Statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il at the Mansu Hill Grand Monument, Pyongyang. CREDIT: <a href="">J.A. de Roo (CC)</a>
Statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il at the Mansu Hill Grand Monument, Pyongyang. CREDIT: J.A. de Roo (CC)

Isaac Stone Fish: Facts and Fiction on North Korea

Jul 18, 2017

Asia Society's Isaac Stone Fish is working on a novel set in Pyongyang, but he's also looking for the truth in the "world's most opaque country." Why does he think the North Koreans are acting rationally? What are the possible outcomes if tensions continue to rise between Kim and Trump?

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart. I'm here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and I'm speaking with Isaac Stone Fish. He is a senior fellow at the Asia Society here in New York City, and he's on sabbatical from Foreign Policy magazine.

Isaac, thanks so much for coming by today.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Thanks for having me on.

DEVIN STEWART: In your bio it mentions that you're working on a novel about North Korea. Is this what you're doing over at the Asia Society, or are there other things as well?

ISAAC STONE FISH: At Asia Society I'm doing work with ChinaFile, which is this excellent Chinese news website. I'm writing a bunch about all the madness that we're seeing with Trump and with Asia policy and with what's going on in the region, and I'm finishing up this novel, which is provisionally titled Pyongyang is for Lovers.

DEVIN STEWART: When did you start that?

ISAAC STONE FISH: I actually started it in 2011, around the time that Kim Jong-un came to power, but I revised it substantially in November of 2016 for a certain news event that happened then.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you tell us the overall story there, or do you need to keep us in suspense?

ISAAC STONE FISH: No, happy to chat about it.

There is a Trump-like protagonist who goes by the name Marshal Baron. He is a young marshal, John Baron—little portmanteau there—and he goes to boarding school where Trump did, and he goes to Fordham, like Trump did. While there, he falls in love with a daughter of Korean missionaries. She spurns him. He moves to Beijing to work in real estate and also to find his love.

She spurns him again. He fails in Beijing and moves to North Korea and builds a Trump Tower in the center of Pyongyang, similar to that Ryugyong Hotel, this 105-story monstrosity. He lures his lost love up to the top of the tower. He pushes her off and becomes Kim Jong-un.

DEVIN STEWART: Like Darth Vader or something? What's this transformation?

ISAAC STONE FISH: It's more that here's a character who we don't really know who he is throughout the book. It is sort of a coming-of-age dictator story, a psychological novel, how a Trump-like Millennial takes power in North Korea.

DEVIN STEWART: What are you trying to say with this story?

ISAAC STONE FISH: The fun thing about writing fiction as opposed to nonfiction is that I can put something out there and leave it open for interpretation. I do have some thoughts with the book and some personal views on it, but I think when it comes out people can make their own judgments on what they see as the message and where they see the world going.

DEVIN STEWART: When shall we expect that to come out?

ISAAC STONE FISH: It's very early stages. I'm putting in finishing touches on the book right now and agent shopping, so it will probably be a year, one to two years is my guess right now, so it will be quite a while.

DEVIN STEWART: Will there be a book tour?


DEVIN STEWART: Congratulations.


DEVIN STEWART: You've written quite a lot about North Korea. One of the main themes of this podcast series is now that Trump is president what could possibly go wrong in Asia. A headline of one of your articles is "Trump is President: That's Reason Enough Not to Go to War with North Korea." Are you saying that of the various vices or problems that the Trump administration might have, incompetence is the one that worries you the most? What are you saying with this?

ISAAC STONE FISH: Gosh. What worries me the most about the Trump administration? I have a lot of conversations with friends and with other policy people about "is it the man or is it the policies?" I think with Trump it really is the man. I really think that a lot of his policies don't differ too greatly—both domestically and internationally—from other Republicans. While I might not agree with a lot of those policies, there is support and defense for those policies.

The problem is Trump himself. It's the lack of impulse control; it's the ego that constantly needs to be fed; it's the fast-and-loose relationship with the truth, the lies that he constantly spouts. That's what really worries me about Trump. And so the idea of whether or not the United States should ever, god forbid, need to be in a conflict with North Korea is something that will evolve as we see how the two sides evolve situationally, and I certainly hope it never happens because it would be devastating. My point in that The Guardian article is that Trump is almost uniquely unsuited to be commander-in-chief in time of war because of his personal problems.

DEVIN STEWART: So the lies, the erratic behavior, lack of self-control, are these things that are innately dangerous, or do you see them as things that could lead to something else, like a conflagration or something? Is it something that is inherently dangerous on its own, or is it that it could combine with something else?

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think it's both. I think it is inherently dangerous, and I think it's that Trump plus the possibility of war could lead to a very ill thought-out, very poorly executed war filled with horrific human rights violations. Most of the wars we've been in have had them, and some argue that they're unavoidable consequences of war. Some don't, but I think that would be exacerbated under Trump's leadership.

My other worry—and this was the subject of another The Guardian piece I did—is what's called the "rally-around-the-flag effect" and what happened to Bush after 9/11 when his popularity levels shot up higher than any president has recorded as having in U.S. history. Trump is a man obsessed with his own image and so needy for this feeling of popularity. It is certainly not far-fetched to believe that he would drum up a national security crisis to gratify his own ego and to feel that he is popular and that the American people love him. That, to me, is incredibly worrying.

DEVIN STEWART: Your mention of a bad war with a lack of planning and executed in a way that disregards human rights, this is a similar situation that Eliot Cohen from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) has actually raised as a warning and something to avoid obviously. [Editor's note: Check out Stewart's podcast with Cohen from February 2017.] We've certainly had our fair share of unsuccessful wars that might have been avoided.

What is the picture for you? When you're thinking about a bad war in Asia, how does that work? What's the scenario that you have in mind?

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think a war in Asia is a bad war in Asia.


ISAAC STONE FISH: Where things are now, yes. If we have this conversation in six months or five years, the picture could be very different, but right now, yes, that's how I feel.

One of my greatest worries is a Chinese political collapse where the Communist Party, as it feels itself losing control, decides to lash out against Japan, and the United States honors its security commitments with Japan and gets dragged into what would be World War III. I don't believe that scenario is likely. I don't even think it's a little bit likely, but it is possible enough that it actively worries me.

DEVIN STEWART: Unlikely but possible. High risk.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Unlikely but possible. I don't know where we'd put the numbers, but 10 percent or something, low teens, low single digits.

The worry is that there is so much hatred among Chinese people for Japanese. You can blame Beijing's propaganda over the last decades of reminding people of the horrors that the Japanese committed; you can blame the Japanese government for—although many times prime ministers have wholeheartedly apologized for Japanese atrocities, other Diet members will tend to undercut that apology at the same time by visiting Yasukuni Shrine, for example; you can just blame Chinese people for not being able to move on from this. But whoever you blame, the hatred is real. When we talk in conversations about the future of China and China's political reform, and people talk about democratization of China, the worry with that is they could elect an anti-Japanese demagogue, which could lead to a similar situation.

A long way of saying that, when I think of war scenarios, China-Japan, based on the Communist Party feeling like it's losing political control is probably my number one worry.

DEVIN STEWART: What would be the proximate cause for the Communist Party feeling such anxiety? Are you anticipating economic problems, or is there something else?

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think for China everything comes down to political stability. I think we can look at it this way: We have a pretty good understanding of what's going on across China. You can't even compare it to the 1960s and 1970s when China was a closed, shambolic nation. We have so much ability, we and Chinese journalists and Chinese observers can go almost everywhere in the country—Xinjiang and Tibet in the far west are difficult to access, but basically everywhere else—and can have conversations with people, can feel if there is anything brewing, can know about any sort of grassroots movements. We have a pretty good understanding of where social stability is in China right now.

What we don't know is high-level political stability. The top of the Communist Party remains frustratingly opaque. So there are so many unanswered questions, and there are so many things which, if true, could mean that the Communist Party is a lot less stable than we think. We just don't know, but there are a lot of those indications.

DEVIN STEWART: One of the headlines of your articles is "Xi Jinping May Be Less Powerful Than He Seems." Some of these things you're saying seem to be rejecting some of the prevailing wisdom about China these days as being—and I'm skeptical, too; I actually share your skepticism—this sort of infinitely stable place and that it will muddle through. What's the evidence for this fragility? What are you looking at that makes you think that way?

ISAAC STONE FISH: I'm looking at our lack of certainty. I have three or four what I think are very important unanswered questions, and if we knew the answers to these questions, we could say, "Oh, in fact, actually Xi has done an excellent job of consolidating power, and he is firmly in control, and we shouldn't worry about these things." But we don't. Because we don't know, we have to be open to the possibility that things are a lot less stable than we think.

I'll give a couple of examples. The Politburo Standing Committee, the seven-member body that rules China, Xi Jinping is clearly the leader there. But we don't know how the other members of the standing committee feel about him. They might feel an almost divine respect for his brilliance; they might despise him; they might really want him to stay in control over the next five, ten, fifteen years, or they might be laying the groundwork for him to leave in 2022, or even at this stage, possibly earlier. It is very unlikely that Xi doesn't serve his next term, but we don't know. There is no actual system in place that would allow us to determine with 100 percent that Xi is going to stay at the end of this important party congress.

The other really important thing we don't know is Xi's relationship with the top of the Central Military Commission, the body that oversees the Communist Party's military, the People's Liberation Army (PLA). It could be that these two men—who replaced two other men who were convicted of gross corruption in a politically minded anti-corruption sweep—could have deep respect for Xi and be very comfortable with the PLA serving the Communist Party, or they could feel like Xi is trying to sideline the military or isn't respecting the military or isn't being aggressive enough in the South China Sea or the East China Sea or with regard to India, and they could really be pushing for a much more aggressive military posture and ignoring what Xi Jinping wants.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have a sense of how the Trump team looks at China? I've gotten the sense that there is quite a bit of confidence among the Trump people about how powerful the United States is in Asia and that there might be some cracks in the veneer of the Chinese Communist Party that could be exploited in the future. Do you have a sense of how they come down on this question?

ISAAC STONE FISH: It seems from the limited conversations I've had on the subject that there is a split between Trump and a lot of the other members of his administration. Trump seems to be in awe of Xi Jinping. Trump, with the way he talks about how China has been so helpful in North Korea and they've really tried their best and statements like that, it seems like somehow Xi Jinping cowed him in their meetings. And this could be very temporary. We could start seeing a more aggressive push from Trump on China, but he just seems out of his depth when he's dealing with China.

What you said about other members of the administration feeling like there are weaknesses at the top of the party they can exploit, that is something else that I've heard too. I haven't seen any examples of that, and I think Kushner's worryingly close ties with China and the fact that he's acting as sort of a conduit complicates that because I don't think he's competent to do that. I don't think he should be doing that anyway as the president's son-in-law. Even if he were an exceptionally competent diplomat, I still don't think it's appropriate. More worrying is all the business ties that he has and his relative inexperience.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's go back to North Korea and your novel, but let's do the nonfiction version.

You were talking about the possibility of World War III. That sounds pretty scary. What do you think motivates the North Korean regime in terms of their decision-making? You've written an article that says, "Let's stop calling North Korea crazy and understand what its motives are." What are its motives?

ISAAC STONE FISH: One of the gratifying things about writing fiction or nonfiction about North Korea is that they make the Chinese Communist Party look like an open book. It's the world's most opaque country, and it is so difficult to actually know what's going on. So really I'm just guessing here. I don't have sources at the top of the Worker's Party of Korea. I don't have access to people who are regularly sitting in on these meetings.

But it does seem to make more sense that the Koreans are acting rationally. It seems like they view better relations with the United States—and especially with South Korea—as something that could lead to a very generous paycheck, like it has in the past.

So the former South Korean leader, Lee Myung-bak, in his autobiography talked about the North Koreans wanting preconditions for a summit. Besides tens of thousands of tons of food aid and goods that the North Koreans wanted the South Koreans to deliver, they also asked for $10 billion to set up a bank. They said it was to set up a bank, but if you're transferring $10 billion into North Korea, you don't expect a bank or anything to come out of that; you just expect that money to disappear. So I think the North Koreans in part are playing a very carefully calculated game of brinksmanship which they feel will have a paycheck at the end.

I also think that in terms of a long-term strategy for developing nuclear weapons, getting close, moving back several steps, getting closer and then moving back several steps, and getting closer and closer again and then moving back, is actually a brilliant strategy to do that with the rest of the world, because they can say: "We negotiated. We have this agreed framework. We've stopped." Several years later because of "American provocation" or for some sort of thinly veiled lie of a reason, "Oh, we're going to do it again." We've seen this happen over and over again, and now we are in a situation where probably unless there is regime change, North Korea is not going to give up its nukes.

There is an excellent cover story in The Atlantic which looks at our options with North Korea. They're all bad. It's much easier for me to sit here and criticize what has happened in the past than to come up with a constructive other solution, which frankly I don't have. I don't know what we should do.

DEVIN STEWART: What is your guess on where we're going to end up with North Korea?

ISAAC STONE FISH: That's a scarier question and also an easier one to answer. I really think we will continue to muddle through. I think strategic patience—inaction coupled with regional diplomacy—is the likeliest of strategies.

DEVIN STEWART: But you can't call that "strategic patience" anymore, right? That's tainted.

ISAAC STONE FISH: No, no, you can't, 100 percent different, totally different now.

But I think we are going to see more of the same. The wild card with that is China. I don't believe that the calculus for China is going to change. North Korea to them is much better—the Kim regime specifically—to them alive than dead, and I think that is going to keep being the way that it is.

The easy prediction is no war, no real change. North Korea becomes a larger threat, but they threaten the United States less. We get into another costly, ill-advised war in the Middle East, and people forget about North Korea for a while.

DEVIN STEWART: I guess one red line would be North Korea demonstrates it can attack the U.S. mainland with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). [Editor's note: This interview took place on June 26, 2017. On July 4, 2017, North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that some experts believe had the power to reach parts of the United States.]

In other words, I think all your predictions are probably right unless something else happens. But I think there is one variable, which is a demonstration of North Korea's abilities. Do you think they are going to do it or not?

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think North Korea already has the ability to slaughter tens of thousands of Americans in South Korea, and I think that should be enough of a demonstration that we need. If they launch a nuclear weapon at the U.S. mainland, I think it will almost certainly kill fewer people—fewer Americans, even—than if they launch an attack on South Korea. So they already have the ability to do a lot of damage to Americans. We know that, we don't need a demonstration of that.

I think for PR reasons and for U.S. politicians feeling the need to keep Americans safe, that could change things if they have a particularly egregious demonstration, but I really don't think it should matter in practice. Also, I think we know and the North Koreans know that if they ever do launch an attack like that—which they have clearly said they wouldn't, but it's North Korea, and other governments that are more trustworthy lie about this—that is the end of the regime, no debate, no dialogue, that's that.

DEVIN STEWART: Putting you a little bit into a corner, is there a red line where it is not all-out war or it's not an attack, but it's a line that the Trump administration feels that we must respond with force?

ISAAC STONE FISH: This is one of the scenarios in Bowden's excellent piece. There is a possibility that either now because of what the North Koreans have done or because of anger about the death of the student Otto Warmbier, the Americans feel the need to do something either symbolic or surgical. The worry with that is that the North Koreans retaliate, and then the United States feels like it needs to retaliate, and then we're in scenario one, all-out war.

I think everyone luckily was able to basically ignore the horrible provocation of the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010, where dozens of South Korean sailors died, and the shelling of islands in South Korea not too long after that. I think it is just hopeful—and it's a terrible thing to say, because on the one hand we don't want to allow North Korea to get away with this, and on the other hand if they do something like that and the United States decides to, say, bomb a Kim Il-sung statue in a square somewhere, we don't know how the North Koreans would respond.

I think the best response for the Americans is not something that would be public, but is something private. One example I like to cite: North Korea is a kleptocracy. If you want to punish Pyongyang, pick a general, pick a handful of generals, and work with Beijing to prevent their mistresses from going to Beijing for shopping trips. Do something like that. Pick a few people, some of whom might be sanctioned, some of whom might not be, and punish them specifically and make it clear that those punishments are tied to what North Korea is doing.

I think we have good enough intelligence on that that you can make a specific decision on that. No one needs to know about it—hopefully, something like that is happening anyway—and that could push North Korea back from the brink.

DEVIN STEWART: How about China? Is China doing all it can do with regard to—apparently on Twitter Trump said Xi Jinping has done a very good job, as much as he can possibly do with North Korea, so we have to give him credit. How do you feel about that? Is there more that China can do?

ISAAC STONE FISH: This is one of the things about a podcast; you didn't get the rolling of my eyes as Devin asked that question.

I think that no one outside of Trump's universe and the people who inhabit it believe that China is doing all it can do. The Chinese don't believe that. When you have conversations with them about that, you know they don't believe it. It's a line. There is so much more that China could do, ranging from—Chinese trade with North Korea grew an astounding 37.4 percent the first quarter of 2017 compared to the year before. That's absurd.

DEVIN STEWART: You tweeted that.

ISAAC STONE FISH: I did. I tweeted it several times.

DEVIN STEWART: What's your Twitter handle?

ISAAC STONE FISH: It's @isaacstonefish.

DEVIN STEWART: Gotta follow Isaac.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Thank you. And each time Trump will say something about how much the Chinese have done, and I will tweet the same statistic. It's absurd.

The Chinese do not have an interest in letting the North Korean regime fall, and they do not believe that economically sequestering North Korea is the way to force change. They believe that what happens to North Korea should be what happens to China, which is it was this horrible, very closed government that held on to a lot of tight political control but economically liberalized. That is what they want to happen to North Korea. So they want more trade, not less; they want less sanctions, not more. They just philosophically view this in a different way.

We ask them to "do more on North Korea," and I think what that means to China on some level is, "Okay, how do we get them to open their economy so that new ideas will come in, and they'll move away from this on-the-brink posture?"

DEVIN STEWART: Wow. Very interesting.

We should wrap up. Do you have any other final advice to our listeners or to the Trump administration to avoid World War III in Asia-Pacific?

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think the best way to avoid World War III in the Pacific is to put as many constraints on Trump's power and decision-making as possible. I don't think he's the one who should be able to make that decision, and I think the more that the adults in the administration realize that and recognize their responsibility there, the better the world will be.

DEVIN STEWART: Isaac Stone Fish is senior fellow at the Asia Society in New York City. Isaac, thanks again for this discussion today.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Thanks for the great questions.

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