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No Good Options on North Korea

Interviewee: Sue Mi Terry, Former National Intelligence Fellow
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 26, 2011

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As former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and a group of former world leaders arrive in North Korea (NYT) for a three-day visit, the situation in the Korean peninsula remains very tense with little hope of a resumption of the Six-Party Talks on denuclearization anytime soon, says CFR's National Intelligence Fellow Sue Mi Terry. Last year's sinking of a South Korean naval ship and North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island has significantly chilled inter-Korean relations. "Tensions are still very high, and North-South relations are at an all time low," she says. The public in South Korea, she adds, is "now supporting a more hardline policy" and "there is really not much that the South Korean government can do, particularly in light of the fact that North Korea refuses to apologize or acknowledge what they did." She does not have many expectations from the Carter mission except for the likely release of a Korean-American detainee. Terry adds that the NATO attack on Libya, which agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons program 2003, has fortified North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il's view that keeping nuclear weapons is a major way of forestalling outside intervention.

Last year was marked by severe tensions between the two Koreas over North's sinking of the South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan, and North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong island. Are tensions still high between them?

Tensions are still very high, and North-South relations are at an all time low. But Yeonpyeong was really a game-changer for South Korea and the South Korean public as well. With the Cheonan incident, there are some South Koreans still who believe that North Korea had not been behind the attacks. Whereas the shelling of that island unfolded before all the public to see, so there is no question in anybody's mind who was behind the attack. Clearly, North Korea was in the wrong. Public opinion is behind the South Korean government. With the public now supporting a more hardline policy there is really not much that the South Korean government can do, particularly in light of the fact that North Korea refuses to apologize or acknowledge what they did.

Under the Bush administration, the United States was very active in the Six-Party Talks on North Korea's denuclearization. The Obama administration seems less active. Does the United States have much of a policy on North Korea now?

When President Obama came into office, he indicated he was willing to meet with North Koreans, including Kim Jong-Il. But the North Koreans greeted the Obama administration with a series of escalatory and provocative actions. In the first six months of Obama's term, in 2009, there were missile launches, a second nuclear test, and complete withdrawal from the Six-Party Talks. Obama had extended a hand, which was quite dramatically swept aside by the North Koreans.

The U.S. position is that first, there needs to be some sort of acknowledgement for Yeonpyeong and Cheonan, and secondly the United States wants North Korea's uranium enrichment program to be on the table for the discussion if we return to the Six-Party Talks.

The Obama administration was willing to continue with the Six-Party Talks process . But because of the series of provocative actions that were taken by the North Koreans in the first six months of the Obama administration, the administration had to undertake a serious review of North Korean policy. Now we have a policy that is a mixture of diplomacy, along with stepped-up sanctions, a stress on counterproliferation, and military exercises with the South Koreans to deter North Koreans from repeating military actions against South Korea.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is visiting North Korea with a group of former state leaders. What do you expect to come of this visit?

I don't expect much to come out of this visit except the release of another American detainee Jun Young-su. He is a Korean-American businessman in his mid-60s who is now detained in North Korea for alleged missionary activity. He was detained last November right after the Yeonpyeong incident, so there is some speculation that the North Koreans detained him as a possible trading card.

Outside of getting the release of this detainee, Carter and the other "elders" want to talk about food aid, but I don't see very much coming out of it. Possibly, the North Koreans will give some kind of a non-apology, but I doubt that they will even do that so I don't have high hopes of anything getting accomplished.

This is the second private visit by President Carter and I'm sure that the U.S. government or the South Korean government did not have anything to do with it. Certainly, President Carter is not carrying any kind of message from the U.S. government. The last time President Carter visited North Korea in August 2010, he was largely snubbed by Kim Jong-Il. The day he arrived, Kim Jong-Il decided to take the midnight train to Beijing, and President Carter waited around for a couple of days for him to come back. He was not able to meet with [Kim]. It was a big snub but he was able to bring back that [detained] American from Boston, Aijalon Mahli Gomes. Now he's hoping to meet with Kim Jong-Il and his son, but we don't know if that will happen.

Where do we stand on the Six-Party Talks?

No one is eager to go back [to the talks that have been stalled since Dec 2008] except the Chinese and North Koreans. Certainly the South Koreans are not eager to return to the talks for just the sake of the talks. The South Korean government is still looking for some sort of acknowledgement from the North Koreans for the two attacks last year, moving away from demanding an outright apology. The U.S. position is that first, there needs to be some sort of acknowledgement for Yeonpyeong and Cheonan, and secondly the United States wants North Korea's uranium enrichment program to be on the table for the discussion†if we return to the Six-Party Talks. The North Koreans seem to be unwilling to negotiate the dismantlement of its uranium enrichment program at the moment.

Unfortunately, Kim Jong-Il is drawing the exact conclusion that we don't want him to draw from the Libyan case, which is that more than ever, he needs to hold on to nuclear weapons to ensure regime survival.

So what should be U.S. policy options going forward?

Unfortunately, there is no good policy option when it comes to North Korea.†The United States should continue to both penalize and attempt to deter Pyongyang's aggressive behavior by what it is currently doing, which is intensifying sanctions, counterproliferation, and conducting joint military exercises with South Korea.

Additionally, the United States should try to seek other ways to deter North Koreans, such as working with South Korea and Japan on some sort of enhanced trilateral cooperation.†The United States also needs to prepare for further provocations from the North Koreans.†The North will likely conduct a third nuclear test, possibly as early as this summer, and I don't rule out more lethal attacks on the South.†Washington needs to understand that once this charm offensive cycle is over, more provocation from the North is highly likely.

There is talk in South Korean political circles about South Korea forsaking its non-nuclear policy and trying to match the North Korean nuclear policy. What's all that about?

In response to what is going on in Pyongyang, and in the aftermath of Cheonan and Yeonpyong, there is discussion among some South Korean conservatives in the [ruling] Grand National Party and particularly among the various presidential candidates for the 2012 elections. There is a hot debate going on regarding whether South Korea should pursue its own nuclear weapons program or bring back U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea, which were withdrawn in 1991. The mayor of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon recently visited Harvard [University] and criticized people talking about bringing back tactical nuclear weapons, which further stirred up the debate among the conservatives in South Korea. GNP presidential candidates, such as Chung Mong-joon, former chairman of the party, and Kim Moon-soo, the governor of Gyeonggi province, have been talking about how this issue now merits serious debate because the Six-Party Talks have not worked and nothing seems to work in terms of leading North Korea to denuclearization.

Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi made a major decision in 2003 to scrap Libya's programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. What is Kim Jong-Il thinking as he is watching events unfolding in Libya right now?

Unfortunately, Kim Jong-Il is drawing the exact conclusion that we don't want him to draw from the Libyan case, which is that more than ever, he needs to hold on to nuclear weapons to ensure regime survival.†Uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, in particular the events in one-time nuclear weapons aspirant Libya, have only served to strengthen Kim's belief in a need for nuclear capability. In fact, last month, North Korea said that Western airstrikes against Libya showed how it had become more vulnerable after scrapping its nuclear weapons program.

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