John Park (speaking at left) provides a briefing to Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert on North Korean provocations.
Q&A: John S. Park
Author: John S. Park, Faculty Affiliate, Project on Managing the Atom
Q. You were involved in the planning that led up to the recent Seoul Nuclear Summit and also contributed significantly to the Belfer Center’s Summit efforts. What was your primary role in the lead-up to the Summit and what do you think were the Summit’s main successes and shortcomings?
I’m currently cross-appointed at the Belfer Center as a research fellow and at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) where I direct Northeast Asia Track 1.5 projects. When I was based at USIP in the fall of 2010, I worked with colleagues at Belfer’s Project on Managing the Atom (MTA) to put together a consortium of research centers and think tanks to directly engage South Korean policymakers who were preparing to host the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit. USIP and the Belfer Center were among the key groups to take the initiative and launch the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit Study Group (SNS3G) in late 2010. SNS3G’s key objective was to work with South Korean and U.S. officials and technical experts to help ensure that the 2012 summit in Seoul led to concrete progress in improving nuclear security. We convened the first SNS3G policy workshop in Seoul in mid-May 2011 to explore specific ways to strengthen existing measures and implement new ones aimed at preventing nuclear terrorism. Our ability to directly engage the South Korean Sherpa and Sous Sherpa during the SNS3G process enabled us to turn policy ideas into policy actions.
In the lead up to the summit in March 2012, I worked with the Belfer Center team consisting of Graham Allison, Matthew Bunn, Martin Malin, William Tobey, Kevin Ryan, James Smith and Sharon Wilke to develop the Nuclear Security Summit Dossier (www.nuclearsecurity.org). We effectively used the dossier at a briefing at USIP, which we tailored to the ambassadors of the countries whose head of state was confirmed to participate in the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit. We highlighted recent analyses on nuclear security that the Belfer Center team had conducted on cooperative measures to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism, protection of nuclear materials and related facilities, and prevention of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials.
The Belfer Center had the unique opportunity to provide policy recommendations at the highest levels. Graham Allison was a member of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s “Eminent Persons Group,” which met prior to the March 26-27 summit. Graham, along with William Tobey, also attended the summit in Seoul, which represented the culmination of the Belfer Center’s engagement in the full life cycle of providing early policy input, raising public awareness about nuclear security, directly advising senior policymakers, and participating in key summit-related activities in Seoul.
Although the distraction caused by North Korea’s missile test preparations led to less international media attention on the achievements of the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, there were modest but tangible results in the form of some of the leaders announcing that their respective national governments had secured fissile material. While gatherings like the Seoul summit are helpful for focusing the international community’s attention on taking steps toward preventing nuclear terrorism, groups like MTA play an important role maintaining the momentum and focus after the summit. It’s been a personally and professionally rewarding experience working with the Belfer Center team and seeing first-hand the type of impact that the Center’s unique policy work has on bolstering efforts to prevent a key threat to the international community.
In terms of next steps, the Netherlands will be hosting the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit. The Belfer Center can apply important expertise honed from its preparatory and advisory work for both the 2010 and 2012 summits to ensure that the involved countries can make further progress in developing policies so that nuclear security increasingly becomes a set of practices rather than a concept.
Q. You have worked on issues related to North Korea for a number of years. Does the recent change of leadership raise any opportunities for improved relations with the U.S.?
Following the death of Kim Jong-il in late December 2011, the new collective leadership group headed by Kim Jong-eun has been consolidating its power. During this process the key question in Washington was whether there was continuity or change in Pyongyang under Kim Jong-eun. The “Leap Day” agreement that the U.S. and North Korea concluded on February 29 was largely interpreted as a sign that there was continuity given the fact that the deal was basically in place and awaiting completion when Kim Jong-il suddenly died on December 17. There was tempered optimism in Washington that the deal — whereby North Korea would receive 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance in return for implementing a moratorium on missile and nuclear activities — could constitute the basis for eventually getting back to the Six-Party Talks. Unfortunately, North Korea’s March 16 announcement of its plan to conduct a “satellite launch” and eventual missile test on April 13 led to the collapse of the “Leap Day” agreement. The U.S. had expended the last of its North Korea-focused political capital on this deal. It’s unlikely there will be any more diplomatic overtures coming from Washington until after the presidential elections in November at the earliest. The U.S. and its friends and allies in the region are bracing for additional North Korean provocations — particularly, a third nuclear test.
Q. Is Kim Jong-eun really in charge or more of a figurehead?
While Kim Jong-eun now holds titles that officially designate him as the functional head of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the military, his power is closely tied to a small group of senior generals that his father personally selected as a cocoon to envelope him as he built up more leadership capabilities and consolidated his own power base. There’s currently a great deal of speculation about who really exercises authority and the viability of this collective leadership structure going forward. In the midst of this conjecture, there’s one indisputable fact. Irrespective of being the third son of Kim Jong-il, if Kim Jong-eun is not able to effectively manage the web of state trading companies that comprise “North Korea, Inc.” and generate recurring revenues — as his father had done during his 17-year reign — the young Kim’s grip on power will wane leading to instability in this new regime.
Q. In addition to your fellowship at the Belfer Center, you run Northeast Asia-focused Track 1.5 projects at USIP, which is an independent federal institution funded by Congress. Previously, you worked for Goldman Sachs’s public finance group and The Boston Consulting Group’s financial services practice. How have your various work experiences in the financial, academic, and government sectors helped you in conducting primary research and policy analysis?
With respect to my research work on North Korea, I’ve been drawing on the combination of these different professional experiences to develop new frameworks of analysis to better understand the impact of complex internal transformations on the stability of the post-Kim Jong-il collective leadership regime. As interviews with defectors who previously worked in North Korean state trading companies indicate, the regime is able to derive funds from North Korea, Inc. to maintain the loyalty of the elites and to provide a mechanism through which different bureaucratic organizations can generate funds for operating budgets. During periods when North Korea’s international isolation deepens as a result of its provocations, North Korea, Inc. has come to constitute an effective coping mechanism for the regime.
While North Korea remains an opaque country, we now have greater access to these unique defectors. Applying financial, political and commercial analyses to the activities of North Korean state trading companies has yielded early insights that I’ve used in government briefings in Washington and Asian capitals on how to design new or calibrate existing policy tools to deal with the evolving North Korean regime.
Q. The Belfer Center was fortunate to have you return this year as a research fellow after being involved in policy work in Washington, DC and the private sector in New York for a few years. Next year you will be heading to MIT to take up an appointment as a Junior Faculty Fellow with the Stanton Nuclear Security Fellowship Program. What collaborative research projects will you be working on this upcoming year?
During my prior appointment at the Belfer Center as a postdoctoral fellow in the mid-2000s, I had the opportunity to work with colleagues to launch and run the North Korea Analysis Group (NKAG). The goal of NKAG was to engage Washington-based officials working on different facets of North Korea issues. We convened special events at the Belfer Center with a National Security Council official, the South Korean ambassador, senior Congressional staffers, and a former U.S. negotiator with the North Koreans. In light of what has been emerging as the first major cycle of North Korean provocations under a newly formalized collective leadership group led by Kim Jong-eun, we re-launched NKAG this spring. We convened new events and briefings like the May workshop with the South Korean Ministry of Unification titled “Where Do We Go From Here? Dealing with an Increasingly Provocative North Korea.” We’ll be organizing additional NKAG activities in the 2012-2013 academic year.
One specific area of collaboration next year will be consulting with former U.S. policymakers at the Belfer Center on the unintended consequences of North Korea-centered financial sanctions — the focus of my Stanton Fellowship work at MIT. The primary objectives of this funded research project are to analyze the different types and applications of financial sanctions that are geared towards countering proliferation, assess the main intended and unintended effects of these measures on North Korea, and examine policy implications for Washington going forward.
Although policymakers are placing greater emphasis on and increasing the use of financial sanctions as a counter-proliferation tool, my preliminary research interviews with defectors who previously worked in North Korean state trading companies indicate that these sanctions are creating counter-productive effects. In key instances, financial sanctions are incentivizing private Chinese companies to proactively engage sanctions-targeted North Korean state trading companies because of the higher commission fees these entities must offer to compensate for the greater risk of doing business with them. Seeking to evade detection, more of these North Korean companies are also operating regularly inside China and carrying out procurement and sales activities based in major Chinese transportation hubs. These underexamined practices and trends raise serious questions about the efficacy of financial sanctions.
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