Kim Jong Un’s Foreign Policy Record: The Juche Revolution Continues

During his first year in power, Kim Jong Un maintained the strategic foreign policy line he inherited from his father without making any major adjustments. In a nutshell, that approach seeks to alter the regional balance of power in North Korea’s favor, expand its resource base, and gain international recognition by building up strategic arms capabilities and using the military alliance with its long-time benefactor China to frustrate and turn to its advantage the “hostile policies”[1] pursued by its enemy states (ROK, US, and Japan). He did his best, albeit with little to show for it, to keep Beijing and Moscow on his side in international disputes without significant cost to Pyongyang’s core national interests. He showed no desire to back off from the Workers’ Party of Korea’s (WPK) unification strategy and tough stance against Seoul as long as Lee Myung Bak was in office. He capitalized on Washington’s disengagement and took full advantage of President Obama’s policy of strategic patience to further advance his long-range missile and nuclear arms development programs. He repeatedly probed Tokyo’s intentions through low-level contacts without relenting vociferous anti-Japanese propaganda.

Kim Jong Un at the Sohae Space Center, on December 14, 2012. Photo:

He continued to support his allies in the decades-long revolutionary fight against world imperialism—Iran and Syria—while making some minor modifications in North Korea’s Middle East policy to account for dramatic changes in the ruling regimes brought about by the Arab Spring in such former friendly countries as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. He also hedged against any further loss of friendly regimes in the Middle East by exploring new opportunities in the cash-rich Gulf States of Qatar and Kuwait.

Upholding Basic Foreign Policy Principles

During his first year in office, Kim Jong Un upheld the long-standing principles of independence, peace, and friendship enshrined in the 1998 Constitution as the main idea of the WPK’s and DPRK’s foreign policy under his rule.[2] He can proudly tell his people that despite considerable pressure from Washington and Beijing, he was no one’s puppet, unlike Seoul, acted independently, and never compromised the sovereignty, national interests, and dignity of the country by “currying favor with anyone or reading their faces in the international arena.”

In the perception of North Korean leadership, its efforts to boost the nation’s defense capability played an important role in “creating a favorable international environment for preserving peace and sovereignty and building a thriving nation under the domestic condition free from war.” According to the WPK‘s official newspaper Rodong Sinmun, “had the DPRK failed to tightly hold arms, it would have allowed the imperialists to ignite the second Korean war and disturb peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and the rest of the world.”[3]

Furthermore, in contrast to the three-year self-imposed international isolation during the mourning period for Kim Il Sung’s death (1994-97), Kim Jong Un did not waste any time after his father’s death, resuming the nation’s diplomatic activities less than a month later. The new leader strengthened friendships and cooperation with all the non-aligned countries that were willing to break ranks with Washington and help Pyongyang overcome international isolation, including many Southeast Asian, African, and Latin American countries, or willing to “check and frustrate the imperialists’ offensive against the DPRK”[4]—countries like Iran, Syria, and Cuba.

Managing the Core Alliance with China with Mixed Results

Managing the DPRK-PRC alliance was the most important foreign policy priority for Kim Jong Un last year. His record on this matter was mixed. On the one hand, those pundits who predicted that China, fed up with the Kim family’s shenanigans, would abandon the North and switch sides to the South after Kim Jong Il’s death, proved to be wrong, at least for now. Despite international sanctions and Western pressure, DPRK-PRC bilateral trade and Chinese investment in the North continued to grow, breaking all previous records. This development was mostly due to the pent-up market demand and pro-Chinese trade policy in the North, but also to the Lee Myung Bak government’s clumsy diplomacy towards Beijing and punitive May 24, 2010, measures vis-à-vis Pyongyang.[5] By various means,[6] Pyongyang succeeded in mollifying and silencing Beijing’s opposition to its botched April 2012 rocket launch. Expanding bilateral trade and investment and vibrant local cross-border exchanges cemented the economic foundation and personal stakes underneath deepening political and military ties between the two countries.

China refused to vote for the proposed UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution but backed the UNSC Presidential Statement condemning the DPRK’s failed April 13 missile launch. A week later, Kim Yong Il, WPK secretary responsible for international affairs, went to Beijing on April 23 to placate the Chinese. He held extensive talks with Wang Jiarui, director of International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of Communist Party of China (CPC CC), and Dai Bingguo, state councilor for foreign affairs, conveying that Kim Jong Un was “determined to follow the instructions of late general secretary Kim Jong Il to make all-out efforts to advance the traditional DPRK-China friendship in a sustainable way.” In the end, Kim Yong Il was able to secure President Hu Jintao’s pledge to support Kim Jong Un’s newly inaugurated government, further strengthen the bilateral alliance, and deepen across-the-board cooperation, policy consultations, and strategic communication between the ruling parties of the two countries.[7]

On the other hand, the North Korean government failed to convince the new Chinese leadership not to support the US-led effort to punish the DPRK for its successful December 2012 satellite launch, which resulted in a unanimous UNSC Resolution 2087, backed by China on January 22, 2013. Moreover, Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping expressed his country’s opposition to the DPRK’s planned nuclear test, putting “considerable pressure” on the North Korean leadership.[8]

It is still unclear what was the real purpose for CPC CC Politburo Member Li Jianguo’s mission to Pyongyang at the end of November—apparently two weeks after Kim Jong Un decided to launch the space rocket again. If Li’s goal was to dissuade Kim from testing, then he failed. If Kim’s goal was to inform the Chinese about the upcoming test and obtain their backing, then he failed. If it was about something else completely, and the issue of the December launch was not even discussed, then it reveals the limits of the North Korean-Chinese strategic dialogue and a potential fissure in the alliance. Whatever it was, Beijing’s vote in favor of UNSC Resolution 2087 seriously irked Pyongyang and poured cold water on the ongoing rapprochement between the two countries.

While Kim sought to demonstrate his effective management of the alliance, it was re-assuring for Beijing that throughout the year Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s powerful uncle, guardian, and “China’s man in Pyongyang,” provided adult supervision over the young leader’s diplomacy with the North’s sole remaining great power patron.

In early August, Kim Jong Un held talks with Wang Jiarui in Pyongyang, assuring him that “it was the unswerving will of the DPRK government and the governing Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) to carry on the legacy of late leader Kim Jong Il and to deepen the DPRK-China traditional friendship,”[9] while receiving Chinese reassurances that “the CPC and the Chinese government viewed China-DPRK relations from a strategic and long- term prospective and it was an unswerving policy to consolidate and develop the China-DPRK friendly cooperative ties.”[10]

In mid-August, the international outcry over China’s violation of UN sanctions related to the DPRK missile activities, including public revelations about the shipment of four giant trucks capable of transporting and launching ballistic missiles by an affiliate of the Chinese military to the Korean People’s Army (KPA),[11] failed to discourage Chinese leaders from rolling out a red carpet and officially hosting Jang Song Thaek, North Korea’s éminence grise, who is subject to the EU and US asset freeze and travel ban. President Hu Jintao agreed with Jang to “upgrade the bilateral relations to a new level,”[12] and Jang clinched stronger economic and political support from China during his talks in Beijing.[13]

Looking over the horizon, I expect Kim Jong Un to pay his first official visit to China to formally open “a new era in the history of bilateral relations” sometime in the second half of this year after the fifth generation of Chinese leadership, led by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, formally takes over the reins of power in March 2013. Although some pundits believe Beijing will not welcome Kim unless he gives assurances that he will rein in his country’s nuclear ambitions by pledging not to conduct a third nuclear test,[14] I disagree. The outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao received the late Kim Jong Il six times in Beijing from 2004 to 2011, during the same period when Pyongyang was actively engaged in missile and nuclear arms development, including two ballistic missile tests and two nuclear tests, respectively in 2006 and 2009. I do not believe that the new Chinese leadership is willing or ready to hold the new North Korean leadership to a higher and more pro-Western standard or to put its core security alliance with Pyongyang to a tougher test at a time when they both are striving to consolidate power at home and gain international recognition abroad.

Finally, it is noteworthy that as the perceived “China man in Pyongyang,” Jang Song Thaek may be deliberately staying out of Kim Jong Un’s decisions on such a controversial issue as nuclear testing, which is objected to by China, in order to preserve “clean hands” and his good standing in Beijing. It gives Jang “plausible deniability” to placate Beijing. If he continues to be actively engaged in the North’s dealings with China, despite the growing DPRK-PRC tensions in the wake of the passage of UNSC Resolution 2087, Jang may wind up a political winner if things go wrong after the third nuclear test, because he will be the only man in Pyongyang who could still go to Beijing to ask for Chinese understanding and assistance to remedy the situation.

Checking and Frustrating Enemy States

Approaching the enemy states, the North Korean government attempted to use its time-tested “tongmibongnam” tactic of dividing the allies by befriending the US and antagonizing the South; but the tactic lost its effectiveness after Kim Jong Un chose to ignore repeated US warnings and tested a ballistic missile on April 13, prompting the collapse of the US-DPRK Leap Day Agreement. Not only did Pyongyang lose the promised US food aid, but both Seoul and Washington hardened their respective stances against Pyongyang, the US-ROK military alliance tightened, and allied coordination of North Korea policy was strengthened. That proved to be a setback for DPRK policy objectives vis-à-vis the enemy states.

In my opinion, the hardline policy towards the South that Kim Jong Un inherited from his father and aggressively pursued during his first year in power backfired last year. Despite a strong “North wind” and Pyongyang’s campaign to oust the Grand National Party from power, the GNP scored an upset victory in the April 11 election and was able to maintain a majority in the ROK’s National Assembly. In order to prevent the Saenuri Party (i.e., re-branded GNP) from winning the Blue House on December 19, 2012 and to help the pro-North forces regain the ROK presidency, the North Korean government decided to harden his hardline even more to further scare off the ROK population. Their hope was that the South Korean voters would elect a more “moderate” and pro-North president in order to avoid living in fear of the North-South confrontation and armed clashes for five more years. Pyongyang’s policy was based on the principle of “anybody but LMB and whoever his clone protégé may be.”[15] Any means were deemed acceptable in the North’s offensive, including the saber-rattling in the West Sea, psychological warfare, and threats of land provocations along the DMZ. Even the December ballistic missile test was in part timed to influence the South Korean electorate. However, Pyongyang’s preferred candidate lost, and Saenuri’s Park Geun Hye won, forcing the North to reconsider its options and recalibrate its policy towards the South again.

Paradoxically, now it looks like Pyongyang is not particularly upset with conservative Park Geun Hye’s victory after all. In their judgment, she most likely will maintain a hard line against the North, which should help Kim Jong Un maintain the siege mentality, silence military discontent, and rally the people around him. Moreover, it will further legitimize the Kim family hereditary rule by showing that a dynastic succession can happen even in the capitalist South. Finally, Park visited the North in May 2002[16] and met with Kim Jong Il.[17] Pyongyang must believe they can handle and do business with her in the future, regardless of the current crisis, hence Kim Jong Un’s reported interest in Park’s summit offer without any pre-conditions and the conciliatory tone in his New Year speech on January 1, 2013. In any case, an early inter-Korean summit would further boost Kim Jong Un’s domestic legitimacy and political standing, as well as gain him more international recognition, let alone, possibly, bring home some bacon (i.e., ROK aid).

With regard to the United States, Kim Jong Un inherited his father’s dual-track strategy, alternating diplomacy with confrontation, depending on the requirements and phases of the country’s missile and nuclear arms development program. As a new leader, he probably wanted to decide for himself whether he could do business with the Obama administration or not.[18] Consequently, last February, he quickly cut a surprising and tempting deal promising to freeze the North’s missile and nuclear tests and uranium enrichment in exchange for US food aid[19] and attempted to be very transparent with his April space launch preparations; but to no avail, he still ended up being reprimanded and sanctioned by the US-led international coalition.

The quick collapse of the Leap Day Agreement prompted Kim Jong Un to initiate a two-month long re-examination of the country’s nuclear policy last summer, which resolved that there would be no more deals involving the surrender of the North’s strategic arms in exchange for foreign food handouts. It also formally outlined the rationale why Pyongyang would continue to “modernize and expand its nuclear deterrent capability beyond the U.S. imagination” as long as the US maintains its “hostile policy.”[20] Two months later the North Korean leadership decided to conduct another space rocket launch, completely disregarding US pressure and international concerns and admonitions. According to the SPA Presidium decree no. 2880 awarding the title of “DPRK Hero” and gold star medals to 101 scientists and technicians who contributed to the successful 12-12-12 space launch, their accomplishment instilled great national self-esteem in North Koreans and remarkably raised the international prestige and influence of the country. It also “dealt a sledge-hammer blow at the US-led hostile forces’ desperate moves to check the advance of the DPRK.”[21]

This notwithstanding, in line with its traditional dual-track strategy, the DPRK Foreign Ministry still cites Kim Jong Il’s August 4, 1997, instruction that “we do not intend to regard the U.S. as the sworn enemy but wish for the normalization of the DPRK-U.S. relations” and maintains that “respected Marshal Kim Jong Un wants to open up a new chapter in the development of relations with the countries friendly towards us, unbound to the past,”[22] leaving the door ajar to possible future engagement with the United States. Reportedly, DPRK vice-minister of foreign affairs Ri Yong Ho re-affirmed this official stance again during his conversation with Bill Richardson and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt in Pyongyang on January 8, 2013. The North Koreans reportedly delivered a similar conciliatory message to Associated Press Vice-President John Daniszewski during his visit to Pyongyang on January 14-15. I expect that following the North’s upcoming third nuclear test, the DPRK Foreign Ministry will seek to resume some sort of dialogue with Washington in one way or another in order to mollify its anger and frustration, to dampen as much as possible any international thrust to impose new tougher sanctions on Pyongyang as a punishment for its continued violations of the UNSC resolutions, as well as to buy time for further advancement of its strategic programs.

Finally, although North Korean diplomacy towards Japan did not score any major advances in 2012, Kim Jong Un’s persistent knocking at Japan’s door finally got some attention in Tokyo, which agreed to resume bilateral inter-governmental discussions frozen since August 2008. The foreign ministries of the two countries held productive talks involving a “deep exchange of opinions” at the section chief level in Beijing last August[23] and bureau director level in Ulan-Bator last November.[24] While the Japanese negotiators were trying to get a sense of how Kim Jong Un would deal with Japan,[25] Pyongyang showed a degree of flexibility on the sticky abductees issue, seeking to undermine the Japanese government’s avowed hard line approach to North Korea policy.[26] Although on December 1, 2012, Tokyo suspended what had been a relatively vibrant dialogue with Pyongyang, following the latter’s announcement of the space rocket launch, I expect bilateral discussions to resume soon this year, especially given the fact that Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang Song Thaek appears to be in charge of orchestrating a new beginning in the North’s relations with Japan, as evidenced by his role in supervising the high-profile DPRK visit by a large Japanese sports delegation led by former wrestler Kanji Inoki last November.[27]

Standing by His Anti-Imperialist Front Confederates

The events of the Arab Spring, particularly the ouster of Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi, taught the North Korean leadership that engaging the West in disarmament issues only brings a temporary reprieve, while in the longer-term making Pyongyang more vulnerable and exposing it to a heightened risk of Western invasion and a Libya-like regime change scenario. This realization has led the new North Korean leadership to reiterate its support for traditional Middle Eastern partners, Iran and Syria, and to strengthen strategic ties with its customary security guarantors, China and Russia. The Arab Spring almost certainly reinforced Kim Jong Un’s drive to ensure the North will be able to deter its enemies with nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, if needed.

The Jasmine Revolution that swept the Arab world cost Pyongyang its strategically important relationship with Cairo and likely seriously damaged its ties to others, including Sanaa, Tunis, and Algeries, teaching it an important lesson that it does not pay to be friends with the US. For, from Pyongyang’s optic, Washington swiftly abandoned—and even pressed to step down—those Arab leaders who had actively cooperated in the war against terrorism and enjoyed close connections with the White House before the uprisings, such as Egypt’s Mubarak and Yemen’s Saleh. That said, the regime changes in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen did not necessarily cut off Pyongyang’s access to some of the more valuable export markets for its weapons because their new leaders appear to be open to conventional arms trade with the North Korean regime in the future.

Consequently, the North Korean government focused its efforts in the Middle East on deepening cooperation with its long-standing partner Iran and its anti-imperialism front confederate Syria. Apparently, Kim Jong Un decided to expand the DPRK’s missile and nuclear development cooperation with Iran, as evidenced by the new agreement on science and technology cooperation signed in the presence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and DPRK’s de facto head of state, Kim Yong Nam, in Tehran on September 2, 2012, as well as the rumored presence of the Iranian missile experts at both the April[28] and December[29][30][31][32] space launches in the North.[33] In addition, during Kim Yong Nam’s visit to Tehran, the North Koreans reportedly agreed to make common cause with the Iranians to ensure the Asad government in Syria is not driven from power and replaced by a pro-US regime that would further tighten the ring around Iran and isolate DPRK.

Additionally, a large Syrian government economic delegation led by Minister of Culture Loubana Mouchaweh visited Pyongyang in early November 2012 and signed a series of important bilateral MOUs and agreements on expanded cooperation in economic and S&T areas. The two governments are rumored to have probably agreed on some sort of expanded military and military-technical assistance from Pyongyang to Damascus. The North Korean government understands that it will not be rewarded or gain favor from its enemies for not doing what it thinks is necessary to protect the nation. Therefore, if Kim Jong Un decides that throwing his country’s lot with Syria at this critical moment is in the North’s fundamental interest, then Pyongyang may step up conventional arms shipments and expand other forms of military assistance to the Asad regime in the coming year, despite the risk that such support may damage Kim’s other policy objectives, especially domestic economic revival and normalization of relations with other states.

Revealing Bold and Aggressive Leadership Style

Looking back at his first year in power, I believe Kim Jong Un’s leadership style is characterized by bold, aggressive actions bordering on brinkmanship, with two principal traits really distinguishing him from Kim Jong Il. First, the son is very competitive, maximalist in his aspirations, and driven by machismo, in contrast to his father’s time-induced cautiousness, minimalist desires, and pragmatism. Moderation and patience may be just a function of age and experience; time will tell. Second, Kim Jong Un is tenacious and even obdurate, and, therefore, he is rather unpredictable in terms of what he can do, and how far and how hard he can push to achieve his goals, unlike his father who was prudent and far-sighted, and, therefore, fairly predictable in his maneuvering, despite his occasionally impulsive behavior.

In general, Herb Caen once said: “A man begins cutting his wisdom teeth the first time he bites off more than he can chew.”[34] The United States and its allies must decide now how to approach a stronger, more confident and aggressive North Korea in the future—either to accept the North the way it is, eventually normalize bilateral relations, and initiate some sort of strategic arms control process to cap its strategic capabilities, or to demonstrate to Kim Jong Un that he is biting more than he can chew and impress the KPA supreme commander that Uncle Sam actually means it when he draws the red line.

[1] In the North Korean perception, these “hostile” policies range from political isolation, diplomatic pressure, military containment, and proliferation security initiative to economic sanctions and trade embargoes. For a detailed official discussion of the US “hostile policy,” see “DPRK Terms U.S. Hostile Policy Main Obstacle in Resolving Nuclear Issue, Memorandum of DPRK Ministry of Foreign affairs,” KCNA, Pyongyang, August 31, 2012,

[2] “Rodong Sinmun Calls for Preserving Idea of Independence, Peace and Friendship,” KCNA, January 6, 2013.

[3] “Rodong Sinmun Calls for Preserving Idea of Independence, Peace and Friendship,” KCNA, January 6, 2013.

[4] “Rodong Sinmun Calls for Preserving Idea of Independence, Peace and Friendship,” KCNA, January 6, 2013.

[5] “Lift the May 24 measures and get down to business with the North,” The Hankyorye, May 24, 2012,

[6] These efforts included North Korean narrative of alliance dynamics emphasizing blood ties, shared revolutionary and anti-imperialist war past, shared values and common interests between the two ruling parties, armies, and states generation after generation, Pyongyang’s skillful manipulation of Beijing’s geopolitical sensitivities, especially its effective portrayal of the US-ROK alliance as a growing security threat to China, plausible interpretation of applicable international space law and practices, clever propaganda about ROK’s and Japan’s space ambitions and missile defense plans, near perfect choice of timing, and high-level personal diplomacy.

[7] “Hu talks advancing ties with DPRK guests,”, April 23, 2012,

[8] “Xi’s Call for Denuclearization ‘to Put Pressure on N.Korea’,” Chosun Ilbo, January 24, 2013,

[9] KCNA, August 2, 2012.

[10] Xinhua, August 2, 2012.

[11] “China Shipped Missile Launch Vehicles to DPRK,” AFP, June 13, 2012.

[12] “Hu Jintao Receives DPRK Delegation,” KCNA, August 17, 2012.

[13] “Korean leader’s uncle seen to have clinched stronger economic support from China,” Yonhap, August 17, 2012,

[14] Benjamin Kang Lim, “Kim Jong Un China Visit Request Turned Down,” Reuters, October 3, 2012,

[15] KCNA Detailed Report: “Reporting the Five Years of Destruction of North-South Relations”, Rodong Sinmun in Korean, Pyongyang, October 4, 2012

[16] “Sojourn of Pak Kun Hye and her party in Pyongyang,” KCNA, May 14, 2002,

[17] “Kim Jong Il receives Pak Kun Hye,” KCNA, May 13, 2002,

[18] Kim Jong Un’s real motivation for signing his first diplomatic agreement in office—with the United States—remains a mystery, but what many outside observers concluded was that Pyongyang did not act in good faith. My personal opinion is that his motives were not strategic in the sense of using the accord as a foundation for normalizing DPRK-US relations, but tactical and political. By signing a separate deal directly with Washington and leaving Seoul in the cold, Pyongyang probably wanted to split the United States from South Korea and influence the upcoming ROK parliamentary election by demonstrating the failure of Lee Myung Bak’s hard line policy towards the DPRK and his total reliance on the United States. Also, the new North Korean leadership probably wanted to implement Kim Jong Il’s last will, including his desire to reach some sort of accommodation with the US, even though they knew it was incompatible with the country’s long-term strategic arms development goals.

[19] The so-called Leap Day Accord was so lop-sided and so good from the US perspective that it was hard to believe it would stick. And, in fact, it did not: it quickly proved to be still borne as a result of the North’s botched missile test on April 13 and left a bitter memory of deceit and betrayal in the minds of key players in Washington.

[20] “DPRK Terms U.S. Hostile Policy Main Obstacle in Resolving Nuclear Issue,” Memorandum of DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, August 31, 2012.

[21] “Award to Contributors to Successful Launch of Satellite,” KCNA, December 23, 2012.

[22] “DPRK Terms U.S. Hostile Policy Main Obstacle in Resolving Nuclear Issue,” Memorandum of DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, August 31, 2012.

[23] “Japan, North Korea hold first talks in 4 years, By Christopher Bodeen,” Associated Press, August 29, 2012,

[24] “Japan, North Korea to talk again, but no breakthroughs,” Associated Press, November 16, 2012,

[25] “Japan To Test Waters on Abduction Issue in N. Korea Talks After 4 Yrs,” Kyodo, August 28, 2012.

[26] “North Approaches Japan for Talks Restart,” Daily NK, December 31, 2012,

[27] “Jang Song Thaek Meets Japanese Guests,” KCNA, November 15, 2012.

[28] “Iranian officials observed NK‘s rocket launch,” The Korea Times, April 16, 2012,

[29] “Iran experts ‘advising Pyongyang on rocket launch’,” The Times, December 10, 2012,

[30] Jeffrey Lewis, “Iranians in North Korea?” Arms Control Wonk blog, December 5, 2012,

[31] “Iran to observe North Korea missile test,” UPI, December 7, 2012,

[32] “Iran stations defense staff at North Korean site,” The Jerusalem Post, December 2, 2012,

[33] Also significant was DPRK foreign trade minister Ri Ryong Nam’s November visit to Tehran, which reportedly boosted bilateral trade and economic exchanges, probably dealt with the thorny problem of the outstanding North Korean debt to Iran, and may have secured some sort of Iranian compensation for the expected transfer of North Korean high technology to Tehran. See, “Iranian Vice-President Praises Exploits Performed by Great Men of Korea,” KCNA, November 13, 2012.

[34] Herb Caen. (n.d.). Retrieved January 31, 2013, from Web site:

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