North Korean Domestic Factors and Peace after the Third Inter-Korean Summit
Daniel A. Pinkston, Ph.D.
Troy University, Seoul
President Moon Jae-in hosted Korean Workers Party Chairman Kim Jong-un at the Peace House on the southern side of the Joint Security Area (JSA) in P’anmunjŏm on 27 April 2018. The third inter-Korean summit was noteworthy in that it was the first time a North Korean leader has crossed south of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). At the conclusion of their talks, the two sides released the “P’anmunjŏm Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula.” As expected, the declaration covered three broad areas: the advancement of inter-Korean relations; the reduction of military tensions; and the establishment of a permanent peace regime on the peninsula.
The three tracks are interdependent, of course; no single objective can be achieved without progress in the other two. Both sides “agreed to bring forth the watershed moment for the improvement of inter-Korean relations by fully implementing all existing agreements and declarations adopted between the two sides thus far.” They agreed to open a liaison office in Kaesŏng in order to have close consultations to implement the agreement. As part of the effort to establish a peace regime, the two Koreas “confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” Of course, all of the details must be specified at the working level, and those details will have to be implemented for the summit to be considered a complete success.
But critics argue that nothing is new. Much of the language has appeared elsewhere in previous agreements or declarations. Skeptics say that North Korea has signed numerous inter-Korean and international agreements only to renege upon their commitments whenever it appears suitable for continuing the revolution. Surely, if Pyongyang is now capable of resolving its commitment problem, something must have changed. On the other hand, enthusiastic supporters of the summit are saying “this time is different.”
If something in North Korea has changed, how would we know? And how would we know, if the right things or conditions have changed? Furthermore, for those who are convinced that this time it is different, what evidence could they provide to support their intuition? And finally, by asserting that “things are different now,” supporters are acknowledging that something was not right in the past. So, what was wrong? Why did so many excellent—at least on paper—cooperative agreements collapse?
I believe that North Korea’s fundamental ideological and political orientation makes inter-Korean cooperation and peaceful coexistence virtually impossible. This does not mean inter-Korean peace is not possible; however, the “permanent and robust peace” as mentioned in the P’anmunjŏm Declaration is highly dubious under current conditions. True peace is not simply the absence of violent conflict. True peace means the elimination of fears or expectations that conflict will break out. Such an attitude and belief requires mutual tolerance, mutual respect, and the will to co-exist with others.
Unfortunately, North Korea is organized in a way that makes true peace extremely difficult. This does not mean that North Korea cannot change. All social and political systems change over time, but for true peace on the Korean peninsula, North Korea will have to change in some fundamental ways. There are five main areas that are determinants or clear indicators of Pyongyang’s intransigence and periodic belligerence. If North Korea has changed or will change, the changes likely would be observable in these areas.
Dictatorship of the Proletariat
The dictatorship of the proletariat is an important governing principle in both the Korean Workers Party (KWP) Bylaws and the DPRK Constitutions. This principle means the ruling party can never give up power, stand for democratic elections, or tolerate an opposition. Relinquishing control of the state would be “counter-revolutionary and a reversal of social, political, economic, and cultural progress. The KWP Bylaws proclaim that the Party is Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jong-il’s Party and all affairs are governed according to dictatorship of the proletariat and democratic centralism. In North Korea, there is no tolerance for opposition. Those opposed to KWP guidance are “enemies of the people,” as defined by the dictator. Until there is some relaxation of this principle, North Korea is not prepared to co-exist with the South.
The United Front
The so-called united front stems from early 20th century alliances against common enemies. Communist revolutionaries sought united front allies in their revolutionary struggles against fascist enemies in Europe, for example. Kim Il-sung began to employ united front tactics shortly after Korea was liberated from Japanese rule. In a short period, Kim Il-sung loyalists and KWP members infiltrated and coopted other political parties in the North. Two of them still exist and hold seats in the 687-seat Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA). The Social Democratic Party (조선사회민주당) holds 49 seats, and the Ch’ŏndoist Ch’ŏng’u Party (천도교청우당) holds 22 seats in the unicameral legislature. These “opposition parties” became part of the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland (formed in July 1946), and subsequently have been allowed to co-exist only as “fraternal parties” upholding the guidance and revolutionary leadership of the KWP.
General Kim Yong-ch’ŏl, currently director of the KWP United Front Department, represents the institution that has sought the subordination of political parties, societal organizations, labor unions, etc., under the KWP. North Korea’s frequent appeals to Koreans from all walks of life, parties, organizations, and overseas compatriots to abandon their differences and join together for national unification rings hallow while the North maintains its united front tactics. If Kim Jong-un is serious about tolerance, mutual respect, and co-existence, the North should abandon the united front. Kim Yong-ch’ŏl and Kim Yŏ-jŏng, Kim Jong-un’s sister, were the last two people walking behind Kim before peeling off as Kim walked to greet President Moon. Kim Yong-ch’ŏl’s presence symbolizes the importance of the united front. If the North is changing, they could start by changing the name of the United Front Department to the “Unification Department” and seek national reconciliation with tolerance, mutual respect, and mutual co-existence.
The Korean Workers Party Bylaws
The Party Bylaws prescribe party organization, membership rules, and the basic principles that determine party guidance and national governance. According to the Bylaws, the party is to consolidate the revolutionary achievements in the North, complete the revolution, and liberate the South. This revolutionary orientation manifests itself in North Korean media, school curriculum, indoctrination through the military and mass organizations. While North Korea talks “peace and reconciliation” internal messaging continuously repeats the goal of “completing the final victory.” How can the two Koreas have a “permanent and robust peace” if one continues fighting a revolution to liberate the other? Unless the KWP Bylaws and the DPRK Constitution are revised, a “peace treaty” or “peace regime” will be incompatible and unachievable.
Compared to other authoritarian states, North Korea is noteworthy in how it has modified its state ideology over time. Arguably, these modifications and transformations have enabled the Kim regime to survive despite extraordinary changes domestically and internationally since the DPRK’s foundation in 1948. The historical underpinnings and historical modifications are beyond the scope of this article, but today North Korea has a handful of ideological frameworks to channel social thinking and repertoires. Sŏn’gun [先軍; military first] ideology is an amalgamation of ideologies, beliefs, and mindsets including Marxism-Leninism, neo-Confucianism, realism (in the sense of international relations or political science), militarism, anti-colonialism, ethnic-nationalism, fascism, and Christian symbolism. The Kim family dynasty claims the Kims discovered new and profound ideas, but nothing in their ideological menu is new. They have been very adept at borrowing off the shelf and mixing different concepts, and then slapping a new label on their ideological concoction, but they have not introduced any new ideas.
Nevertheless, the Kim family’s ideological cookbook has worked so far. The third generation remains in power. However, despite this success, ideology constrains North Korea in the realms of foreign policy and national security policy. In sum, sŏn’gun ideology makes North Koreans the world’s greatest realists. In the traditions of the Melian Dialog in Thucydides, Machiavelli, and the Hobbesian state of nature, North Korea is obsessed with power. From the North Korean perspective, all political outcomes—both domestic and international—are determined by power balances. The international system is viewed as a menacing, self-help Hobbesian world where power is the only instrument for survival. Abandoning nuclear weapons in exchange for negative security assurances and a collective security mechanism is irreconcilable with sŏn’gun ideology. Until North Korea abandons or modifies its sŏn’gun ideology, denuclearization will remain a fantasy.
The Pyŏngjin Line
The pyŏngjin line [竝進路線] is another obstacle that makes North Korean denuclearization virtually impossible. Pyŏngjin means to advance in tandem or side-by-side. In this case, it means North Korea’s dual development of nuclear technology and the economy. The nuclear dimension includes both peaceful and military purposes. While most people would agree that nuclear development incurs an opportunity cost that impedes economic development, the pyŏngjin line asserts that nuclear development and economic development are inseparable. On the contrary, nuclear development is considered a necessary condition for economic development. According to the pyŏngjin line, abandoning nuclear weapons also means abandoning hopes of economic development and prosperity.
People frequently and mistakenly call pyŏngjin a “policy.” But lines and policies are very different in the classical socialist systems. In socialist countries, socialism is considered a “science” that builds upon the work of predecessors. Its dictators do not establish political legitimacy by campaigning and winning competitive elections; they establish legitimacy by contributing to “scientific socialism” and becoming “great men.” For Kim Jong-un, the pyŏngjin line is his contribution to “socialism” and the “great revolutionary achievements” of his father and grandfather. In a socialist system, lines are analogous to laws or robust models in the sciences. They remain in use until a new law or model is discovered, just as Newtonian physics remained until Einsteinian physics came along. Policies on the other hand are more flexible and can be adjusted. The central bank interest rate, the military budget, investment on irrigation facilities are examples of policies that can be adjusted and calibrated to meet changes in the environment. But lines are inflexible because they form part of the leadership’s political legitimacy. If North Korea is changing, and if North Korea truly intends to denuclearize, we should see the termination or replacement of Kim Jong-un’s pyŏngjin line.