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Nuclear War with North Korea?

March 28, 2017

Pyongyang, North Korea. CREDIT: Jen Morgan (CC)

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City. Today I'm speaking with Joel Wit. He is senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), as well as the founder of 38 North website, and a former U.S. State Department official.

Joel, great to have you here at Carnegie Council.

JOEL WIT: Happy to be here.

DEVIN STEWART: North Korea is probably, if not the most pressing security problem for the Trump administration, it's among the top, at least. Can you give our listeners a sense of what is the current general political situation in North Korea right now? How do you kind of wrap your mind around what's going on in North Korea?

JOEL WIT: Well, there are a couple of things. The first point is when you talk about the security threat, that's been growing over the years and getting worse and worse and worse. And we're now at the point where North Korea is expanding its nuclear weapons stockpile; it has a whole new family of missiles that it's testing, including possibly an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the United States; and it's working on putting its nuclear warheads on top of these missiles. So obviously there's a direct threat to the United States, but there's a whole bunch of other reasons why these programs are threatening, not just to us but to our allies in the region.

Second—and I think now people are starting to understand this—Kim Jong-un is not crazy; the North Koreans are not crazy. They are doing all this for a reason, and from their perspective—I'm not excusing it—it's a very logical reason, and that is that they feel threatened by the outside world, and particularly the United States; their system of government is threatened. When people say to me, "Oh, gee, the United States, we're not a threat to North Korea"—well, you know, there was the Korean War, there has been 60 years of hostile relations, and the North Koreans know that; they know the history very well, even better than most Americans. So that's a serious problem.

And these people aren't crazy. They are pursuing a strategy that over the past, I would say, seven or eight years has actually paid off. It's paying off for them now, given the developments in their program.

DEVIN STEWART: How do you assess the U.S. approach toward North Korea over the past few years? How did Obama do? What's the current situation?

JOEL WIT: A number of things I've said and written have been very critical of the Obama administration. But I want to have a caveat up front here. Even under the best of circumstances, dealing with North Korea, as many people can imagine, is not an easy thing to do. And at least for part of the time that the Obama administration was in office it wasn't the best of circumstances. You had the death of the last North Korean leader at the end of 2011. You have his son who has taken over, and probably to some degree really wants to prove himself, and one of the ways he's doing that is pursuing the weapons of mass destruction programs. So dealing with North Korea under these circumstances is very difficult.

Having said that, the policy the Obama administration adopted, which is called "strategic patience," essentially boils down to depending on weak sanctions and weak diplomacy. The theory was that since North Korea is politically unstable and economically weak, sanctions will bring them back to the table and they'll give us a good deal. And in fact that was not the case at all.

DEVIN STEWART: What would a good deal for the United States look like?

JOEL WIT: I don't know what the Obama administration was thinking about in terms of a good deal. If you want to get to a good deal now with the Trump administration—let me finish what I was going to say about Obama.

So we pursued this policy for a while, for years actually, certainly the whole second term of the Obama administration. By the end of the administration I think it dawned on the U.S. government that the policy wasn't working. And indeed, President Obama is said to have warned President Trump that this was the number one problem he was going to face.

So we realized after eight years that this wasn't working. But the problem is that because the North Korean programs have advanced so much over those eight years the options for a new administration, for a Trump administration, have really narrowed dramatically.

Do you want to talk about what are the options?

DEVIN STEWART: Before we get to the various options that are even in the realm of the possible, what is motivating the North Korean regime? Is it just survival? Is it more than that? How do you explain to an American audience, or a global audience, what is driving them to arm themselves so viciously?

JOEL WIT: Well, a lot of people say, "Oh, they need nuclear weapons to ensure domestic stability." That's one thing people assert. I think that's ridiculous. The North Korean regime has been in place for 60 years. Most of those years, at least 50 of those years, it didn't have nuclear weapons. They have other sources of domestic stability and legitimacy that have worked very well. So that's not really the case.

I think the main case is for external security reasons. Once again, if you put yourself in the shoes of the North Koreans, you have the Korean War, where their country was essentially obliterated, even though they started it—there's no doubt about that. And you had American nuclear threats against North Korea during the Korean War, and in subsequent years you had American nuclear threats. And on top of that, you had a U.S. policy that essentially was trying to isolate the North and make the regime go away. I mean that's the simple way of describing it. That lasted until the 1990s, which was a different period. But all of that effort to improve relations failed and we're back to square one in terms of the external security threat that the North Koreans feel.

That's not to say that if we were nice to them they would give up their nuclear weapons. I don't think that's going to happen. But if you look at it from their perspective, they clearly feel the threat of the United States, South Korea, Japan—our two allies—and even to some degree China, supposedly their friend, but the North Koreans don't really like the Chinese.

DEVIN STEWART: Now, when we're thinking about the missile tests that are in the news quite a bit in mainstream media all around the world and the prospect of the North Koreans being able to send a missile to the United States, can you give us a sense of how alarmed the American public should be? How much of a threat is this? I guess there's capacity and the will to use a threat in international relations.

JOEL WIT: Right. First, where do they stand in being able to do that? I would say that it's quite possible that in the next year or so the North Koreans will begin testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). They've been working on developing it now for a number of years, but they've never really tested it. So I think they're at the point where they will probably begin testing in the next year. That doesn't mean that it will be a working weapon, so I wouldn't get too alarmed yet.

DEVIN STEWART: Joel, can I interrupt you? I'm very curious, what does an ICBM test look like in practical terms, and where would they send it?

JOEL WIT: Obviously, they can't just send it into the Sea of Japan, which is right next door. They won't fire it at full range, which is of course many thousands of miles. But they will fire it down the Pacific. They can fire it into the Pacific Ocean in the direction, say, of Hawaii. There's lots of space there for them to do that.

It will be challenging for them. And if they were going to do it right, they would have to have ships downrange; they would have instrumentation to pick up data from the test. But these are North Koreans; it's not the United States, it's not the Soviet Union. They may conduct one or two tests that may work, may not work, and then deploy it because they are also looking for the political impact, to deter the United States. We won't know if it will work or not, but if it's out there—it's a road-mobile missile—it will help deter us.

The second issue most people think about on the ICBM is, "Oh, gee, Kim Jong-un, he's crazy, he's just going to fire it off at us when he gets it." That's not going to happen. They're not that crazy. They're not even crazy. But that would be really crazy because they could fire it off—it might not work—but that would invite some sort of retaliation. So the weapon is there to deter the United States and its allies from attacking North Korea.

I think that's the bottom line. That doesn't mean we should be comfortable with it. I mean the world would be a better place if Kim Jong-un didn't have an ICBM. But they're not going to just fire it at us without any reason for doing so.

DEVIN STEWART: Does the test itself represent a red line for the U.S. administration; do you get a sense of that?

JOEL WIT: I have no idea. I mean President Trump has tweeted things. Outside experts have said, "Well, gee, he's setting a red line." I don't know. That's all discussion inside the Washington echo chamber. So I don't know if it's a red line. I doubt it. I'm not even sure if President Trump knows what a red line is, but that's a separate issue.

DEVIN STEWART: Before we get to U.S. options, you did mention China's relationship with North Korea, and this is always a sort of controversy and a contention: Does China have leverage with the North Korean regime or not? How do you make sense of that?

JOEL WIT: People have been talking about this for at least the past 10-15 years, and it's always the same discussion in Washington. Everyone wants China to solve this problem for us because China has very tight economic ties with North Korea, and the theory is that if China would stop trading with North Korea they would have to cry "uncle" and give up their nuclear weapons. I mean that's the simple, comic-book version of things. And it's quite true, they do have very extensive economic ties. But it's like any relationship between a big ally and a small ally, in that it's not so easy to exercise leverage over the smaller country.

An example we might be more familiar with is the United States and Israel. It's very hard for the big ally to tell the small ally what to do. It doesn't work that way. And it's the same thing in the Chinese-North Korean relationship.

And on top of that, the Chinese are afraid that if they put too much pressure on the North Koreans the regime might become unstable, and that's something they dread even more than North Korea having nuclear weapons: instability on their border.

So the Chinese have tried to walk this tightrope. They've tried to occasionally impose sanctions on North Korea, they've taken tactical moves to be tougher on North Korea. But they've never really thrown the North Koreans overboard, and that's what people in the United States want them to do, but I don't think they're ever going to do that.

DEVIN STEWART: So what are the U.S. options? I read one article where you looked at at least three or four options that are often discussed in policy circles. What do you see as the options that are viable?

JOEL WIT: The Trump administration, one of its mantras has been "all the options are on the table." In the Washington lexicon that's often taken as meaning "we're considering a military strike," because when you say "all the options are on the table" it makes other countries nervous.

In fact, I think for the Trump administration—I don't know if it's still true, but for most of the time it's been in office, which isn't that long—all the options have been on the table. It has been studying a wide range of options, none of which are particularly new. I mean this has been a problem that's been around a long time,, and the options are the options. You can't come up with new approaches.

I'm not going to go through every option, but certainly military action, which many people have advocated to stop North Korea from testing an ICBM and building an ICBM, is really impractical. We can say it's on the table. But when you start thinking about it, (a) you're not going to be able to stop them; there are operational problems; (b) the Japanese and Koreans are not going to support that because they're afraid the North Koreans are going to retaliate against them; and (c) the Chinese aren't going to support it either, and they may be drawn into some sort of conflict on the Korean Peninsula with us. So it makes no sense.

At the other extreme, there's this sort of magical thinking of regime change; we should engineer regime change in North Korea. And indeed there was an article in The Wall Street Journal today talking about that. It's magical thinking because, first of all, no one has come up with a way of engineering regime change in North Korea.

Second, even if they did, it would create a nightmare that might be even worse than the situation we're facing now. By that I mean not only a humanitarian nightmare with the collapse of the North Korean government, but also the difficulties involved with not just loose nukes in North Korea but an enormous chemical weapons stockpile, and they have biological weapons, maybe a smaller stockpile.

Third, it's hard to believe, but the North Koreans are going to fight any foreigners who come in, whether their government exists or not. They are going to fight an insurgency against any foreign troops, including South Koreans who come in. So it would be a real mess. It's beyond me why people think about this as an option because, given our experience with regime change in other places, which hasn't been so good, we've often ended up with worse than we had—take Libya for example. This is not a practical option.

So if you're reducing it to practical options, there are basically two approaches. The first is to immediately launch into sanctions against North Korea and China, what's called "crippling sanctions." People think about it in terms of the Iran deal; we had crippling sanctions against Iran. It came to the table; we had a deal. The problem here is, though, that China is central to building a sanctions coalition and they're not going to do it. So I don't think that approach would work, and, indeed, I think it would be doomed to failure.

The other approach is to try diplomacy first, which is something the Chinese want us to do, and see if it works. If it doesn't work, then okay, we call the North Koreans out, we say, "You're not serious," and then we move into increasing pressure and using the failure of those discussions to put more pressure on the Chinese. That's what makes sense.  

DEVIN STEWART: So the final option that you're advocating is something I think you called "coercive diplomacy." How is that operationalized, how does that work? Is it something like the six-party talks?

JOEL WIT: I don't know. Six-party talks, four-party talks, three-party talks, it could have operationalized during Secretary Tillerson's visit to Asia. It could have operationalized when he was in Beijing.

He could have rejected—and we have rejected—the Chinese proposal to freeze North Korea's nuclear tests and missile tests in return for us suspending joint military exercises with South Korea. He rejected that, and I think that was the right approach. But he could have come back with a counter-offer in Beijing saying, "We're open to at least having some initial exploratory talks with the North Koreans to see whether it's worthwhile to reopen formal negotiations." That would have been the initial operational step. I don't think he did it,, though.

The next opportunity will be when President Xi meets with President Trump in Florida, I guess it's in the first week of April.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have a sense of whether diplomacy would work with North Korea or is it too hard to tell at this point?

JOEL WIT: I don't know for sure whether it will work or not. I think it's quite possible it could work. It won't be easy. Based on talking to the North Koreans, they have a number of ideas for trying to move forward that should be explored. But at the end of the day we'll never know unless we talk to them face to face. We won't know what's possible through reading the Korean Central News Agency, which is their media. We're not going to learn anything from reading that. It has to be face to face.

And if it doesn't work, as I said, then that's fine. We walk out and say, "There's no basis for negotiation here," and we move on to pressure, and at some point we might go back to negotiation and try again. That's how a strategy should work.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you get a sense of which option the Trump team is leaning toward of the three or four that you mentioned?

JOEL WIT: Honestly, I don't really know. If I had to guess, I would say that they're leaning toward thinking that they can build crippling sanctions first and then maybe come back to diplomacy later. That's why the meeting between President Trump and President Xi will be very important, to see what happens there, to see what comes out of that.

Typically, when the United States says to the Chinese, "We want you to increase pressure," the Chinese say to us, "We want you to talk to the North Koreans." So it's a dialogue of the deaf; we're talking past each other. But I don't know what will happen at this summit.

And the other factor there is that there are other issues in U.S.-Chinese relations. There's trade, there's the South China Sea, and how will all of that factor into trying to make a deal on North Korea, I don't know the answer to that.

DEVIN STEWART: Joel, thank you very much for speaking with us today about North Korea.

A final question, just to sort of look ahead a little bit: I think over the past few weeks the Trump team's approach toward Northeast Asia, East Asia in general but specifically Northeast Asia, has been portrayed as something like two trains hurtling at one another and there's a crisis at the end of the tunnel, to mix metaphors in a sense.

JOEL WIT: Who are the two trains?

DEVIN STEWART: It's the United States and crisis in Asia. So I guess my question is: Do you feel a crisis is around the bend or can Northeast Asia be managed?

JOEL WIT: Well, once again returning to the North Korea issue, I don't think it can be managed. I think it can be managed, but with a different policy. The current track we're on is not leading to a good place. Whether it's North Korea developing an ICBM, whether it's South Korea and Japan developing the capabilities to launch preventive strikes against North Korea to stop it from using its nuclear weapons, the situation is getting worse and worse and worse.

If we had this discussion four years ago, eight years ago, it wouldn't have been as bad, but you could see these trains off in the distance coming at each other—or at least some of us could see it. I don't think the Obama administration saw it, or the governments in Northeast Asia. But now it's apparent to everyone and something needs to be done differently here.

DEVIN STEWART: Joel Wit, senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS, thanks again for talking with us today.

JOEL WIT: Thank you.

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