The breakthrough announcement of North Korea’s agreement to suspend its nuclear activities came this week following an intense third round of negotiations that the country held in Beijing with representatives of Western nations, including the U.S.. With Kim Jong Un assuming the mantle of leadership after the death of his father Kim Jong Il in December, the nuclear moratorium has generated speculation on whether this might imply further defrosting in North Korea’s relationship with the U.S.. While some discussions have focused on “success” in getting Pyongyang to make concessions at the negotiating table, Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago, a preeminent American scholar on the Korean Peninsula, has spoken of the broader context of North Korea’s relationship with the West in explaining why an agreement on a moratorium might have been forestalled all these years. In an email interview Professor Cumings discussed the latest developments with Narayan Lakshman.
At the University of Chicago Professor Cumings' research and teaching focus on modern Korean history, 20th century international history, U.S.-East Asian relations, East Asian political economy, and American foreign relations. His first book, The Origins of the Korean War, won the John King Fairbank Book Award of the American Historical Association, and the second volume of this study won the Quincy Wright Book Award of the International Studies Association. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999, and in 2007 he won the Kim Dae Jung Prize for Scholarly Contributions to Democracy, Human Rights and Peace.
How significant is North Korea’s agreement to impose a moratorium on nuclear activities and what impact could we expect it to have on their nuclear programme?
This is a very important agreement. It may have been more or less in hand before Kim Jong Il died, but it does go beyond what experts had expected before that event; it seemed that a deal swapping food for a halt to enriched uranium activities was in the works back then, but this really appears to put a cap on the North's nuclear and missile programme. In the early reports it is not clear if the cap extends to plutonium manufacture as well as halting enriched uranium activities, but the return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors suggests that both programmes will be stopped. In any case the moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests is very important, because Washington wants to stop the North from working on a miniaturised nuclear weapon that could become a missile warhead.
How does agreeing to a nuclear moratorium fit into the North Korean leadership’s strategic thinking?
Pyongyang greeted newly-inaugurated President Obama in April 2009 with a long-range missile test and punctuated our Memorial Day in May with a second A-bomb explosion. At the time I thought this was stupid of them, because [U.S. President Barack] Obama had pledged to talk with enemy regimes that would “unclench their fists.” Certainly this new agreement is a distinct unclenching, and implicitly acknowledges that their behaviour in early 2009 got them nothing. The agreement probably also reflects the North’s estimation that Obama will be re-elected in November, and they also hope a progressive will be elected in Seoul in December, that is, a president who will return to the South’s engagement policies of 1998-2008. This agreement will help the progressive forces in the South, and it is also a huge boost to Washington's efforts to get Iran to stop enriching uranium and testing long-range missiles, amid all the talk of a possible Israeli attack ‘n Iran's nuclear facilities.
Do you think the agreement marks an inflection point in North Korea’s relationship with the United States?
The North's reference today to the U.S. having “reaffirmed that it no longer has hostile intent toward the DPRK” is also very important, because it takes us back to the visit of General Jo Myong Rok to the White House in October 2000, when he met with president Clinton and when both had appeared to work out a deal to halt the manufacture and sale abroad of North Korean missiles, with part of that deal being a joint statement that neither government had hostile intent toward the other. Pyongyang took this very seriously, but after President Bush came into office both the missile deal and the “no hostile intent” agreements were disregarded, as if they had never been concluded.
Stepping back, what does this development tell you about the overall balance of power within North Korea’s current administration, i.e. the Kim family, the military and political leadership?
It is hard to know what this agreement says about Kim Jong Un’s leadership – “young and untested,” or directly commanding the affairs of state. Clearly he did not oppose it. Kim Jong Un was educated in Europe, and one hopes that gave him a wider view of the world than either his father or his grandfather had. But this is a collective leadership, I think, and the youth and in experience of Kim doesn’t come into play on anything but the most critical decisions of war and peace – where, in the end, the top leader has to say yes or no. I’m sure the leadership hopes there won’t be any such decisions for a long while, so that Kim can become a seasoned executive. Furthermore any North Korean leader would find it in his interest to play a waiting game in 2012, pending the outcome of elections this year in Russia, the U.S. and South Korea, and the leadership transition in China. That is all the more true with a transition hastened considerably by Kim Jong Il’s unexpected death. All things considered, though, this is a positive development and suggests that the new leadership is turning toward reform, and much less belligerence than in the past few years.