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Samore: China 'Most Important Asset' for U.S. in Handling North Korean Threat

Interviewee: Gary Samore, Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Carin Zissis
October 6, 2006

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The United States responded sternly this week to the Pyongyang nuclear test threat, saying a nuclear North Korea is unacceptable. But Gary S. Samore, CFR’s director of studies, says Kim Jung-Il sees Washington in a vulnerable position because of U.S. preoccupation with events in the Middle East. Samore, a former National Security Council staffer and nonproliferation expert, says “the most important asset the United States has is to work with China” to defuse the crisis and Pyongyang considers Beijing and Seoul the bigger players in negotiations because their aid sustains an increasingly isolated North Korea.

North Korea this week upped the ante by saying that it will conduct nuclear tests on an undisclosed date in the future. During the Clinton administration you helped negotiate the 1994 Agreed Framework with the goal of reigning in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Do you think similar negotiations could work to end the current standoff?

I don’t think North Korea’s prepared to give up its nuclear capabilities under any conditions, so the best you could do through a negotiation would be to limit North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, in terms of the number of nuclear weapons it has, and perhaps some limits on its delivery capability. But in terms of actually achieving disarmament, I think that’s no longer possible.

What do you think are U.S. options for limiting that capability?

In terms of the immediate threat, which is a nuclear test, the most important asset the United States has is to work with China. China would be very alarmed if North Korea conducted a nuclear test, because in China’s view that would give Japan a pretext for moving toward greater militarization, and it would also put China in the difficult position of being pressured by the United States to punish North Korea. So, the Chinese have a very strong self-interest in discouraging North Korea from conducting nuclear tests, and I imagine they’ll be working behind the scenes both to offer inducements to North Korea to behave itself, and also hinting that they will not be willing to protect North Korea if [it goes] ahead and conducts a test, and there are efforts to impose international sanctions.

Can you talk about the situation in North Korea, and what you think is motivating it to make this threat now?

North Korea has a strategic interest in taking the issue of disarmament off the table. North Korea wants the next U.S.administration to accept that North Korea is armed with nuclear weapons, and that any relationship between the United States and North Korea will have to be based on a recognition and acceptance that North Korea is a nuclear-armed state, just like the U.S. relationship with India or Pakistan is based on that acceptance. So, a nuclear test would demonstrate beyond doubt that North Korea has a nuclear weapons capability and it would remove as an objective of U.S.policy the achievement of disarmament. That’s what North Korea’s calculation is.

They believe they can make the threat of a nuclear test now because they see the United States as very weak and distracted, mainly by developments in the Middle East, but also because in East Asia North Korea feels that it is protected from the worst the United States can do by South Korea and by China, who may not be willing to use all of their leverage to punish North Korea for a nuclear test. That doesn’t mean the North Koreans have decided to conduct a nuclear test no matter what. I think they’re basically testing the waters to see what they can get in return for not testing and what kind of risk they would run if they go ahead and test. So they’ve kept their options open and presumably in the next weeks and months they will make a decision about whether or not the costs and benefits work in favor of a test or not testing.

I’ve read that perhaps North Korea is bluffing. Do you think there’s a chance of that?

I don’t think they’re bluffing in the sense that if they make the calculation at the end of the day that they haven’t been offered a big enough bribe to refrain from testing, and at the same time they calculate that the international reaction is likely to be very limited in terms of scope and duration, I think they’ll go ahead and test. If they calculate at the end of the day that they’re getting a very generous offer of assistance for behaving themselves and that the risk of testing is high, in terms of, in particular, what the Chinese and South Koreans would do in terms of cutting off or limiting assistance, then they won’t test.

[U.S. Assistant Secretary of State] Christopher Hill came out with some strong statements about the North Korea proposal to conduct a test. What do you think will be the impact of that?

I don’t think it matters very much what the United States says, because the North Koreans don’t see the United States in a strong position. What matters is what the Chinese and the South Koreans say privately to North Korea. Neither country wants to see North Korea conduct a nuclear test, and they’re the countries that are in the strongest position to discourage North Korea through some combination of inducements and threats. So presumably Beijing and Seoul are trying to figure out the most effective means they have available to discourage North Korea from carrying out its threat.

There have also been reports that Russia has been communicating directly with North Korea. What do you think their role is in the current standoff?

Russia would prefer that North Korea not conduct a nuclear test but Russia doesn’t really have much influence in the region. It is no longer a major source of foreign assistance for North Korea, so the Russian role is fairly marginal.

There have also been reports that this is threatening a rift in relations among Six-Party-Talk members. Do you think that’s one of the goals for North Korea?

All of the other countries in the Six-Party Talks do not want North Korea to conduct a nuclear test, so they’ll certainly be speaking with one voice in terms of discouraging the North from carrying out a test. At the same time, if North Korea does decide to go ahead and carry out a nuclear test, then that could very well lead to some disputes within the six parties over how to respond. And, in particular, the United States will be pushing for very punitive sanctions, and, in theory, if China and South Korea cut off all of the forms of foreign assistance that they provide to North Korea in the form of cash, and fertilizer, and food, and coal, and oil, and so forth, it would really be crippling.

But both Beijing and Seoul will be nervous that if they take measures that are too tough it could lead to instability in North Korea, which neither of them wants to see. So there’s no disagreement among the six parties about the effort to try to discourage North Korea from conducting a test, but if the North carries out a test, that may lead to disagreement on how to respond.

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