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North Korea’s Nuclear Needs

Interviewee: Victor D. Cha, Director, Asian Studies, Georgetown University, Holder, Korean Chair, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 1, 2013

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North Korea, which might have been inclined to remain a non-nuclear power twenty years ago, now seems determined to develop its nuclear weapons capability despite world condemnation, says expert Victor Cha, who served as director of Asian Studies for the National Security Council under former president George W. Bush. North Korea's latest threat to conduct another nuclear test in the wake of a recent U.N. Security Council Resolution condemning a missile test shows that they are eager "to demonstrate, once again, that they are a bona fide nuclear state," says Cha. The new South Korean government, to be headed by President Park Geun-hye, will likely clarify its policy toward North Korea when this test occurs. If it occurs prior to Park taking office on February 25, Seoul may shrug it off; however, if it occurs afterward, it "leaves Park Geun-hye very little room to improve relations," he says.

Since the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution on January 22 condemning North Korea's first successful multi-stage ballistic missile test, the North Koreans have responded sharply with statements that suggest a third nuclear test is likely to happen soon. Is that your feeling?

Yes, it is. I don't recall them ever being as explicit as they were this time, and it clearly was in direct response to the UN Security Council resolution. I think the resolution itself was justified, because the previous resolutions had explicitly stated that any sort of payload launch that used ballistic missile technology would be considered a violation. And though the North Koreans said they were perfectly justified in putting a satellite into orbit, that's not what the resolution said. The resolution said that [North Korea] could not launch anything with ballistic missile technology. So, in that sense, the UN was correct in issuing this resolution, and the North Koreans' response--which I wouldn't say was predictable--reinforced the view that after the missile launch, the next thing they would try to do would be to demonstrate, once again, that they are a bona fide nuclear state with another test.

What's the goal of this nuclear testing? Some people speculate that the third test may occur on the anniversary of the birthday of Kim Jong-il (father of the current leader, Kim Jong-un) on February 15. Others say they may try to interfere with the inauguration of the new South Korean President Park Geun-hye on February 25. Do you have a sense of timing?

The big question in Seoul is whether the test is going to happen before or after the inauguration of the new government. The thinking is that if it happens before the inauguration, it might give the incoming government a little bit more room politically, because everybody could see it as being in response--a sort of a farewell kiss--to the departing Lee Myung-bak administration, which North Korea has no love for because they had a hard-line policy on North Korea. And therefore, the new government could come in with a bit more flexibility. On the other hand, if they conduct the test after the inauguration of the new government, then that leaves Park Geun-hye very little room to improve relations. There's obviously a scientific rationale for how they time these things--whether the site is ready, whether all their diagnostic equipment is ready--for which we have no insight. The larger political calculation would be whether it's before or after the inauguration.

"[North Koreans] want to have their cake and eat it too: they want economic cooperation with the outside world … but, at the same time, they want to achieve their status as a nuclear state."

What's driving the North Koreans?

There are a couple of things: the first is that they are still in the midst of a leadership transition in which this young fellow, Kim Jong-un, took over after his father's sudden death. He needs to prove within his own system that he's got the chops to run the country. Whenever you have regimes like this and they go through a leadership transition, they tend to be tougher, and that's certainly the case with North Korea. Also, even if they may be interested in some economic cooperation and getting help from the outside world--which I think they are--they're also very clearly interested in becoming a nuclear weapon state. For that reason, the theory that has been floating out there for a decade now that says they simply want to trade these weapons for help from the outside world doesn't hold. It's much more the case that they want to have their cake and eat it too: They want economic cooperation with the outside world , as evidenced by their inviting people like [Google Executive Chairman] Eric Schmidt in, but at the same time, they want to achieve their status as a nuclear state.

Looking back at George W. Bush's first State of the Union address, many have pointed out that out of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran--"the axis of evil"--only Iraq got invaded. Did that serve to incentivize North Korea to continue its nuclear work? To prevent an invasion?

These smaller, isolated regimes do seek security--and, quite frankly, it's much cheaper to obtain that security with a nuclear weapons program than it is fielding a highly capable, high-technology military. So yes, I do think they look for these asymmetric ways to assure their own security, and the diplomatic challenge has been to try to convince these countries that this path makes them less secure, because they become isolated. But clearly, that approach doesn't seem to be working with either North Korea or Iran. The United States has offered security guarantees and other things to North Korea trying to assuage this concern, but clearly they don't believe it or it's not enough, or they really do see, ultimately, that the best way for them to proceed is to have long range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

"These smaller, isolated regimes do seek security—and, quite frankly, it's much cheaper to obtain that security with a nuclear weapons program than it is fielding a highly-capable, high technology military."

So we've gone from the very intensive diplomacy in George W. Bush's second term in the Six Party Talks, to indifference under President Obama, and I don't know which has been more successful.

You had one administration that tried very hard to engage North Korea, then you had another administration that initially wanted to engage North Korea but then stepped away. And in either case, the external stimuli didn't matter: North Korean behavior was the same. They continued to push forward with their nuclear programs. So U.S. policy has something to do with where we are today, but, at the same time. I don't think it's just U.S. policy. A lot of it has to do with what's driving the internal dynamics of North Korea, like this leadership legitimacy issue and the desire to become a nuclear state. There may have been a time in the past, in 1994, when Frank Gallucci negotiated the Agreed Framework, when the North could have been persuaded to give up their weapons. But that was almost twenty years ago, and they've amassed a considerable program since then.

Talk about North Korea's relations with China, its only ally. China supported the recent Security Council resolution, and there's been some other mentions in the Chinese press expressing concern. So how would you describe their relationship?

China is North Korea's closest partner but I don't think it's a relationship [based on mutual affection]. The North Koreans rely heavily on China for a lot of assistance, but they resent being treated like a poor province by the Chinese. At the same time, the Chinese don't like the fact that the North Koreans continue with these provocations, which everyone blames China for not stopping. But the Chinese don't want to cut them off, because that might create instability, and they don't want to see the collapse of North Korea. So they continue to provide some assistance to North Korea. But I don't think they like the North Koreans either, because they drag China's name through the mud every time they do something like a missile test or a nuclear test.

Have the Chinese ever tried to stop them?

Not that we know of, and if they have they've clearly been unsuccessful. But the issue for the Chinese is that they always say they don't have the influence and they can't tell the North Koreans what to do. On the other hand, if they really were to cut off everything, I don't think the regime could last very long. The North Koreans get help from nobody else, so if China were to really cut them off, that would be the end. But that's not a price China's willing to pay right now, because they don't want to see a unified Korea as an ally of the United States.

You've been in South Korea just recently. What is the attitude of the incoming government? What do they want to do with the North? Do they have a policy in place?

"Any larger-scale engagement [between North and South Korea] is contingent upon progress being made on bigger political and security issues like denuclearization."

They have been very quiet in the transition period about what they want to do. I think that's the president-elect's own preference; she doesn't want to start megaphoning her policies before she comes into office. On North Korea, it's been said that she wants to build a relationship based on trust, whatever that means, and that she wants also to allow some humanitarian assistance to flow between the two countries, something like a provision of annual food and fertilizer shipments to North Korea to help with their food shortage. But beyond that, any larger-scale engagement is contingent upon progress being made on bigger political and security issues like denuclearization. So in that sense, it's a policy that sits very well with the Obama administration, but the real question will be how well the Park government responds to next nuclear test. If they respond to it as being something that was targeted at the previous government and they can start anew, they may try to engage North Korea, but if they see it as a direct threat to them, they'll take a tougher line. Park Geun-hye is not going back to the Sunshine Policy days--that's not who she is. But at the same time, she's not going to be as hardline as the last president. She's the first person to be elected to the presidency of South Korea who visited North Korea before she became president. As a politician, she went and met with the previous leadership, so she doesn't have the same hang-ups about North Korea.

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