North Korea: house of the rising son

North Korea and US in talks for the first time since the rise of Kim Jong-un.

In contrast to the failed discussions between Iranian and IAEA officials this week, US and North Korean delegates met yesterday in Beijing for the first of two days of bilateral discussions, which were said to have been “substantive and serious”. For the Obama administration, the talks will aim to curb North Korea’s nuclear program and return the increasingly isolated and esoteric regime to disarmament negotiations; for Pyongyang however, the talks will constitute first and foremost a gesture of inclusion and negotiation, having scored low on the NTI Security Index at the start of this year, and having been portrayed negatively in international media.

Kim Jong-un, son of the late Kim Jong-il, understands that he is something on an enigma in nuclear and chemical terms. He is thought to have headed North Korea’s nuclear research and testing program before the death of his father and subsequent rise to the position of supreme leader. And yet, little is known of his post-ascension role in that program, nor the extent of the young leader’s ambitions for that program’s development. The two days of talks this week will mark the first time US and North Korean representatives have met since his father’s death, and will hopefully provide a clear indication of the extent to which North Korea wishes to engage with the West.

The Dear Leader, as he is known, will do well to engage in constructive talks before the world’s media, particularly in the wake of fruitless negotiations between Iran and the West. Where North Korea appeared to seriously falter in the NTI Index was in the category of ’global norms’ as well as 'domestic commitment/capacity’: two categories, or methods of assessment, that are predicated on a basic theory of 'deviation’, i.e., to what extent has North Korea not subscribed to international legal commitments and global initiatives (ICSANT/CPPNM), voluntary participation (IAEA, etc.), and transparency indicators (by inviting the IPPAS or SSAC, etc.). If the ideological 'norm’ is subscription and the deviation unsubscription, then the future for North Korea must accede to these 'signifiers’ of safety, not abandon its program, to get a higher NTI rating. North Korea must demonstrate or make a gesture of its inclusion. Understanding the importance of these commitments will be crucial to its success.

Neither 'global norms’ nor 'domestic commitments’ are empirically reliable things – inasmuch as a norm is only ever a relative value and a commitment only ever a gesture – but the problem with North Korea, as with other low-scoring nations (Vietnam, Iran), is one of transparency: it’s that the threat is not visible - it has no face, no normative or tangible features. The issue is primarily not about the amount of weapons-usable material and sites they have, for North Korea it is about actively restructuring the ideology within which it is viewed by others. It is about developing a transparent and responsible nuclear program, and demonstrating that commitment to the world, through negotiations such as these.

There will no doubt be calls for IAEA officials to be let back in to North Korea, and it will be seen whether its regime is yet willing to take further steps toward international cooperation.

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