Jenny Town

What is North Korea’s Endgame?

Air Date: October 25, 2021

Stimson Center fellow Jenny Town discusses Kim Jong-un’s aspirations for North Korea and nuclear build up.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest today is Jenny Town. She is senior fellow at the Stimson Center and the director of Stimson’s 38 North Program. Her expertise is in North Korea – U.S. – DPRK relations and the Northeast Asian regional security. Thank you so much for joining me today, Jenny.


TOWN: Thanks, Alexander. Happy to be here.


HEFFNER: Jenny, what do you think has changed in these months of the new Biden administration? It will soon be a full year of President Biden in office rather than President Trump. We know that President Trump for the first time in many years had U.S. official diplomacy with the north. And it’s not clear what, if anything has transpired since there was this transition from Trump to Biden.


TOWN: Well, it’s unclear because not much has actually transpired since Biden has come to office. This administration did take the first several months, about four or five months to do a policy review, to study, you know, what has been done, what are the different approaches that have been taken? Where does that leave us with North Korea now? They announced the new policy sometime around May. And the policy, while it has some of the right talking points, talking about wanting to have a calibrated and practical approach to North Korea that’s open to and explores diplomacy. The problem is, is that this is sort of the most noncommittal way to talk about North Korea and doesn’t really create a compelling message for the North Koreans to respond to. So what you saw during the Trump administration was setting a new agenda in U.S.- DPRK relations, that is at the Singapore Summit, at the joint statement set an agenda that was beyond denuclearization but included actual transformation of the U.S.-DPRK relationship and working towards solving some of the security issues and working towards a peace regime.


Unfortunately, the Biden administration doesn’t use that language. Everything that they’ve talked about in terms of North Korea is really still threat-based and focused on denuclearization, much like the messaging prior to the Trump administration, as if, you know, 2018 kind of never happened. And so in the meantime it sort of put the ball in Pyongyang’s court to come to the table on our terms. And so now we’re in this holding pattern, waiting to see if the North Koreans will come back and what they might do before they come back, in order to gain some leverage, in the next round of negotiations.


HEFFNER: Isn’t that motivated by the fact that we don’t really understand what the Trump – Kim reunions were about. I mean, we had that official declaration, which you cite as being meaningful, but yet, we don’t have any reason to believe it was anything more than writing on paper, because it’s not as if there have been new inspections or any kind of ongoing accountability when it comes to what the United States is hoping to achieve in not just the denuclearization but establishing some rights-based society. President Trump talked about how the north had potential to be economically resilient. And I mean, there were a lot of talking points then too. And I wonder if, if Biden’s reversion to the threat-based discourse is to almost say, we don’t accept that those meetings actually had any practical impact on the way the north governs.


TOWN: I think, you know, there’s a lot more to what happened in Singapore than, you know, plays out in public.


HEFFNER: Tell us about that.


TOWN: Yeah. So, you know, like I said, what it did is it set a new agenda and it set a new a new relationship for them to build off of that that also included North Korean concerns, right? This isn’t just an, this isn’t like an easy decision for any country that has nuclear weapons to simply say, I’m going to voluntarily give them up, right, there has to be some incentives there for them to do so. There has to be especially some changes in the security situation in order for them to feel comfortable doing so. And there has to be a change in the nature of the relationship itself to trust that if they do that that they aren’t going to meet the fates that other countries did like Libya, like Iraq.


And so I think, you know, there was at least at Singapore, a recognition of North Korean concerns as part of the negotiation process. There were. The problem with the Singapore joint statement though, was that it wasn’t an action plan. It wasn’t an agreement. It was literally setting an agenda. And unfortunately in the subsequent negotiations, they could never decide on what a suitable starting point actually was. How big did it have to be? What had to be included? And what were both sides willing to do? And part of that negotiation was a lot of the us asking North Korea, well, what do you want, what do you want? And unfortunately, what we saw in Hanoi was, you know, in using that kind of formula, the North Koreans came back and said, well, what we want is exorbitantly more than what the U.S. was willing to do as a first step anyway. So we’ll just…


HEFFNER: What did they want for those who don’t recall those proceedings?


TOWN: Yeah, so the North Korean request, when Kim Jong-un came in to Hanoi he put forward the notion that he would be willing to give up the Jong-un Nuclear Scientific Research Center, which is the heart of their nuclear weapons program. It is where they actually produce the nuclear material that’s used to make nuclear weapons. And in return they wanted, you know, basically all of the commercial sanctions that had been placed on North Korea to be lifted. And this was just more than what the U.S. was willing to, able to, give as a risk as reciprocation to the offer that they had put on the table.


HEFFNER: Jenny, I’m so interested in the work you do on a day-to-day basis because the north is shrouded in so much secrecy. And, you know, we know, we don’t know if Kim Jong-un is healthy. We don’t really, we have these sort of TMZ style moments of is he alive? Is he dead? And then most recently he seemed to have lost some weight and was looking more healthy than he had in past photos. But really, I mean, that’s the extent of the American public knowledge and likely across the non-North Korean landscape, except for the inner circle of the north. So as an, a North Korea expert and researcher, what are you looking at to, you know, to research? How are you kind of learning about what’s going on there, if not on a day-by-day basis, you know, in terms of what’s changing in the leadership, et cetera?


TOWN: Well, we, you know, we look at all sources, as many sources as possible and especially North Korean sources, media journals television-affiliated websites and stuff to try and glean messages from that as well. We also use satellite imagery to follow a lot of the parts of the country and especially the more sensitive areas like their WMD-related facilities, to try and get a sense of how, what kind of activities are going on, how the infrastructure is changing and what that might mean in terms of their program developments. But also looking at like economic sites, looking at, you know, bridges and ports, how busy are they, and you know, major economic projects, where are they allocating resources? What sectors are moving forward ? At what pace different sectors are moving forward and how their priorities might shift. It’s certainly been harder, more difficult during the pandemic to, to really get a sense of what’s happening on the ground in North Korea, because the borders have been closed now since January of 2020.


And even a lot of the foreigners that were in Pyongyang before were based in North Korea before such as Diplomatic Corps and humanitarian workers have basically, almost all gotten kicked out now. So there is, it is much more difficult to get information now from inside the country than what we had before, but there’s still ways to follow the different signals and different messages and different developments and how they’re treated in their own media, how North Korea portrays them. So things like Kim Jung-un’s health, you know, there’s been a lot of questions about his health and, you know, the times that he disappeared in 2020, where TMZ was reporting that he was dead, he was still making, there were still reports about work that he was doing that was being published in North Korean media. He was still writing letters to foreign leaders, and also commendations to domestic workers. These are not the kinds of things that he would have done that someone would have done to try and pretend that he was still alive and something was, was drastically wrong, gravely wrong. So I think, you know, there’s, there’s a lot of, while it is difficult to get information, you know, once you sort of learn the ways that North Korea communicates and sort of how to interpret those messages, it does still give you a lot of information and a lot of insights as to what’s happening.


HEFFNER: So you have materials still to work with. I’m sure you have sources on the ground there. It’s more difficult to do. We recently hosted one of the leading nuclear weapons experts on The Open Mind, Vipin Narang at MIT. And the UN General Assembly recently met and the Secretary General said, even amidst this still raging pandemic around the world that nuclear arms buildup is one of his primary, if not his chief concern. I think he actually cited it as his chief concern or at least as significant as the pandemic. Because there’s been so much else in the news since the Singapore meeting in general, I mean, pre 9/11, the threats to the United States could be encapsulated by those nation states. Then we focused on a terrorism organization and the decentralized network of al Qaeda, but the threats had been presented as, you know, North Korea, Iran and Iraq. I do feel as though North Korea is, is not on the minds of Americans now. But from your research, is it, is that accurate and, you know, is it on the minds of diplomats in Asia as much as it was in 2018, because I think the whole region felt like an electric shock from the Singapore meeting. I mean, the neighbors in the region felt like what is going on here? This has the potential to be either extremely dangerous or, you know, potentially successful. But at the end of the day, things are back at the status quo.


TOWN: North Korea is still a big concern in the region, especially to South Korea. And I think, you know, some of the turning points in that relationship was really in 2017, not only the fire and fury responses that Trump was giving to North Korean missile testing and nuclear testing, but in the idea of 2017 was the first time that North Korea flight tested an Intercontinental ballistic missile and one that had the potential to reach U.S. targets. I think in the U.S. here while there was a little bit of concern, right in the first time that they tested an ICBM that, you know, now that they have the capabilities to attack that they were going to attack. I think the general understanding though, is that North Korea is very unlikely to launch an attack against the United States itself. But I think there’s less certainty about that in South Korea, of course, and less certainty about that in Japan. And so they, they have a very different threat perception.


HEFFNER: When you see not just the images of the, the leader, but you see the, you know, tens or hundreds of thousands of soldiers, you know, the, the image, I don’t know that it has been proven as authentic through multiple sources, but there was an image of soldiers from the north wearing hazmat suits. And Kim Jong-un directing them, basically as, this is commonly the case with tanks or soldiers, but in this case likely due to the pandemic they were in hazmat suits, but it, it created a whole another level of hysteria for those watchers of North Korea, because we’ve long been concerned about not just the nuclear side of weapons of mass destruction, but the biological side. I just wonder what your reaction was to that image?


TOWN: Yeah. I think, you know, again, given the context of this situation, it was much more focused on COVID, as sort of pandemic response than it was to demonstrate a chemical, biological capability. But there are,


HEFFNER: And you can understand how, right the whole, the whole aura of what the north, and that’s really what I was trying to ask you, which is, like you said, the U.S. perception of threat is different from Japan and the south, but what do you think that’s a decision he’s making? I, have to think that, you know, we’ve seen that face masks can you know, be effective at preventing spread of the disease. Instead they were in, you know, basically hazmat suits from top to bottom. And, and is that, is that the kind of thing that is planned to intimidate the south? I mean, just in terms of, and I ask this genuinely in terms of the reaction of folks in Japan or the south.


TOWN: It’s definitely a choice. And it is one that I think is primarily like for first and foremost, for domestic audiences to show that they have, you know, certain capabilities to show in this case a strong COVID response, a strong infectious disease response, you know, and the kind of hazmat suits that for instance, you’d see in hospitals they don’t necessarily have the same abundance of them that they would, you know, these actual uniforms.


HEFFNER: We don’t know Jenny, what changed between fire and fury? Trump’s remarks at the launch of the North’s weapons and then his decision to engage in traditional diplomacy? I mean, I think the speculation is one that he wanted to try something no other American president had done. He wanted to be the first to do it. He also wanted to see what opportunity there may be to bring about a kind of capitalistic revolution in the country, if it was done with the support of the leaders in the north, Kim Jong-un welcoming this idea of investment from the U.S. or other countries in return for authenticated denuclearisation. But do we still know that this one time, if not still NBA-junkie Kim Jong-un right, he was a big fan of the National Basketball Association. He was schooled in Europe. He seemed to have some interaction with, if not absorption of European or Western culture. Based on everything you’ve read, you know, all those intelligence reports and sources on the ground and everything else, do you have a sense of what his end game is?


TOWN: Well, a lot of the image and a lot of the vision that Kim Jong-un has been trying to sell to the people is one of economic prosperity, not just survival. And so if you look at, for instance, his father and his grandfather really built their personal legacies on carrying the people through hardship through conflict, through famine, through, you know, a number of different struggles. Kim Jong-u doesn’t have those credentials and doesn’t have credibility in those areas either. He wasn’t even in the country during the famine. That was, you know, the years that he was in Switzerland. So he’s had it, he’s been in North Korea while North Korea has been relatively on the upswing. And in everything that he’s done and the policies that he’s put together and the direction and the ways that he’s building, reconfiguring the political infrastructure, you know, his goal is really on economic development, economic prosperity, and bringing the country out of subsistence mode.


In order to do that though, you know, there, that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to move forward on the military side as well. And so what you saw in the first couple of years was really a focus on this dual-track approach of building the economy and building their nuclear deterrent. And what you saw in 2017 after they tested their ICBM after they tested a large nuclear weapon was that he declared victory on the nuclear deterrent side of that agenda and everything since then has been everything for the economy, really trying to build up the economy. And in order to do that, you have to also repair foreign relations. And so I think there has been a concerted effort, you know, since 2018 to make new friends, to try diplomacy, to see what they can get, but with a relatively hasty timeline. And so I think that was one of the problems with the negotiations with the U.S. was that, you know, even in negotiating with South Korea, everything went very quickly and both sides were eager to do something and to get short-term results. Whereas with the U.S. it was much more cautious, even though Trump was not necessarily exercising traditional diplomacy, it was very untraditional diplomacy. But, you know, while he was the deal maker and was willing to talk to them, the working level meetings and the way that the negotiations were going were still very slow, very drawn out and weree not coming to a conclusion in a quick amount of time.


HEFFNER: The methodical, the lack of the sort of methodical nature of it, I guess you’re saying is untraditional there weren’t prep meetings. There weren’t long sessions. There wasn’t a multiple days at camp David, but I think what was most untraditional was the two men who were participating in this.


TOWN: Yes.


HEFFNER: And, you know, it was akin to something that Churchill and Roosevelt might attend. And so in that respect, I think it was traditional, but back to my question, which you evaded, I say that in jest, but at the end of the day, you know, if you just want to do a psychological examination of him since he is the country in effect, and he determines if, you know, the North Korean star or repress, or eventually have access to the internet and Wikipedia, and are able to actually have a consciousness that they totally lack now, like I still, I think most of us still wonder what his end game is. If he, if he could say, I’ll stay ruler, we have one sort of nuclear facility that’s maintained and overseen by an international body. But we’re going to give our people rice and they, you know, basically can be literate and can be fed and they can, you know, they can have the internet, they can, you know, almost like a Cuba-type existence today, right. Not Cuba in the seventies or eighties, but Cuba in 2021. But it has to be him, like it had to be Castro. I mean, I just wonder what bargain he’s prepared to accept, if at all, he envisions the north being a place that is not 100 percent repressed, you know, suppressing basic human rights.


TOWN: Well, so I think, you know, I don’t think I evaded the question, (laughs).


HEFFNER: (Laughs) That’s too harsh.


TOWN: I would say, you know, like I said, I think his end goal really, like I said, is to be the bringer of economic prosperity. But that doesn’t mean democracy. And that doesn’t mean like a rights-based system. I think, you know, there’s a lot of, if you look at who North Korea’s friends are and, and mentors in some way, you know, these are countries that still have high social repression, high social controls but allow for economic activity and economic development to take place. So, you know, I think there is a balance of, yeah, how does he keep his family legacy, keep his leadership, but also maintain a sovereign state and not end up like Libya, like Iraq and still allow for wealth to generate within the country. So looking at models like China, looking at models you know, yeah, like Cuba, like other countries,


HEFFNER: We only have seconds left. Jenny, I know it’s hard to believe, but isn’t it the case that to accept the Nordstrom’s or McDonald’s or whatever they may be in his country and a new flow of commerce that is opening up to tourism and other channels of economic development. That is not the case that that, that the country has lacked that opportunity because of its unwillingness to yield any ground on rights, on have a rights-based country, right. So is it a bargain that he would have to make to have a certain kind of international commerce to then, you know, have some gradual rights-based ,I see you shaking your head rights-based… society?


TOWN: I think, you know, that there has, there was a lot of economic development that happened even under sanctions. And a lot of the sanctions that really have hampered that economic activity are not because of human rights, they’re because of the North’s nuclear ambitions and nuclear actions. And so, you know, there is in some ways, you know, the sanctions are actually almost counterproductive to what we would like to see North Korea become, because it does cut off now a lot of the economic activity that was moving the country into a more market-based economic system and creating some linkages between it and the rest of the world that would, that would force it to really start to adapt and adopt some of the international rules and regulations, in order to be a more common player. So, you know, like I said, if you look at China and the way that China still employs very heavy social controls over the people, there are models out there that, you know, that they don’t necessarily have to democratize in order to build wealth, in order to build prosperity.


HEFFNER: I just, I just wonder as a final thought, right? If, if he thinks that, you know, he would like in, in his tenure for North Korea to become a country where if not Americans, most of the world feels safe to travel, right. I mean, just relative to your China example, right. I just wonder if that is at all in his calculus about wanting to be the pride of a country, like an Olympics offering, right. Where you can be a Russia or China and have, you know, on the human rights index, a very shady record, but still be a place where modern society exists, right. And I just wonder in, and I’ll give you a final thought here, to what extent he wants that to be his legacy?


TOWN: I think he is moving in that direction, but cautiously and in a way that, you know, if it jeopardizes his leadership, it will be slow coming. And so, you know, at the end of the day, there’s still something to be said for preserving the political cult around him. As well as preserving sovereignty in a system that doesn’t like his political, their political choices.


HEFFNER: Jenny Town, thank you for your insider’s intelligent perspective on this subject. We very much appreciate it.


TOWN: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.


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