Cutting Through the Noise: Signals from North Korea

By Gene Lin

Back in June, the North Korean government abruptly blew up a joint liaison office with South Korea near the two countries’ border, renewing threats of military actions over the issue that defectors from the North had once again sent anti-regime propaganda across the border in flying balloons. A move that reinforces North Korea’s long-standing reputation as an unpredictable player on the international stage.

“The current status quo between the two Koreas is actually quite stable. There have been big efforts by the US and South Korean presidents to shake things up with summits, but very little has actually changed on the ground,” said Robert Kelly, an inter-Korean affairs expert and professor of political science at the Pusan National University.

With frequent reports of corruption and human rights abuse, signals from North Korea can range anywhere between confounding and alarming. The country’s seemingly erratic government and newly acquired nuclear capacity also carry broad implications for the geopolitical stability in East Asia.

Born to parents who are North Korean refugees, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has long favoured a peaceful unification between the two Koreas. (Photo: Wikicommons / Korea Open Government License)

“Don’t Invest in North Korea”

Despite its highly secretive and isolated reputation, North Korea does have some degree of economic activities with the outside world. The country is known to have opened industrial complexes and used its cheap labour to attract foreign investments. Nevertheless, the country’s fundamentally undemocratic environment still poses significant risks to investors.

“The short version of it is: Don’t invest in North Korea. It’s a really, really bad idea,” said Kelly. “Firstly, there is an enormous risk putting your money in North Korea because it is a dictatorship that is not governed by rule of law. Second, there are no foreign direct investment laws. Lastly, there are also no independent courts for arbitration processes”.

According to Kelly, the North Korean health infrastructure is notoriously bad based on information provided by defectors who fled the North, which has broad implication if the country suffers a COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo:

Mapping the Succession

North Korea’s political instability is partly caused by its authoritarian political structure, which Kelly describes as “a monarchy with bloodline succession”. The current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, generated widespread discussion around his successor when his health was rumoured to have declined in April.

“Even if [Kim Jong-un] does have children, they are too young to take over,” said Kelly. “The closest bloodline relative to Kim would be his sister, Kim Yo-jong. She has the right blood but she does have a problem. North Korea is a very patriarchal and reactionary society when it comes to gender, and it is not clear whether North Korean elites would accept female ascension”.

Without a clear mechanism to facilitate a smooth transition of power, Kim Jong-un’s death at this moment can potentially trigger a power struggle among North Korean elites. While Kelly believes that Kim Yo-jong is the most likely candidate to emerge as the next leader, he is uncertain whether her hawkish persona necessarily informs the public on how she might govern.

“North Korean elites compete with each other internally to climb the ladders within the military, and the way they do that is to ‘out-hawk’ one another in language and tone regarding South Korea and the United States,” said Kelly.

Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, received significant public attention when she attended the 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony, marking the first South Korea visit by a member of the ruling Kim-dynasty since the Korean War. (Photo: Wikicommons / Korea Open Government License)

Peaceful Reunification?

“Moon Jae-in has really staked his political reputation on some kind of breakthrough with North Korea,” said Kelly. “If [Moon] cannot get a breakthrough with the North in the next year or so, then [South Korea’s] attitude towards North Korea might shift significantly to the right, meaning it will certainly be more hawkish than it has been now”.

According to Kelly, while it is reasonable to ignore the North’s call for military attacks as empty threats, the public can recognise a genuine crisis when South Korea initiates non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO), which is a military protocol that involves transporting South Koreans on a mass-scale to Japan in the event of a genuine war.

According to Kelly, US President Donald Trump has been a “genuinely unique outlier” in the history of the American presidency, given his unprecedented willingness to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (Photo: Wikicommons)

Foreign Policy: America, Sanctions, Nuclear Threats

Facing economic sanctions and international isolation, North Korea’s only asset in foreign policy remains to be its nuclear capability. The North Korean regime is deeply reluctant to give up its nuclear warheads due to fears of being violently toppled as a result. At the same time, the issue of denuclearisation also happens to be one of the biggest obstacles towards any prospects of peaceful reunification.

According to Kelly, while US President Donald Trump has been among the most dovish presidents towards North Korea in recent history, the summits between the two countries in 2018 and 2019 had yielded little to no results in moving the international discourse on North Korea. If Trump is defeated in the next general election, the next administration is likely to return to a more hawkish stance towards North Korea.

When asked about North Korea’s ultimate goal, Kelly said the North is no longer interested in reunification. “I think North Korean elites basically want to hold onto what they have. They know they can’t take over South Korea. They know if they destroy the golden goose of the South, the money wouldn’t be coming in. They don’t want to fight a war with the Americans either,” added Kelly.

The conversation took place in the Lynk Speaker Session titled ‘Cutting Through the Noise: Signals from North Korea’ on July 22, 2020.

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