Next Up, North Korea and Kim Jong-Il...

Recently, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea; DPRK) has said it will pursue the creation of nuclear weapons because it can no longer afford to support its huge million-man army.  This statement has heightened tensions between the Communist government and the United States, which last fall cut off shipments of fuel oil to North Korea and demanded that the country dismantle its nuclear weapons program. In this interview, Jeong-ho Roh '88, director of the LawSchool's Center for Korean Legal Studies, sheds light on the situation, as well as the psychology of North Korea's President Kim Jong-il. 


Mr. Roh is currently legal adviser to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, international consortium created in 1995 to advance an agreement with North Korea that favors alternative sources of energy over the existing nuclear program. He has traveled to North Korea four times and is the co-editor of the Constitutional Handbook on Korean Unification.



Why do you think the DPRK is pursuing its nuclear development program? Out of insecurity, as a symbolic gesture of power?  Out of desire for future conquest?   Or a genuine interest in creating a new source of energy?


All of the above, but more so the first two reasons.   What North Korea needs is not necessarily the end product - a nuclear bomb - but the appearance that it has the means to produce one.   This generates the greatest leverage, especially against the United States.  No country has ever been able to ascertain with certainty whether the "missing plutonium" from their Initial Report submitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was an error, is just lying around somewhere, or has been used to make a nuclear device. 

In any event, with the end of the Cold War, the warming of relations between the Republic of Korea (ROK; South Korea) and China/Russia, the North Korean famine, and the "axis of evil" statement by President Bush, I believe North Korea believes it has no choice but to ratchet up the leverage as a means of preserving its  sovereignty.  The nuclear threat (or uncertainty surrounding the existence of a nuclear device) is the only thing keeping DPRK relevant in the global order.  But here lies the paradox: being a confirmed nuclear power would bring severe consequences; confirmation that there is no nuclear threat would render DPRK of little importance.


Based on your answer to the first question, do you think the DPRK constitutes a serious threat to South Korea or to other nations?


Yes, but the threat to the ROK lies more with conventional weapons than nuclear ones. The North Koreans have also shown that they possess the missile technology to fly past Japan (possibly with a nuclear device).  The more serious threat in my mind is the proliferation of nuclear materials or warheads to a terrorist state or group who could then wreck havoc on the world.  While some experts believe the nuclear standoff is a regional issue, it becomes elevated to a global one when proliferation is taken into account - especially when you take into account that the DPRK has within from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.


What do you think the DPRK's silence during the recent war in Iraq  says about their ambitions and desires?


The DPRK followed the Gulf War II with great interest since one of their fellow members of the "axis of evil" is on the receiving end.  The United States has shown clearly that undesirable (evil) regimes will be disposed of - even by force under opposition from the international community.  President Bush has made clear his dislike for Kim Jong-Il publicly.  The recent change in tone accepting a multilateral talks (as opposed to strictly bilateral negotiations with the United States) suggests that the DPRK realizes we are living in a very different environment.  However, the international community needs to coax Kim Jong-Il out of his insecurity.  Regime survival remains the key modus operandi of Kim Jong-Il.  This may be inconsistent with the kind of North Korea that the international community is willing to live with.  


What role have you most recently played in the KEDO negotiations?


In the past three years, I have traveled to North Korea four times to negotiate a nuclear liability protocol that spells out the responsibilities of North Korea for compensation to its neighbors in the event of a catastrophic nuclear accident (example: Chernobyl). As a member of the ROK delegation to KEDO, I have been providing counsel on nuclear liability and domestic North Korean law issues as they pertain to the protocol.  For example, how are countries such as the ROK, China, and Japan compensated (in the loss of lives, crops, etc.) If the event of a nuclear accident?  The answer is that North Korea, with its poor economy, cannot afford to cover this kind of damage.  It is all done by nuclear insurance.  It becomes very complex when  you consider that the DPRK reactors may not even be insurable. 


Towards what end do you feel the KEDO talks should be working?


Everything is on hold at the moment.  It is hard to predict what the outcome of the nuclear standoff will be and how this will affect KEDO's future but, ultimately, the scope of KEDO's work must be squarely addressed.


Is it likely that an independent legal system will develop in the DPRK

without outside pressure?


No.  Although North Korea has been experimenting with foreign investment laws since 1984 and has carved out separate laws pertaining solely to foreign investment, it is clear that the notion of Juche (self reliance) and preserving the unique brand of North Korean socialism will prevail over self imposed change.  I also doubt that the DPRK would cave in to outside pressure to change its legal system.  The sure but slow process is to convince the North Koreans that it is in their interest to create a more globally acceptable legal system.  The only way to reach that goal is through depriving them of the much needed capital, technology, food, etc. that they otherwise would have full access to.


In your estimation, is the DPRK a doomed regime?


I can't speak for the regime, but I can say that the country, North Korea, is not doomed.  The leadership in North Korea has to understand (and quickly) that we live in a very different world since 9/11.  The willingness of the United States to go after rogue regimes and effect regime change must surely be in the mind of Kim Jong Il as he ponders his next move.  I hope he makes a wise decision.