Protest against now-impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Seoul, October 2016. CREDIT: <a href="">Teddy Cross</a><a href=""> (CC)</a>
Protest against now-impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Seoul, October 2016. CREDIT: Teddy Cross (CC)

Instability on the Korean Peninsula and the Trump Administration

Jan 25, 2017

North Korea is one of the most serious security risks facing the new U.S. administration and South Korea has a political vacuum at the top after impeaching its president. What are the possible scenarios over the next few years? Don't miss this in-depth conversation with Devin Stewart and Korea expert Scott Snyder.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City. Today I'm speaking with Scott Snyder. Scott is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations focusing on U.S.-Korean relations.

Great to speak with you today, Scott.

SCOTT SNYDER: Thanks for inviting me, Devin.

DEVIN STEWART: Looking at the incoming Trump administration—it's now in office; it's looking at a lot of different problems and issues around the world—today I'd like to get your sense of where is the Trump administration heading toward Asia. Are there clues that we can look at and get a sense of what the Trump administration will do, specifically toward Northeast Asia? Your expertise is the Korean Peninsula. What do you make of what might happen?

SCOTT SNYDER: So far during the campaign, I think that from what we've seen there are not many documents related to Asia policy. But the ones that were available really focused on the idea of strengthening U.S. military presence—not abandoning the rebalance, but maybe securitizing it, or focusing primarily on military balance issues and rebuilding naval strength in the Asia-Pacific.

I think that with regard to alliances, candidate Trump's comments have been unsettling in Japan and South Korea. But, so far, all of his major appointments seem to be contradicting that message, and even his national security advisor has been offering consistent messages of reassurance immediately post-election.

DEVIN STEWART: Which personalities do you think are most influential when it comes to Trump's approach in Asia?

SCOTT SNYDER: We'll have to see. We've got potentially contending personalities at the cabinet level on the security side. It's not clear that they are necessarily going in different directions. It's just that we don't know who President Trump is going to listen to in the cabinet yet, or whether there might be advisors who are close to him who are not in national security positions whose advice he prioritizes. But clearly, National Security Advisor Flynn, General Mattis, Secretary of State Tillerson—it will be interesting to see how their relationships sort out.

On the economic side, the individual who has had the most to say on Asia, obviously, is Peter Navarro, and his views on, in particular, economic relations with China have gotten some attention, and clearly he seems to advocate a more contentious and contending view in terms of how to deal with China, especially on trade-related issues.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's look at your core expertise, which is the Korean Peninsula. What would you say are the top risks for North Korea and South Korea over the next couple of years?

SCOTT SNYDER: North Korea has been identified in the transition as perhaps one of the most serious national security issues that the Trump administration would face. The main issue there, I think, is related to the fact that, as the Trump administration comes into office, it's pretty clear that, unlike the view of the Obama administration, time is not on the U.S. side if we project out another four years and think about the possibility that North Korea would continue its nuclear missile developments, and perhaps even develop a capability for a direct strike on U.S. territory under the Trump administration's watch. As a result, I think that it's clear that North Korea has the potential to be a real foreign policy challenge of great urgency.

But it's really not clear at this point how the Trump administration is going to respond to that issue. As you know, there have been a couple of tweets, really in response to Kim Jong-un's New Year's address in early January, at that time by the president-elect. The two messages there were that North Korea, according to President-elect Trump, would not be able to develop an ICBM (intercontintal ballistic missile) and that it's really China's responsibility to stop it. But how the Trump administration intends to achieve either or both of those objectives I think remains to be seen.

DEVIN STEWART: What are the various options for the United States as it looks toward hindering the development of nuclear missile technology? There are a lot of bad options. Can you take us through a couple of the options that are being considered?

SCOTT SNYDER: The big challenge, I think, for a new administration—I mentioned that time is not on the United States' side, and what that does is it takes the middle options out of the equation and it leaves you the extreme options on either end of the spectrum as possibilities: one, the possibility of acquiescence to a nuclear North Korea; on the other end of the spectrum, the possibility of using military force in order to really change the regime in North Korea. Neither of those options is attractive. So I think that it's likely that part of a new administration strategy would be to try to figure out how to buy time.

And then, as part of buying time, or once you've tried to do that, you are really left with the same set of tools that has existed previously. But the question is: What combination are you going to try to use? If you are looking at tools that can be used in dealing with North Korea, you essentially have military force, sanctions, diplomacy. I think that the challenge is really to try to put together an effective strategy that uses those tools, either in such a way that you directly get the desired results from North Korea, or that you indirectly achieve the desired results by motivating China to work more effectively in order to achieve a shared objective related to North Korea.

DEVIN STEWART: What about the idea of putting up a trade embargo around North Korea as a way of sending a strong message? Is that workable?

SCOTT SNYDER: I think that the UN Security Council resolutions that currently exist, in effect, represent a call for an economic quarantine of North Korea. The question is whether they are being enforced and implemented. Essentially, you have a situation where the UN Security Council resolutions have asked member states to inspect almost all of North Korean cargo at this point; they have tried to restrict North Korean financial transactions to using only the existing methods of transactions; they have banned the possibility of carrying bulk cash into North Korea in order to do economic transactions. So they have essentially, at least on paper, quarantined North Korea from the international economic system.

But, obviously, the real critical question of North Korea's access to the international financial system relates to whether or not things are being enforced between China and North Korea. There you have a situation where North Korea, as sanctions have extended themselves, has actually through various means seemed to embed itself in the Chinese economic system and has used Chinese economic actors as agents working on North Korea's behalf in ways that have still enabled North Korea to make some kinds of procurements, granted at higher cost. But it's pretty clear that, even though it seems like North Korea should be under economic quarantine, there is still economic life in North Korea, and that life is only existing because transactions are occurring in direct defiance of the UN Security Council resolutions.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there a way that the United States can get the Chinese to cooperate in isolating North Korea?

SCOTT SNYDER: I think that one of the main next steps that people have been looking at is using secondary sanctions, basically punishing the Chinese partners that do trade with North Korea. The challenge there—and we just don't know how this is going to play out yet—is that the Chinese government has indicated pretty clearly that they are willing to cooperate on multilateral sanctions—i.e., whatever the UN Security Council resolution has approved—but they oppose unilateral sanctions. And so, in essence, the Chinese are taking an official position of opposing U.S. secondary sanctions unilaterally imposed on Chinese entities.

That leaves you in a situation where, within the context of the U.S.-China relationship, both sides are sending signals about how far they want the other to go, but we don't know how they would respond if those sanctions were actually used. What has happened as a result, I think, is that, at least so far under the Obama administration, you had a rather cautious set of steps forward in terms of imposing unilateral sanctions.

So the next question is whether or not under the Trump administration there might be a more aggressive application of secondary sanctions. But that may come in the context of a broader atmosphere of contentiousness in U.S.-China relations. The real challenge is that if you want to get Chinese cooperation on North Korea, a broader adversarial relationship with China might actually work in the opposite direction. So how do you isolate U.S.-China cooperation from the broader adversarial relationship; or, alternatively, how do you get China essentially to act on the basis of its own interests in the way that you desire toward North Korea?

DEVIN STEWART: Thinking about the North Korean nuclear threat to the United States, is there a red line that people have in mind; and, if so, what would that red line be?

SCOTT SNYDER: The next step up in terms of North Korea being able to expand its threat capability directly to the U.S. mainland is related to the development of an ICBM. Clearly, the development by North Korea of an ICBM capability would place the United States under threat from an actor that has actually threatened to use that capability. Once you have a merger of capability with assumptive expressions of intent, it does ramp up the seriousness of the issue. But, so far, I think that it is still the case that the worst-case scenario would be to have to face that threat. Secondly, you would probably only engage in a strike if it was clear that there is an imminent preparation to launch some kind of direct strike on the United States using nuclear capability.

I think that it's unlikely that there would be a broader preventive military effort, simply because that would inevitably entangle the United States and the region, arguably prematurely, into a broader conflict.

Another way of putting it is that there probably still would be a desire to deter North Korean use, even if they had the capability. But nobody really wants to see it come to that, so the main focus is on preventive steps that can be taken that would be possible to pursue before North Korea actually has that capability.

DEVIN STEWART: But is there a specific action that North Korea must take in order to alarm the world about its capability of reaching the U.S. mainland, such as testing an ICBM, or something like that?

SCOTT SNYDER: Yes. Right now, the capability of the North Koreans to actually reach the United States with a nuclear device is still contested; it's not proven. The additional steps that North Korea would have to achieve in order to be able to have a proven capability are related to atmospheric reentry of an ICBM or a nuclear payload. Since the North Koreans haven't actually proven that capability—we have their intelligence assessment—I think that, on the one hand, there are some who would say that the North Koreans could theoretically aim an ICBM at the mainland of the United States and hit something, if they can get the payload to reenter the United States.

By that token, if they've got a nuclear device, they could also deploy it by ship. So in some sense there is already a kind of risk. And, of course, Japan and South Korea are living with a North Korea that has the capability to deliver an intermediate-range missile to Japanese or South Korean territory, presumably with a nuclear payload, at this point, since the North Koreans claim they have been able to miniaturize and standardize a nuclear payload.

DEVIN STEWART: Knowing what you know about North Korea, is there really anything that the international community can actually do to stop the nuclear program?

SCOTT SNYDER: At this point, I think that, although many people are focused on strengthened sanctions, what I'm focused on is the fact that Kim Jong-un, by declaring his policy of nuclear development, has essentially tied his own regime survival to nuclear development. So I'm doubtful at this stage that Kim Jong-un himself is going to change direction. He's really the only voice in the country that matters.

I think that it is incumbent upon the international community to try to do everything that it can to get Kim Jong-un to turn around and go in a different direction. But I'm not optimistic about the likelihood that that's going to happen.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's look at the other side of the peninsula, South Korea. You have written about how the impeachment of Korea's president has created a political vacuum. Can you talk about what the consequences of that political vacuum are for the region and also for relations with the United States?

SCOTT SNYDER: There's a political vacuum, but it doesn't mean that the Korean government still doesn't work; it's just being managed under the leadership of an acting president. That means that the Korean government is still doing the routine things necessary, including consultations in foreign affairs, to maintain its position.

But if it were to face a crisis that required a political decision in order to resolve, there is simply no one in South Korea who would be capable of making that decision. So the real risk at this point is related to the possibility that a crisis could develop—for instance, if the North actually did engage in a border provocation with South Korea that required some kind of South Korean/international response.

Or, alternatively, what if North Korea conducted a sixth nuclear test or launched an ICBM? At this stage, within the next few months, if President Trump tried to call the acting president of South Korea in order to coordinate a response, the acting president is not empowered to be able to deliver a definitive response. It would now be caught up in South Korean politics. So there's a risk factor there, especially with a new administration here that is trying to learn how to do coordination in Northeast Asia and, clearly, doesn't have yet that much practice in terms of doing it. I think that that is a potential risk.

And then, longer term, at this moment where everybody in the region is trying to get their bearings in terms of how to respond to what to some seems like a new world under a Trump administration, South Korea has more limited capability to engage in those kinds of discussions with its neighbors actively. As a result, I think that you could make an argument that South Korea is not as visible as a potential partner, even within the region, as it might be if South Korea were operating with politics as usual or with a president who had a political mandate.

DEVIN STEWART: Finally, Scott, how do you assess when Korean politics will get back to normal, who the next leader will be, and what that administration will want to do with the Trump administration? Do you have any sense?

SCOTT SNYDER: South Korean politics will get back to normal when a new president has been elected in South Korea. That could come.

Right now, as you know, the current president has been impeached by the National Assembly and the South Korean Constitutional Court has up to 180 days to make a ruling with regard to the legal underpinnings of that motion. Either they will sustain the impeachment, in which case, according to South Korea's constitution, there will be an election for a new president 60 days following that decision; or they could overturn it, in which case South Korea would have an election in December, as originally scheduled.

In either case, South Korean politics is not going to return to normal and there will not be an individual who is capable of exercising political leadership in South Korea until the new president has been elected. So we are faced with this vacuum until that time.

That means that the South Korean presidential election process has essentially already started in terms of the informal campaign. The person who is leading in the polls at this time is the opposition leader Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party. He faces some internal challenge, and then he also is likely to face, if the former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon decides to run, a conservative candidate.

Depending on who wins, that's going to shape the orientation of South Korean politics and foreign policy. An opposition party win would mark a shift toward a South Korea that has a greater interest in autonomy and a greater desire perhaps for fluidity in terms of its options in Northeast Asia, and would likely be a bigger challenge for a Trump administration to manage in terms of alliance relationships compared to a conservative candidate who would be more likely to endorse continuity in South Korean foreign policy.

DEVIN STEWART: Any final insights on U.S.-Korea relations?

SCOTT SNYDER: The only other thing I would say is that I think that, generally speaking, in South Korea there has been a little bit less anxiety about the Trump administration up to now, primarily because South Korea had the experience of President Carter, who threatened as a candidate to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea, back in the 1970s. But that didn't materialize because of, essentially, the political and security establishment's view in the United States that that presence needed to be sustained.

So I think that, under a democratic South Korea with a stronger alliance with the United States, there is probably a view in South Korea that once again the establishment views of the importance of the alliance would prevail over the statements of candidate Trump that suggested that the alliance might not be a constant in U.S. policy. We'll have to wait and see how that plays out.

DEVIN STEWART: Thanks again, Scott.

Scott Snyder from the Council on Foreign Relations, great talking with you today.

SCOTT SNYDER: Thanks, Devin.

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