization.
The final phase of characterization would produce a report to regulators of post-dismantlement levels of contamination across the entire site. Characterization procedures would be similar to Phase III except for the absence of targeted structures. Regulators would use the final report to either release the site or require more extensive remediation. Data from the post-dismantlement characterization will be used to determine future site-use restrictions for the relevant facility.
Developing a Master Plan
A comprehensive master plan should address the safety and work plans required to remediate the buildings and surroundings to conditions required for the desired environmental outcome. It may seem, therefore, that development of a master plan for the Yongbyon site should precede decisions on initial projects. There are many unknown conditions that must be better understood, however, before decisions on future use can be made. The process of completing the initial project should demonstrate the skill sets of workers, the availability of materials, the ease of conforming to local regulatory constraints and the ability to recruit outside expertise to meet reconstruction goals. Moreover, a full environmental characterization may show that portions of the Yongbyon site are not suitable or cost effective for remediation to the standards required. Indeed, widespread contamination combined with the remoteness of the site may make Yongbyon unsuitable to use as an economic revitalization zone. Site assessments will provide useful information for formulating the scope of future site-use plans and the economic potential of businesses or industrial programs.
Once there is assurance that the environmental conditions can be met it will be necessary to establish potential cost sharing and international investments needed for construction, initial operations and future growth/expansion of the proposed programs. Lifting of United Nations sanctions would be required to realize the full potential for significant growth of private enterprises and industries in North Korea. Future plans for Yongbyon must be based on sound scientific information as well as careful consideration of political will.
Building Sustainable Programs
Enthusiasm for continued cooperative work will be sustainable if it produces positive, visible results. The Yongbyon facility is a highly visible North Korean success story. Because it is a symbol of national pride and achievement, decommissioning and abandoning this site may be an unpalatable prospect for the DPRK. Quickly repurposing a portion of the site to serve private, public, political or military sectors may help to mitigate North Korean resistance by providing services not available, or in short supply, in the DPRK and employing many retrained personnel from the Yongbyon region. Ideally, the initial project would remodel buildings on the site after they have been remediated to unrestricted use standards. Typically, the high-priority projects would contain the highest amount of contamination and/or present the greatest challenge for dismantlement. Remediation of other buildings, which would require more time and resources, would not be a top priority for the site.
Changing the operational culture and exposing North Korean workers to international methods may be more important than technical training, especially if the trainees are suspicious of the motives of their trainers. Therefore, it is important to enact programs that expose North Korean scientists and administrators to international counterparts from respectable agencies. They need to see that the mandated rules, regulations and standards are not arbitrary or onerous, but rather internationally accepted standards that are integral to a well-functioning global marketplace. Recent workshops sponsored by the IAEA on nuclear dismantlement and remediation methods were attended by participants from over 40 countries. Inclusion of North Korean scientists and administrators would demonstrate that the principles and best practices enjoy international consensus.
Dismantlement of large nuclear facilities requires extensive preparation and coordination of effort from a diverse set of organizations. If it is integrated with site characterization, it would be practical to organize the dismantlement process into manageable phases; select “easy” dismantlement projects for practice before attempting to dismantle complex, high-risk facilities; and reduce site characterization time and effort by tailoring it to the practical needs of the dismantlement group. Chronologically, nuclear facility site characterization would begin before physical dismantlement of buildings, reactors and fixed equipment. But at the same time, the characterization strategy must be consistent with the objective of dismantlement. This means that the groundwork for dismantlement should be laid concomitant with site characterization. Moreover, dismantlement of selected objects can begin while site characterization activities are continuing in other areas of the nuclear site.
Environmental remediation of Yongbyon is an ideal program for cooperative threat reduction that would serve the mutual interests of the United States and North Korea. It will require mutual trust and sustained international technical cooperation to eliminate the DPRK’s fissile material production capabilities, increase North Korean economic growth and redirect former weapons scientists to peaceful civilian purposes compliant with international standards.
Kim Jong Un and Trump at Panmunjom. (Photo: Rodong Sinmun)
The discussion surrounding the surprise meeting at the DMZ between US President Donald Trump and DPRK State Affairs Commission Chairman Kim Jong Un has shown a remarkable ignorance of the fact that North Korea is by no means desperate to strike a deal with the Americans. Pyongyang would certainly appreciate the lifting of sanctions, a peace treaty, investment and trade, but it has other options, too. The emerging bipolar world dominated by the US and China opens new maneuvering space for North Korea. China is now again inclined to support its neighbor economically and politically. Washington needs to understand this to avoid overplaying what is still a strong hand. The arrest of Australian student Alek Sigley implies a renewed readiness of some circles in North Korea to challenge the West, and marks an end to the relatively open access that was granted to Western visitors as long as they followed a few simple rules. This change can only be rooted in a heightened confidence that China, and perhaps also to a lesser degree Russia, will have North Korea’s back. Although it is not clear whether President Trump understands it, he has for the second time slowed down this process and brought the US back into the game on the Korean Peninsula. For how long, however, remains to be seen.
Misinterpreting North Korea’s situation is dangerous. If talks are based on the assumption that Pyongyang needs a deal, and that it believes it can only reach one with Trump, then it would be tempting to believe that concessions can be extracted from the North Koreans before the 2020 US presidential election. If he is not reelected, and that is a big “if,” the window of opportunity will have closed. That much is true: the recent remarks by Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden imply that a new US administration would return to the previous policies of “dismantle first, then we talk,” (also known as complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, or CVID), and “let’s do nothing and hope the problem will solve itself” (strategic patience).
But this judgment is based on the expectation that North Korea, like any other country in the world, will be technically unable to achieve high economic growth if the US does not want that. The logic behind this is, more or less, that no company or country of any significant size would dare violate a US or US-backed embargo on trade, financial transactions, and technology transfer. This argument, however, might not hold true for that much longer in a changing geopolitical landscape. North Korea could well become a pioneer in this regard. From its founding until around 1990, it had already been able to benefit greatly from a bipolar world order. Cold War 2.0 is coming between the US and China. For Europe, with its dependency on global supply chains and free trade, this will be catastrophic. But North Korea might once again be able to benefit from such a situation, like it did under Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who was, as even his opponents agree, a master in extracting concessions from economically and militarily superior partners.
This is not hypothetical. If South Korean figures are correct, Pyongyang has accumulated a trade deficit of a remarkable 26.6 billion US dollars since 1990, according to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Corporation’s (KOTRA) annual trade reports. That is ten times the country’s export volume of the fairly successful year 2015. North Korea has been, even under the complicated conditions of the last three decades of a unipolar world order, able to find someone who was willing to pay its bills. Imagine what would happen if support for North Korea, no matter what a difficult ally it might be, becomes a matter of principle again for a great power, as was the case before the Soviet Union imploded.
The pink elephant in the room is, of course, China. Under Xi Jinping, Beijing is giving up its long-standing “hide your strength, bide your time” policy. If there is only a grain of truth in realist international relations theory, then a massive clash of interests with the US is inevitable. In fact, it is happening already. The cases of the trade war and of Huawei in the economic field, of the South China Sea in foreign policy, and of Hong Kong in domestic policy are exemplary. China is willing to openly confront and challenge the West and its values.
The effects of US policy need to be seen against this background. China is trying to push the United States out of East Asia, which it regards as its backyard. The Korean Peninsula could become the first manifest example of that strategic ambition, and a test case for how Washington and the rest of the world will react. For the second time after 2018, Trump has brought the US back into the game. His unconventional and seemingly erratic approach has for now saved China from having to openly act against the hitherto tough and uncompromising US and United Nations line on North Korea, and it saved the US from having to respond to such an open challenge. The contrast could not be bigger between the behavior of US Vice President Mike Pence during the Pyeongchang Olympics, when he refused to even look at Kim Jong Un’s sister and remained seated ostentatiously when the two Korean teams marched in, and President Trump’s forthcoming and friendly way of dealing with Kim Jong Un.
The handshake at the DMZ on June 30, 2019 was only arranged a day or so before it happened. It came less than two weeks after the first official state visit in 14 years by a Chinese leader to North Korea, and only a few days after the arrest of a Westerner who had been tweeting about everyday stuff in North Korea. At that time, four months after the failed Hanoi Summit, Pyongyang was running out of patience. The political cost of having Western visitors in the country was, correctly, calculated to be higher than the minuscule economic benefit they created. Even if each of the roughly 5,000 Western tourists who visit North Korea annually spends 2,000 US dollars per visit on average (usually it is less), that amounts to no more than 10 million US dollars of revenue in exchange for letting in, from North Korea’s perspective, 5,000 potential spies and journalists every year. That is now obviously deemed too little by North Korea’s decision makers, especially with the expectation of exploding numbers of Chinese tourists after the return to a cooperative relationship. North Korea is moving away from the West and towards China, where it has also recently become complicated and dangerous to conduct research without being accused of espionage, as shown, for example, in the cases of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.
For the time being, this shift has been slowed down by the DMZ handshake. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that anything that the West would consider field research will now likely be seen by the North Korean authorities as espionage, and treated accordingly. The speed and relative ease of the release of Australian Kim Il Sung University student Alek Sigley, who had been detained in Pyongyang on June 25, suggests a still strong interest of North Korea in a positive relationship with the West and in particular the US. At this point, the last thing North Korea needed was another Otto Warmbier case that would not match the smiling faces at Panmunjom.
Kim Jong Un’s attempt at maintaining a close relationship with both superpowers is a reasonable approach. Ever since the days of his grandfather, North Korea disliked depending too much on only one side. But this is a strategic line, not a sign of desperation. Heavy dependency on China is clearly not preferred by anyone in North Korea, but it is not a disaster. If the US overestimates its own value for North Korea, and overplays its hand, then China is available as a backup option or a “new way,” as Kim Jong Un hinted in his 2019 New Year’s speech.
Recent reports suggest that Kim Myong Gil is the DPRK’s new special envoy to US-DPRK working-level talks and the future counterpart to the US Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun. From 2015 to 2019, Kim served as the DPRK Ambassador to Vietnam. He has worked as a foreign service professional for almost 40 years and has been involved in US-DPRK relations for the last 20 years including as a participant in the Agreed Framework negotiations in the 1990s and the Six-Party Talks in the mid-2000s.
Kim Myong Gil (right) with Kim Jong Un (left) (Photo: KCNA/Rodong Sinmun, February 27, 2019).
Kim Myong Gil was born March 14, 1959 in Manpo, Chagang (Jagang) Province. He attended Kim Il Sung University and graduated around 1981.
Kim’s career in the North Korean diplomatic service began in 1982 as an entry-level staff member in the Foreign Ministry. In 1985, he was assigned to the DPRK Embassy in Jamaica as a foreign service staff member. In 1990, he was called back to Pyongyang and assigned to the Foreign Ministry’s American Affairs Bureau; in that position, he participated in Agreed Framework negotiations during the early to mid-1990s.
In 1996, Kim was elevated to the position of adviser to the DPRK’s UN Mission in New York. He participated in US-DPRK missile negotiations in Kuala Lumpur in July 2000 and was a member of the late Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok’s delegation when Jo visited Washington in October 2000. In 2002, Kim became a deputy director-general in the American Affairs Bureau.
Photo: KCNA/Rodong Sinmun, February 27, 2019.
In October 2006, Kim Myong Gil was appointed as a representative to the UN Mission in New York, where he served until 2009. In that position, he attended the second session of the 5th round of the Six-Party Talks in Beijing in December 2006 and, as the head DPRK representative, participated in a meeting of the Economy and Energy Cooperation Working Group in 2007.
From 2010 to 2015, Kim served in a senior-level position in the Foreign Ministry with a rank equivalent to director-general. In August 2015, he was appointed DPRK Ambassador to Vietnam. However, in early April 2019, not long after the US-DPRK summit in Hanoi, Kim was recalled to Pyongyang and is believed to be the next special envoy to US-DPRK working-level talks, replacing Kim Hyok Chol. Apparently, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui had requested this move months before, wanting to bring Kim Myong Gil’s real expertise and experience to the negotiations.
Kim is a veteran of US-DPRK talks during the most constructive years and was stationed at the UN Mission in New York when it was an active, front-line assignment. However, he saw things fall apart as well. For instance, Kim was at the table for the disastrous talks with US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly in Pyongyang in October 2002.
Members of Congress and the White House rely on surveys to gauge public sentiment on a wide range of policy options. So, if you only read the headlines covering the latest polling by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and YouGov, you may have come away with one disturbing insight: over a third of respondents in a representative sample of 3,000 would “approve” a US preventive strike against North Korea—after the president were to order one—across scenarios that vary by success rate, risk, retaliation and estimated fatalities.
The far more reassuring takeaway, of course, and one that our leaders should remember, is that the majority of respondents would first and foremost “prefer” that the US not launch a preventive war. When presented with a scenario that showed a preventive strike would only have a 50 percent expected chance of success, preference for such action fell to 23 percent. Unfortunately, these distinctions are obscured by such loaded conclusions as “a third of Americans think it would be a great idea to nuke Pyongyang.” Sensational headlines like “Americans are terrifyingly supportive of nuking civilians in North Korea,” misrepresent not only this survey’s findings, but also the wide differences across existing polling on the use of military action against the DPRK.
As the survey authors acknowledge, there are unavoidable limitations to polling, where the subtlest variations in language and context can produce vastly different responses. In the case of North Korea, this is especially true as respondents are highly susceptible to the timing of surveys in a constantly breaking news environment. As one South Korean public opinion survey by the Asan Institute showed, the likability of Kim Jong Un jumped to a record high 4.06 points in June 2018—following the Singapore Summit—when it had been hovering above 1 point since 2013. How might the Bulletin/YouGov results have changed if respondents were polled after the amicable June 30 meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un? Or at the height of the incendiary threats that Trump and Kim were trading in 2017?
It is a pretty safe assumption that if US-DPRK negotiations collapse and lead to a period of increased tensions and resumed North Korean testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, the media will be full of headlines about how the two countries are on a path toward war. Thus, as key decision makers consider the options for living with a nuclear North Korea, it is of critical importance that surveys of American attitudes on questions of war and peace with the DPRK use techniques that will most accurately convey public opinion. It is equally important to recognize that, as noted sociologist Herbert Gans has observed, “polls are answers to questions rather than opinions.” Respondents are forced to give the narrowest of answers—for example, between approval and disapproval or preference and non-preference. When questions about North Korea are framed in such binary terms, the results tend to privilege the immediacy of military action and obscure the possibilities of diplomacy. In this context, what the Bulletin/YouGov poll reveals about present realities warrants greater scrutiny.
For starters, the survey gives some indication of how people typically assess threat. For most everyday Americans, threat perceptions are largely shaped by media consumption—and the media bears certain responsibility for misrepresenting the North Korean threat. In one recent example of how this occurs through pure misinformation, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell tweet-reported, “Kim Jong Un has not met the 1st commitment of the Singapore summit a year ago: disclosing inventory of his weapons so there could be a baseline for denuclearization talks,” which was later picked up by presidential candidate Julián Castro. The error is egregious not simply because Kim made no such commitment in Singapore, but because it creates an unrealistic expectation for a major concession that would be “tantamount to surrender,” according to noted nuclear weapons expert Dr. Siegfried Hecker.
Appropriately, the survey is designed around a fictional news article that discloses North Korea has developed a nuclear-capable missile that can reach the entire United States. The scenario parallels real events: In November 2017, the DPRK successfully tested its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, estimated to have a range of more than 8,100 miles on a standard trajectory. Whether it is capable of delivering a nuclear warhead remains uncertain. But at the time, the sense of urgency to deal with what hardliners were interpreting as an imminent threat had reached a new high, particularly as the former US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster had suggested that a nuclear-capable ICBM would constitute a red line for President Trump and was talking publicly about giving the DPRK a “bloody nose.” Moreover, McMaster and other hawks, in their public calls for such a strike, downplayed the risks of a significant North Korean escalation that would cause massive casualties—a view that many experts reject.
In the survey, the president is reviewing military strike options to deny North Korea that technical capability. (Different sub-groups were presented with either a conventional or nuclear strike option.) Partially mirroring reality, the crisis is premised on a threat assessment that conflates North Korean capability and intent. It presents the illusion of a false choice between attacking first or eventually being attacked. Ignoring North Korea’s possible motives for an attack, which would likely result in the destruction of the DPRK and the end of the Kim regime, the survey article concludes, “The Joint Chiefs did not recommend a course of action, but cautioned that military action against North Korea would likely be less effective in the future as the North continues to increase its nuclear arsenal and modernize its defenses.”
Without information to convey the wide range of existing diplomatic tools or US deterrence capabilities, it is understandable how some respondents may have based their decisions on the assumption that conflict is inevitable. Further, the survey does not consider how the North Korean leader would assess the risks and rewards of a nuclear attack on the United States. As one respondent in favor of a preventive strike explained, “Choice is, with strike 10 percent chance of retaliation, without strike, 100 percent chance of future attack.” But for North Korea, the calculation looks very different: without using nuclear weapons, there is close to a 100 percent chance of survival; with a nuclear attack on the US or its allies, the chance of survival is close to zero.
Respondent attitudes aside, the survey’s basic premise should serve as a stark reminder that the US president could initiate a war with little restraint. That respondents were asked “whether or not they ‘preferred’ to launch the strike and then whether, regardless of their personal preference, they would ‘approve’ of the US strike if the president ordered it,” exposes this disturbing political reality. It also shows, as the poll results indicate, that support for a strike was much higher among supporters of the president, suggesting that partisanship rather than informed judgments about US national interests skewed the results toward more militaristic views.
But war with North Korea is entirely avoidable—even if it masters the technology to launch a nuclear-capable ICBM anywhere in the United States. The DPRK’s fulfillment of a technological milestone does not justify the cost and risk of full-scale war that a limited US military strike could trigger.
Editor’s note: The author is a fellow at the Ploughshares Fund, which provides financial support to 38 North.
Coal and hydropower are the two main sources of power in North Korea, however, hydropower accounts for the majority of the country’s actual electricity production. During the Kim Jong Il era, North Korea had embarked on an ambitious plan to build large hydroelectric power stations across the country, each capable of generating enough electricity to power and light its major urban areas. The centerpiece of that plan was the Huichon Power Station, the largest to be built in North Korea, and capable of generating some 300,000 kilowatts (kW) of power, sufficient to meet the needs of its capital, Pyongyang. For Kim, Huichon was to be a symbol of North Korean pride and its peoples’ ingenuity. Unfortunately, it also became a major source of frustration as climate and engineering failures seemed to conspire against the project, and Huichon has yet to achieve its output goals.
Following his father’s death, Kim Jong Un continued to champion the Huichon project. However, after two years and continued setbacks, he altered the country’s strategic plan for energy production and shifted the focus toward building small-to-medium-sized, tiered hydroelectric power stations such as those now constructed along the Chongchon River. While these smaller power stations were originally intended to satisfy local and regional energy needs, they are now becoming a part of a larger, integrated power grid.
Status of Power Stations
This first report focuses on the construction activity at both large and small-to-medium-sized, tiered hydroelectric power stations located on the Chongchon River. In doing so, it’s important to understand the climate, terrain, and engineering challenges the DPRK faces.
Huichon Power Stations 1 and 2
Near the headwaters of the Chongchon River and east of Huichon is where the namesake, large-scale Huichon Hydroelectric Power Station is located. The Huichon power project actually consists of two hydroelectric plants, each supported by a separate man-made reservoir, created by the placement of a large dam, one located at the headwaters of the Changja River near Ryongrim and the other east of Huichon on the Chongchon River.
Huichon Station 1 is located just off the Chongchon River east of the Huichon/Chongchon Reservoir; however, the water used to power its turbines is piped from the Ryongrim/Changja Reservoir located approximately 30 km to the north. Station 2 is located at the base of the Huichon/Chongchon Reservoir. Touted by Kim Jong Il as the future for hydroelectric power generation, these large reservoirs were intended to ensure that a sustained supply of water would be available to turn the generator turbines. Unfortunately, both dams have been plagued by engineering flaws and, coupled with climatic extremes, neither has achieved its intended output.
Figure 1. Huichon Power Station No. 2, September 1, 2018.
Chongchon River Tiered Power Stations
From their beginning, setbacks were common in the construction and operation of the large Huichon Power Stations, and harsh weather experienced throughout the region has impacted the efficiency of all its dams. Severe winter cold causes ice to build, constricting the flow of water and thus, slowing turbine speeds, which in turn diminishes the power output. Additionally, drought and extreme summer heat have plagued North Korea for the past two years, further impacting water levels and electrical output.
The persistence of these conditions has meant that the turbines of the large power plants have been unable to meet specifications, and therefore, a change in strategy began to emerge by 2013 and was articulated publicly in Kim Jong Un’s 2014 New Years Address. In his speech, Kim highlighted a new direction in hydroelectric power generation, citing a multiple tier strategy to build smaller power stations along the Chongchon River.
In addressing electric power, he stated that:
While taking measures for generating electricity to the maximum at existing power stations, we should draw up correct prospective plans for radically easing the strain on electricity supply and exert ourselves to carry them out. It is important to produce more electricity with priority given to hydraulic resources, and by using wind, geothermal, solar and other kinds of natural energy.
Power generation, and specifically hydroelectric power plants, was a theme repeated in Kim’s New Years speeches of 2015, 2016 and 2017, where he again highlighted the Chongchon River tiered system. Finally, in his 2018 address, Kim talked about focusing on area-specific electricity generation, stating:
The electric power industry should maintain and reinforce the self-supporting power generation bases, and direct a great deal of efforts to developing new power sources Provinces should build power generation bases to suit their local features and put power generation at the existing medium and small-sized power station on normal footing to satisfy the needs of electric power for local industry by themselves.
Figure 2. Huichon Power Station No. 3, September 1, 2018.
Figure 3. Huichon Power Station No. 4, July 24, 2018.
From Huichon Power Station 2, going south along an 80 km stretch of the Chongchon River, are a series of 10 small-sized power stations, each damming the river along the way and producing power used locally. These dams are, more or less, cookie cutter in design, although penstocks and generator halls for a couple are not collocated with their associated dams.
Figure 4. Huichon Power Station No. 5, July 24, 2018.
Figure 5. Huichon Power Station No. 6, April 11, 2019.
Figure 6. Huichon Power Station No. 7, April 11, 2019.
Figure 7. Huichon Power Station No. 8, April 11, 2019.
Figure 8. Huichon Power Station No. 9, April 11, 2019.
Figure 9. Huichon Station No. 9 without collocated generator halls and penstocks.
The Chongchon River project began in 2013, and reportedly, was complete and operational by late 2015. The entire project was completed at a far faster pace than that associated with the construction of the large hydroelectric power stations. While imagery coverage of the entire stretch of the 10-plant project has been inconsistent, what is available indicates most of the construction on the dams began in 2013, but at least two dams were not started until 2014. On the latest coverage of each, they all appear complete or nearly complete, although one lacks the visible presence of a substation, and for most, limited image resolution precludes the ability to discern the presence of electric power lines.
Figure 10. Huichon Power Station No. 10, February 4, 2019.
Figure 11. Huichon Power Station No. 11, February 4, 2019.
Figure 12. Huichon Power Station No. 12, November 21, 2017.
Going south from Huichon, the series of 10 dams terminates just north of Kaechon, near Pongchon-dong. Another dam project is under construction farther south near Junhyok-ri. That dam will be much wider than the others, suggesting it will create a reservoir wider than the existing river, although it is not likely to be very deep given the flat surrounding terrain. It is from this dam going south that the terrain flattens and the river meanders toward Anju and is no longer suitable for the construction of hydroelectric power plants.
Figure 13. Dam under construction near Junhyok-ri, May 1, 2019.
Orangchon Power Station
Despite a stronger emphasis on smaller hydroelectric power stations, there is still evidence that North Korea has not abandoned its desire to build large power stations capable of producing considerable amounts of sustained energy. For example, the large Orangchon Power Station was mentioned in a KCNA article dated May 28, 2019, stating: “The construction progress of the Orangchon Power Station is progressing apace. Remarkable successes have been made in the reservoir construction site.” It noted that Kim Jong Un had visited the Phalhyang Dam in July 2018 and had directed it be completed ahead of schedule. Kim’s personal directives, when visiting projects of interest to him, tend to move them along more quickly. However, while progress has been noted in the most recent coverage, heavy work at the site has been ongoing since October 2016, and the project does not yet appear to be nearing completion.
Figure 14. Orangchon Power Station, May 3, 2019.
Other Minor Power Stations
In addition to the Chongchon River project, other areas boast the presence of small-to-medium-scale power stations, the Changja River among them. Like those on the Chongchon River, most of the smaller power stations on the Changja River began construction around 2013 to 2014, although there is one large dam that was constructed much earlier and holds back a large reservoir close to the river mouth where it joins the Yalu River. At that dam, there is a large building that is unfinished or in disrepair; while it may have been intended to be a generator hall, construction at the site has long ceased although it is unclear as to why.
The remaining, smaller dams and power stations along the river appear operational, and one, the Hungju Youth Power Station, located near Kanggye, was cited in a news article on May 31, 2019. That article titled, “Minor Hydroelectric Power Stations Conducive to Economic Activities in the DPRK,” discussed how a second straight year of drought and high temperatures has strained the electrical output of the country’s larger hydroelectric power stations, and reiterated the move toward smaller, serial, hydroelectric dams.
The Huichon Power Station project was a great source of pride for Kim Jong Il. In a January 1, 2012 Joint New Years editorial following his death, the beloved former leader was applauded for his great accomplishments, and the Huichon Project was cited as a reflection of that. The article stated:
We should solve the problem of power shortage at all costs and on a priority basis. The sector of electric-power industry should continue to press on with the building of large-size hydropower stations and improve the operation of equipment and technical management at the existing power stations, so as to keep the generation of electricity going on a high level.
That message was repeated again over the course of the year in various forums, and in Kim Jong Un’s 2013 New Years address, he again highlighted the commissioning of the Huichon project, stating, “By adopting decisive steps to shore up the vanguard sectors of the national economy and the sectors of basic industries, we should develop coal-mining, (sic) electric-power on a preferential basis and provide a firm springboard for building of an economic giant.”
Achieving those goals has ultimately become problematic. Engineering setbacks, coupled with climatic challenges, have forced North Korea to alter its energy strategy. This change was articulated in a May 2019 KCNA article, which explained that weather had impacted the output of the large-scale hydroelectric power stations, and therefore the various provinces are increasing the output of their minor hydroelectric power stations to their maximum to support regional economic activities and peoples livelihood. The article cited several minor power stations across the country, which are trying to maximize production, and concluded, “It is the policy of the Workers’ Party of Korea to build minor power stations in a practical way and ensure their normal operation for bringing substantial benefit the people.”
President Trump’s meeting this weekend in the DMZ with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was hastily arranged, but it served a useful purpose, as did Trump’s historic crossing into North Korean territory. At a time when US-North Korea dialogue has been stuck in the mud since the collapse of the Hanoi Summit in late February, the made-for-TV event gave a shot in the arm to diplomacy, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announcing yesterday that working-level negotiations would likely commence in mid-July. Everyone seemed pleased with the important if unspectacular outcome except for Trump’s political opponents back home, who immediately went into attack mode. While concerns about the lack of concrete results on denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula over the last year are understandable and indeed justifiable, the excessive domestic partisanship has the potential to complicate US and South Korean diplomacy with North Korea.
Partisan Democratic Pot Shots
The criticisms of the Trump-Kim tête-à-tête from the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders occurred almost immediately, and most of them were nothing more than recycled bromides meant for a domestic audience. Former US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro took to the airways and denounced Trump for giving Kim an international platform. “I’m all for speaking with adversaries but what’s happened here is the president has raised the profile of a dictator,” Castro said on ABC’s This Week. Former Vice President Joe Biden blasted Trump’s weekend rendezvous with Kim as beneath the dignity of a US president, emphasizing that his “coddling” of a tyrant came “at the expense of American national security and interests.” Congressman Tim Ryan (OH-13) went as far as comparing the confab to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s summit with Adolf Hitler in 1938, a patently absurd and grossly inaccurate charge.
Politicians from the opposing party did not have a corner on the market for blowback. Columnists and pundits in America’s major media outlets, from the Washington Post’s Max Boot and CNN’s Samantha Vinograd to MSNBC’s Bill Kristol and the New Yorker’s Robin Wright, were just as intense in their denunciations. The complaints revolved around moral qualms with speaking directly with a brutal dictator; concerns about meeting with Kim without preconditions or a guarantee of concessions; exhaustion with Trump’s propensity for showmanship over substance; and the lack of measurable achievements thus far on denuclearization. They are, in short, the typical Monday morning quarterbacking one often hears in Washington from skeptics who frequently view diplomacy as a reward in itself rather than a means to an end.
Giving Negotiations a Chance
Much of the opposition levied by Democratic presidential candidates in the days since the Trump-Kim meeting is disingenuous and reflexive. Perhaps none fits this description better than the moral argument—i.e., because Kim is a heinous individual with a horrendous human rights record, the US president should treat him like a pariah. According to this logic, failing to do so sullies the office of the presidency, undermines US credibility as a beacon of hope and freedom and provides a murderous regime with the opportunity to improve its public image. The Trump administration has been subjected to these attacks ever since the first summit in Singapore in June 2018.
Yet as the old saying goes, you make peace with your enemies, not your friends. Resolving problems with foreign adversaries requires bold, white-knuckled conversations that may be uncomfortable but which are absolutely necessary to establish a path where solutions become available. This is particularly the case with North Korea, which has had a deeply distrustful relationship with the United States for nearly seven decades and whose leadership is openly hostile and paranoid about US motivations and intentions. In such circumstances, a lack of diplomacy at senior levels is more likely to exacerbate feelings of mutual grievance than foster conditions for compromise.
Moreover, empowering negotiators sometimes requires interacting with the person at the top of the political system, a calculation Trump has made in order to maintain the current détente as nuclear talks progress into unknown territory. As Americans, we may not like the idea of showering Kim with attention or treating him as an equal by shaking his hand. Indeed, there is a general belief across the political aisle, almost akin to gospel, that callously equates talking in search of good-enough solutions with legitimization of the enemy. But talking with an adversary should not be seen as a concession—and principled and pragmatic policy should not allow emotion to obstruct negotiations that would advance the national interest, particularly when their collapse would likely replace a period of relative comity with Trumpian threats of “fire and fury,” “locked and loaded,” and “annihilation” of North Korea.
Domestic politics will always play a role in high-stakes diplomatic events, doubly so when a US presidential campaign season is just heating up. But the degree to which Democratic candidates for president have dismissed last weekend’s historic DMZ meeting as a nothing burger at best and dangerous capitulation at worst is a troubling indictment of just how unserious the discourse about US policy toward North Korea (and foreign policy more generally) has become. Nobody who has been paying attention to US-DPRK relations would expect a written agreement between Trump and Kim after a 50-minute meeting and four months of stalemate. Nor would pushing for such an outcome be desirable at this point; as Democrats and others have frequently argued, working-level negotiations and extensive preparations are needed before the next summit—and that is exactly the opportunity that the Trump-Kim meeting has created.
Changing the North Korean Paradigm in Washington
Over the past quarter-century, Republicans and Democrats in Washington have viewed the North Korea file through the exclusive prism of denuclearization. Pressuring the North Korean government into destroying its existing nuclear weapons capability and eliminating its stockpile of warheads has been the idée fixe of successive US administrations since at least the early 1990s. Declaring an official end to the Korean War, establishing regular diplomatic contact between US and North Korean officials and lowering the temperature on the Korean Peninsula have all played second fiddle to denuclearization. US and UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea remain the principal hindrance to progress on the inter-Korean peace track. President Moon is unable to proceed with even minor cross-border economic or construction projects due to a sanctions architecture that is upheld by bipartisan majorities in the US Congress as examples of America’s strength and resolve.
The swift criticisms about the Trump-Kim DMZ meeting over the past 48 hours perpetuate a conventional but profoundly misguided belief: there should be no sanctions relief or normalization of any kind absent Pyongyang’s final, fully-verified denuclearization. This stance plays well in Washington, where acting tough and uncompromising in the face of US adversaries is good domestic politics. Yet this approach does nothing to move the ball forward on a North-South peace process that, if consummated, would help extinguish decades of mutual animosity between the two Koreas. In fact, by essentially holding inter-Korean reconciliation hostage to progress on US-North Korea nuclear talks, policymakers and politicians in Washington are de-facto blocking President Moon’s valiant efforts toward establishing peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. Consequently, any US or North Korean decisions that revitalize diplomacy, as happened over the weekend, is a potentially important step toward accomplishing this goal.
There are legitimate gripes with the Trump administration’s North Korea negotiating strategy. Trump has allowed himself to be outflanked by some of his more hardline advisers, who remain impervious to a step-by-step approach and appear fixated on forcing the whole denuclearization enchilada down Kim Jong Un’s throat. The president’s unctuous comments about Kim are unsavory and complicate his task by playing into the hands of Democratic (and Republican) members of Congress and Democratic presidential candidates who are highly skeptical that negotiations will accomplish anything. Too much of the second-guessing today, however, is about putting political points on the board in preparation for an election year. With peace at stake, those who aspire to be the next president of the United States must be more responsible with their rhetoric and check their partisanship at the door before it undermines a process that has been given a new lease on life.
North Korea’s environmental problems have not garnered nearly as much attention as its nuclear and missile programs, signature construction projects or vague commitments to improving the economy, but it is an area that has seen the most interesting developments under Kim Jong Un’s tenure. Deforestation is a massive problem in the country as the lack of trees contributes to flooding during the annual rainy season. Much more so than his predecessors, Kim has put a spotlight on the problem and more frankly described its systemic causes as he wrestles with a basic dilemma: deforestation occurred largely because of an economic crisis whose root causes remain unresolved. People cut down trees for fuel and firewood, and to clear land for farming. As long as the lack of food and fuel persists, Kim’s reforestation plans will be very difficult to implement.
A Focus on Forestry
On February 26, 2015, Kim gave a speech on forestry restoration to “senior officials of the party, the army and the state economic organs” in which he linked the failure of economic planning and environmental degradation together in an unusually stark manner:
However, as people have felled trees at random since the days of the Arduous March on the plea of obtaining cereals and firewood and, worse still, as no proper measures have been taken to prevent forest fire, the precious forest resources of the country have decreased to a great extent. As the mountains are sparsely wooded, even a slightly heavy rain in the rainy season causes flooding and landslides and rivers dry up in the dry season; this greatly hinders conducting economic construction and improving people’s standard of living. Despite this, our officials have confined themselves to reconstructing roads or buildings damaged by flooding, failing to take measures for eliminating the cause of flood damage by planting a large number of trees on the mountains.
This may not seem all that radical, but it was, in fact, a crucial recognition of an endemic environmental problem in North Korea grounded in the economic collapse of the 1990s. Starting during the famine era, people all over the country would (and still do) fell trees, particularly on slopes and hills, both for fuel and for farming. This deforestation strips the land of tree roots to soak up excess rainwater on these higher grounds, which has led to soil erosion, flooding and massive material damage during the North’s annual monsoon season.
More importantly, Kim acknowledged that forestry is not merely an environmental issue, but an economic one as well. In his speech, he identified the “Arduous March” as the underlying cause of North Korea’s deforestation problem. Accordingly, Kim concluded that without systemic improvement of the economy, reforestation cannot happen. The discussion of North Korea’s forestry problems is an intriguing exception in Pyongyang’s politics and rhetoric. Systemic problems are seldom discussed openly, because doing so would mean admitting the fallibility of the country’s leadership or ideology. Kim’s initial focus and frank rhetoric on deforestation were promising, but thus far there’s little evidence that the ambitious plans have been translated into long-term, sustainable policy.
Not Just Words, But Actions
North Korea’s focus on forestry did not begin with Kim’s 2015 speech. The government laid out a long-term strategy on forestry development in 2013 that spans through 2042. The campaign aims to restore the country’s woodlands in a sustainable way to match the conditions of its ecosystem. In the first ten-year phase, the goal is to restore the woodland ecosystems and decrease overall reliance on wood (presumably for fuel) by 20 percent (though it’s unclear how this will be measured). Over the following 20 years, the plan seeks to diversify the country’s entire forestry resources. This plan contains ambitious, and relatively specific, quantitative targets for forestry cultivation, involving institutions at both the local and national levels. According to a 2018 brochure discussing the reforestation efforts, considerable resources have already been invested in this campaign.
Brochure from the “Kim Il Sung–Kim Jong Il Foundation” on the forestry campaign, 2018. Obtained by the author from a recent visitor to the country.
Reforestation under Kim Jong Un, as confirmed via commercial satellite imagery, has been a higher priority than before. For instance, Kim’s plan has led to the planting of nearly 400 tree nurseries and forest management stations. Under the current campaign, posters have appeared throughout the country warning that unauthorized tree felling is punishable by death, an indication of how seriously the state regards the problem. Kim has done on-the-spot forestry guidance visits several times during his tenure. For example, in July 2018, he visited the Kangwon Provincial Tree Nursery, stating that “abundant forest resources are priceless assets for economic construction.” A month ago, during a spot visit, Kim called for a tree nursery to be built in Kanggye, Jagang (Chagang) Province.
Ultimately, however, domestic policy implementation is almost always an uphill battle in North Korea regardless of the issue. In fact, there are indications that problems inherent in central planning—for instance, quotas leading to shoddy planting and trees ordered for planting in localities where the environmental conditions weren’t suitable—have hindered the execution of reforestation plans. Most importantly, as long as the food situation and agricultural system remain perilous, reforestation efforts won’t be sustainable. Despite harsher punishments for tree felling, the core problem—the lack of sustainable food and fuel—has not been addressed. Therefore, new trees may be planted one season, but people in need of firewood and plots for farming are still likely to cut the trees down in the winter. Decrees by Kim Jong Un may lead to temporary spurts of serious efforts, but the implementation is likely to fade over time until the standard of living actually increases from subsistence level.
Given this context, the World Food Program’s (WFP) recent assessment of North Korea’s food situation contained a number of worrying passages. WFP points out several times that the reforestation campaign is causing a gradual decline in food production from sloping lands. Presumably, many of these areas are plots that private citizens have cleared for farming, and depend on for their livelihoods. Indeed, a large proportion of North Koreans depend on private farming for their sustenance, and without alternative sources of food, reclamation of these private plots for reforestation efforts will translate into people having less food to eat.
The government has proclaimed its intention to reclaim hillside slope plots around the country several times in the past, only to backtrack. However, under Kim Jong Un’s reforestation campaign, the government has followed through with reclaiming land used for private plot farming, a measure that has been met with local resistance. As Daily NK has reportedcontinuously over the past few years, since no reasonable alternatives exist for fuel or farming, locals have been protesting the state’s reclamation of their private farming plots for reforestation efforts. As one of their sources put it in an interview in early May this year:
“There are still a lot of families in North Korea that light fires in furnaces. Essentially, the state should be conducting this ‘forest battle’ after the people stop using furnaces and can heat their homes with coal or gas,” another source in Jagang Province reported. “There are sometimes people who freeze to death because they don’t have any wood to burn, so it’s difficult to fathom how this battle will be successful.”
Environmental Policy is Economic Policy
Perhaps because environmental problems are so visible and tangible, these issues have become less ideologically sensitive than other economic issues. Kim Jong Un hasn’t declared central planning dead, but he has clearly recognized that the country’s economic problems are the root cause of the endemic and disastrous effects of deforestation. The North Korean leader’s ambitious reforestation campaign is still in place, but the focus on forestry appears to have waned over the past year. Even if implementation were to continue, success will always be limited until the need for fuel and farmland is met through other methods than tree felling. Reforestation is desperately needed, and the strong emphasis from Kim on this issue over the first few years was promising. But until basic changes in economic and agricultural management occur, it will be difficult to make long-term progress in deforestation.
This article draws from research conducted in the preparation of International Crisis Group’s recent report, “The Case for Kaesong: Fostering Korean Peace through Economic Ties.”
The Kaesong Industrial Complex was once at the heart of South Korea’s pro-rapprochement “sunshine policy.” Launched in 2004, Seoul hoped that this joint economic initiative might help pave the way toward a brighter and more stable future for the peninsula. It shelved those hopes in 2016, when President Park Geun-hye closed the complex following Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test, and amidst perceptions that North Korea profited from Kaesong at the expense of South Korean taxpayers and North Korean workers. But those perceptions are off base in one important respect: Our newly published research shows that South Korean firms prospered much more at Kaesong than is commonly known. While reopening Kaesong would primarily be a concession to the North—which could usefully be exchanged for a proportionate step toward denuclearization by North Korea in order to help stalled peace talks get back on track—the South has reason to be excited about it as well. In order to maximize the opportunity, however, it will be important to address concerns about worker exploitation and operational inefficiency that impeded the complex in its last incarnation.
A Win-Win Arrangement
The concept of Kaesong as articulated two decades ago was sound. A manufacturing zone in the North would play host to a diverse array of South Korean firms. The North would provide land and labor and the South would furnish capital, infrastructure, technology and materials. Thus, one of the poorest countries on Earth could materially benefit from its location next door to an advanced industrial economy—and vice versa. Built by an arm of the giant Hyundai conglomerate, Kaesong offered the prospect of potentially thousands of South Korean small- and medium-sized enterprises helping to grow and, in the process, rebuild the economies of both the North, which was just emerging from a decade of ruinous decline, and the South, which was on the path back to prosperity following the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
The North had the most to gain from this arrangement. While reliable economic data are hard to come by, our interviews with hundreds of defector-migrants indicate that North Koreans viewed Kaesong as the best place to work in the country. They received health care, child care and other services at a level uncommon even in South Korean small and medium firms, much less North Korean enterprises. More important in Pyongyang’s eyes, however, was the hard currency flowing into its coffers. Because the firms paid North Korean salaries, and because those payments went to the State rather than the workers—who were compensated through in-kind staple deliveries, state store coupons, and domestic currency—cash-strapped Pyongyang netted non-negligible sums through this arrangement (perhaps exceeding $100 million annually at the peak of Kaesong’s operations).
But the South benefited from Kaesong too, with South Korean firms profiting far more than is commonly understood. Indeed, our new report for the International Crisis Group shows that South Korean firms operating in Kaesong (many of them small- or mid-sized clothing manufacturers) saw their profits rise by an annual average of 11 percent between 2007 and 2014, their revenues increase by 8 percent and the value of their fixed assets grow by 26 percent. These figures are all the more impressive when compared to data for non-Kaesong firms operating in comparable sectors of the South Korean economy. In those seven years, the number of firms manufacturing in the apparel, fashion accessory, leather goods and shoe industries shrank by a staggering 65 percent. Some firms stayed in business by taking production offshore to Vietnam, China or Myanmar, but these generally did not see gains like those that set up shop in Kaesong.
Still, however much Kaesong’s upsides may be underappreciated, the venture fell well short of its creators’ aspirations. While their original plan had envisioned the complex enlarging in a series of stages into a global manufacturing hub, the project never grew to even its full first-stage size. After Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in October 2006, the South essentially froze and ultimately abandoned plans to expand the complex.
Also put on hold were South Korean efforts to get the North to allow payments to flow directly to workers, who might have used the resources to stimulate economic growth beyond the complex fence. But Pyongyang demurred, the Ministry of Unification stopped pushing, and the impression began to take hold in the South that North Korea’s central government profited from Kaesong at the expense of both South Korean taxpayers and North Korean workers and was diverting its gains to fund illicit weapons programs. For better or worse, few in the South shed tears when the complex closed in 2016.
A Second Act?
Our research tells us that Kaesong merits a second act, but setting the stage will take some doing. For one thing, UN Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea in response to its nuclear and missile activities currently prohibit the project’s revival. For another thing, Seoul would have to build domestic political support with a public that continues to have some misgivings about Kaesong from its first period of operations, and opposition parties that have seized upon concerns about any South Korean initiatives that could be seen as bucking the international sanctions regime.
One way that might help the two Koreas move past the sanctions hurdle—while at the same time helping to stimulate stalled peace talks between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump—would be to make reopening Kaesong part of a modest, momentum-generating deal that the two countries could announce at a third summit (should one occur) or other appropriate occasion. As Crisis Group has written elsewhere, the reopening of the complex in return for the verified closure of nuclear facilities at Yongbyon in North Korea could be the core of such a deal, which might also be sweetened by reopening South-North tourism at Mt. Kumgang, the proffer of an end-of-war declaration by the United States, and other measures of similar scale. The visit of Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Pyongyang last week and recent exchange of letters between Washington and Pyongyang hints at another surge of diplomatic activity on the horizon. The time to begin actively exploring such a deal could be at hand.
Setting the Stage for Success
As for winning over the South Korean public, the analysis we present in our report suggests that Seoul should have a good story to tell about the benefits for South Korean businesses, and that’s just part of the picture. If permitted to reach its potential, a reopened Kaesong could provide enhanced economic benefits to both Koreas, and become a force for promoting more stable, peaceful coexistence between the two Koreas. To maximize the gains to both sides, however, it will be important to address the flaws that bedeviled the complex in its original form.
First, it will be necessary to improve the efficiency of North Korean regulations on internet use, telephony, the hiring and management of workers, and customs that made Kaesong such an atypical special economic zone. Seoul and Washington should press Pyongyang to agree to internet and cellular telephone use within the complex, even if only on a restricted basis. They should also streamline and standardize the customs and border crossing procedures.
Second, while Pyongyang may be reluctant to relinquish control, Seoul and Washington should press it to yield partial responsibility for hiring and wage decisions over North Korean workers so that South Korean firms can manage them more efficiently. Both governments should stress with Pyongyang that these are not political matters, but rather good business practices that will help attract a stronger group of firms to Kaesong. In addition, workers should be allowed to live within the complex, so that firms will know they have enough on hand to meet production needs and are not driven to over hire or “hoard” workers, as they used to do, because they did not know whether or when they would get more.
Third, and perhaps most important, Washington and Seoul should seek flexibility for firms to make at least a portion of wage payments directly to workers, thereby mitigating (though not eliminating) worries among possible investors over worker exploitation and about the diversion by Pyongyang of hard currency toward illicit ends.
These goals will not all be achievable. But with patient negotiation by Seoul, Washington, and the firms that hope to operate at Kaesong, some progress may be possible, and any gains would make Kaesong a stronger, fairer, better place to do business. Such improvements can in turn help the complex not only resume making money but also create momentum for the Korean peace process—just as its architects intended.
To make progress toward achieving the goals set out in the June 2018 Singapore Joint Statement, the US and North Korea will need to implement previously established confidence building measures (CBMs). There continues to be a healthy debate in the US about North Korea’s intentions and credibility. Such skepticism is understandable given North Korea’s past negotiating behavior. At the same time, however, the US government should not lose sight of how its actions might impact North Korea’s assessment of US credibility. The US decision to suspend but not permanently cancel large-scale US-ROK military exercises was an important CBM. Unfortunately, both the proponents of resuming large-scale exercises and advocates for their permanent suspension risk undermining the value of this CBM. Unless the Trump administration decides to walk away from the negotiations, now is not the time for the US to abandon its current position on these exercises.
Diplomacy Über Alles
As the president of a non-partisan national security organization, the American College of National Security Leaders (ACNSL), I strongly support a diplomatic resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. In December 2017, when the winds of war appeared to be blowing, ACNSL sent President Trump a letter warning that while it is necessary to “maintain a robust military posture as a deterrent to North Korea…the urgent need for success demands we exhaust every possible diplomatic solution.” As the administration changed its approach, we endorsed the June 2018 Singapore Summit and promoted efforts to seek a negotiated settlement. Although the preparations for the summit left much to be desired, and the Singapore Declaration did not result in concrete agreements, ACNSL still believed a diplomatic approach was the best course and therefore advocated support for the Hanoi Summit. Although its collapse reflected diplomatic miscalculations and significant deficiencies with each side’s preparations, the United States must not abandon—and other countries should not undermine—continued diplomatic efforts. Setbacks will occur, but they are inevitably part of what will be a protracted and contentious negotiating process, as the past four Democratic and Republican administrations have discovered.
Don’t Freak out over North Korea’s Provocations
As the US continues to seek a successful diplomatic solution, it should anticipate that North Korea will engage in provocative behavior. In 2006, North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test, which resulted in condemnations and severe trade sanctions; the following year, however, Kim Jong Il promised to halt operations at the Yongbyon nuclear site. In 2010, North Korea unveiled a new uranium plant at Yongbyon, but in 2012 allowed the IAEA to enter the country for inspections after they ceased operations there. In response, the US rewarded this cooperative behavior with an enormous amount of food aid only to have North Korea launch a rocket and openly display ICBMs during a subsequent military parade.
Kim Jong Un’s recent actions indicate that he has mastered his father’s and grandfather’s approach. After conducting a series of missile tests in 2017, he displayed a willingness to meet with President Moon Jae-in and President Trump in 2018, suggesting the possibility of a more stable future in the region. However, following the Hanoi Summit in 2019, Kim seemed to reverse course yet again as he carried out short-range ballistic missile tests. US negotiators should recognize his intentionally provocative behavior and not allow it to derail pursuit of their long-term strategic goals.
Why CBMs Matter
Strong, empowered and professional diplomats committed to long-term negotiations are the key to enduring tactical setbacks and overcoming the complex challenges to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Confidence building measures can also play a critical role in sustaining these negotiations by helping to build trust between two countries that harbor deep mutual suspicions. By adhering to the CBMs each side has adopted, they signal that their long-term strategic interests have not been affected by temporary provocations or highly visible diplomatic setbacks.
The US suspension of large-scale military exercises with South Korea is a major CBM that provided the US with negotiating leverage. North Korea’s hostility toward the exercises gives it a strong incentive to continue negotiating in good faith, reinforcing the US commitment to maintain the suspension. Additionally, the CBM increases the credibility of US negotiators—if Washington is willing to suspend exercises it previously stated were vital, then Pyongyang should have more confidence in the administration’s assurances that America no longer has a hostile policy toward North Korea. As long as Kim believes that the US poses an existential threat it will not be possible to achieve a significant reduction in North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.
Maintain the Status Quo
North Korea would consider a resumption of large-scale exercises as a breach of US good faith, potentially undermining Pyongyang’s desire to continue negotiations. Achieving denuclearization through diplomacy will require building North Korean trust in US intentions. Maintaining the suspension of large-scale US-ROK military exercises is critical to building this trust, sustaining negotiations and protecting the national security of the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia. Should North Korea take measures that undermine negotiations or demonstrate lack of good faith, the US can lift the suspension and reintroduce these exercises. Kim’s behavior can be extraordinarily challenging, but if US negotiators continue to believe that he is committed to a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear problem they should not squander US negotiating leverage by choosing to either resume or permanently cancel large-scale exercises with South Korea.
After many years of speculation about a visit to the DPRK by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the suspense finally came to an end last week with the Chinese leader’s two-day state visit to Pyongyang. The timing is curious. The trip happened at the peak of the US-China trade war and one week before what is expected to be a showdown over trade between Xi and President Trump during the G20 Summit in Osaka. The first reaction to the trip when it was announced was, therefore, understandable: Beijing would use it to leverage Pyongyang in its trade war with Washington. But judging from Chinese statements during and after the trip, Xi’s agenda went beyond whatever immediate tactical gains he hoped to achieve on the trade issue. In fact, Xi’s primary goals were to use his visit to restore China’s pivotal role in negotiations over North Korea’s denuclearization and peace and security arrangements on the Korean Peninsula and to stabilize the increasingly turbulent US-China relationship.
The “linkage” between North Korea and trade was first made by President Trump in 2017. Although Trump launched the trade war a year later despite China’s cooperation on the North Korea sanctions, the Chinese side nevertheless categorized the US-China cooperation on this issue as a sterling example of the great cooperation between the two countries and their leaders. (高层引领大国合作) . Despite the escalation of the trade war since the summer of 2018, China did not try to play the North Korea card in its negotiations with the US. China cannot dictate North Korea’s behavior or push it to engage in provocative behavior when the North is seeking reconciliation, and Chinese open violation of UN sanction resolutions would solicit further American retaliation on trade. Most importantly, at a time when Beijing’s top priority was resolution of the trade war, why complicate these negotiations by injecting Chinese support for North Korea into the equation?
So why the high-profile Xi visit to North Korea? China’s ability to use North Korea as trade bait depends on its ability to induce good or bad behavior from North Korea. History shows that China is not able to deter or prevent confrontational North Korean behavior (including six nuclear tests in defiance of China’s warnings), to deliver North Korea to the negotiation table, or to instigate provocative North Korean acts, primarily because Pyongyang has its independent calculations and Beijing is neuralgic about instability. Considering that Pyongyang is currently more interested in security and sanctions relief to promote economic development, it’s unclear what incentive Beijing would have to encourage North Korean intransigence.
Indeed, the deliverables from Xi’s trip are mostly symbolic and rhetorical. China vowed solidarity with the DPRK, and reiterated its support for Kim Jong Un and his new priority of economic development. However, Xi offered no specific commitments on economic cooperation despite widespread speculation prior to the trip of increased agricultural and development assistance and new economic deals. He clearly signaled, however, the importance he places on diplomacy and a political process for the solution of the issues related to the Korean Peninsula, which China sees as the precondition to denuclearization of the whole peninsula. By vowing to support North Korea’s “reasonable concerns,” Xi has offered a thinly-veiled message of a potential security guarantee for North Korea.
But the most important message from Xi’s visit is the renewed claim China staked out to a central role in solving the North Korea nuclear problem and its interest in settling issues through multilateral arrangements instead of bilateral negotiations. China is determined to play this role on all issues related to the future of the peninsula—ranging from a declaration of intent to end the Korean War, conclusion of a peace treaty and denuclearization to the reconciliation of the two Koreas and international assistance for North Korea’s economic development. In China’s eyes, the failure of the Hanoi Summit dramatized the infeasibility of a US-DPRK bilateral solution, the deep distrust between the US and North Korea, and the serious risk that both sides will renege on some of their commitments. Beijing also firmly believes that the special relations between China and North Korea and Pyongyang’s dependence on Beijing for political and economic support and, most importantly, security entitles China to a seat at the negotiating table that cannot be replaced by any other country. Xi Jinping’s trip to North Korea is the most recent manifestation of the special role that China intends to play as a key guarantor of peace and security on the peninsula.
These calculations are deeply embedded in Beijing’s vision for the G20 meeting in Osaka, the future direction of US-China relations and the priority Xi attaches to stability and cooperation in US-China relations; it is also reflected in his view that Sino-American competition need not poison cooperation on issues where the two countries have shared interests. By visiting Pyongyang and asserting China’s essential role in the future political solution of the problems on the Korean Peninsula, Xi is signaling to Trump that China cannot be marginalized in its own backyard and the US should seek China’s cooperation in addressing an issue that it cannot solve independently. China’s relationship with North Korea—which itself is not free of suspicions and conflicting interests—offers no leverage in trade negotiations with the United States. And Xi has bigger fish to fry: restoring cooperation between the US and China in solving their North Korean problem and hopefully providing some ballast to an increasingly unstable relationship.