Adam Mount, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and project director of the CFR Independent Task Force on North Korea, and Scott A. Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at CFR, discuss the threat of North Korea's accelerating nuclear program and offer policy recommendations for ensuring stability in Northeast Asia, as part of CFR's Academic Conference Call series.
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FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to this CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org.
We are delighted to have Adam Mount and Scott Snyder with us to talk about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and to prescribe policy recommendations.
Adam Mount is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Previously he was a Stanton nuclear security fellow at CFR, and he’s also worked on nuclear elimination contingencies at the RAND Corporation. His writing has been published by Foreign Affairs, Survival, and other magazines and outlets. He’s a columnist at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, where he writes on nuclear strategy and force structure. He is the project director for CFR Independent Task Force on North Korea. We sent out a link to the report. And you can follow him on Twitter at @AJMount.
Scott Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy here at CFR. Mr. Snyder’s previous positions include senior associate at the Asia Foundation, Pacific Forum CSIS, and Asia specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He serves as co-chair of the Advisory Council of the National Committee on North Korea, and has provided advice to NGOs and humanitarian organizations active in North Korea. He has authored and edited numerous reports, books, and book chapters. He is most recently the co-author, with Brad Glosserman, of “The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash: East Asian Security and the United States.” And he also served as an observer on the task force that we hosted on North Korea. You can follow him and his work on the CFR blog Asia Unbound.
So, Adam and Scott, thank you very much for being with us today. I thought, Scott, we would begin with you to talk about the evolution of the North Korea nuclear program.
SNYDER: Thank you so much, Irina, and really looking forward to the discussion.
You know, the North Korean nuclear program, in some respects it’s not too much to say that North Korea owes its very existence to the dawn of the nuclear age. If you visit Pyongyang and go to the Kim Il-sung revolutionary history museum, there are many rooms that introduce Kim Il-sung’s exploits as a guerilla fighter trying to liberate Korea from Japanese colonial rule. And in the last room, there is an order that he gave to liberate North Korea in early August; a couple of weeks later, it was done. There’s no mention of the U.S. dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, but it’s clear that that event left an impression on Kim Il-sung.
Second, Kim Il-sung lived with threats of nuclear use during and after the Korean War. There were U.S. discussions of whether or not to use nuclear weapons in North Korea during the Korean War, even despite the fact that U.S. airpower had decimated North Korea. And then, after the Korean War, the U.S. deployed tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea, as part of South Korea’s defense, until 1991.
Third, North Korea’s ideology and evolution has made nuclear pursuit very attractive as a way to try to attain North Korea’s declared goals and ideology. And the main component of that ideology is called juche, usually translated as self-reliance. But I think that it’s really about centrality and agency, putting North Korea really at the center of the universe. That works well as long as North Korea was able to control its own internal environment, but it conflicts with the view of North Korea from the outside. And essentially, juche was a narrative that placed North Korea at the center of the world and everybody else comes to North Korea.
Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il, followed an ideology of military first. And during that period, from 1994 to 2011, North Korea had a—excuse me—had a motto of powerful, strong state even despite South Korea’s—North Korea’s weakness. And then, under Kim Jong-un, we see the simultaneous pursuit of economic and nuclear development as the primary strategy that North Korea has pursued.
If we look at regime stability, we see that Kim Jong-un has been consolidating his rule. Based on internal cohesion, based on the politics of fear, and based on demands for political loyalty and unity as a way of eliminating internal dissent.
And then, if we look at the external sources of pressure that North Korea has faced, well, we see that North Korea is facing a lot of sanctions as a way of isolating North Korea. But ironically, this also may be exactly what its regime wants and needs because isolation helps Kim Jong-un to enhance his political control.
A second external source of pressure has been marketization. But I think the North Korean regime has actually been able to use marketization for its own purposes as a way of trying to strengthen its ability to get what it wants from the outside world by exploiting the markets that have developed in North Korea, and by exploiting the individuals who’ve been involved with those markets.
And then a third external source of pressure is really information strategies and the penetration of information into North Korea. I think this is probably the regime’s greatest vulnerability at this stage.
As a new administration comes into office, I think there are three questions that will be on the agenda that will influence policy. One is, is time on the U.S. side or on North Korea’s side? And I think that, under the Obama administration, really they’ve had the luxury of believing that time was on the U.S. side. But as North Korea moves toward the ability to potentially have a strike capability on the United States, it’s likely that policymakers looking at the issue with fresh eyes will see that time seems to be on North Korea’s side.
A second challenge, I think, is related to maintaining alliance cohesion with South Korea in the context of a U.S. political transition this year and then a South Korean political transition next year.
And then I think the third challenge is really about whether or not the United States and China try and close the cooperation gap between the two. And, you know, really North Korea lives in the space created by China-U.S. geostrategic mistrust, and to the extent that the U.S. and China are able to coordinate policy toward North Korea, it limits—it limits North Korea’s space. But the fact that China and the United States disagree in particular on the strategic goals related to the desired end state of the Korean Peninsula—basically, whether or not Korea would be unified and what orientation a unified Korea would have, toward the U.S. or toward China—provides a big obstacle to full cooperation between Washington and Beijing.
And I’ll stop there.
FASKIANOS: Thanks, Scott.
Let’s turn now to you, Adam, to talk about the task force report and the recommendations that you made. And perhaps you can talk about the co-chairs, et cetera, and go from there.
MOUNT: Sure, I’d be glad to. Thanks, Irina.
And thanks, Scott, for that introduction.
The CFR task force was an interesting undertaking. So the Council on Foreign Relations carries out independent task forces, mainly at a rate of twice a year. And so I’m told that you’ve been sent a copy of our report, and I encourage you to take a look at it.
The task force consisted of 17 distinguished experts who served in their individual capacities; and it was chaired by Admiral Mike Mullen, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Senator Sam Nunn, who was formerly a senator of Georgia and for many years was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
And so the task force was convened at a—as Scott mentioned, a pivotal time in U.S. policy towards North Korea. We as a country are willing—having to come to grips with where we stand relative to the peninsula and what our interests are going to be. And the task force found that the next administration is going to have to take a hard look at where U.S. policy stands, what our interests are, and what we can reasonably hope to achieve from the peninsula, and then to explore steps about how to achieve those interests.
We found that North Korea is perhaps the most difficult problem that exists today in international policy. An interesting fact about American political discourse on the subject is that it’s not a politicized one as, for example, Russia is today, or U.S. policy towards Iran and the Iran nuclear deal. There really aren’t partisan divisions in terms of how American experts think about North Korea policy.
But, on the other hand, it is marked by very severe inertia. So there have been policy positions that have been proposed and pushed for several decades now, and there’s very little new thinking that’s coming to the surface. New ideas are often attacked, sometimes viciously. So there are really no easy answers here. But, at the same time, it demonstrates the fact that the United States, as a global superpower, is forced to make policy sometimes where there are no easy answers—I mean, where there are no good options.
The other thing that we found is that U.S. policy toward North Korea is difficult to achieve and execute because it requires all levels of American power to work together effectively, which is not easy in the best of circumstances and, in fact, is a very difficult one. So the diplomatic corps in the State Department, the Treasury in sanctions implementation, the DOD in terms of deterrence and defense, all have to work together to implement a cohesive U.S. strategy toward North Korea. It’s something that we haven’t always done well in the past, and it’s something that the next administration is going to have to invest some real effort in trying to make work.
So the task force found that the Obama administration’s policy of strategic patience, which Scott mentioned, has failed to achieve its objective of rolling back the North Korean nuclear program and its nuclear capability, but also failing to stop North Korea’s crimes against humanity and its human rights abuses against its own citizens. And so the task force found that current trends, if allowed to continue, will predictably, progressively, and gravely threaten U.S. national interests and those of its allies. And so this really was a sharp call, we believe, to the next administration to conduct a bottom-up review that really questions the assumptions of U.S. policy towards the peninsula and whether we can continue on our current course, because as Scott said—and the task force agreed—time is not on the United States’ side.
And so the overall strategy that the task force is proposing is to sharpen the choices on North Korea. So this means to take new steps and put in place new initiatives to sharpen North Korea’s choice, to coerce it back to the negotiating table. This means to increase incentives for cooperation, but also to put in place steps that impose escalating costs on continued defiance.
Now, from your courses and from your studies, you know that this is essentially a rationalist calculus, and it—and it argues that North Korea has not been facing sufficient cost to its defiance of international norms and its obligations to the United Nations. And, I mean, this depends on the bargain that U.S. policy has sufficient leverage that it can shift North Korea’s calculus, to sort of put a—put a foot on the scale and force Pyongyang to reinterpret how they think about policy.
Now, it’s not entirely clear that this is the right assumption, though. As you know, rationality in international affairs is a difficult assumption. It’s a problematic one. But, on the other hand, it’s how American foreign policy thinkers oftentimes think about policy. And, in fact, we don’t have other good—very other good constructs or options for thinking about policy.
So our argument has been—and there are six recommendations that I encourage you to take a look at: on a stable and prosperous Northeast Asia, and how we can plan in a regional context to create one; to restructure negotiations; to protect the human rights of North Korean citizens; to enforce sanctions and exploit economic pressure; to strengthen deterrence and defense; and also, we had recommendation six specifically on interception of the missile tests that originate from North Korea. And the argument here is that each of these recommendations can sharpen North Korea’s choice, to encourage them to behave properly, and behave in accordance with their international obligations; but also to sharpen China’s choice, to demonstrate to China that they can get on the right side of this issue, stop protecting the regime, or it will face costs from the United States and it will meaningfully damage the U.S.-China relationship, which we believe is inevitable as long as they continue to protect North Korea.
So, in other words, the next administration here in the United States will face a sharper choice. And we hope that they will spend some very real effort on this extremely difficult policy problem and put in place a new strategy going forward.
So let me turn it back over to Irina, and hopefully we’ll answer some of your questions.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you both for that terrific overview.
Let’s open it up now to the students on the call for their questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question will come from Stockton University.
Q: What role might China play to reduce or stop North Korea’s missile development?
SNYDER: Adam, do you want to go first, or do you want me to?
MOUNT: Sure. So there’s considerable debate about China’s leverage over North Korea. They tell U.S. diplomats fairly frequently that they have very little leverage over North Korea, they have very little ability to influence the regime. But on the other hand, it’s clear that they are the predominant source of trade and funding for the regime. They protect the regime in international diplomatic institutions. And they also complicate the military picture around the peninsula in ways that advantage the regime’s interests. So, in many ways, they are protecting the regime.
Something that you hear in Washington occasionally is that they may not have a lot of influence, but they do have a lot of leverage. And so, while they say that they—while Chinese diplomats and Chinese officials say that they’re interested in reconvening multilateral talks to denuclearize North Korea, they really haven’t, the United States believes, been putting on sufficient pressure to compel them to do so. And so how the next administration handles this question, whether they can encourage China to place more pressure on North Korea, is going to be a difficult question.
Now, they have been transitioning in some ways. So, in February and March of this year, China signed on to U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270, which in some ways was a quantum leap in terms of the sanctions obligations that other countries face relative to North Korea. So it, for example, required all U.N. members to inspect all cargo coming into and out of the peninsula. Now, China hasn’t been faithfully implementing this, but the fact that they signed on isn’t insignificant in itself.
So could we encourage this transition in how China thinks about North Korea? We hope so, but it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion.
SNYDER: Yeah, I would just add that China’s cooperation in order to stop North Korea’s missile development is necessary, but it may not be sufficient to cause Kim Jong-un to change direction. And the reason why cooperation with China is necessary is because to the extent that North Korea needs external parts or technology that could be useful in the missile program, it’s probably going to come through China. But at the same time, there’s a gap, I think, because of China’s prioritization of stability over denuclearization, it means that there’s a limit to the amount of pressure that China’s willing to put onto North Korea. And it falls short, I think, of what the U.S. would believe is necessary in order to change Kim Jong-un’s direction and strategic calculus.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the University of Southern Mississippi.
Q: Hello. It has been reporting that North Korea said it would suspend nuclear testing if the U.S. suspended our annual war games. I assume that our war games are necessary for military readiness. Would it be feasible militarily to move these drills further south? And second, what would be the effect of reinstating the previous Sunshine Policies, which ended in 2010?
MOUNT: Well, let me just speak very quickly—this is Adam—to the question of exercises. The U.S.-ROK exercises take place several times a year. They include all branches of the U.S. military. And as you say, they’re ready—they’re important not only for readiness, but also to prepare and to train for the kind of manifold threats that North Korea places against the joint force. So U.S. and Republic of Korea, ROK, forces participate in a combined forces commander under the command of General Brooks, who’s commander of U.S. Forces Korea, but also assumes operational command of the ROK forces.
And so it’s important to do exercises to prepare to plan for all sorts of threats, not only nuclear threats but also ones coming from special operations forces, in the maritime domain. We just did a joint exercise with Japan, for example, to prepare for search and rescue and interdiction missions. So all of these things are important. And they’re important especially now because, as North Korea continues to improve its nuclear capability, they may become emboldened to threaten South Korea and American forces at lower levels on the escalation ladder.
But also, they are—it’s an uncomfortable position for South Korea to be in. And so they demand assurance from the United States, from Washington, that we will be there to back them up if push does come to shove. And so the exercises are important for demonstrating that. On the other hand, the taskforce, for example, was willing to say that if North Korea is participating in negotiations, we may be willing to modify the scope of our—or the timing of our exercises. In some ways, that’s a contentious position and not everyone agrees. But for our purposes, it’s worth taking a look at.
Scott, do you want to talk about that and/or unification, the Sunshine Policy?
SNYDER: I’ll talk a little bit about the Sunshine Policy. Before I do that I’ll just, you know, add that one of the concerns I think that is expressed about the North Korean proposal—you know, there’s an element of truth there. North Korea obviously does feel threatened by these exercises. But they also seem to be very interested in changing the subject from denuclearization to establishing a peace treaty between the U.S. and North Korea. You know, but how do you get to denuclearization and/or peace? Well, one way of doing it might actually be to explore some kind of, you know, arms control. So—or at least have discussions about tension reduction involving North Korea, South Korea, and the United States. And so, you know, I would say that, you know, that is an area that could potentially be explored in some form under the right conditions.
On the possibility of the return of the Sunshine Policy, the Sunshine Policy actually began back in 1998 under Kim Dae-jung at a time when the North Korean nuclear program appeared to be under control. There was an agreement between the U.S. and North Korea that was being implemented, where North Korea had frozen its program in return for international provision of light water reactors to North Korea. But then North Korea was discovered to be not abiding fully by the agreement, and everything unraveled. And so, you know, the problem with returning to the sunshine policy, I think there are two, really. One is that the—an earlier prerequisite of the North Korean nuclear program being under control was not obtained; and the second practical problem that now the U.N. sanctions regime, I think, has been strengthened to the point that it would prohibit some of the initiatives and activities that had been previously a part of the South Korean economic outreach to North Korea. And so, you know, those potential activities in terms of more active trade and investment in North Korea simply would not be possible under the current U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from St. Edwards University.
Q: Hi. I was wondering—I was wondering what accounts for the discrepancies in North Korea’s pivot in nuclear policies. For instance, they withdrew from the IAEA in 1994, but then participated in KEDO, and later withdrew from the NPT in 2003, but later participated in the six-party talks in 2006.
SNYDER: Well, I mean, you know, those are fluctuations that occurred as part of the past two decades of the U.S. and North Korea trying to grapple with the challenge posed by North Korea’s nuclear developments. The IAEA, you know, stepping away from—or the problem of the IAEA really was the catalyst for the first North Korean nuclear crisis, that then was brought under control by the agreement that I mentioned earlier between the U.S. and North Korea to establish an international consortium to provide light-water reactors to North Korea—that was administered by KEDO, that you mentioned—in return for North Korea’s freeze and eventual dismantlement of its nuclear program.
And then we saw in the early 2000s there was intelligence that showed that North Korea was violating the spirit of the Agreed Framework between the U.S. and North Korea by pursuing a second covert path to a nuclear capability, using uranium enrichment rather than plutonium, in order to pursue nuclear development. And so the breakdown of the Agreed Framework led to North Korea’s decision to activate its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and this essentially put us on a negative path. Six-party talks tries to put things back together, and in fact, I think provided the best potential framework under what was called then a quote-unquote “action for action formula,” where North Korea would pursue actions to implement denuclearization in return for diplomatic normalization with the U.S. and Japan, economic development funds, and potentially a negotiation of a peace treaty. But then North Korea walked away from that in 2009 and has since been pursuing nuclear development essentially unfettered.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
MOUNT: It’s an excellent question.
FASKIANOS: Okay, great. Adam, go ahead.
MOUNT: It’s an excellent question because it sort of gets to the core of the assumptions that American foreign policy depends on. When the North Koreans negotiate with us, what are they doing? Are they willing to—take steps to proceed towards denuclearization, or are they just stalling for time? Are they trying to extract more resources out of us? Unfortunately, the answer is probably some mix of all of this. And if they were interested in denuclearizing in the past—and occasionally they did take costly signals, so the Agreed Framework did restrain North Korea’s nuclear development. They, for example, demolished a cooling tower at one of their reactors at Yongbyon under one of these agreements, and that is not something that you do if you’re completely uninterested or completely refusing to abide by the—(off mic). But on the other hand, it’s clear, as Scott said, that their development is proceeding unfettered. They’ve tested a nuclear device twice this year, and they’ve never done that in the past. They’ve been getting a larger, more sophisticated. The missile program has advanced very quickly. And so, do they now have an interest in denuclearizing? Probably not. If they ever did, it may now be gone. And so, your question is—you know, it’s very well-taken.
FASKIANOS: Great, thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Again, if you would like to ask a question, you can press star-1 at this time. Our next question will come from Norwich University. Please make sure your phone’s not on mute.
Q: Good afternoon. China has made a lot of noise about the deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system to the Korean Peninsula. Do you feel that that system or other ballistic missile deterrent systems create more friction, or do they provide security for the region?
MOUNT: Well, importantly a system like THAAD can do both. It can provide security. It can be a necessary military requirement. Though for example, as I said, the North Korean missiles are advancing—missile tests are becoming more frequent, they’re becoming more sophisticated, and they’re becoming more varied. So, they’re testing, for example, the marine-launched ballistic missiles now. These are medium-range nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. They’re gaining new capabilities. And so, as they do that, the joint force will have to expand (its abilities ?) to prevent North Korea from believing that it can take a shot and get away with it, or to deny it the confidence that it can take a shot with confidence, with certainty. At the same time, you’re right, that it does raise friction with China. In some ways that’s a bad thing because it means that China’s less likely to want to talk about new sanctions, for example. But on the other hand, it’s a very clear demonstration to China that things—if it continues to protect North Korea, things will continue to stalemate in terms of the U.S.-China relationship, and that the U.S.-ROK alliance is not willing to fold to pressure. We will meet our requirements to defend the peninsula, and that’s something that American foreign policymakers believe very strongly. Scott, do you want to touch on this one also?
SNYDER: I’ll just say that it really does depend on your perspective. And, you know, Adam has basically described, I think, the straight-up rationale on the U.S. and ROK side for introducing the system, and that is in response to North Korea’s nuclear developments. You know, China, interestingly, has decided to make an issue of a system designed to defend South Korea from a North Korean threat because it perceives a threat from the type of radar that is being installed as part of that system. Mechanical specialists that I’ve spoken with suggest that actually that radar system and the modes that it would be operating in does not pose a threat to China, but it’s clear that China is concerned about something. And the fact that they have made that an issue increases mistrust between the U.S. and China, and gives more space and maneuvering room to North Korea.
MOUNT: Also—let me also pose a hypothesis. If you are familiar with Russian foreign policy and U.S. foreign policy towards Russia, you know that they make a lot of noise about the U.S. missile defense program also, which we—which America says is not directed at Russia and doesn’t pose a threat to them—sometimes with good reason and sometimes not. The reason Russia is concerned is that when we deploy a missile defense system in Poland or Romania, it solidifies the alliance—the naval alliance. And we do it for insurance purposes, not just—in fact, probably not at all for military reasons. Now, there is a military reason on the Korean Peninsula, but it looks like China is adopting that logic. They’re concerned about THAAD because they are concerned about what it means for the U.S.-ROK and the U.S.-ROK-Japan relationship, that it’s becoming more politically cohesive and that this system is intended to do that. So thanks for your question.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the National War College. Please make sure your phone’s not on mute or silent.
Q: Thank you, Adam, for doing it, and thanks for taking my questions.
Kind of going back to China’s participation or cooperation in any future strategy that comes out of the new administration, do you feel that the U.S. can sharpen the choice for North Korea via economic sanctions to behave in accordance with international norms without China’s cooperation? Is that something we can do on our own, or is it predicated and absolutely critical that China participate?
SNYDER: One of the effects of sanctions so far has been that increasingly China monopolizes the trade flow of North Korea. So that means greater sanctions implementation actually gives China greater economic leverage over North Korea at the expense of the leverage that others might have. And so I don’t really see that there’s a way that sanctions can be effective without China’s cooperation. But I also think there are limits to the potential effectiveness of sanctions that are bounded by the fact that China simply, I think, doesn’t buy into the idea that we can change the strategic calculus of Kim Jong-un without posing greater risks to stability in North Korea and in the region.
MOUNT: But, on the other hand, it’s clear that there’s more that the United States and its allies can do than we have done so far. So for example, the United States and its allies have been skittish about putting sanctions on Chinese firms that deal with North Korean—with the North Korean regime. So, for example, the Hongxiang Industrial Group was recently popped into the news because it was a very—just an overwhelming volume of trade that they were doing for the regime. In fact, they said on their website that they served as the bridge between North Korea and the rest of the world.
Now, if we have—if we’re serious at all about sanctioning North Korea, that’s completely unacceptable. That is so far beyond the bounds of reasonable and principled economic activity that really we had to do something about them. So for example, the United States leaned on China to crack down on Hongxiang. And Japan may be considering similar steps. So that’s something that we can do. We can take further steps to cut them off from the international financial order. We can get serious about implementing our UNSCR 2270 obligations and interdict cargo that’s going to and from the peninsula.
Now, putting more on operating with maritime assets in China’s proximity, possibly in the Yellow Sea but all around the peninsula, will raise tensions, not only with the regime and with China, but it’s something that the next administration could consider to raise economic pressure on the regime. Will it be sufficient alone? Probably not. But it’s got to be part of the puzzle if we’re to make any progress on this issue.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Howard University.
Q: Hi. Thank you for your comments and addressing some of the points you made in the report. If China is to be the linchpin and North Korea must be a front-burner issue for both the U.S. and China, and then, you know, just like you said, without China’s cooperation sanctions, for example, will not be as effective as they should be in turning the screw with North Korea, how do you address the other three recommendations that could actually be at odds with China’s interests? For example, greater trilateral cooperation between the U.S., South Korea, and Japan may actually provoke China, just like it did this summer with the announcement of the THAAD deployment through the peninsula? How would you reconcile some of these differing interests and how do we get China to the table if some of these recommendations are at odds with what they want?
MOUNT: This is an excellent question. And you’re right, that there is, in practice, some tension there between the recommendations. But this is—you know, it’s a tension that can’t be wished away. We can’t just pretend that it isn’t there. So for example, the bargain of the taskforce or the wager of the taskforce is that, backing off, giving China what they want in this regard, not—or refraining from applying pressure to China or doing anything to upset China, also won’t have the desired effect.
But so, for example, there’s very—I think it’s fair to say that there’s very little possibility that China will implement sanctions if the United States doesn’t deploy THAAD and suspends joint exercises. I don’t think that would do enough to change their calculus about how they see the regime and about the costs and benefits that they face. So the bargain of the taskforce is that China has to understand that they will face escalating costs to their vision of their role in the region if they don’t transform their policy on this subject. We will have to put more military assets in the region, just as a matter of military necessity.
The U.S.-ROK-Japan alliance—excuse me, it’s not an alliance—but the relationship will become more—will become more closer, coordination will increase in frequency and in scope. And so essentially it poses a choice to China to say you can help us to implement our U.N. obligations, to pressure the regime back to the table, or you can get left behind in a region that you hope to lead. You can be a responsible power, or you can give up the pretense to doing so and get left behind. And that’s something that we believe that China’s very sensitive to, because they’re interested in promoting their predominance in the region.
But, as I say, you know, that’s a wager. And that’s the kind of wager that policymakers have to make without being certain of the consequences.
FASKIANOS: Do you want to add to this?
SNYDER: No, why don’t you go ahead.
FASKIANOS: OK. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our next question will come from Daniel Morgan Academy.
Q: Thank you. My question is regarding if the United States and its allies decide on kinetic action against North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, what will be the ramifications with U.S.-China relations, or what course of actions could the Chinese take if that were to occur?
SNYDER: It’s a great question. In some ways, the thing that China most fears and has the greatest concern about is the possibility that the U.S. might engage in a military conflict with North Korea. And so actually, at some times in the past fear of North Korean military action has actually been a motivator for China. But, you know, the other aspect, you know, that you have to keep in mind is the history of the Korean War, you know, as the only instance where the U.S. and China have come into military conflict with each other. And so, you know, there are great risks, I think, that would have ramifications for the U.S.-China relationship that would be involved in any kind of—in an emergence of a military conflict on the peninsula.
MOUNT: And not just risks to the relationship, but also pretty severe military risks too. Now, it depends on the scenario or the circumstances in which the United States takes military actions. If it is relatively low-scale action around the demilitarized zone, for example, to try to bush back North Korean artillery emplacements, that’s one thing. If, for example, Kim Jong-un employed a nuclear device for some reason, and the United States—the U.S. administration and the combined forces command determined that the regime could not be allowed to remain in place, it would be a much wider engagement.
So for example, the kinds of scenario—what China will do and can do depends on the scenario. But on the other hand, there is possibility for our forces to come into conflict. So the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center is north of Pyongyang. It’s about an hour and a half’s drive from the border, assuming good conditions. And you know, we would not be very content to leave it sitting there, and to leave nuclear material, and nuclear technology, and nuclear knowledge loose. So we would want to secure that facility. But the Chinese may also want to too.
So U.S. policymakers for years have been pressing the Chinese to talk about contingencies like this. What would you plan to do? Here’s what our interests are. Here’s what we would plan to do. And so far, they’ve resisted having that—(off mic). But it’s something that we worry about quite a lot, and we very much hope that they will discuss these kinds of issues with us, because the possibility of having U.S. and Chinese troops and forces coming into conflict, two nuclear-armed nations, it’s deeply terrifying. It’s something that will be at the forefront of any military leader’s mind in a crisis like that.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Fordham University.
Q: Hi, yes. My question actually is kind of similar to the previous one, but is it possible to deter North Korea’s nuclear advancement by economic means alone? And if there is a continuing escalation, you know, at what point in their development of nuclear capabilities does the U.S. say they have to step in militarily?
SNYDER: Well, I don’t think anybody wants to, you know, see military conflicts on the peninsula. You know, in some respects, the biggest challenge really—what we’ve really been talking about related to responding to North Korea’s nuclear development is a huge collective action problem, and the challenge of getting everybody on the same page. On the one hand, it’s critical to bringing about a halt to the program. But on the other hand, it’s exceedingly difficult and, I don’t know, it could end up proving to be impossible.
But if you’re looking at means short of military means to try to change the North Korean regime, I think the question then becomes how can economic pressure be used to try to generate internal dissention inside North Korea in ways that might put pressure on the domestic priorities of the leadership, because that’s clearly, I think, one of the main motivators for pursuing the program at this point. And so I think that raises some additional questions and some additional research really needs to be done on how to make sanctions effective in promoting differences internally within North Korea.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Georgetown University.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much, both of you, for being here. I think one of the things that’s important here is that North Korea needs to see that they have a clear way out that aligns with their national priorities. And can you talk a little bit about what that might look like from the North Korean perspective?
MOUNT: Well, I’ll just begin with in military terms this is a major concern. So, for example, earlier this year the combined forces did an exercise that simulated strikes against the North Korean leadership. And this is a capability that we can’t—that we will always have, just by nature of our military force structure. But this was of concern to a number of military analysts because it was a pretty clear signal to the Kim regime that we—that we’re willing to take them out. Now, if he believes that, it raises the possibility that he will employ a nuclear weapon, which is in nobody’s interests.
So there is an ongoing debate about how you calibrate military threat and how you calibrate military exercises in order to threaten the regime, and make a credible threat to the regime if they, for example, employ a nuclear device, or if they do take an extremely damaging, aggressive action. But on the other hand, to do it in a way that does not escalate their willingness to deploy a nuclear weapon first, what we call a use it or lose it incentive. So it’s this very difficult balancing act and reasonable people disagree. But for my money, that’s something that we need to be very sensitive of and very careful of.
Scott, did you want to mention something on this?
SNYDER: Yeah. If you want to know what the North Koreans think is the way out, all you have to do is to read their media. And you know, what they say about the way out is that they’d like to have a normal relationship with the United States, which would involve the United States recognizing North Korea as a nuclear state. And then they’d be willing to talk about mutual disarmament. But I think it’s pretty clear that they are linking essentially the deterrence that they feel they need from nuclear weapons in an environment where they face a hostile relationship with the United States with the possibility of a completely transformed U.S.-North Korea relationship. But then, as you know, there are other problems with the nature of the regime that politically make it very difficult to imagine that the U.S. would be able to embrace normalization with a nuclear North Korea.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s see if we can get one more into the mix.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Stockton University.
Q: Since the recent conflicts, escalations in the South China Sea, do you believe that there’s an idea of a potential Pacific collective security alliance floating amongst U.S. officials, such of like a NATO of the Pacific to counteract China and North Korean influence?
MOUNT: Actually, this is one of the recommendations of the taskforce, is for the U.S., Japan, and South Korea to declare that an attack by North Korea against one of us is an attack against all of us. That is not quite the same as what we do with NATO. And for example, our—the nuclear component of that declaration or of our trilateral relationship in the Pacific would be different than we do have with NATO, which is we say it is inherently a nuclear alliance. You know, that consists of nuclear sharing in sort of a really complex way.
That would probably be different, but it is in the interests of the United States and, many officials in Washington believe, in the interests of our allies to solidify and strengthen that trilateral collective security piece. And the reason is because we want to prevent them from—prevent North Korea from believing that it can strike at, for example, Tokyo or a U.S. base in Japan, and thereby split them from the conflict and sort of keep them from participating in the conflict, and keeping the U.S. from flowing forces through Japan.
That’s something that we don’t want to encourage. So it’s difficult for political reasons, because of decades of acrimony between South Korea and Japan that stretches back to the Second World War and before. But we believe things are getting better in that relationship. And it may open up the possibility for exactly the kind of declarations you have suggested.
In terms of South China Sea, that’s further afield. And U.S. partnerships in Southeast Asia are, you know, less firm than they are—they’re certainly less firm and less committed than our alliances in Northeast Asia. So we suggest a collective security declaration with respect to North Korea, but not necessarily with respect to other topics. And that might be a fine distinction, but we think it’s an important one.
SNYDER: Yeah, I’ll just underscore the main point there, that there’s a North Korea-focused rationale for enhanced security cooperation among the U.S., Japan, and South Korea. But I don’t—I’m not sure whether it would be possible. Certainly there are questions about whether it would be desirable to try to build an Asian NATO. I mean, if China is concerned about containment now, then you can imagine that there would have a pretty strong reaction to that sort of development, if it were to materialize in the future.
FASKIANOS: Thank you both very much for today’s call. We’re at the end of our time. So I’m sorry that we couldn’t get to everybody’s questions. But I think this was a really rich discussion, and we appreciate the questions that were asked. Adam Mount and Scott Snyder, thank you very much for being with us. I hope that you all read the taskforce report and follow Adam and Scott on Twitter, as well as on their blogs.
Our next call will be on Wednesday, November 9th, at noon eastern time. Angela Stent, professor and director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Georgetown University will lead a conversation on U.S.-Russia relations. And in the meantime, I hope you will follow our academic initiatives on Twitter at @CFR_Academic for information on new CFR resources and upcoming events.
So thank you all, again, for being with us. And thanks to Adam Mount and Scott Snyder.
SNYDER: Thank you.