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Reading the North Korean Tea Leaves: The Perpetual Struggle to Fathom Pyongyang’s Motives and Goals

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National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 421
Edited by Robert A. Wampler, PhD
For more information contact:
Robert A. Wampler – 202/994-7000

President Barack Obama and President Lee Myung-bak of the Republic of Korea

President Barack Obama and President Lee Myung-bak of the Republic of Korea shake hands during their press conference at the Blue House in Seoul, Republic of Korea, March 25, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Washington, D.C.– For decades, the erratic behavior of North Korea’s enigmatic leaders has often masked a mix of symbolic and pragmatic motives, according to declassified documents posted today by the National Security Archive. During earlier crises, Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather postured and threatened the region in ways markedly similar to the behavior of the new leader, the records show.

While the current Kim is acting even more stridently in some cases, the documents reveal a past pattern characterized by bellicose conduct. In 1994, for instance, North Korean military officers threatened the U.S. with a possible preemptive strike if circumstances called for it: «This will not be a situation like the Iraq war,» U.S. officials were told. «We will not give you time to collect troops around Korea to attack us.» Yet American analysts believed during these earlier episodes that Pyongyang’s tone was aimed less at stoking hostilities than advancing a combination of practical objectives – from pushing the international community to accept North Korea’s position, to playing for time, to bolstering the leader’s political position at home.

Today’s posting provides a window into prior efforts to penetrate beneath North Korea’s shrill rhetoric to understand the logic, political dynamics and ultimate objectives underlying Pyongyang’s repeated threats against the U.S. and South Korea. Obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, mostly from the State Department, these records describe events during the 1990s (the Clinton presidency) with notable echoes in the current crisis. Additional cables made public by WikiLeaks (Documents 12-14) take the story up to the Obama administration and provide assessments of Kim Jong Un himself.

The documents from 1994-95, which saw the first nuclear crisis with North Korea and the death of Kim Il Sung, include excerpts from the morning intelligence summaries prepared for the secretary of state that seek to assess the factors and interests driving such developments as:

  • North Korea’s initial response to U.S. plans to station Patriot missiles in North Korea, deemed by Pyongyang to be an «unpardonable grave military challenge.» This step was viewed as typical: «to record its strong opposition without committing itself to any particular line of action while it sorts out its options.» (Document 1)
  • The deepening crisis in 1994 over the North’s nuclear weapons program, and confrontations over inspections of North Korea’s nuclear facilities. One document records a frank warning from North Korean military officials during a meeting at Panmunjon: «this will not be a situation like the Iraq war. We will not give you time to collect troops around Korea to attack us. We will not attack the South first, but if it is clear you are going to attack, then we will attack.» Another document provides a fascinating evaluation of how China might respond to the outbreak of war on the peninsula should the nuclear crisis escalate. (Documents 23 and 11)
  • Pyongyang’s withdrawal nearly 20 years ago from the Military Armistice Commission (MAC). The North described the MAC as part of the «useless» armistice. U.S. diplomats saw the issue as possibly tied to the leadership succession in Pyongyang, as Kim Jong Il was North Korea’s «supreme commander» and needed to be seen as directing any military negotiations. (Documents 459 and 10); and
  • The implications for North Korean policies of the death of Kim Il Sung and the prolonged consolidation of Kim Jong Il in power, a delay caused in part by Kim’s health problems. This led INR to conclude that «Kim Jong Il will have to make some leadership changes soon, to root out pockets of opposition and to put his own stamp on his regime.» (Documents 67 and 8)

Three additional documents from 2009-2010, originally made public by WikiLeaks, provide reports from the U.S. embassy in Seoul about:

  • The possible motivations and goals behind the «rapid deterioration» in inter-Korea relations since the election of conservative Lee Myung Bak as president. Lee had begun turning away from the policy of engagement with North Korea followed by his predecessors (Documents 12 and 13). As the cables report, Pyongyang was motivated to drive home its conviction that it, not Seoul, called the shots on the peninsula. The embassy stressed, however, «the apathy – even nonchalance – with which the ROK public has reacted to the DPRK’s blasts. They see the DPRK as an object of pity, and the heightened North Korea rhetoric as a sign of distress rather than a realistic threat;» and
  • A discussion between former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and South Korean officials and scholars on the prospects for the post-Kim Jong Il leadership (Document 14). The latter provides interesting assessments of Kim Jong Un’s background and possible challenges to his claim to the leadership position, particularly from his brother-in-law, Jang Song Taek. The State Department viewed these in light of three alleged coup attempts against Kim Jong Il in the late 1990s.

Not since the first Clinton administration, when the U.S. seriously considered military options to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons ambitions, have North Korea’s rhetoric and actions seemed to carry such potentially grave consequences, intended or not. North Korea has pronounced the 1953 armistice null and void, declared the Korean peninsula in a state of war, closed the Kaesong inter-Korean industrial complex, warned other governments to evacuate their embassies in Pyongyang due to the threat of war, announced it is restarting nuclear processing facilities to support production of nuclear weapons, and making preparations to test a medium-range missile from the east coast of North Korea, possibly on the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. South Korea – all in response to the imposition of new UN economic sanctions on North Korea in retaliation for its recent nuclear weapons test.

While many if not most observers believe these actions are driven at heart by North Korea’s persistent demand to be taken seriously by the U.S. and to engage in direct talks with Washington about such key topics as a final peace settlement for the peninsula, political recognition and economic assistance, (not to mention solidifying Kim Jong Un’s leadership position with the military), these analysts also stress the potential for miscalculation by the young, untested North Korean leader. Current efforts to assess Kim Jong Un’s personality and rationality can be viewed against the background of prior such efforts, discussed in these documents, which provide something of a baseline for seeing how far he may be departing from what has been taken as «normal» for North Korea.


Document 1: DPRK – Reaction to Patriots, The Secretary’s Morning Intelligence Summary, INR, January 29, 1994 (Top Secret/Codeword)

Source: FOIA

This assessment looks at how North Korea might react to reports that the U.S. planned to deploy Patriot missiles in South Korea. Pyongyang’s initial response is characterized as typical: «to record its strong opposition without committing itself to any particular line of action while it sorts out its options.» Looking at an unattributed commentary issued by North Korea, the analysis notes that while the Patriot plan is called an «unpardonable grave military challenge,» no direct threats have yet been issued. North Korea’s precise reactions will turn on future events, i.e., actual deployment of the missiles, or an announcement of the start of the Team Spirit joint military exercises.

Document 2: China: Potential Response to Korean Contingencies, DIA Special Report, January 31, 1994 (Secret)

Source: FOIA

This DIA analysis examines possible Chinese responses in different Korean contingencies related to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program: the imposition of UN economic sanctions, and a military confrontation with North Korea. The report notes that Beijing faces special problems in dealing with Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. They need to «reconcile their interest in stability on the Korean Peninsula and long-standing ties to Pyongyang with their interests in a denuclearized peninsula, in avoiding isolation among UN Security Council (SC) members, and in maintaining stable relations with the US, Japan and South Korea.» In the event of economic sanctions, China would likely work to ameliorate the impact on North Korea, with the primary goal of preventing a political crisis growing out of North Korea’s economic collapse. If Pyongyang attacked South Korea, China would likely want to avoid giving military support and would work for an end to hostilities. Finally, if a broader war erupts involving US and South Korean forces, China likely would not respond with aggressive military action, but would take steps to secure its border and might consider deploying Chinese forces across the Yalu River to forestall the loss of all of North Korea to US and South Korea forces.

Document 3: DPRK: Hoping for Best, Bracing for Worst; The Secretary’s Morning Intelligence Summary, INR, March 29, 1994 (Top Secret/Codeword)

Source: FOIA

This assessment comes as the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is deepening. The analysis argues that Pyongyang was surprised at how quickly the situation deteriorated with the US over the nuclear issue, and seemed to believe that the crisis was moving toward war. During what are described as cordial recent talks at Panmunjon, the North Koreans still presented with «remarkable frankness» the possibility of a pre-emptive attack by Pyongyang: «this will not be a situation like the Iraq war. We will not give you time to collect troops around Korea to attack us. We will not attack the South first, but if it is clear you are going to attack, then we will attack.» There is also a possible internal political angle, as Kim Jong Il, who is closely associated with the negotiations with the U.S. on the nuclear issue, may be anxious to demonstrate he has not been «taken in» by Washington and can stand up to outside pressure.

Document 4: Cable, Seoul 03560 to SecState, Subject: North Korea Unilaterally Declares Military Armistice Commission (MAC) «Useless,» Calls for «New Peace System,» April 28, 1994 (Secret)

Source: FOIA

This cable reports a statement North Korea presented to the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) that declared the armistice had become «useless» and that the Korean People’s Army (KPA) was going to cease participation in all MAC activities, would not recognize UNC participation in MAC functions, and that the KPA Supreme Command would deal directly with US Army representatives at Panmunjon to discuss military issues, including a new peace agreement. The South Korean Foreign Ministry’s reaction to this announcement was calm, viewing it as a «step in a very familiar pattern.» The US embassy in Seoul recommends taking a similarly calm approach, stressing there has been no change in the military situation on the peninsula, rejecting Pyongyang’s claim that the armistice was «abrogated» by US actions such as the planned deployment of Patriot missiles, and refusing to negotiate bilaterally with North Korea a new arrangement to replace the armistice.

Document 5: DPRK: New Arrangements; The Secretary’s Morning Intelligence Summary, INR, April 29, 1994 (Top Secret/Codeword)

Source: FOIA

Here, INR gives its initial read on North Korea’s actions regarding the armistice reported on in the cable above. The move to do away with the armistice is seen as one of Pyongyang’s central goals, one which it has pursued with additional diligence since the appointment of an ROK general as the UN Command’s MAC member in 1991. The move is also seen as possibly tied to the leadership succession in Pyongyang, as Kim Jong Il is North Korea’s «supreme commander» and needs to be seen as directing any military negotiations.

Document 6: DPRK: Death of Kim Il Sung; The Secretary’s Morning Intelligence Summary, INR, July 9, 1994 (Top Secret/Codeword)

Source: FOIA

In its early comment on the rise of Kim Jong Il to lead North Korea, INR notes that the new leader is not an unknown factor: he had been in charge of most affairs in North Korea for years, and had been taking credit and «calling the shots» for the third round of US-DPRK talks on the nuclear issue.

Document 7: DPRK: Not Much Movement; The Secretary’s Morning Intelligence Summary, INR, July 23, 1994 (Top Secret/Codeword)

Source: FOIA

Here, INR continues its assessments of the power succession in North Korea, examining the usual signs that Kim Jong Il is moving to solidify his position as the new leader, but notes there is no information, positive or negative, to judge the security of his position inside the North Korean leadership. Statements in the party-controlled press have warned against «the slightest attempt to damage» Kim Il Sung’s accomplishments, which suggest that the policy of engagement with the U.S. begun under him will continue to receive support from the new leadership. On the other hand, because of South Korea’s perceived disrespectful response to the elder Kim’s death, prospects for a North-South summit seem diminished, if only for the moment.

Document 8: DPRK: Slow-Motion Succession; The Secretary’s Morning Intelligence Summary, INR, August 25, 1994 (Top Secret/Codeword)

Source: FOIA

INR continues to sift the tea leaves on Kim Jong Il’s leadership position, as health issues and signs of other «forces at work» seem to be delaying consolidation of his succession. Kim’s health issues, reportedly including diabetes, have resulted in his prolonged public absence during a critical time, during which a leadership debate has seemed to reopen on two crucial policy areas: reunification and the economy. All in all, the INR analysts conclude that «Kim Jong Il will have to make some leadership changes soon, to root out pockets of opposition and to put his own stamp on his regime.»

Document 9: China/DPRK: MAC «Recall;» The Secretary’s Morning Intelligence Summary, INR, September 2, 1994 (Top Secret/Codeword)

Source: FOIA

INR reports here on Beijing’s decision, apparently made with little enthusiasm and only to signal support for Kim Jong Il, to recall its delegation from the Military Armistice Commission, inactive since North Korea rescinded its participation in April 1994 (see Documents 4 and 5 above). In reviewing this step, INR again tries to probe the motivations for North Korea’s decision to withdraw from the MAC: while these steps were personally identified with Kim Jong Il, it was unclear whether they were tied into the next round of US-DPRK talks or to a longer-range strategy related to broader questions of peace and security on the peninsula after the nuclear issue has been resolved. Even after withdrawing from the MAC, Pyongyang stressed that it would continue to abide by the essential provisions of the armistice.

Document 10: DPRK: Raising the Armistice Issue; The Secretary’s Morning Intelligence Summary, INR, September 10, 1994 (Top Secret/Codeword)

Source: FOIA

INR continues to probe and weigh the likely motivations behind North Korea’s decision to replace the 1953 armistice with a new agreement, a step that INR believes is driven by practical and symbolic reasons. In taking this step, Pyongyang seems to be sensitive to South Korea’s concerns, being both willing to play on these concerns for tactical reasons and aware that it is not realistic to exclude South Korea from any peace process. Internally, there are signs that the North Korean leadership reasoned that tangible changes in relations with the US would give pragmatists in the leadership leverage to carry out changes in economic and foreign policy. In moving slowly and carefully to dismantle the MAC machinery, it seems that North Korea does not want to destabilize the situation but does want the US to focus on the question of a new peace agreement.

Document 11: North Korea: «No» to Special Inspections; The Secretary’s Morning Intelligence Summary, INR, September 28, 1994 (Top Secret/Codeword)

Source: FOIA

A particularly sharp escalation in North Korean rhetoric, issued in a rare, toughly worded public statement by the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces regarding the negotiations over inspection of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, provides the occasion for another INR attempt to read the tea leaves. The North Korean broadside accused the U.S. of looking for the opportunity to build up its forces on the peninsula «behind the curtain of talks,» and of resorting to military threats, including operations of the USS Kitty Hawk and Independence in the waters around Korea. INR saw this statement as a challenge to members of the leadership who supported talks with the US, as the ministry’s statement echoed traditional, hard-line rhetoric referring to the military’s mission «to protect the socialist fatherland with guns, not words.» While INR saw the tough statement as a reaction to perceived pressure by the US and believed it might be targeted as much at the domestic audience as at the US, analysts thought it might also signify leadership differences coming to a head, and in a more visible fashion given the slow pace of the leadership succession. Regardless of these contending factors, «brinkmanship is a mainstay of the North’s negotiating repertoire,» and a manufactured crisis may in the end force the US to agree to a better deal.

Document 12: Cable, Seoul 000062 to SecState, Subject: North-South Rhetoric: A Year of Chill, January 13, 2009 (Confidential)

Source: Wikileaks

This cable provides the U.S. embassy’s assessment of the «rapid deterioration» in inter-Korea relations since the election of conservative Lee Myung Bak as ROK president a year earlier. (This begs comparison to the situation in 2013 confronting the new South Korea leader Park Geun Hye, daughter of long-time South Korean leader Park Chung Hee.) As the embassy sees it, Lee’s decision to rewrite the ground rules of inter-Korea relations (established over the past ten years by his predecessors Roh Moo Hyun and Kim Dae Jung, and marked by the deliberate cutting off of all North-South contacts), demanded a strong response to demonstrate that Pyongyang is still calling the shots. Seoul’s response has been «calm, even nonchalant,» a position which enjoys significant public support. The cable provides a good summary of the back-and-forth between Seoul and Pyongyang over the past year. In its closing comments, the embassy observes that «The North greeted Lee Myung-bak, as it has done with other past ROK presidents, with hostility and bluster.» but the cables author also notes that Pyongyang observed a certain etiquette, such warning Seoul several times before placing restrictions on border crossings.

Document 13: Cable, Seoul 000186 to SecState, Subject: Heated DPRK Rhetoric Gets Cool ROK Reaction, February 5, 2009 (Confidential)

Source: Wikileaks

This cable reports on the South Korean reaction to recent North Korean statements «nullifying» past inter-Korean agreements. Pyongyang’s comments seemed designed to increase tensions among South Koreans, though that was not the result so far, based on talks at Blue House, the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense and Unification. Here, Pyongyang’s «increasingly shrill» rhetoric is seen as a «desperate, but ineffective» effort to persuade ROK President Lee to change the South’s policies on North-South relations (see cable above). The embassy also views the North’s statement as a «plea for attention» from the new Obama administration. One concern voiced in the cable is that once the DRPK runs out of «rhetorical cards» to play, it may need to resort to a military provocation at sea or along the DMZ. The embassy also believes it unlikely that Pyongyang will close the Kaesong Industrial Complex, given the North’s continued encouragement of business there in late 2008. In its comment, the embassy stresses «the apathy – even nonchalance – with which the ROK public has reacted to the DPRK’s blasts. They see the DPRK as an object of pity, and the heightened North Korea rhetoric as a sign of distress rather than a realistic threat.»

Document 14: Cable, Seoul 000248 to SecState, Subject: A/S Campbell Discusses DP
RK Future with Experts, February 18, 2010 (C)

Source: Wikileaks

This embassy cable reports on a meeting that Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell held with five South Korean opinion leaders and experts about future prospects in North Korea, where «regime succession» was fully underway to prepare for the post-Kim Jong Il era. Here, Campbell hears that it is difficult to predict if Kim Jong Un will be able to succeed his father, Kim Jong Il, without «sparking instability» in North Korea. There is disagreement among the experts about Kim Jong Un’s ability to secure the support of the ruling elites, with some arguing that his brother-in-law, Jang Song Taek, who has been spearheading the succession drive, could prove a strong rival and would probably be tempted to challenge him. Such coups were not unprecedented, as Kim Jong Il had foiled three such attempts in the late 1990s. Doubts are also expressed about Kim Jong Un’s lack of experience, compared to his father who had twenty years of experience as an official of the Korean Worker’s Party before his father died, as well as the benefit of years of guidance from Kim Jong Il after being officially named his father’s successor in 1980. Finally, the experts agree that a critical factor is Beijing’s obsession with North Korean stability at all costs.

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These materials are reproduced from with the permission of the National Security Archive.

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