North Korea in 2014: A country on the ledge
December 19th, 2013
04:07 PM ET

North Korea in 2014: A country on the ledge

By Matt Stumpf, Special o CNN

Editor’s note: Matt Stumpf is director of the Asia Society’s Washington office.  The views expressed are his own. This is the fourth in the '14 in 2014' series, looking at what the year ahead holds for key countries.

If diplomacy is at times the act of building ladders for your opponent to climb down, rarely has a country needed it more urgently than North Korea today.  The leadership in Pyongyang spent 2013 destroying the last rungs of the teetering ladder built by the Six-Party Talks in the mid-2000s.  So, it enters 2014 on a ledge, and there are no obvious ways down.

North Korea finds itself in an ever-more precarious international situation after a disastrous series of decisions in 2013. Not long ago, reasonable analysts saw inklings of North Korean interest in economic reform.  As early as the first days of the new leadership in January 2012, North Korean officials reportedly said: Kim Jong Un was “focused on a ‘knowledge-based’ economy and looking at economic reforms enacted by other nations, including China.” As late as January 2013, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s visit suggested that North Korea might believe the country could not prosper while isolated.

But on February 12, any such hopes were dashed. North Korea’s third nuclear test – the first on Kim Jong Un’s watch – led the well-aligned governments in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo to close ranks further behind their policy of isolating North Korea until it is willing to negotiate denuclearization in earnest. Meanwhile, China – North Korea’s link to the outside world – became noticeably less supportive. Subsequent missile tests, work at the Yongbyon nuclear site, the halt of business at the North-South collaborative Kaesong Industrial Park and the December execution of Kim’s uncle and adviser, Jang Song Thaek, have progressively worsened the dynamic.

More from GPS: What I saw in North Korea

It will be some time before we understand these events properly – in North Korea analysis, patience is indeed the better part of wisdom. But we do know that, whatever explanation proves correct in hindsight, there are few ways to describe these events that suggest North Korean affairs are healthy and stable.

From the competing theories on Jang Song Thaek’s execution, for example, all point to major problems for North Korea.  The North Korean government’s claim that Jang worked “to overthrow our leadership and our state” would certainly seem to indicate that there is a violent competition for power. And if the execution is meant to reverse plans for an economic opening, then it is clear that Kim opposes reform.

North Korea’s isolating decisions in 2013 stand in stark contrast to the progress the United States has made with two other governments – Iran and Myanmar.

Iran found new impetus to engage with the United States, while Myanmar achieved real gains in 2013 from its recent reforms. And although the three countries’ circumstances are vastly different, they are all subject to the reality that the 21st century economy favors those who connect across borders and engage globally.

So what does all this say about the prospects for next year? North Korean leaders may attempt in 2014 to pair the military-first policy in evidence so strongly in 2013 with economic reforms. But, given the extent of North Korea’s isolation, it is difficult to imagine how North Korea’s economy could grow substantially. The contradiction between the urgent need for economic reform and the impossibility of this without international engagement would be at the root of any collapse – or even violent conflict as the regime seeks support by sparking international tensions.

Though direct diplomatic engagement with North Korea remains problematic and unpopular, the United States, South Korea, Japan and China would do well to clarify the choices North Korea faces. These four countries should negotiate among themselves a package of defined, escalating sanctions triggered by North Korean actions that threaten peace in the region, and a generous package of assistance if North Korea acts to open itself, implement its previous agreements and opt for denuclearization.

In 2013, North Korea chose isolation. In 2014, the inherent contradictions of this policy will either intensify or disappear altogether. Whatever happens, the international community will be watching closely.

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Topics: 14 in 2014 • Asia • North Korea • Nuclear

soundoff (50 Responses)
  1. Mad china

    Useless North Korean pig

    December 19, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      It's a shame that Kim Jong-un opts for ignorance. He could have learned so much from his uncle and other elderly about patience and deliberation. He doesn't seem to be an intellectual type of leader and this could be dangerous, if a leader has no idea of wisdom. He would one day end up like Saddam Hussein or Idi Amin. Hugo Chavez at least had read good books, while he was in prison.

      December 25, 2013 at 9:39 am | Reply
  2. Grasputan

    It seems to me that the communists around the world are going nuts, maybe because they are finally finding out that its not 1940 and that the government which tortured and imprisoned and killed its own people so that a few warlords could stay in power, and now their childrens children are taking power. But the people have awakened, and now its time for the communist party to be "Re-Educated" by the people they have spit on. Throwning people in jail for asking for transparacy and honesty and justice. Shame on China for not allowing old outdated dogma and economic power to change. Shame on China for not condemning in the harshest tone the ruthless public murder of an old man, his uncle by marriage. But how could they when they are at this moment hiring terrorist criminals to remove people from their property, men women and children in Yunnan province are being terrorized by the communist party leaders there. Why doesn't Beijing do something, why is there no one there for THE PEOPLE of China. Communism needs to evolve to stay alive, or it will soon die.

    December 19, 2013 at 7:59 pm | Reply
  3. Danro

    When it comes to North Korea, I believe the only thing that matters is its relationship to China. China will support North Korea to the maximum amount. Only if North Korea bites the hand that feeds it will anything change. So the relationship to China will determine what happens.

    December 19, 2013 at 8:33 pm | Reply
  4. JAL

    "You can't work, because you haven't been working."

    December 19, 2013 at 9:36 pm | Reply
    • JAL

      This discriminatory mindset has the potential to halt US economic and job growth.

      December 19, 2013 at 9:43 pm | Reply
      • JAL

        It is particularly disturbing to engage in this type of discriminatory activity during the holidays.

        December 19, 2013 at 9:51 pm |
  5. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    North Korea's Christmas gift to the USA is that NK is a splendid example of communism.
    The USSR used to send us the same packages during the holidays.

    December 20, 2013 at 8:55 am | Reply
  6. rightospeak

    North and South Korea should have been united long ago. North Korea has mineral wealth that the Big Capital would like to get their hands on. Their Nuclear Bomb keeps the robbers at bay and the media owned by the Big Capital demonizes North Korea. China is next door and they are not worried by North Korea , why must we put our cents in when there is plenty of problems at home – HUGE UNEMPLOYMENT, for example. Leave North Korea problem to our banker, China and do something about our huge unemployment. As I look at our Malls most things are made in China- what are we going to produce if the Chinese buy our farms ?

    December 20, 2013 at 11:07 am | Reply
  7. Non Korean

    USA should not respond to latest threats between Koreas, should not fight for South Koreans, should not risk American lives and should not spend US tax payers money on military collaboration with South Korea.

    December 20, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Reply
  8. Lil Donged Un

    Lil Donged Un Must be compensating for something!!!!

    December 20, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  9. johnny

    Kim Jong Un is not alone. He is just another pawn in the DPRK chess game.

    December 20, 2013 at 8:50 pm | Reply
  10. Michael

    I am against all war, except in the case of North Korea, we as a decent people need to look at a pre-emptive strike on North Korea to free it's people from this horrible dictatorship. Kim Jung Un is more evil then his Father and Grandfather.

    December 21, 2013 at 2:16 am | Reply
    • Dr. Hooper

      I completely agree with you. A few hours of research regarding North Korea will lead most sane, decent human beings to the same conclusion. This is a regime that has 7 (known) functional gulags (concentration camps) that perpetrate horrors on par with Nazi Germany. It is also a regime that is systematically developing a nuclear warhead with delivery capabilities. They may be rational in the sense of self-preservation in the short term, but they have long term goals of militarily enslaving South Korea and blackmailing the West. They need to be stopped.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:58 am | Reply
      • Phil

        Attacking North Korea would mean the end of Seoul, a metropolitan area home to 25 million people, fully half of South Korea's entire population. And it's only about 30-50 km from the DMZ with North Korea, who would unquestionably counterattack by shelling and destroying it.

        The only rational option is to patiently wait for the corrupt and unsustainable North Korean regime to collapse under its own weight. We've seen this happen with many communist and totalitarian governments, sometimes even without bloodshed (e.g., eastern Europe except for Romania). There's still a chance of an unprovoked attack by the North but it wouldn't be as certain as a North Korean counterattack provoked by the South.

        December 26, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
  11. Mike

    NATO, not Korea.

    December 23, 2013 at 10:50 am | Reply
  12. chrissy

    Ty @ Dr. Hooper. Ive been wondering for quite some time why that fact is not often brought up and have many times brought it up myself. In this day and age you would THINK the UN wouldve addressed by now!!

    December 25, 2013 at 7:12 pm | Reply
  13. Alexi Faraco

    Well, at least Kim apprciates the Apple iMac sitting on his desk!

    January 1, 2014 at 3:01 am | Reply
  14. Alessi

    UN needs to react now and block North Korea. Because South and North Korea have secret mutual undercover operations, USA, NATO and UN needs to block South Korean businesses and exports. Nothing less is required now, if we want to secure long-lasting peace.

    January 1, 2014 at 7:18 am | Reply
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