The Future of U.S.-North Korea Relations

Thursday, February 21, 2019
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Victor D. Cha

D.S. Song-KF Chair and Professor of Government, Georgetown University; Author,The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future; Korea Affairs Contributor, MSNBC

Rebecca K. Hersman

Director, Project on Nuclear Issues and Senior Advisor, International Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Scott A. Snyder

Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy, Council on Foreign Relations; @snydersas

Mark W. Lippert

Vice President, The Boeing Company; Former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea

At the end of this month, President Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for the second time during his presidency. In advance of the summit, panelists discuss what to expect from this unique diplomatic moment, the prospect of denuclearization negotiations, and the future of U.S. policy toward North Korea.

LIPPERT: All right. Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome. Welcome to the esteemed Council on Foreign Relations. We are here to talk about the future of U.S.-North Korea relations. You may have heard, some of you who read the newspaper, there’s this summit coming up. So I think that’s generated some interest here in this town. But in all seriousness, we have a fantastic panel laid out for you here today.

By way of introduction, I’m Mark Lippert. I’ll be your moderator. I work for the Boeing Company. We sell airplanes. And in a previous life I was the U.S. ambassador to South Korea. We have—to my right, we have Scott Snyder—I’m going to get his exact title right—the senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, here. His bio is on your table. It is a really impressive collection of work, and a not too—not too distantly published book as well on South Korea that’s a great read.

We have Rebecca Hersman. She is director of the project on nuclear studies and senior advisor of the International Security Program at CSIS. Also a former senior Pentagon official, with great, deep expertise on nonproliferation and arms control. And last, but not least, we have Victor Cha. Victor Cha is the D.S. Song-KF chair and professor of government at Georgetown University, author of The Impossible State—which also is a good book—North Korea Past, Present, and Future, and Korea affairs contributor at MSNBC, and I would also be remiss if I didn’t say a key member of the Bush administration National Security Council team on Korea and North Korea.

So, with that, let’s get into it. We are not going to—oh, I almost forgot my housekeeping notes prompt here. So sorry about that. I would also—let’s see here. I want to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder—and we’ll do that after thirty minutes. And a reminder that this meeting is on the record. And when you do get to questions in about thirty minutes, please state your name, affiliation, and speak into the microphone. And please limit yourself to one question. And a question, you know, is not a speech. So that’s the basic rules of the road.

So I’m going to go first to Rebecca. And Rebecca, you’re the arms control, nonproliferation expert here. Can you just—to level-set everybody here—take us through kind of a brief history of the program, size and scope, threats they pose, and how you kind of think about that as the deep arms control, nonproliferation expert you are?

HERSMAN: Thank you. Thanks, Mark. And thanks for having me here, and to CFR. Let me just try to hit a few wave tops, because obviously that is a bit topic. And I think the important thing is to remember that the North Korean nuclear program has decades under its belt. Multiple leaders of the regime have invested in it. It is a core source of pride and prestige for the regime. And it—even more importantly, it is core to the perceptions of regime survival.

Now, we don’t know enough about North Korean doctrine and strategy to know a couple of important things that I would love to know more about, and that is to really understand the core purpose and orientation of their nuclear program. Do they see that program strictly defensively as a means to fend off invasion and coercion by the United States or South Korea? Or potentially, as many fear, that in fact it’s an offensively capable program to enable coercion and potentially conflict in favor of North Korean aggression? That’s kind of the core debate, because it changes how we think about the program.

Regardless, I think if in the past anyone every considered this nuclear program a bargaining chip, it really isn’t any longer. It’s a capability. Now, let’s break that down a little bit. DPRK has acquired sufficient weapons-usable material to support an arsenal of considerable size. Public estimates run between thirty and sixty weapons, probably to the higher side of that. They have two pathways to critical material. They have both a plutonium and a uranium pathway and the associated materials to develop more advanced weapons, such as tritium. Their material production has continued over this past year of summitry. And it is—as a result, the number of possible weapons continues to grow. And there’s really nothing to indicate that that is different.

They also have a quite diverse set of facilities. Of course, they have the kind of famous Yongbyon, but they have multiple other facilities—some known, some not known—that support that program. We know from observing their testing that they’ve mastered many aspects of weaponization. We don’t know for sure whether this includes sufficient, reliable miniaturization to support mating with a long-range or ICBM-range missile. I don’t know that I would rule it out, since the difference might not be that they don’t have the capability, but they might not have it at a level of reliability or certainty that we would associate with a capability.

We can document tremendous advances in their missile delivery systems. They have multiple ranges and capabilities. This has been an intense area of progress and effort over the last three to five years, and well before. There, we don’t know if they’re mastered a reliable reentry vehicle. Many suspect not. Regardless, it is important to recognize that in many ways it is the missile program on which the bigger strategic shift for North Korea rests over the last several years. I would argue more than necessarily a certain quantity of nuclear weapons. It is the combination of weapons and delivery with a more strategic range that’s critical. It is, indeed, I would argue, those missile capabilities, in fact, even more than the existence of nuclear weapons, that creates the challenge we have now of potentially decoupling between the United States, our allies, and others.

A bit more on those missile facilities. Victor and his team and Joe Bermudez have done some tremendous work looking at undeclared missile sites. I would simply argue there’s really nothing shocking about undeclared missile sites, because there’s lots of undeclared stuff period, all across their WMD programs. I actually think it’s useful to bring a spotlight to that, to remind people those things exist. We should expect to find more. We should expect to see missile garrisons in operating areas throughout the country. We should see them to varying degrees of defensive posture. We should be seeing shorter-range ones near the DMZ, more, you know, kind of developed longer ranges farther away where they’re better protected to threaten other states in the region. We should expect to see that. We should be looking for it. And they should be included in any conversation about denuclearization. They simply cannot be separated from the core program.

Just a couple of other things. Both in terms of weaponization and delivery, the pause in testing has, in my view, slowed the speed of their advance, the accelerating process that was underway. I don’t really see how it’s reduced those capabilities. And it’s also important, when we think about the absence of testing, we keep a couple things in mind. First of all, testing has gone through episodic phases, whether it’s, you know, kind of nuclear testing or missile testing, has gone through periods of intense numbers of tests and far less intense. And, you know, significant numbers of months without testing. It’s not as new as we want to think about it. And it’s also true that we really don’t understand how Kim Jong-un views risk, safety, error, and accuracy margins in many fundamental ways, including in crisis. Those are the sort of things we’re usually seeking to eliminate in testing, right? We’re trying to improve our knowledge margins, reduce margins of error. But we have very narrow tolerances. We don’t know much about what those tolerances are like in North Korea.

Two more brief things. The WMD program and the nuclear program in particular is an indigenously developed program. Yes, it has at time relied on some capabilities external, but for the most part they could complete a full pathway on indigenous capabilities. And where they need to fill pockets of capabilities, they have a prolific, extensive illicit purchasing network. And all of that remains intact. It’s not clear there’s been any degradation there. And just as a final leave, I will say we cannot forget the fact that North Korea has extensive biological weapons program and chemical weapons program. And while it may not be necessarily on the front-burner for any of these denuclearization discussions, when you talk about the risk that North Korea poses to its neighbors in the region, it is important not to just dismiss those capabilities.

 LIPPERT: All right. Great, Rebecca. Great laydown. Really appreciate it.

Let me turn to Victor here. Victor, put on your old hat s NSC director. You’re coming into these negotiations. You just heard Rebecca’s brief on the size and the scope of the program. You’ve got the denuclearization issue. At the same time—and I’ll ask Scott to jump in on this in a little bit—you’ve got this inter-Korean dynamic going between the North and the South. How would you—how—what are you thinking about in terms of leverage points between the U.S. and DPRK? What do you want to get out of this negotiation? How should we think about where the players are in the field heading into all of this? And what would your general mindset be in the runup to this summit in Singapore?

CHA: Well, thanks, Mark, for that question.

So I guess the first thing is that I would want to hold out a meeting with my president for much later in the process, not at the very beginning, or not every time the momentum has slowed down in the diplomacy. Because, as many of you in this room know, that’s generally the way you do it. Secondly, in terms of what we’d be wanting to get, you know, there is a way to execute a denuclearization plan, right?

And it usually starts with some sort of declaration by the party, because we need a declaration to actually negotiate the freezing, the inspection, the dismantle—the disablement, dismantlement, and then removal. You know, again, having done these negotiations the last time we had an agreement, it’s very difficult to negotiate dismantlement with North Korea of things that they don’t declare having. You just can’t do it. So that would be one of the main objectives. You know, hopefully one of the things that could come out of this next meeting—this meeting next week in Hanoi, although I’m not confident that that’s the case.

The other pathway is to do it in terms of going site by site. Not seeking the comprehensive declaration at the beginning but working with individual sites. Essentially getting a foot in the door, if you will, to start verifying each site, and use those as building blocks in what would be a very cumbersome and tedious path, but still may be the only path available to you to try to get to something comparable to a—to a declaration. And my guess is that that is sort of the direction in which we’re headed for next week.

In terms of leverage points, you know, very clearly the most important leverage that the United States has is the package of sanctions that have been put on North Korea, particularly over the last 12 months, that up until the easing up of these sanctions in the beginning of 2018 were very important in terms of getting North Korea to the table. Those sanctions are sanctions for both proliferation activity, as well as for human rights. And the human rights piece is the piece people often forget about, because there are many things that U.S. companies, or international companies, or international financial institution cannot do anymore with North Korea because of human rights abuses somewhere along the supply chain.

So that’s , I think, one of the big pieces of leverage. Again, the other leverage would be the meeting with the president of the United States, but we’ve already shot that wad once. And we’ll shoot it again next week. Frankly, I think the more of these meetings we have the less impactful they will be. So with each meeting—particularly, I think, the next meeting—there’s a lot of pressure, I think. If you look at the broader negotiation, there’s really a lot of pressure to get something tangible in this next meeting, otherwise if we get the equivalent of what we got in Singapore, which is essentially a group—a bunch of statements, then it really devalues the whole purpose of these—of these summit meetings.

And then finally, arranging the players, it’s—you know, often it’s like herding cats. I think Jim Kelly, the assistant secretary, once described it that way. But in this case, it’s an unusual configuration. And, Mark, you know this well. I mean, because generally the way these things work is if we’re going into a meeting with the North Koreans, we are coordinating with our allies, Japan and South Korea, usually doing a series of trilateral meetings before going into a meeting with North Korea. Right now we have a situation where I think there’s no conversation taking place between our two allies, Japan and South Korea.

Japan is unfortunately isolated in all of this. South Korea is moving very fast, very quickly, very enthusiastic about the engagement prospects. I’m sure Scott will talk about that. And China is basically enabling North Korea by having normalized the commercial relationship, which takes a lot of pressure off the North Koreans to negotiate in earnest with the United States. So it’s not really the best configuration for the U.S. in terms of the players going in, which makes it that much more challenging.

LIPPERT: Great. Thanks, Victor. Not only did you dive deep on a range of subjects, you also set of Scott well, into this inter-Korean dynamic.

Scott, if you could just tease this out a bit more, talk a little bit about what’s going on in South Korea domestically. What’s going on between the two Koreas? How does that play into this broader denuclearization process? And what do you think the South Koreans, especially, are going to be positioned to do on the margins or at least in the runup to this summit?

SNYDER: OK. Well, first, I think we have to recognize, as you’ve suggested in other places, that there are two processes here. One is the U.S.-North Korea denuclearization process. And the other is an inter-Korean summit process that has been moving forward at a rate that is sometimes a little bit faster than the U.S. would like to see. But I think the really critical thing is that the Moon administration, on the frontend of this, stated that in order to be successful that the processes—that the peace process between the two Koreas, and the denuclearization process between the U.S. and North Korea need to move together in tandem.

And I would say that we’ve had mixed results in terms of watching that unfold over the course of the past year. I think we’re in a better place now than we were, for instance, last September at the time of the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang. But Moon has slowed down, and really is counting on this meeting with Trump to open the way for renewed inter-Korean exchange and cooperation, and also his interest in economic cooperation. And really, I think a unique thing that Moon has contributed to this process, that we may or may not like, is that instead of a denuclearization process in which peace is embedded, I think that Moon has framed this as a peace process in which denuclearization will hopefully be embedded.

Now, in South Korea I think there are a lot of obstacles and constraints that Moon faces currently. His popularity rating has dropped. He is facing a growing number of scandals internally, related to his own party. There’s been no real attraction in terms of an economic growth plan. And so any development in the relations with North Korea can help him get a kind of temporary bump. But really, the critical thing to know, I think, about the environment that Moon faces as related to these two processes—we’ve just concluded a survey—a CFR survey with Asan looking at the role of U.S. FK. And across the board, there is Korean support—progressive, moderate, conservative, and in every age group—for a sustained U.S. troop presence in South Korea.

And there’s—actually, two-third of Koreans are confident in U.S. extended deterrence capabilities to meet North Korea. And three-fifths of Koreans believe that there’s no reason why a U.S. troop presence needs to conflict with an inter-Korean peace process. And so essentially what that tells us, I think, is that South Koreans want to see these processes move together. They’ll feel more comfortable with that. And if anything, there’s anxiety about the possibility that the meeting in Hanoi might open up some renewed momentum for an overly rapid inter-Korean process, in which leverage would be given away at too low a price in return for too little.

LIPPERT: Great. Thanks, Scott.

Let me just follow up on two points. First, in terms of alliance equities—obviously you made the case for why the alliance is popular in South Korea. There is strong, deep public support across a broad range of sectors. Yet, last time in Singapore, one of the most tangible outcomes was a freezing of exercises, right? An alliance equity put into the mix on the negotiating table. Do you foresee that happening? Do you—are you concerned about it, as someone who watches the alliance very closely? And second, this is a—one level out, and an issue we haven’t talked about—our alliance with Japan, right? And relations between South Korea and Japan are not going well. That’s a gross understatement. But talk through that a little bit in terms of U.S. policymaking and South Korean public opinion and policymaking as well.

SNYDER: So the way I would describe the risks related to Hanoi, it’s really a risk related to the extent to which our president is vertically integrated with his negotiators on the ground. Because I believe that—I have high confidence in the working level negotiators who understand very well the need for the U.S. and South Korea to stick together. They’re coordinating very closely. And as you point out, I mean, the real risk is that the president is going to give something away that catches South Korea by surprise. And so I actually think that the alliance and institutionalization of the alliance overall will survive potential missteps by leaders. But we have to be aware that they can do damage.

And, you know, one of the areas of damage really right now is related to the fact that the Japan-South Korea relationship has deteriorated at a moment when the U.S. government doesn’t seem to have the capability or will to weigh in behind the scenes between Japan and South Korea in ways that we have done on numerous occasions in the past. And in that particular relationship, that has been dragged down by a lot of these historical issues related to the South Korean Supreme Court verdict on recompense for forced labor during World War II, and this defense kind of tensions between the Korean destroyer and the Japanese intelligence plane. These are issues that are particularly difficult to resolve because the institutionally—the institutional stakeholders that usually help bring Japan and South Korea together are caught up politically in this dispute. So there’s not much momentum internally. And there’s also not an external balance to provide some ballast to that relationship.

LIPPERT: I would guess from that, as a policymaker, Victor, it just makes all the herding cats that you talked about—to use Jim Kelly’s comments—harder and harder to do. And you’re trying to present a relatively unified front coming in. This undermines that basic goal. Is that—

CHA: Yeah. I think—I mean, it certainly does. And, you know, we can debate whether—you know, we can debate the issue of what is puling Korea and Japan apart. But the difference now is that in the past—Japan and Korea have always had issues. I mean, they’ve always had issues. But when it came to, like, dealing with North Korea or something that’s happening in the region, we always managed to work together. And right now it’s just completely dysfunctional.

If I could just also comment on Scott’s point about—you said you’re publishing this survey with Asan about the South Korean support for U.S.—continued U.S. commitments. Actually, we’re going to publish something either today or tomorrow that is sort of the mirror opposite of that. Which is, we have gathered all the statements that President Trump has made about U.S. troop commitments abroad. And I guess I would say that they are consistent. They go back actually to 1990, so long before he became president. And they’re very consistent in that the president really doesn’t see the utility of U.S. forces abroad. He believes that all allies should pay entirely for the cost for those forces, if not more. And that—and that our allies free-ride off our security while they beat us on trade. It is a consistent message going back to, you know, nearly thirty years. Obviously, we saw more of it in the last three years from the campaign through the presidency, but it’s a deeply held belief.

And so I think, you know, the concern for a lot of us who follow this closely is, Mark, as you mentioned, you know, in Singapore the one tangible deliverable that was also the surprise was the commitment by the president to suspend exercising, U.S.-ROK military exercising, which is—you know, underscores the deterrence and peace on the peninsula. And so I think, you know, the concern is we may see a repeat of that, in Hanoi next week. And you know, a repeat, it would be—I think there would be a vigorous debate in Washington if a repeat of something similar to that was accompanied by some major concession by North Korea on denuclearization or on some aspect of their weapons programs—missiles or something. Bu I don’t think anybody up here today has high confidence that—nor does our intelligence community—have high confidence that that’s what North Korea will do next week. And so the concern is that they’ll do very little, but the president may give away too much, particularly with regard to our alliance—as you said, Mark, our alliance equities.

LIPPERT: Well, that sets up Rebecca well. Rebecca, if you were advising the president right now, and taking into Victor’s setup that, you know, perhaps in the runup we’re not overly confident that we’ll get certain outcomes. But, one, you never know what happens when you get leaders in a room, having worked in and around presidents. Sometimes dynamics take over. So perhaps there’s that bit of hope. But moreover, to put on paper what those recommendations would be. And what would you like to see, in your area of expertise, coming out of this summit?

HERSMAN: All right. Thank you.

Well, I think it’s true we don’t have particularly high hopes. And it certainly seems that the administration is doing a bit of expectations lowering in some of the communications lately. I think that’s not only a concern from the point of view of people trying to track on what should we do about denuclearization—really at the moment it seems like the United States is largely negotiating with itself, and the administration is largely negotiating internally about big bites and little bites, and kind of how to proceed. And that’s a problem. And I’ll come back to that. But in some ways, it’s not the biggest problem, in my opinion.

The bigger problem is that we still have a fundamental deterrence and regional risk on the peninsula today. And just because the rhetoric is lower today doesn’t mean that that fundamentally dangerous situation has fundamentally changed. And to me, that’s a big concern, because you really can’t just focus on denuclearization. That’s a process that will unfold over a long period of time. There’s no getting around that. There’s no rapid, sudden, you know, few-month process to denuclearize. Now, just talking about that for a second, it’s true, we would always prefer a comprehensive declaration. Any arms control process, that’s what we want. It’s also true we never expect them to be full and complete. They never are.

But I do think we could do something better than—you know, if we can’t get that, I think there are things we could do that are better than kind of small, fig leaf gestures of sort of nothingness at Yongbyon. I do think a revelation of a few undeclared facilities is meaningful. I believe disclosure of inspection of even one or two uranium pathway facilities that are previously undisclosed. That’s meaningful. Actually getting an inspector—you know, inspectors on the ground or electronic monitoring in place, perhaps with an IAEA relationship, that would be meaningful. That would get my attention. Anything that allowed samples to be taken, or to allow us to improve the total material accounting. Hmm, OK. You know, I start to think this is serious, even if I don’t get a full declaration.

So those are the kinds of gestures on the denuclearization side that I think will make me, at least, kind of sit up, pay attention, and go, like, OK, let’s go with this. But what I’m really worried about is ending up another kind of lovefest that doesn’t deliver any details and doesn’t deal with the fundamental challenges of focusing on deterrence and crisis management. And I think that that is where we really need to pay some attention. And I would argue, not just because they are risky, but because they actually present other aspects of concession or negotiation that we haven’t fully considered.

So, for example, are there things in confidence building or crisis coordination and management? Are there, you know, communication linkages for when this bromance falls apart and, you know, provocation and crisis starts again, are there risk mitigation measures we could have negotiated now that actually aren’t about denuclearization, but are about risk reduction? We could have built into the conversation so that, you know, when the emotional mood swings go a different direction we have some other options to mitigate crisis. That would be meaningful too.

LIPPERT: Well put, Rebecca. Really excellent insights and lots to think about. I’m scribbling notes for my next speech in confidence measures. So really good stuff. So really—so I have about thirty more questions that I could ask, but it’s time to open it up to the esteemed group assembled here. And there is really an impressive array of expertise. So looking forward to the back and forth.

I see someone in the back with a question. We’ll go—I’ll just—I’ll just—right in the middle there.

Q: Hi. This is Carolina from NTN24.

It looks like a year ago. The only word on the table was denuclearization. However, eight months after, we are talking about many other things, such as permanent peace in the region and engaging in business amongst the actors. So after Trump said a few days ago, as long as there are no more missiles being launched, as long as there are no more nuclear tests, denuclearization goes first—second. Today this morning, in a briefing the White House said on the agenda first was the issue of permanent peace, second was, again, denuclearization. Why the change in the order of priorities? Why should the U.S. be concerned in first making peace in the region and second denuclearization, considering it always has seen the North Korean regime as a threat for the U.S.? Thank you.

LIPPERT: I’m going to throw that one to Victor.


CHA: So I—what was the order in Singapore? What was first? Was it—

SNYDER: New relations.

LIPPERT: New relationship.

CHA: That’s right. So normalization, new relations, right.

SNYDER: Then peace.

CHA: So I—(laughs)—so part of the deal with negotiating with North Korea, is there are a lot of things that you want, and there’s an order in which you want it. But you find very quickly that if you don’t want the negotiation to fail, you start to lower your standards. You start to lower the bar. And you start looking at things that the North Koreans put on the table, rather than looking at the things that you put on the table. So the fact that the focus, you know, may have moved more to peace regime, peace declaration, whatever they’re calling it, I mean, the theory behind that, of course, is that you need to change the overall state of the relationship on the peninsula to create the right environment to talk about denuclearization.

If you—that’s sort of the top line. But if you actually drill down on that point, there’s lots of contradictions there, right? Because the notion of a peace declaration is not a peace treaty, because it’s not supposed to have any impact on the disposition of U.S. forces, United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command. But at the same time, it’s supposed to be credible enough that it will give the North Koreans confidence that they’re going to start to give up their weapons, even though this piece of paper has not changed the military situation on the ground, right?

And the other way to look at it is to say that—and this—the U.S.—the U.S. looks at it this way. We can’t really have peace on the Korean Peninsula—a state of peace on the Korean Peninsula if they are still harboring nuclear weapons, right? It just doesn’t make sense. So this quickly becomes a sort of Catch-22, I think. The—you know, but I think it’s going to be something that will be discussed quite energetically next week. And you know, there may be statements that come out with regard to that.

South Koreans clearly want it. You know, they really would like to see—and I just came back from South Korea last weekend. You know, from the person on the street to sort of the highest levels of government, there’s sort of this mood now that the war is basically over. So let’s just say it’s over. And it’s actually difficult to argue against that. I mean, no one in this room wants to be against peace, right? And so it’s kind of hard to be against that argument, which is why I think many of us go back to the point of, well, the most important thing is the things that are supposed to get us towards peace—whether it’s individual sites or something new the North Koreans offer—we need to focus on those things to demonstrate that this time it’s different than the last thirty years, right?

When I was doing the negotiations and, you know, when Mark was part of the Obama administration doing this, and others in the audience, you know, working-level stiffs like us would be out there banging our heads against the wall, trying to get them to, oh, let us in to this building at Yongbyon or, you know, let us into that thing. And we’d be banging our heads against the wall. And critics would say: You’re doing this all wrong. You need to—there’s only one person in North Korea that makes a decision, right? It’s the leadership. So you need to meet at the leader level. That’s what we’re doing now. We’re testing that hypothesis right now.

But thus far, it looks like the product is the same thing. The same thing that we were getting when the working stiffs like us were banging our heads against the table trying to get progress in nuclear talks. Now, it could be that the administration is—has a very sophisticated communications strategy where they are really trying to lower all of our expectations for Hanoi, so that—and then they’ll give us a big surprise. You know, I’m hoping that’s the case. (Laughter.)

LIPPERT: All right. Let’s go here.

Q: Thanks. Jessica Mathews from the Carnegie Endowment.

I was—it’s all to be easy to be dog in the manger-ish about North Korean negotiations. But I was still surprised, Rebecca, by your list of things that would get your attention, because they all are things that they’ve given before. I mean, IAEA inspectors on the ground, we’ve been there. So aren’t you proposing a deal where we buy the same territory once more? And if I may, just briefly on this last point, reading Steve Biegun’s speech at Stanford carefully, it seemed to me that what he was hinting at was Trump having a big peace treaty signing of the Korean War, even if he isn’t—if there isn’t a line for the U.S. on the treaty. But is that—do you think that’s what he’s got in mind?

LIPPERT: Well, let’s go Rebecca, and then Scott you take the second part. Thanks, Jessica, for the comments. Great.

HERSMAN: Sure. I don’t think I would simply say the presence of an IAEA inspector, but actually it’s about this access of new or undeclared facilities. And, again, I don’t see this as a deal. I see this as a step of—you know, some initial concessions. If you’re going to the it won’t be a full bite of the apple, it’s a partial option, I’m simply saying short of the full declaration but, OK, worth it to keep going in this conversation and make progress, I think there are certain gestures that are more meaningful. Just relying on ongoing testing moratorium doesn’t do it for me. Just doing stuff around Yongbyon does not do it for me. Inspectors and monitoring on a continuous basis, maybe, at—you know, plus I’m really looking for things that better improve our material accounting, that approach undeclared missile facilities, approach a uranium facility. Those things that represent a delta. So in that sense, I agree, perhaps it was a short point.

The only other thing I’d say on this issue of the peace versus denuclearization, we’ve allowed a strange frame to take hold. Somehow the peace side seems to be a set of concessions that the U.S. makes, and denuclearization is sort of concessions that they make. I’m OK with a peace process—you know, a process of—a political process being the frame and peace being an overall frame, as long as we recognize there’s actually important North Korean concessions there as well. Are there things they could do as part of this dialogue to adjust their conventional force posture in a way that would make things safer? Could they pull back or adjust presence of things in the DMZ? There are other things you could even add to the denuclearization list that would perhaps reduce the risk of war, which to me is the real purpose of the peace.


SNYDER: Yeah. Special Representative Biegun, I mean, that speech—I think one of the most important things in the speech was his discussion of parallel and simultaneous. And he has four points to work with, we all know. One is new relations. The next one is peace. And then the other one is working towards complete denuclearization. And then there’s the POW/MIA issue. And so I think that what he’s trying to do is to push forward a process that links the peace and denuclearization processes together. And I have actually confidence that we have a team that can work through that and move forward with the North Koreans. But what I worry about is the president may want the peace most, more than the denuclearization. And I think we can see that tension. I mean, it’s on display in the senior administration comments. And so that’s, I think, the wild card that comes with meeting the decision-maker on the North Korean side is what are we anticipating from our decision-maker?

LIPPERT: OK. Next question. Go over here.

Q: Hey. Jake Cusack, thanks for the remarks.

I just want to pick up on this personal diplomacy point. I spent a bit of time in North Korea. And my biggest takeaway from that time was that the cult of personality is very real, to an extent that’s hard to appreciate from the outside. But that creates an opportunity if the leader changes his mind. So what are the levers that could be pulled on in a personal negotiation that might be effective in changing his mind? So clearly it hasn’t yielded unique results so far, but is there the opportunity by pulling the right levers to do so?

LIPPERT: Why don’t we ask both Scott and Victor to take a shot at that.

SNYDER: Oh, thanks. (Laughter.)

CHA: You said Scott, then Victor.

LIPPERT: Yeah, it’s your home court, Scott. (Laughter.)

SNYDER: So it’s absolutely the case that Kim Jong-un is the critical decision-maker. And what we’re really focusing on, I think, is the question, after twenty years of—whether anything that has changed inside North Korea that would push North Korea in a different direction in the experiences we’ve had in the past. Is there an internal constituency inside North Korea that actually might favor economic engagement over the need for nuclear development? And I think that it remains to be seen. We do know that Kim Jong-un is focused a lot more on economic development internally than his father was. And we know that there are a lot of elites whose sons and daughters want to become businessmen and businesswomen. But we don’t yet have any clear indication that that factor is sufficiently strong to change Kim Jong-un’s direction. And so I think that’s really the opportunity associated with testing Kim Jong-un is really whether or not he’s operating from a different playbook from his father.

LIPPERT: Victor, let me—me just add a little note on top of that, which is, you know, you guys have done over at CSIS on internal markets. There have been some excellent books written on the topic. Internal markets inside of North Korea, you know, are not where we were ten, twenty, thirty years in North Korea. Very different internal. Does that play into the pressure points on Kim Jong-un and vis-à-vis the personal elements of the negotiation? And I would say, you know, we saw a little bit of that in Singapore with the video—you know, the video tape of what North Korea could be, and all of that. But talk about that too as well, please.

CHA: Yeah, yeah. So we did a study where we geolocated the 431 official markets in North Korea. That’s just the official markets. That’s not including the black markets. And I think many of you have probably seen the map of Asia at night, where all of Asia is lit up and then there’s this black hole that is North Korea because there’s no electricity, no commerce. So the map that we have—it’s the opposite of that. It looks like a rash of markets that is spreading across the country. And so—and these markets operate—I mean, they pay taxes to the government, but they pretty much operate independent of the government and, as far as we can tell, North Korean citizens get 80 percent of their livelihood from the market today, rather than from the public distribution system.

So, you know, if—you know, if there’s an argument to be made at a personal level to the North Korean leader, it would be that, you know, looking at our CSIS map and say: That’s your future, right? You want to—you know, in North Korea you don’t rule for five years, which is the South Korean term of office, or, you know, for two terms of four years. You rule for fifty years, right? And so that’s your future. Rebecca was saying earlier that the nuclear program has been long established in North Korea, the national project for a long time. We’ve actually looked back at declassified CIA satellite imagery. The North Koreans started landscaping the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex in 1963, right, so long before the end of the Cold War, which is the popular thesis, that’s sort of when the program really grew. In 1963.

The strongest argument that could be made to the North Korean leader is to point to that and say: That is the past. You didn’t make this, right? People before you made this and look at what it’s done to your country. And if you’re going to rule for fifty years, this is your future, right? It’s the markets. That would be the most compelling argument that you could make, is to try to get him to disassociate himself from the nuclear program and focus on all of these other things. Now, that’s much easier said than done, obviously.

LIPPERT: All right. Next question. I see Paul over there with a question. I have confidence that a former NIO wants to ask a question. (Laughter.)

Q: Yeah. I’m Paul Hare (sp) of George Washington University.

I’m just curious if any or all of you want to comment on where you think China fits into the equation at this point, on the eve of Hanoi, particularly given—the thought occurred to me—that with regard to the peace declaration, Seoul was not a signatory to the ceasefire, but Beijing does. What does that do with where they fit into the equation at this point?

LIPPERT: I’m going to go to Scott on that one.

SNYDER: I think the Chinese have signaled very clearly that they don’t want to be left out, but they’re also not dissatisfied with this peace/denuclearization approach. It’s one that they had been advocating long before the Singapore summit ever came into the gleam of Kim Jong-un’s eye. So they’re a beneficiary, I think, of this process. But they definitely don’t want to be excluded from it.

LIPPERT: OK. Let’s go over here to the table.

Q: I’m James Turner from the Daniel Alexander Payne Community Development Corporation.

These negotiations seem to revolve around two words: denuclearization and sanctions. And particularly with denuclearization, it seems like we’re talking about—the two side are talking about two completely different things. One side is talking about zero weapons, zero facilities that could contribute to a weapons program. The other side seems to be talking about, at best, freezing an existing program. How can we get to an endgame when there’s such a gulf between what we’re talking about?

LIPPERT: All right. I’ll give—Rebecca, why don’t you take the first crack, and then I’ll let Victor come in.

HERSMAN: Well, that is really—I mean, there is kind of the heart of the question, right? This is why in North Korea it’s been fully verifiably forever and ever everything you can imagine, you know, elimination. It’s not very realistic, and it doesn’t matter where you draw the bar. For example, do you want North Korea to be left with any form of civilian nuclear power? Do they get to retain kind of even civilian applications of that? And think about how much—going back to the sanctions issue—think about how much economic resource to the country is now tied up in that. So the reality is that we’re going to have to find some space between those extremes.

And it’s not about just kind of checking the box and saying: See, fully denuclearized. It’s about are we safer, have we eliminated the direct threats to ourselves and the region, preferable without nuclear weapons. As we’re working towards getting rid of nuclear weapons, can we make it safer and more stable? As we do that, can we balance the need to leave a country that’s economically intact, so that it doesn’t just look for the next opportunity to kind of arm itself? And that’s where a lot of those questions come into play. And otherwise, it’s really a question of sequencing. It’s the classic over to the diplomats, you know, how do I allocate my carrots and sticks? And have I gotten enough for whichever thing I’m laying on the table? So all of these things require a careful metering and a very careful, deliberate diplomatic strategy at the presidential level, at this point.

CHA: Yeah. I think that’s right. Part of the reason for the big gulf is that, I mean, the North Koreans look at this program as a national project for fifty years. I mean, they—as many of you know—I mean, Korea was occupied by Japan for the first half of the 20th century. That was not an occupation the Korean expected to end in 1945. But it did end, with two U.S. atomic weapons dropped on Japan. That left a deep, deep impression on North Korea, I think. The North Koreans watched China detonate a nuclear device in 1964 and become a member of the U.N. Security Council, and see Taiwan get kicked out of the—out of the U.N. I mean, these things leave deep impressions. At least—they may not be the right ones—but about the utility of nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, for the United states, we look at a country like North Korea, and this is about the worst possible nuclear renegade state that you can imagine. The only country to leave the NPT, right? And then just to—you know, with abandon, just develop this program of weapons as well as missiles, completely outside of the—any international community. So that’s why the gulf is so large. I mean, we take this extreme view because of what North Korea represents in the nonproliferation community. And North Korea takes this extreme view because of what they’ve learned about nuclear weapons.

Yes, closing that gap is extremely difficult. And you know, I don’t think it’s necessarily one that can be easily closed. I mean, is this whole negotiation simply a coordination game, where we have interests that we have to somehow align between the opposing parties? Or is there a basic conflict of interest here? Is it not just a coordination game? And, you know, the role of diplomats is to try to—if it is a conflict of interest—try to make it look like a coordination game. And, you know, perhaps that’s what we’ve been doing for the last—for the last thirty years.

But I think—you know, I think Rebecca’s right. I mean, part of the purpose of the negotiation is to try to get at least pieces of this program, and pieces that are new—not old pieces. If next week the North Koreans sort of say, you can have the nuclear test site and the rocket test stand—the long-range rocket test stand, that is just not going to cut it. I mean, that literally is buying the same horse again. But if there are other small pieces that they give up—this centrifuge facility at Yongbyon that they showed one scientist—one Western scientist, or other elements of the program that we have not seen before, then that makes you think maybe the definitions are getting just a little bit—a little bit closer.

LIPPERT: Great. All right. Thanks to both. Right here.

Q: Hi. Matt Napoli with the Department of the Navy.

Last time we met on this, we discussed a lot of these similar issues before the first summit. Traditional methods of motivations would be power, prestige, security, and in the case of North Korea, regime protection. During the last discussion it was had, what are we willing to give up, right? What if they ask for a reduction in exercises with the South Koreans? What if they asked us to stop exporting military technology to the South Koreans, or what if they ask us to take all U.S. troops out of South Korea. What would the U.S. be willing to give up to make the full-blown access that you would need to actually execute denuclearization—meaning the complete rid of the program and complete verification with international inspectors—would we be willing to give up all U.S. troops on the ground?

LIPPERT: Why don’t I throw that to Scott? And, Scott, maybe if you could also talk a little bit about—come back to your earlier points about the South Korean views on this, because, you know, it’s an alliance, as one quickly finds out sitting as ambassador in allied countries, it’s a two-way street. And often the traffic runs over you as ambassador. (Laughter.) Anyway, that’s a—

SNYDER: So I think that you’re getting at one of the big worries that people have, is that somehow the president is going to trade the alliance for the prospect of a Nobel Peace Prize. But I think that by putting on the table the prospect of peace, we’re actually putting on—putting on the table a very significant lure. And we should be able to expect a pretty big bite from the North Koreans if they’re serious. And so I think that part of this process is really testing that prospect.

And then the South Korean angle, I mean, what I worry about in terms of the U.S. and South Korea right at this moment is that increasingly for South Korea, as they look at North Korea, yes, they want peace, but they’re thinking of it more and more as an economic opportunity. We’re still looking at it as a denuclearization challenge. And so, you know, it’s a question of how to marry those two approaches effectively so that the North Koreans don’t have the opportunity to drive the wedge is really going to be, I think, critical as part of a process if one is established and unfolds in engaging North Korea on these issues.

CHA: Can I just jump in quickly on this? So I think—I mean, the other way to approach it is to say what is it that the North Koreans really want next week? Is it—are they really concerned that the United States is going to attack North Korea? I don’t think the United States is going to attack North Korea. When I was negotiating with the North Koreans I told them: We’re not going to attack you. And we even had a statement—a written statement in the last agreement that said: The United States will not attack North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons, right?

So what the North Koreans really want is sanctions relief. And so we have to be careful of getting into a game where we start trading away alliance—you know, as Mark said—alliance equities because we think that that will get us denuclearization. The two—the sanctions that are on North Korea are for two things: Proliferation and human rights. So if they want sanctions relief, that’s what they should be doing, right? On the denuclearization or on the human rights side. Not asking for removal of U.S. troops—because this is not part of the—this is not part of the mix. They brought it into the mix. And maybe even our own president has brought it into the mix. But if what they want is sanctions relief, they are being sanctioned for proliferation behavior and for human rights abuses.

LIPPERT: But let me—oh, go ahead, please, Rebecca.

HERSMAN: Well, I just wanted to jump in on that, because going back to what I said initially, we have not just a denuclearization challenge. We have a stability and deterrence challenge. If we take steps to shift the balance of power, the balance of military power on the peninsula, you know, away from the ROK-U.S. alliance, it is very hard for me to see how that either helps denuclearization, it certainly doesn’t help deterrence, and it furthermore could even do what I’m even more concerned about—and I mentioned at the beginning in remarks—that you could incentivize North Korea to think they could have an actual military advantage through a possession of military dominance and nuclear weapons, rather than that defensive posture. So, again, the carrots that should be available should be on the economic side. That’s what he said he wants. And those you can dole out incrementally. But shifting the military balance of power, I think, puts us in a terrible position.

LIPPERT: Let me ask one follow-up to Scott here on this. And I wanted to get to it in the opening, but I didn’t, which is on the subject of sanctions clearly there seems to be a bit of a disconnect on how fast we go in multilateral sanctions relief between the United States and South Korea, vis-à-vis the North. Scott, what happens if we get to the summit, we get a little something, not a whole lot, not clearly—not enough for the U.S., which has put a pretty strong marker out in terms of what it’s going to take to alleviate sanctions relief formerly. Maybe you open up the aperture for the humanitarian exemptions. And the South Koreans want to charge forward with a lot of these inter-Korean projects that are blocked or otherwise severely constrained by multilateral sanctions. What then? Take us through that a little bit, in the waning moments of this session.

SNYDER: Well, that’s a real challenge. That’s one reason why I think we now have a policy coordination group that is focused on a lot of these questions, is we noticed that the South Koreans were a little bit too eager back in September in Pyongyang to move forward in areas that might give away too much in return for not enough progress on denuclearization. But I actually think that there is a way that South Korean leverage can be used as part of a denuclearization process, and ways that will force the U.S. and South Korea together to coordinate more effectively. Instead of two processes—basically converging the two processes into an economic development, peace, and denuclearization process, so that the North Koreans will recognize that if they want the goodies from Kaesong and Kumgang that Kim Jong-un is now willing to take unconditionally, without preconditions, that they’ve got to do something for it.

LIPPERT: Gotcha. OK. Got a couple more minutes here. I think we got time for one or two more last questions. Go to the middle here. Why don’t we do both? We’ll do both. I’ll be—we’ll split it down the—banban, as they say in Korean, half and half.

Q: Hi. Margaret Talev with Bloomberg. Thanks for doing it. Nice to see everyone.

There has been some talk about the potential opening of a U.S. interest section in Pyongyang. And I’m just wondering, do you guys think the U.S. would have to give something for that? Do you think—like, what would it be? And what would it accomplish for both the North and for the U.S. to have that. And I’m also wondering, you might have heard the president give this speech in Miami, where he put not just the Maduro regime, but Nicaragua, and also Cuba on notice. If you’re Kim, are you paying attention to that? Or, like, because why give up your nukes? I mean, otherwise you’ll be Maduro, right? So is there any—do you see any connection between those two strategies, or do you think they’re completely separate? Thanks.

LIPPERT: And we’ll take them both at once, thanks.

Q: Mine is easy. (Laughs.) If the president were to trade away U.S. forces in Korea in this meeting preemptively—well, it would be preemptive if it happens in this meeting—can he do that singlehandedly? What would the reaction be in Washington? Does it have to go through the Congress? Are there legal measures that would have to be taken to make that happen?

LIPPERT: OK. Why don’t we—interest section. Good question, both. We’re running out of time here. So I’m going to go Victor on interest section and Cuba linkage, if that’s—

CHA: Right. So on interest sections, you know, as you probably—as you know this is not the first time this has come up. It was—came up during the Clinton administration, the ’94 Agreed Framework, even to the point that we had picked the site, right, in North Korea and everything. The question of whether this is a concession or a big win for the North Koreans, I’m not entirely certainly. You know, I think it’s one of these things that would get a lot of attention and people would see it as the first step towards, you know, eventual normalization. But I’m not really sure whether—where it figures. Like, is—are the North Koreans going to give a lot for this? I don’t think so, right? Or are we going to ask a lot for the creation of interest sections and will the North Koreans listen? I just don’t—I don’t—I think it’s kind of neither here nor there, although it would certainly be the headline coming out of—coming out a meeting in Hanoi.

And with regard to statements that the president makes about other countries, do they scare North Korea? I would say that we may think they scare North Korea, but they don’t scare North Korea. Not because the North Koreans, you know, don’t listen. I think they truly believe that they are unique. They truly believe that they have a very special negotiation with the United States. By definition, the North Koreans have written their history as though they are a unique people, a unique race. So the fact that they may stand out—and they do—in terms of this administration’s diplomacy compared to everybody else, is to them no surprise at all.

LIPPERT: Anybody want to take the question on executive congressional relations here?

SNYDER: Yeah, I’ll just say that in recent weeks we’ve seen Congress respond both with efforts at reassurance and legislation related to the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, and restraint with legislation that attempts to condition floors on U.S. troop presence on North Korean denuclearization.

LIPPERT: Great. All right, well we are basically about a minute overtime. So I just would ask the audience to thank the panelists for a terrific job. (Applause.) And, again, thanks to everybody for coming out. Appreciate it.

HERSMAN: Thank you.


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