The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future
The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future

The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future

Jun 11, 2012

Policy expert and scholar Victor Cha lifts the curtain on North Korea, one of the world's most isolated, poorly-understood, and dangerous nations, and explains why he believes that the level of risk has escalated since Kim Jong-il's death.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning and welcome. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council it is my pleasure to welcome you today.

This morning it's my pleasure to welcome back to this podium one of our country's foremost Korean scholars, Victor Cha. Professor Cha will be discussing his new book, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future, in which he pulls back the curtain of this enigmatic nation-state to reveal the contradictions of a place where time stands still, where few are allowed to enter, and even fewer are allowed to leave.

For a reclusive and hermetically sealed nation, North Korea [DPRK] has garnered a lot of news coverage. But it is not for its successes that it has done so. It is more about its failures and the hardships it has imposed on its people.

The sudden death of its leader Kim Jong-il and the succession of Kim Jong-un signifies that a new era has begun. But the question on many minds is whether the continuation of the Kim dynasty and the obsessive personality cult surrounding them will—or can—change with this new leadership.

As North Korea continues to pursue nuclear weapons, carries out military provocations, imposes terrible economic decisions that have resulted in years of famine, and implements draconian control on all liberties, one wonders how the policies of this untenable, unpredictable, authoritarian country have managed to survive and can continue to do so while so many other dictatorships have collapsed or are in the process of being toppled. The answer is complex.

For those inside and outside the U.S. government who follow North Korea, it is known that when you need penetrating insight and analysis, Professor Cha is the one person you can rely on to provide the information for the real story behind the headlines. Professor Cha has been studying this nation for years and reporting on it for a variety of journals. This experience, combined with his service on the National Security Council [NSC] in the Bush administration, has given him a rare perspective on North Korea's past and present. Even more so, he is one of the few handfuls of Americans who have visited the country and negotiated with the North Koreans on behalf of the United States.

Today he will give us a dissection of how the country came to be, how the Kim dynasty has maintained its grip on power, and what the future may hold for a regime whose mere existence is an affront to every nation that cares about morality, modernity, and human dignity.

While no one can ever accurately predict the future, having the best tutor to help us better understand who the North Korean people are and why, since the country's founding in 1948, they continue to accept the repression they have endured, can perhaps prepare us for what lies ahead for the most secretive country in the world.

Please join me in welcoming Professor Cha.


VICTOR CHA: Thank you, Joanne. It is a pleasure to be here, President Rosenthal, ambassadors, ladies and gentlemen.

I was saying to Joanne as we were having breakfast that coming to the Carnegie Council does feel like coming home because I am a native New Yorker, born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and as a graduate student at Columbia I used to come to some of the events here at the Carnegie Council when Bob Myers was here.

I knew Bob for a long time. We were out at Stanford together actually when he retired and moved out there. We played golf twice a week on Stanford's golf course. He used to beat me all the time. A dearly departed man, but wonderful memories. It's very good to be here.

Today I am going to be talking about the book and about North Korea.

I think probably the best way to begin the discussion is to say that I think that today there is probably more risk when we look at the Korean Peninsula and what is going on with North Korea than there was, say, six months ago, a year ago, certainly more risk than the last time I was with you talking about the topic. I think that is for four reasons:

  • The first is the sudden death by a massive heart attack of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who died December of 2011, completely unexpectedly.

  • Second is the ascension to power of his third and youngest son, an untested leader, a fellow by the name of Kim Jong-un, who is, we think, maybe 29 or 30 years old.

  • Third, I think there is more risk today because we are probably in store for more provocations from North Korea—possibly another missile test, possibly another nuclear test—before the end of this year.

  • Fourth, there is an escalation dynamic, I think, that we see in the current situation that may not have been there before. I'll explain what I mean by that. But essentially, there are normally exit ramps whenever we get into a crisis with North Korea, and, for a variety of reasons, those exit ramps don't appear to be as open as they were in the past.

The start of all this, or at least the most recent crisis, was this rocket shot that the North Koreans did in April. It was a test of something called the Unha-3 rocket, which basically ended what was probably the last attempt at diplomacy by the Obama administration with North Korea.

At the end of February, the Obama Administration had reached an agreement with the North Koreans in which they would provide 240,000 metric tons of food in return for a moratorium on North Korean missile and nuclear weapons tests, as well as the reintroduction of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors into the uranium facility at Yongbyon. This agreement was negotiated on the last day of February, hence it was called the Leap Day agreement, and it was announced in both countries the next day.

Two weeks after this agreement was announced, the North Koreans announced that they were going to do a rocket test, a satellite test. Everybody on the U.S. side threw up their hands. They said, "This is a violation of the agreement that we had just reached two weeks ago."

The North Koreans said, "No, it's not a violation of the agreement because the agreement was about ballistic missile tests, it wasn't about satellite launches."

We said, "You're launching your satellite on a ballistic missile; hence, it is a ballistic missile test and a violation."

We went back and forth like this. Anyway, the whole thing ended up falling apart two weeks after the agreement had been reached.

Just for the record, what the North Koreans did try to launch was something called the KM3 satellite. They said it was a weather satellite. I'm not a spacehead, but I've looked a little bit into this. The frequency at which this so-called satellite would have operated was at a megahertz frequency which was about the frequency of probably your son's or your grandson's remote-controlled car. So it's not really a satellite.

It was equipped with a low-resolution digital camera. The purpose of a satellite, obviously, is to take pictures of the earth from space. You can't get very good pictures from a low-resolution digital camera. This was an attempt at a satellite. If anything, it was a micro-satellite. It weighed about 100 kilograms, which is again not a very large satellite, but it is about the weight of a 1-kiloton nuclear warhead.

So this was not a satellite; it was a ballistic missile. What the North Koreans are essentially doing is they are following the footsteps of the Chinese and the Russians, which is the Chinese and the Russians both started their ballistic missile program as a satellite program. Once they were successful at launching a satellite, the military application came first and then the civilian application came later. North Korea is basically following in those very same footsteps.

The other thing we have to remember is that even if the North were able to put this into orbit, they don't have the communications infrastructure to communicate with that satellite. We have NASA here in the United States, and we see pictures of Houston communicating with satellites. That doesn't exist in North Korea.

As my former dearly departed colleague at Georgetown, Christopher Joyner, has told me, who is an expert on these sorts of issues, the DPRK has never been a member of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space regime, have not participated actively in it. So this is for all intents and purposes a ballistic missile.

The North Koreans have done three or four of these tests in the past. They have two missile sites. One is on the east coast of the peninsula and one is on the west coast.

The last three have been from the east coast, and they launched them basically over Japan in the direction of Hawaii. I take that personally because I spend my summers in Hawaii at the East-West Center.

The last one was fairly successful. It overflew Japan. The first stage landed in the Sea of Japan. The second stage landed in the Pacific Ocean. So there were a lot of concerns that this next test would actually be quite successful.

But this time the North Koreans wanted to make sure that nobody felt excluded, so they launched not from the east coast but from the west coast in a southward trajectory, meaning that South Korea, China, and the Philippines were all within range of this thing, so everybody would feel like they were included in these North Korean activities.

The projected flight path of it was that the second stage would land basically off the shore of the Philippines. So South East Asia was quite interested in this as well.

The test was a spectacular failure, as many of you may have seen. This was part of celebrations that the North Koreans were doing to celebrate the 100th birthday of the founder of the country, Kim Il-sung, in April. They had a bunch of celebrations, it was a major event, and they invited basically all of the world to come and watch this.

I was actually in New York in the beginning of April and was asked by NBC to come in to consult with them about their invitation to go there. They were bringing a national security correspondent as well as a space expert to North Korea. CNN was there, the AP. There were over 100 foreign journalists that were there to witness this spectacular failure. So I think it was very embarrassing for them. I think the implications of this, of course, are that, because it failed, many people are concerned that they will have to do another demonstration.

In the past, these tests have been done for reasons of science. You cannot know how good your technology is unless you test it. Diplomats argue for reasons, of course, of bargaining, to try to compel the United States into a negotiation or to try to compel the South Koreans into a negotiation.

But the third dynamic now, with this leadership transition, is domestic legitimacy. This 29-year-old, his first big event after the death of his father, he's got to prove himself to all these foreign five-star generals that are sitting around him and party elders—there is now a domestic legitimacy dynamic that compels a test in a way that didn't exist really in the past. So that, I think, is a concern for all of us.

How do we solve this problem, or how do we get out of this situation?

The answer has always been China. China is the country that has the most material leverage on North Korea. China is North Korea's closest patron. China has given lots of food and energy assistance to North Korea. So the argument has always been: We need to work this issue by getting China to do more. It's in China's interest for there not to be nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. So the Bush administration and the Obama administration have made China a big part of the strategy of how to deal with North Korea.

From the Chinese perspective, they have had a long-term strategy with regard to North Korea. That is a long-term strategy aimed at trying to reform the country.

In the book that Joanne mentioned, I have a table in there that shows every trip taken by Kim Jong-il to China from 2000 until his death in 2011. That chart lists every place the Chinese took him. You can see from the list of places that the Chinese took him that the Chinese had a strategy here. They took him to car factories, they took him to cellphone plants, they took him to IT companies. They took him to everything to try to get the North Koreans to think about following the Chinese model.

The Chinese feel that the North Koreans can make this sort of reform because they made that sort of reform in their own system. They point to Vietnam as another example that North Korea should follow. So the long-term strategy that China has always sought is to try to use these opportunities at the very highest levels, and also at mid level and even working level, to try to promote economic reform in North Korea as the answer to solving this nuclear problem.

As we can see from the results, it has been spectacularly unsuccessful. We see countries like Burma/Myanmar, making major changes, Vietnam, but not North Korea. Why is that the case? Two reasons, I think.

One, China had Deng Xiaoping in 1979, a charismatic figure who pushed reform in China. This 29-year-old is not Deng Xiaoping in North Korea. So you don't have a charismatic, strong leader.

Secondly, Deng Xiaoping said, "To get rich is glorious." In North Korea still the most important thing, I think, is political control. China understood that "to get rich is glorious" means that there would be some dilution of central political control and they were willing to take that risk. This North Korean system, with the sudden death of a dictator followed by the succession of a 29-year-old, the most important commodity is political control. That's why reform is much harder in the North Korean case.

That has been the long-term strategy for China, which has failed.

The short-term tactic for North Korea has been to try to restrain them, because every time the North Koreans do something bad, what does everybody do? The first place everybody goes is to China and they blame China—"Do something about this." This is the last thing China wants. Every time North Korea undertakes a test like this, the Chinese name gets dragged through the mud, everybody blames the Chinese, all the pressure is on the Chinese.

That's why every time we meet with the Chinese they always say, "Just get back to six-party talks." That's what they want to do. They want to get back to six-party talks. Why? Because if we're back at six-party talks all the pressure comes off China. All the pressure then comes onto the United States to negotiate. This is the problem that the Chinese have.

So their short-term tactic has been to try to restrain, either by withholding food, withholding energy. They never make public what they do, in part because they don't want to be seen as caving to U.S. pressure, and they certainly don't want people to know that they are attempting to restrain North Korea because if they fail, then it would be public that they had failed. So they try to do this on their own.

We don't know if it has been successful. We haven't had another missile or nuclear test since April, so I guess up until now it has been successful. But overall this has been a sad substitute for their longer-term strategy of trying to reform North Korea.

I think probably the most interesting development with regard to China that we have seen in the last couple of years is, in addition to their long-term strategy and their short-term tactic, China has, since 2009, really decided to do not what is good for North Korea, but what is good for China.

Essentially, that has between since 2009 to support the leadership transition in North Korea. Kim Jong-il had a stroke in 2008, and from that point on the Chinese made a decision not to abandon the regime but to really stick close to it and try to support this leadership transition politically.

And then, there is the economically large-scale investment in North Korean mines. The geography of the Korean Peninsula is such that the South is really the breadbasket of the country, it's more rural; while the North is actually quite rich in mineral resources, coal, copper, nickel, some rare earths as well. So again, it's amazing that this country that is so rich in mineral resources is such an economic basket case.

But the Chinese understand this. For this reason, since 2009 they have made major investments in the coal, nickel, copper, and basically are excavating all this stuff and sending it to their two inland provinces that sit adjacent to North Korea, Heilongliang and Jilin provinces.

Again, in China, as some of you know, there is a big imbalance between the inland provinces and the coastal provinces. The coastal provinces are doing very well economically. The inland provinces are having lots of trouble economically. So the Chinese have basically decided to extract all these mineral resources into their inland provinces and in that way solve their own economic problems.

They get good deals in North Korea. It's not like North Korea can do business with anybody else. So they get good prices. They don't have to follow any rules. So they manage to do quite well in North Korea.

That is essentially what they have been doing. They have been doing what is good for China in North Korea.

What about the United States? The common solution that people say for the United States to undertake is that we should just give the North Koreans a security guarantee. This is a small, isolated country. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it lost one of its major partners and supporters. When China normalized relations with South Korea in 1992, it lost another major partner.

This is a small, isolated country that used to have great relations with all of the Eastern bloc. Romania was very close to North Korea and East Germany was very close to North Korea. They are all gone for all intents and purposes.

So it is a small, isolated country. That's why they are pursuing nuclear weapons. It's the only thing that they think can help them and secure them forever.

The common criticism, I think, of U.S. policy has been: If we just gave them a security guarantee and made them feel like there was no threat from the United States, then we could start convincing them to give up their nuclear weapons.

In the book I have a table where I went back and listed, going back to George H. W. Bush, every statement with regard to a security guarantee that the United States has given to North Korea. I took every statement from the president and the national security advisor and we went through each of them systematically and listed them. It ended up being something like 12 single-spaced pages of statements that the United States has given.

Actually, when I gave a copy of this—I had to get this book cleared by the NSC before it was published because I had worked on these issues. The State Department folks actually found that table very interesting, because there was no place, they said, in the U.S. government that that information had ever been collected.

There are very clear statements from George H. W. Bush, very clear statements from President Clinton, very clear statements from President Bush, and very clear statements from President Obama.

I was personally involved in one of these security assurances in the context of the six-party talks, where we were negotiating a document in which we sought language saying that the North would give up all of their nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs. In exchange for that, the North Koreans wanted language with regard to a security assurance.

Naturally, our instinct was to go back to see what had been said before by U.S. presidents and offer that language. The North Koreans, with the Chinese behind them, said, "No, we don't want that language. We'll come back to you with language."

They came back to us with language. The language was: "The United States affirms that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and that it will not attack North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons."

We looked at this statement and we said, "Are you serious? You want us to get this approved?"

They said, "Yes."

The Chinese chair the six-party talks, so they hold the pen. They gave us this statement. They said, "See if you can get this approved."

We said, "Okay, we'll try."

We went back to the embassy, cabled it back, gave all the reasons why, then went to bed. I thought we were done really. I thought we were going to be coming back the next day because I didn't think we could get this language approved.

The next morning we come back in and they tell us, "This language is approved." We said, "Really? All right."

So we went to the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse where we do these negotiations, went to the drafting room where the Chinese and the other delegations were waiting for us. We walked into the room and we said, "This language has been approved. Let's get going."

The Chinese stopped and they said, "Really?" [Laughter]

The South Koreans and the Japanese, who are our allies, kind of stood there and they were like, "Really?" because that's not what they like to hear.

The North Koreans stood there and they were like, "Really?"

At which point the Russian delegation said, "We'd like a recess."

The Chinese head of delegation said, "Recess? We haven't even started the morning session. Why do you want a recess?"

It was very unclear why they wanted a recess. But they insisted on a recess. The Chinese, being the hosts that they were, said, "Of course you can have a recess."

So before we even got into the room to start the negotiation, we all stepped back out, everybody got coffee.

The Russians then took the North Koreans into a side room. What often happens, as many of you know, in these multilateral negotiations is that there are a lot of side meetings that take place in the bilateral context. They wanted a recess because they wanted to talk to the North Koreans.

So 20 minutes go by. We're waiting. They come out. The North Koreans head straight back into the main negotiating room.

The Russians said, "Okay, we're ready. Let's go back in."

We kind of looked at them like, "You're not going to tell us why you wanted a recess? Is there something we should know?"

They said, "Oh yes. We told the North Koreans that we thought you, the United States, were serious this time."

We said, "Thank you. We think we're serious too. That's why we're at these negotiations."

They said, "No, no, no. We told them that this language that you approved is basically the equivalent of a negative security assurance. We told them that we think this is quite important because we, the Soviet Union, throughout the Cold War tried to get a negative security assurance from the United States and you would never give it to us. So we think that this is quite important and we told the North Koreans that."

So we thought, "Thank you, that's very kind of you, that's very helpful."

Of course, it ended up not being very helpful because that language today sits—and you can look it up—in the 2005 joint statement, a very important statement, very important clause.

Essentially, the North Koreans just—you know, they had wanted this statement for years. Then, once they got it, they put it in their pocket and they moved on to the next thing that they wanted.

One of the things that I personally learned from that experience is it's not a security assurance that they want, in spite of all my academic friends who told me that this was the problem. When I went into government and joined the Bush Administration, they all came out and criticized me and said, "This is what they should be doing, not following a hard-line policy."

But in the end it's not a security assurance that they want. They want a regime assurance. They want an assurance that if they go into a process of economic reform, which will inevitably put pressure on a closed dictatorship like this, they want some sort of assurance from the outside world that their regime will be kept intact, that the Kim family will be kept intact.

Of course, that is not something that the United States can do. It may be something that China is willing to do, but it is not something that the United States can do. So that's the sort of assurance that they want and that's not the sort of assurance that the United States can give.

So where does that leave us? I think, as I started at the outset, we are in a bit of a delicate situation right now.

Again, in the book there is a table that will—it won't look like it makes a lot of sense to folks unless I explain it. Basically, when I left government, we did a study where we looked at the history of U.S. negotiations from the Reagan administration, from 1984, or before 1984, through until 2011. Basically, we tracked every period of U.S. negotiation with DPRK, and we also tracked every major provocation by the North Koreans—cruise missile tests, ballistic missile tests, nuclear tests, artillery shelling, all this sort of stuff—over this 20-year period.

The interesting thing that we found was that throughout that entire period, except for one time, there was no period in which U.S. negotiations overlapped with North Korean provocations. Basically, what it said was when we were in negotiations with them they didn't do ballistic missile tests, nuclear tests, any of these sorts of things.

What we also found from that study was that when negotiations broke down, you were almost assured of a provocation. The average time period for another provocation after the breakdown of negotiations was about two months.

But what we also found was that after that provocation—and this is the exit ramp—invariably the United States would come back to negotiations to try to get this thing off of crisis track. The average amount of time for that to happen over a 20-year period was about five-and-a-half months. So there is a cycle to this in which there was always some sort of exit ramp.

So what's the problem today? The problem today is for domestic legitimacy reasons, because this rocket test failed in April, I think people are concerned that this young 29-year-old is going to feel compelled to do something else to compensate for the failure of the first thing. So we are going to get another provocation.

The second thing is that when they do their provocation, particularly if it is against the South Koreans—you know, they can do missile tests and all this, but they have also been doing conventional provocations against South Korea. In 2010, they sank a South Korean navy ship, killing 46 sailors. Then they actually fired 109 artillery shells on a South Korean island, killing two marines, two civilians, and injuring lots of people.

If their provocation is a conventional provocation against South Korea, the South Koreans have said this time they are going to respond kinetically.

I actually testified in Congress yesterday. A Congressman said, "Can you explain what you mean by 'kinetically'?" I said, "Congressman, that means they're going to blow stuff up in North Korea." [Laughter] That's the technical definition.

But the South Koreans have made it very clear that they are not going to take this anymore. For 40 years they have sat still with a lot of North Korean provocation, largely because they are worried about the stock market. They don't want to create a crisis atmosphere in terms of the economy. But they are basically fed up, they have had enough, and with the next provocation they said they are going to respond.

Then, thirdly, I mentioned this cycle. We don't have an exit ramp this time because, given where we are here in the United States in terms of the election campaign and everything else, the Obama administration is not going to go back to negotiations if the North Koreans do another provocation. They are not going to try to take this off of crisis track and basically leave themselves vulnerable to all sorts of criticism from the other side about how they are basically appeasing the world's worst nuclear weapons state.

This is what worries me about the current situation, because there are three new variables here:

  • This domestic legitimacy thing pushing the North Koreans to do something;

  • The fact that the South Koreans have lost patience, that they are going to respond; and

  • The fact that the current administration really is done with engagement. They feel they have tried. They tried at the beginning of their presidency. They tried again the last couple of years. They have been burned royally both times. They are just done in terms of engagement. So that's not a good cycle for us to be in.

On that happy note, I'd be happy to take any questions you might have about the book. Thank you all for coming here this morning.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.

You hinted at some of this, but I'd like to see you develop it a little bit more. What are the vital U.S. interests at stake in North Korea? To be blunt, why does this matter to us? And what should we be doing by way of response to protect these vital interests and just those?

VICTOR CHA: I would point to three things.

The first, from strictly a national security point of view, North Korea is a major proliferator. They have, according to public record, we believe enough fissile material for eight to 12 nuclear weapons. This last test that they tried to do was a ballistic missile test that aimed to attain a missile range that could reach portions of Alaska, Hawaii, maybe the west coast of the United States and Canada.

And they have basically sold every weapons system they have ever developed. They helped the Syrians try to build a nuclear reactor, until the Israelis took it out. The Iranian Shahab missile is a North Korean missile. The Pakistani Ghauri missile is a North Korean missile.

For that reason, I think that we are quite concerned about the threat that they pose, and about particularly the proliferation threat. Both Secretary Gates and Secretary Panetta have been on record saying that while this used to be just a proliferation threat, it is now becoming a homeland security threat because of their ability to reach farther with their missiles. So that would be one.

Secondly, the United States has two major allies in the region, South Korea and Japan. North Korea currently does have the missile capability to reach all parts of these countries and the U.S. forces that are stationed in both of these countries as well as the expat community that is in both places. I don't know the number for Tokyo, but in the city of Seoul the expat community is well over 100,000.

Third, we have major economic interests in this part of the world. Indeed, as we look around the world, this is the only part of the world economically that has a bright economic future right now, when we look at Europe and other places. The Obama administration has made very clear that it is pivoting to Asia, in the sense that this is going to be the major area of U.S. foreign policy, diplomatic and economic focus.

Panetta, at the Shangri-La meeting in South East Asia last week, said that the U.S. military rebalance will notionally go from what may have been 50/50 between the Atlantic and the Pacific to 60/40 now in the Pacific.

I think for all those reasons and—I should add, because it often gets forgotten—the human rights aspect of it too. This is the worst human rights disaster in modern history.

When I was in the administration, President Bush had this thing where he used to bring in dissidents from all different countries. Whether you agreed or disagreed with his policies, those meetings were very interesting.

One of them was with a North Korean defector. I escorted the defector from our offices in the Eisenhower Building across West Wing alley up the stairs to the West Wing portico.

As we walked up there, he stopped and he looked at the West Wing and he said to me in Korean, "Is this the White House?"

I said, "No, this is actually the West Wing. The White House is over there, the bigger residence."

He looked at all this and he goes, "There really is a God, right?" This guy was a defector in a prison camp and he escaped. Never in his lifetime had he thought he would be brought into the Oval Office to meet the president of the United States.

When he came out of the meeting, he said, "I'm glad that the United States cares about it, because there's no other country in the world that would do this sort of stuff."

I think the human rights aspect is another reason that we are interested in it, although it has been very difficult to improve the human rights situation there.

QUESTION: James Starkman.

Assuming, as you pointed out, that the threat to particularly South Korea and proliferation around the world of their weapons are the two major factors that the United States is confronting, what leverage can we possibly have when 10,000 artillery emplacements by North Korea are within artillery range of the 10 or 11 nuclear plants that surround the city of Seoul?

VICTOR CHA: That's a very good question. It's a hard one to answer.

You said 10 or 12 nuclear plants around the city of Seoul. As you know, they are planning to build more nuclear plants.

There have been two strategic problems when it comes to North Korea with regard to a military solution for the problem. One is that the Chinese are right there. The last thing the United States wants to do is to be involved in some sort of military situation on the peninsula that escalates into a U.S.-China conflict.

The second is the fact that the North Koreans, despite building all of these nuclear weapons and missiles, have the most effective deterrent right in front of them, which are these thousands of artillery tubes that sit basically positioned on Seoul—conventional artillery; they could be chemically armed artillery shells—that are literally within a minute's warning time from a population of 20 million people. It is very hard to handle that situation strategically.

But it has been a standoff, as you know, for 50 years because while the North Koreans hold that, they also know that if they were to undertake some sort of attack that the United States and South Korea would roll back and would basically end the regime. So they have been mutually deterred.

But I think the problem right now is that as the North Koreans continue to push the envelope with these tests and with these provocations, the South Koreans feel like they want more, they need more. So they have been pushing the United States for longer-range missiles. The South Koreans right now are allowed to build missiles up to the MTCR [Missile Technology Control Regime] guidelines. They want longer-range missiles so that they can strike anywhere in North Korea.

There are some in South Korea—I don't agree with this at all—that are even calling for South Korea to have nuclear weapons or to re-introduce tactical U.S. nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. I think both of those two are bad ideas. I think they won't help the situation at all.

The point that you make is a very good one. It has been what has helped to keep stable deterrence on the peninsula. But with more and more of these North Korean provocations, I think the South Koreans feel like deterrence is breaking down. Therefore, they are always looking now for new ways of trying to enhance their own capabilities.

QUESTION: Good morning. Thanks for a fascinating talk. Just two quick questions.

I was a bit puzzled by this notion of a regime assurance. Can you tell us a bit what that would mean in detail? Would it mean that North Koreans ask for the U.S. government's commitment not to try to initiate a regime change? What does it mean? The North Koreans would probably not have asked the United States to say, "We will always like your government," or anything like that.

The second question is—this is just one of really several nuclear crisis situations that we have—how do you see the future of the architecture that we have in place? We have the NPT [Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons] that is really based on the premise that some states own nuclear weapons but commit to disarm and others commit to not acquiring nuclear weapons, and neither of those premises is really working. How do you see the future of that architecture, leaving aside the role of the IAEA and other elements that clearly are positive elements? But do you believe that this is conceptually the way to go into the future?

VICTOR CHA: On the first question, I think the regime assurance—we have never tried to actually operationalize what a regime assurance would mean, because it's not something that the United States is interested in. But I would imagine that it means, first of all, diplomatic normalization and recognition of North Korea, inviting the North Korean leader to the White House for a state visit. [Laughter] Just think about that, right? I think it would mean these sorts of things.

The regime assurance that they want I don't think is a function of the way we treat North Korea. I think the regime assurance really is a function of the regime's own insecurity. Dictators like this are paranoid. Stalin was a manic paranoid. It's the nature of the regime that causes them to feel so insecure.

We used to have these sorts of discussions among our own group and then with the North Koreans offline. I used to say to them—it's probably not polite to say this in public company—"The insecurity you feel is not because of us. The insecurity you feel is because of your own system. You could be surrounded by five Costa Ricas—and Costa Rica has no military—and you'd still feel insecure, because it has to do with the regime, it doesn't have to do with us."

Second point on the NPT regime, the architecture. I think for many the reason we continue to negotiate with North Korea is because we think this is a real test of the NPT regime and the architecture. Yes, you have India and Pakistan, but this is probably the worst violator, North Korea. If we can't put this one in a bottle, the NPT regime really is gone in that sense.

But there is no denying that this is a leaky boat. It's a very leaky boat and it's fighting an uphill battle with Iran, with India, with Pakistan, North Korea. It's a very difficult argument to make about the future of the NPT regime being airtight, very clearly.

JOANNE MYERS: Just going back to pick upon the regime assurances, do you think there is ever the possibility that it could be overthrown or toppled, like what's happening in the Arab countries now?

VICTOR CHA: The answer is we don't know. But I think one of the things that I learned from watching the Arab Spring is that things are stable up until they're not. [Laughter]

The new North Korean regime after the death of Kim Jong-il has been in place for five months. There are lots of people who say, "It's stable. They went through the transition. There are no problems. It has going on for five months." So it's stable up until it's not, right?

We have seen lots of transitional regimes in history last five months, 15 months, longer, before it collapses, and then after it collapses we're like, "Yeah, that was just a transitional regime."

In the case of North Korea, the dynamic that I point out in the book is I think this new, young leadership, rather than being more reform-oriented, is actually becoming much more hardline, because it's all about control. So the politics of the country under this young leader are actually becoming much more obsessed with control, much less interested in reform and opening, because they need to consolidate their position.

At the same time, North Korean society is changing. The last time the leader died was in 1994, the first leader of North Korea. There was a leadership transition and they managed to make it through. Kim Jong-il took over for his father and they managed to make it through. People say, "If they can make it through that period, why can't they make it through this period?"

The big difference between 1994 and 2011 was in 1994 North Korean society was different. For one, there were no markets in North Korea in 1994. But, because of the famine—there was a famine in the 1990s, and the government ration system broke down—out of that markets started to be created. Because the North Korean people could no longer rely on the government for rations, what did they do? Anything they could find, they tried to sell and trade for food. So informal markets started to be created. Eventually, the government sanctioned formal markets.

So there is now a market mentality in North Korea that didn't exist before. In a closed system like this, if you introduce markets, it starts to cause a separation in the minds of the people from the government. They have to fend for themselves. They can't just rely on the state.

Again, the point is the politics is pulling in one direction (harder line, more control) while society is moving in another direction. I don't think this is sustainable. This is not a sustainable dynamic. It is going to pull the country apart. How, when, we don't know, just like we didn't know that the self-immolation of a shopkeeper would start the Arab Spring. We just don't know when it is going to happen. But the dynamics are there I think, and I think we just have to watch this very carefully.

QUESTION: David Hunt.

Mr. Cha, you mentioned in your talk the Chinese supporting leaders of transition. Do we know enough about the senior leadership of North Korea to know which of those leaders are actually in favor of some kind of reform?

Secondly, how is it that a 29-year-old untested person can come into a room at the Senior Politburo and command respect? I mean it's ludicrous to think that somebody who is so untested could actually command that kind of respect, because discipline is of course a function of respect. And aren't these leaders looking at this young man thinking, "What on earth is he doing here?" Has there ever been suggestion of a coup or some kind of a revolt to move somebody like him aside?

VICTOR CHA: They are very good questions. You more than anybody else would appreciate that North Korea is about the hardest target from an informational perspective that there is out there. I don't think we have a very good sense at all. We know who the generals are, but what are their particular views are on reform, how close are they to the Chinese?

We know a lot about the Chinese. On the Chinese side we know that essentially their policy towards North Korea is not run by the Foreign Ministry. It's one of the only countries that is not run by the Foreign Ministry, it's run by the Party. So we know the Party liaison offices are the ones that interact with the North Koreans, they are the ones that go visit North Korea.

But we really don't have a sense of who in the North Korean elite is in favor of reform, who is not, because anybody who is seen as distancing themselves from the Party line runs the risk of having a car accident. [Laughter] There have been a few of those. But there are no cars in North Korea. It's not like traffic out here on the Upper East Side. So it's hard to say.

With regard to the second, it's a very good question. This is a 29/30-year-old who is now amidst senior party leaders and senior generals, many of whom fought in the Korean War. I mean how does this work? It's just hard to imagine.

I think that's why this whole question of domestic legitimacy becomes very important. I think, on the one hand, nobody at this point is going to try to challenge him for power, because that is not the political culture of the country. For 60 years there has been one person that makes a decision, and that has been whoever is anointed by the Kim family to be the leader. First it was Kim Il-sung, then Kim Jong-il, now it's Kim Jong-un.

When Kim Il-sung, the first leader of North Korea started, he was handpicked by Stalin. He took over the country when he was 35 years old. So they expect these guys to rule for 60 years. If they are going to rule for 60 years you've got to start them when they're 30.

But I think if there are more mistakes—this rocket launch was clearly a big mistake—if he makes more mistakes like this, I would imagine that there will be others in the system that say, "This guy doesn't know what he is doing."

Or if the economy continues to spiral down, I would imagine that there will be some in the system that would feel like: This is not working and we have to find another way.

Coups are not unimaginable in Korea. In the history of South Korea, we have seen coups in the past. But right now it is very hard to say. That's why everybody is watching for what the next step is.

JOANNE MYERS: We may not know what Kim Jong-un is doing, but we know that you are giving us a wonderful introduction to North Korea. Thank you very much for coming. Come back again.

VICTOR CHA: Thank you.

You may also like

JUN 17, 2024 Podcast

Linguistics, Automated Systems, & the Power of AI, with Emily M. Bender

In this episode, guest host Dr. Kobi Leins & University of Washington’s Dr. Emily Bender discuss why language matters in the development of technological systems.

JUN 14, 2024 Article

A Conversation with Carnegie Ethics Fellow Sophie Flint

This interview series profiles members of the inaugural Carnegie Ethics Fellows cohort. This discussion features Sophie Flint, a a project manager for Strategic Resource Group.

Left to Right: Nikolas Gvosdev, Tatiana Serafin, Peter Goodman. CREDIT: Noha Mahmoud.

JUN 13, 2024 Podcast

How the World Ran Out of Everything, with Peter S. Goodman

In the final "Doorstep" podcast, "New York Times" reporter Peter Goodman discusses how geopolitics is connected to the goods that end up on our doorstep.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation