Virtual Meeting

The Future of U.S. Policy Toward North Korea

Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Leah Millis/REUTERS
Speakers
Jina Kim

Research Fellow, Korea Institute for Defense Analysis

Kathleen Stephens

President and Chief Executive Officer, Korea Economic Institute of America

Susan A. Thornton

Senior Fellow, Paul Tsai China Center, Yale Law School

Presider

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

Introductory Remarks

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations

Haksoon Paik

President, The Sejong Institute

This workshop, held with generous support from the Sejong Institute, brings together prominent U.S. and South Korean specialists to discuss what can be done to break the diplomatic stalemate with North Korea.

Woo Jung-yeop: Welcome to our Seoul-Washington Forum virtual meeting 2020, co-hosted by the Sejong Institute and CFR. My name is Woo Jung-yeop and I'm the director of the Center for American Studies at the Sejong Institute. I'd like to start by wishing you and your families my personal best for your health and safety in this time. I'd like to also express my profound gratitude to those who have joined us all morning in Seoul, and in the late evening in DC. I go directly back to my role today, which is to introduce two people representing their organizations for their remarks. First, please welcome Dr. Paik Hak-soon, the president of the Sejong Institute, for his opening remarks. Dr. Paik, please.

Paik Hak-soon: Hello, friends and colleagues, ladies and gentlemen. My most warm greetings to Jim and Scott of CFR, Ambassador Stephens, Secretary Thornton, and Dr. Kim Jina, and also to all other participants of this workshop. Ah, I should be a little closer to the microphone.

CFR and Sejong have co-hosted Seoul-Washington Forum annually. But this year, we had to have virtual workshop, for the reasons you all know. Now we have less than one and a half months away from U.S. election. And all of us, Americans and Koreans alike, are truly interested in who will be elected to be the next president and also what North Korea's policy of the next administration will be like. I'm looking forward today to a knowledgeable analysis and predictions and policy ideas. Let me close my remarks by expressing my appreciation to the Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Korea for its support to the work of the Sejong Institute, including today's event. Thank you MOFA. Thank you all very much.

Woo Jung-yeop: Thank you, Dr. Paik. Next, please welcome Dr. James Lindsay, Senior Vice President of the CFR for his welcoming remarks. Dr. Lindsay, please.

James M. Lindsay: Thank you, Dr. Woo, it's good to see you, to see Dr. Paik, even if only virtually. On behalf of the Council on Foreign Relations, I'm delighted to welcome everyone to our workshop today between the Council and the Sejong Institute. As Dr. Paik noted, this is our third year of collaborating on the Seoul-Washington Forum. This is the fourth workshop we have held. We have met in Washington, we have met in Seoul, and now we're meeting virtually via Zoom for the first time. I have to say Dr. Paik, Scott Snyder and I very much look forward to welcoming you and your colleagues back to Washington. As you noted, events, unfortunately, have made that impossible. I'm nonetheless pleased that we are able to meet in this virtual setting to exchange views in real time. And obviously, one upside to a virtual meeting is none of us is having to deal with jetlag, so we have that going for us.

Today's meeting comes at a critical time. 2020 has produced an unprecedented series of crises and tests of leadership on both a national and global scale. There are many disruptions, disjunctures, in turning points across many different issue areas and in many different regions. Yet admits the toil of this year, the U.S.-North Korea relationship so far has been one of relative stalemate in inertia, despite or perhaps because of the many domestic challenges that Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have faced. We recently learned that Kim Jong-un in his letters to President Trump has described the relationship as a “magical force” that could lead to progress between the two countries. Perhaps that is the case, perhaps not. We do hope, however, that our expert panel can unlock the significance of this leader-to-leader relationship. We also hope that our discussion can assess the political and structural factors that could influence U.S. policy toward North Korea however the American presidential election turns out in November. Let me just say, once again, it's been a pleasure to work with the Sejong Institute. I want to extend my thanks to Dr. Paik, for collaborating on today's workshop. And with that, I'll yield the floor back to you, Dr. Woo.

Woo Jung-yeop: Thank you very much. Now I turn the floor over to Mr. Scott Snyder for our main session today. Scott, please.

Scott A. Snyder: Okay, well, it's my pleasure to moderate this session of our virtual workshop on the future of U.S. policy toward North Korea. We really have a great panel. I don't want to take too much time, because I think that everybody on the panel is very well known. And so in order to try to create as much time for discussion, I'm just going to call on each of you to give about five minutes of introductory remarks. And I have to be the bad cop. I will stop you if you get to five minutes. And I'd like to have Dr. Paik start us off to give his perspective on the future of U.S. policy toward North Korea.

Paik Hak-soon: Thanks, Scott. Let me have a few observations on the current state of affairs in North Korea and try to suggest some policy recommendations (for the) next U.S. administration.

Our first observations - North Korean economy has continued to worsen due to sanctions and COVID-19. And after Hanoi, North Korea practically gave up hope for sanction relief and removal, at least temporarily, and focused on self-reliance and so-called frontal breakthroughs in agriculture and industry. Most recently, the plenum of the Central Committee of the party publicly admitted the economic failure, which is a very rare thing to watch, and decided to convene a party congress January next year to deal with what went wrong and tried to announce a new five-year economic development plan. And second, North Korea has not tested nuclear and ballistic missiles for almost three years. I think North Korea will try to do so in the future, at least in the next year. But North Korea knows very well that if there's anything that can make the United States come to the negotiation table, that's nuclear weapons and ICBMs. And third, China's support for North Korea has continued within the context of U.S.-China rivalry with the return of geopolitics, and China has provided as much as 100 million metric tons of food the last year and this year, provided 800,000 metric tons of grain to North Korea. And fourth, North Korea appears to forcibly and effectively, you know, deal with COVID-19. The lockdown of the country virtually, which has a huge implication for economy. Finally, Chairman Kim Jong-un's so-called delegation politics, recently described by the South Korean National Intelligence Service. Generally speaking, delegation of power is the key to success in politics. And Kim Jong-un, having been in power for almost 10 years, may have understood the key - that secret and free success in politics. We'll see. We'll see what happens.

What does all this mean, you know. At least first, North Korea will continue to put top priority on its economic development, recovering development. Second, North Korea appears to be positioned to deal with the United States from a long-term perspective and try to do so at North Korea's own pace, not at U.S. pace in the future.

Now, policy recommendations. First, next U.S. administration has to resume negotiations with North Korea, like it or not, to protect its security interests from the so-called North Korea's nuclear-tipped ICBM potentials. And second, it would be better not to spend too much time on policy review, considering the fact that there is no control mechanism over North Korea’s WMD programs, even at the time you are conducting policy review. And third, we need to freeze North Korea's existing nuclear and ballistic missile programs and capabilities, which would be the urgent first step down the road toward complete denuclearization of the North Korea and the Korean Peninsula.

In order to more effectively negotiate with North Korea for the policy recommendations as I just put forth, I think, you know, Americans have to consider a few more. First, you have to make very clear what your policy goal is. Complete denuclearization or, you know, coexistence with North Korea with limited nuclear arsenal. The problem is either case will require tough, serious negotiations with North Korea. And second, like it or not, the next administration has to accept North Korea as it is, not as it wants North Korea to be. In other words, you are not supposed to attempt regime change of North Korea. And third, you have to understand the asymmetry of goals and psychology in dealing with North Korea, particularly North Korean nuclear ballistic missile issues. All the negotiations we have done and will conduct in the future is designed to denuclearize North Korea, not the United States, and to dismantle North Korea's ballistic missile capabilities, not the United States. So North Korea is naturally, as we understand, you know, is defensive in psychology and try to avoid being trapped, so-called, in a setup by the U.S. and why they prefer to have step-by-step approach with simultaneous actions on both sides.

Scott A. Snyder: Hak-soon, you’ve put a lot – okay, one more, your last point. Thanks.

Paik Hak-soon: Okay. Sure. Finally, I think it is important to understand that North Korea wants to bring the United States to the Korean Peninsula as a counter force to China as a sort of, you know, balancing strategy on the part of North Korea. North Korea cannot give up its hope for improved relations with the United States, considering China, because ironically, because of the existence of China, a powerful country just beside, North Korea needs to end the war and sign a peace treaty and normalize relations and good economic cooperation with the United States for optimum new era for Kim Jong-un, and for 21st.

Scott A. Snyder: I think they will, I'm sure that we'll delve more into that in our Q&A. Let me now call on Susan Thornton, veteran diplomat, but now free to speak her mind, and well known in Korea and China. So, Susan, over to you.

Susan Thornton: Thanks very much, Scott. Now I'm free to make predictions, even about the future, which all of us have been warned about. But thank you very much for the introduction and thank you to Hak-soon Paik for presiding over this event and for having me here.

I think it is a very difficult time to be making predictions, especially about the future of U.S. policy toward North Korea. U.S.-ROK relations are obviously going through some challenges and those challenges are not only related to the variance in our priorities with respect to the peninsular issues. And we've got to try to get those on a better footing if we're going to proceed with a coherent policy toward North Korea and try to get some progress. I think that there is a widespread sense in ROK policy circles that their concerns have not really been heeded by the Trump administration and its approach to North Korea, especially in the latter part of the Trump administration during the Singapore and the Hanoi summits. And I think that while we have coordination and discussions continuing between our two governments, between the U.S. and ROK governments, and, of course, the myriad boosters of the alliance, of which there are many, are working overtime. But the fact is that we're in a waiting period, where the objective is really not to let things get worse. And we've traveled now a very long arc on North Korea policy under the Trump administration.

South Koreans are, no doubt, extremely frustrated, probably apprehensive about what's going to come next. And I think a major source of the frustration has been the sense that the U.S. has made it impossible for them to live up to the Panmunjom Declaration because of what the South Koreans perceive, in some cases, as overzealous enforcement of some of the provisions of the sanctions, which they feel do not necessarily apply in some cases. So following the failure of the Hanoi summit, though, and the lack of a plan B after that, I think the U.S. had no recourse but to just fall back on, you know, trying to tighten up the sanctions policy, because there wasn't really much else to do at that point. The bilateral Working Group between the U.S. and the ROK has focused like a laser on the sanctions issues, which has not really contributed to positive momentum, I don't think, on any of these issues or contributed to a sort of energy for new policy or a new approach to North Korea.

I think that, you know, whoever wins the U.S. election, and provided that North Korea doesn't have any, you know, antics or provocations to force a new administration to turn to this issue sooner than it would like, I think that there is going to have to be a rethink to the approach to North Korea and I find myself nodding my head along with some of Hak-soon’s comments on this front. We established a draconian sanctions regime. We had maximum pressure from the entire global community, so we were able to test, I think, early in the Trump administration when we had that maximum pressure campaign, we were able to test how much North Korea could withstand, how much leverage sanctions were going to give us. And while, as Hak-soon said, the situation in North Korea is reportedly not good, it's apparently not bad enough to drive the North Koreans to the negotiating table in the wake of Hanoi and it's not bad enough to prevent them from continuing the manufacture of additional nuclear weapons and delivery systems. And I personally do not believe that we will be able to recreate that level of sanctions enforcement solidarity in the near future, or maybe even in the far future, especially given all of the other issues that have now come on to the plate, both from the perspective of international partners and also from the perspective of the U.S. So I hope that the next administration will focus on near-term opportunities to change the conversation, to try to get, at least, some security gains out of a negotiation of interim steps.

And I think Hak-soon’s suggestion about a freeze of the current weapons program and trying to get some traction that would give us, at least, some security gains in the relationship for some meaningful gesture in the view of North Korea would be the way for new administration to go. But I have to say that I, and I think North Korea will try to prevent us from conducting a policy review by doing something early on, maybe even immediately after the election, but at least very early in another administration, but I think there will have to be a policy review because one of the perennial characteristics of the U.S. government on North Korea policy is to be very divided. And you have to have that policy review in order to, at least, generate minimum consensus in the U.S. government to follow the program that’s set by whoever's in power at that point. And so, I'm sorry to tell you Hak-soon, but I think there will have to be, at least, a very quick policy review in order to generate that kind of energy and discipline inside the U.S. government or, at least, whatever we could come up with on that regard. And I'm afraid of the hook of Scott Snyder, so I'll stop there.

Scott A. Snyder: Thank you, Susan. I think we’ve got some convergence and some differences so far. Let's now turn to Jina Kim of Korea Institute of Defense Analysis and frequent visitor to Washington, but not these days, I guess. Over to you, Jina.

Jina Kim: Thank you. I thank Sejong and CFR for inviting me to this annual workshop.

Well, regarding the issue of future policy toward North Korea, I think what strategy the U.S. and South Korea will take on North Korea can be determined in conjunction with what strategy choice the leadership in Pyongyang will make in the future. North Korea can go through a process of policy consideration as well, especially about internal demands and resources available, while seeking changes of the secure environment. So we can think of a list of three scenarios that requires different approaches to North Korea.

First, status quo scenario. North Korea alternated its attitude towards South Korea this year after bombing of the inter-Korean liaison office. They declared that it will suspend the general steps plan for military action against South Korea. Then, North Korea reemphasized that Seoul should actively engage in dialogue and cooperation. If North Korea’s strategy is to achieve a goal of forcing South Korea to change its North Korea policy, that changing attitude may be seen as a well-coordinated strategy rather than a result of internal confusion. The first scenario posits that North Korea will continue to adjust the level of assertiveness to South Korea and the U.S. Major meetings of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party have, so far, focused on internal issues as Dr. Paik already mentioned. And North Korea will hold its Eighth Party Congress in January next year to announce its five-year economic development plan. So a more stable environment is needed, than ever, for the North Koreans. In this scenario, North Korea can rely more on China, seeking illegal means to earn foreign currency, and secretly joining hands with countries interested in missile and other weapon system technologies. So the option that the U.S. and South Korea can consider is a cooperative threat reduction strategy. It aims at not only elimination of nuclear weapons in North Korea, but also cooperation in proliferation prevention, biosafety and security, and transforming military facilities for peaceful purposes and cooperative engagement with North Koreans. So rather than demanding a one-shot deal, the U.S., I think, should reconsider what kind of tradeoff is possible and feasible with North Korea.

The second scenario is a situation of stability-instability paradox. If North Korea seeks changing the status quo but pursue some limited objectives, it will try to find a new equilibrium favorable to it, while observing reactions from the U.S. The current moratorium is not applied to, of course, RND program and North Korea already declared a mass production of new missile system. The significance of nuclear weapons capabilities for the North does not negate the role of other weapon systems in holding South Korea in check. So North Korea will continue to seek multiple ways to offset and neutralize South Korea's military capabilities. So in this scenario, North Korea can make a bolder attempt at low level provocations while refraining from high intensity provocations such as nuclear and ICBM test. North Korea may feel safe to do so because there has been no serious response to North Korea's SRBM tests last year and this year. This can drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea because South Koreans’ response and perception of such subthreshold actions may be somehow different from Americans. By shifting the burden of managing the unstable situation to Seoul, Pyongyang may expect that Seoul will be more willing to seek a policy of appeasement to settle the problem and seeking sanctions waiver to offer cooperation projects. Or we may see an action-reaction sequence as North Korea develops military capability in one direction, then South Korea focuses more on increasing counter capabilities. That's the mechanism that has been working on the Korean Peninsula. So the allies should jointly prepare for subthreshold challenges to prevent North Korea from taking escalatory measures to increase pressure to South Korea and upgrade consultation mechanism to discuss ways to maximize the contribution of South Korea's conventional force to U.S. extended deterrence and increase monitoring on North Korea's strategic trade to delay North Korea's weapons production.

Lastly, the third scenario is crisis-escalation scenario and this case, well, in theory, provocations are decided in expectation of political gains. But there is a possibility that North Korea wishes to turn the tide in its favor and becomes risk acceptance. So in order to gain U.S. attention, North Korea's offensive level may go as far as to show its capability to launch a second nuclear strike. If North Korea takes incremental steps, then holding a military parade will come first and then sending a warning message to signal that North Korea is willing to cross the red line. I'm not sure if preemptive strike against North Korea is the first decision that a new president or reelected president can decide. Let's think about the cards beside military option that the U.S. can use later to appease North Korea. In this scenario, partial lift of sanctions or humanitarian aid may not be that attractive to North Korea. What remains as bargaining chips would be alliance-related options. In this scenario, North Korea can drive a wedge between the allies in different way. It is desirable that the U.S. does not pursue random deal brokering without close consultation with South Korea. Trust building and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula are not separate issues. So the allies, not South Korea alone, should work on the idea of confidence building and, furthermore, arms control measures. I think my time is up.

Scott A. Snyder: Thank you, Jina. Your third scenario of crisis escalation was so sobering, that I simply couldn't bring myself to interrupt. Now we're over to our fourth speaker, the homestretch, Kathy Stephens. Ambassador Stephens, welcome. And thank you so much for joining us.

Kathleen Stephens: Thank you, Scott. It's great to join you and especially to see my friends from the Sejong Institute in Seoul. I'm missing you in person. I also find myself nodding a great deal. And so I should be able to be brief because I think there is a lot of common ground here.

Scott, you asked me to kind of think about what would work in terms of U.S. policy specifically. And I kind of put it into five different baskets. I mean, I kind of liked to hope, maybe this is a little vain of us, but that this is the beginning of a policy review. Because I agree with Susan that there's going to be a policy review. I agree with Hak-soon, it needs to be brief. Or we could be in some scenarios that we've been in in the past, which did not work out so well. And I do think that in the U.S. that people are looking for new ideas. One idea and Scott, it may take a minute because it's your idea that I was reading about recently, that hasn't been mentioned, is you had a piece about the broader peninsular and regional and global dimensions that makes progress very difficult towards a peace regime and progress. And I think that's one of the sobering thoughts that makes it not only difficult but a little daunting to think about the future. But we have to keep that in the background.

But with that, I kind of divided my areas into five different areas which have already been touched on and what would, sort of, a different approach that might work better than the past look like.

First and on denuclearization. I think that in the United States, the Overton window of what people who are considered to be respectable say about this has widened considerably. We may debate whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. I think it probably is a good thing. In my view, we need to keep denuclearization, no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, dismantlement of the North Korean programs, as our firm objective and I think we can start with the existing language from the Singapore Declaration, as inadequate as some may have found that. I'm with that large group of people who I don't know if it's achievable. But I think that a diplomatic process towards that aim can achieve the kind of greater stability, confidence building, that I think we all agree would make the region more stable and be in the interest of all of us. To do that, I think we do have to acknowledge it step by step. I'm not against the suspension of exercises for suspension of testing, other kinds of tradeoffs, sometimes a problem of the Trump administration was style, rather than sometimes substance. And eventually, of course, you want more than that. And to get there you're going to have, as Susan suggested, I think, a much more nuanced use of sanctions with a readiness to adjust sanctions for partial steps. I think sanctions, not only on the North Korean issue, but more broadly, they’ve become ends rather than means. They’ve sometimes been Doomsday machines, where we've turned on these powerful sanctions that we realize we don't have a lot of ability to use them in a nuanced way.

Secondly, I think we need to ramp up the peace process. But I think that first, Seoul and Washington need to come to a better understanding of what we actually mean by it. I think, still on this peace dimension, we talk past each other a lot. There is greater recognition in both capitals that the denuclearization element, the peace element, the inter-Korean element are intertwined. But I think we've still gotten tangled up in jargon and language. I like the term peace process, because it's a process and diplomats like process. And this is going to be a long process. But I think we have to emphasize the iterative nature of it and come to a much clearer understanding between the two capitals.

And third and relatedly, we also, at least I don't, have a clear understanding of what Pyongyang's priorities are when it comes to the menu of peace issues, if I can call it that, or the basket of peace issues, if I can call it that. And it may change over time, you know. How important is end of war? And, you know, I worry that, you know, we declare the end of war and it turns out, it's not enough. There's something else, you know, are we really looking at a treaty? All of those things? I know they've been discussed. I don't want a long policy review, per se, but I do think Seoul and Washington needs to be really clear with each other on this. And I agree with Hak-soon that a lot more attention to the economic and obviously humanitarian issues early on, would seem to make a lot of sense – would be very salient.

Fourth, I think the U.S. needs to address the worries of South Korea throughout the region about U.S. commitment as allies to deterrence, the alliance, to working together. We need to send some strong signals that there cannot be wedge-driving either by North Korea or China.

And finally, and this is very vague, but I think important, I think there has to be some kind of regional or multilateral dimension to any renewed effort. You know, maybe as a contact group. I think there are models of other kinds of diplomacy that haven't been entirely exposed, and even though we've done a lot of them, and I think we need to look at that. But overall, my answer to fail diplomacy is renewed and better diplomacy. A new Biden administration is going to have a lot on its plate in 2021. If it isn't a Biden administration, I don't, and it’s my final point, I don't agree with some of my friends in Seoul who think that Biden is going to mean just a return to 2016. I think there is a real understanding that the world has changed and that a different approach is needed. And I think, given all that we've learned, hopefully a short policy of your view and a very early commitment to a vigorous diplomatic engagement that starts with this closeness of Seoul and Washington working together.

Scott A. Snyder: Great, thanks, Kathy. I know that we've got a great group of people who are going to want to join to ask questions. So I'm just going to ask one question for all the panelists. And it requires a brief answer. And that is what is the single most important accomplishment that the president in the next administration must achieve toward North Korea within the first one hundred days? And I'm going to actually go in reverse. So, Kathy, you’re up.

Kathleen Stephens: I'd say open a channel of communication. Within the first hundred days if there can be some kind of meeting. I think maybe that would help to build a little bit of a firewall against a provocative action.

Scott A. Snyder: Okay, Jina?

Jina Kim: Yes, the new administration should work on the definition and the scope of denuclearization, because still, we don't have a clear understanding of what kind of denuclearization that we, including South Korea, North Korea, and the U.S., want to achieve. So I think working on that definition is the first step that we have to work on.

Scott A. Snyder: Okay, Susan?

Susan Thornton: In the first hundred days, I think the most important thing that a new administration would have to do is show that we're in lockstep with our allies in Seoul, strengthen that alliance and make it clear that there's not going to be brooking any divisions there, and that North Korea cannot look to that angle to try to make mischief or split us. And I'd add, if there was a second one, make clear that, what Kathy said at the end, there is going to be a multilateral process we're going to have. We're going to reach out to the Chinese and others to make clear that we're all sort of in this together, as opposed to providing fissures for North Korea to exploit.

Scott A. Snyder: Okay, and Hak-soon?

Paik Hak-soon: In the first one hundred days, I think it depends on who will be elected next president. In the case of, you know, Donald Trump, they could do more than just an opening of contacts with North Korea. And in the case of Joe Biden, I think, you know, as I agree with Kathy, that they have to open channels and contacts in the first place.

Scott A. Snyder: Okay. With that, I'd like to open it up for questions. And I see that Richard Johnson is on our list of attendees.

Richard Johnson: Hi, can you hear me?

Scott A. Snyder: Yes, you're now unmuted.

Richard Johnson: Great. Thank you, Scott. And thank you so much to all the panelists. It's really nice to see so many friends, even though we are only seeing each other virtually. I have a really quick comment, and then I'm going to ask a question.

First of all, just really happy to hear Dr. Kim talk about the Cooperative Threat Reduction idea. And I will just plug that my organization, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, wrote a whole report on that last year that I was happy to be the co-author of. So I really highly recommend that concept and I'm very glad to hear that it's getting some further traction. It's not the first time it's been mentioned in our report, but it's another idea that we keep trying to revive. And I would also say on the definition of denuclearization, I think it's a good idea. But I also hope that we don't get too caught up on dictionary definitions. I think, as Ambassador Stephens said, there's a lot of good things already out there, including, I would go all the way back to the 1992 North-South Joint Declaration as a basis for that rather than trying to define a lot of details, which, frankly, are going to be the fundamentals of the negotiation. But I'll stop doing that DC thing where I comment and not ask and I will ask a real question. And it's building off of what both Kathy and Susan said, which is, I'm really curious if all of you, but certainly since those of you who raised it, Kathy, could elaborate on this concept of building in the region, because I tend to agree, I've been nodding my head the whole time on almost everything everybody said. But I also agree that, you know, at some point, the bilateral concept is not going to be enough as you get into issues of peace, as you get into issues of the longer term. So Kathy, you mentioned like a contact group. I'm not necessarily a big fan of, you know, restarting the Six Party Talks, but how do you get the Chinese and South Korea, of course, and Russia and even Japan, kind of on board? So I'd love to hear if you have any more thoughts on that. And thanks for letting me chime in.

Scott A. Snyder: Okay, I don't, does anybody – I think that that was more a comment than a question. And so I'd like to turn over to my CFR colleagues to just make sure that everyone understands how to get into the queue.

CFR Meetings Staff: As a reminder, to ask a question, please click on the raise hand icon under Zoom window. When you are called on, please accept the unmute now prompt, then proceed with your name and affiliation, followed by your question. Thank you.

Scott A. Snyder: The next person on my list is actually on the Korean side. Jung-sup Kim, who is on the panelist role.

Jung-sup Kim: Thank you. My name is Jung-sup Kim at Sejong Institute. I'm very glad to participate in this forum. I'd like to ask a question to Ambassador Stephens and Assistant Secretary Thornton. The policy review has been mentioned, so my question is about the impact of U.S. presidential election on the Korean Peninsula. Some analysts in Korea say that if Biden wins, it is good for the U.S.-ROK alliance. But for the North Korean nuclear issue, Trump's election would be helpful. And it is also suggested that the Biden administration would repeat Obama’s strategic patience. But maybe it's too simplistic. I'm not sure whether the, so-called, strategic patience will be repeated if Biden wins. And under the Obama administration, not only the United States was passive, but also North Korea did not actively engage in negotiation with the United States. And also I don't think the United States is in a position to delay the solution because North Korea's nuclear capability has been, has become, much more advanced. So I'd like to hear the opinions on the possible differences on North Korea policy between a Trump and Biden administration. Thank you.

Scott A. Snyder: Let me ask Kathy to respond first. And then Susan.

Kathleen Stephens: Yeah, I'd love to defer to Susan. But I don't think that Biden is going to go back, as I said, to Obama-era 2016 policy. And I think that even though oftentimes, you know, people are identified with policy, I think the people who worked on that policy also know that things have changed a great deal. I think the biggest challenge for whoever is president in January is, honestly, there's just so much other stuff going on. And I think it is going to be, you know, a challenge to get the kind of attention to the issue that perhaps it needs. In the case of the Trump administration, I mean, it's just very personalized, right? And that sounds really unpredictable. I, you know, I have no idea. When it comes to the broad goals of the policy, you know, I think that they will remain, as I said, more or less the same. Denuclearization and a stable peace process. That's the broad umbrella that's been, I think, U.S. policy for a long time. But how that is implemented. So differences in style, certainly. And I think, finally, I would just say, I think Biden has made pretty clear, though, that he would want to have a more, if you like, traditional working level work, work the issues up, to, rather than the top down.

Scott A. Snyder: Susan?

Susan Thornton: -briefly say that if, you know, Trump is reelected, I think we know what we're going to get, which is more of the same. It will be, it will be unpredictable, but in a way, you know, if the North Koreans are going to be in the driver's seat, still, I think the North Koreans are in a difficult position if Trump's reelected because, on the one hand, you know, they have this beautiful relationship. But, on the other hand, you've got to get Trump to pay attention to this issue again, and I'm not sure, given everything else, even if he's reelected, he's going to have a lot of other things to deal with that he's going to get back to it very quickly. But I don't know how the North Koreans force him to take it up again. He's been pretty content to leave it where it is. So, you know, and he's got a lot of other things he wants to work on. So I think that's a difficult kind of quandary for the North Koreans – how to get attention without going too far if it's Trump. I agree with Kathy on the Biden approach. I think it's going to be a much more workman-like kind of approach.

Scott A. Snyder: Okay, I've got a lot of people who want to get in and have comments and questions, especially on the American side. And so I'm probably going to take a few questions or comments before coming back to speakers. And I'd like to start with Frank Jannuzi.

Frank Jannuzi: Thanks so much. And thanks to all the panelists. The question I have is about coordination with Seoul on North Korea policy and how can we do a better job of staying on the same page? There's been tension lately having to do with sanctions relief and how far the U.S. was willing to go compared with Seoul. And how do we expect that to change, if at all, if we have a change of leadership in Washington?

Scott A. Snyder: Okay, and then John Warden will be our next speaker.

John Warden: Thanks. Thanks, Scott. The, I guess, the question I have is – I agree with a lot of the panelists that there's no harm in going in with an initial ask of denuclearization. But I personally am very skeptical that North Korea has any interest in denuclearization, which would leave both the United States and South Korea then in the position of what's next. So I guess my question to both sides is, assuming that North Korea has no real interest in denuclearization in the short term, do you think that there is a workable diplomatic solution around limiting North Korea's nuclear weapons program that both Washington, whether a Trump administration or a Biden administration, and South Korea could agree upon? And what are the steps that you think are necessary in order to take that path?

Scott A. Snyder: Okay, and also Erwin Tan is on my list and then I'm going to come back to our panels.

Erwin Tan: Well, actually, in my case is more of a couple of comments rather than questions. But I'm an associate professor at Hong Kong University of Foreign Studies. So I've got three comments. One is that while I enjoyed the discussion a lot, I think one omission is that Russia's role has apparently been overlooked if you think in terms of Russia's economic stake in a peaceful development of Northeast Asia. And this is, if you recall, the 2019 joint overflight of a doctor and the 2020 military exercise with China. It might be seen as an intent to signal the potential role of Russia as a spoiler in the events that its interests are overlooked. So this is, I think it might be, worth considering what the knock on effects of a Biden White House versus a Trump White House would be in the post-2020 period. My other two comments are closely related and basically converge on my assessment that North Korea's probably beyond the point of no return as far as its nuclear weapons program are concerned because they've seen the fate of Saddam Hussein and on Gaddafi, and you also have the Trump tearing up the nuclear deal with Iran. So it seems that for Kim Jong-un, the nuclear arsenal is very logical as a insurance policy of last resort against regime change. But at the same time, also consider, this comes to my third comment, considered the internal politics within Pyongyang itself. I mean, Kim Jong-un has also seen the fate of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring. So I'm pretty sure that Kim Jong-un knows that internal regime security also requires the loyalty of the military. Now, given that the nuclear weapons arsenal is the crown jewel in the North Korean military, I don't see that as a bargaining chip within the politics of North Korea.

Scott A. Snyder: And then, Gil Rozman, and then we'll go back to the panel.

Gilbert Rozman: Okay, am I unmuted?

Scott A. Snyder: No, you're unmuted.

Gilbert Rozman: Okay. My question is about policy reviews of China and North Korea. Which takes place first? And if China is not satisfied with our policy, won’t it do everything it can to scuttle our North Korean approach until we work out what the China relationship should be?

Scott A. Snyder: Okay, I'm going to ask, maybe, Kathy and Paik Hak-soon. I'm sure everybody has something to say. But let's try to all keep it brief. So let's start with Kathy. Sanctions relaxation, denuclearization?

Kathleen Stephens: Yeah, I'll try to be really brief. On Frank's question about coordinating, coordination with Seoul. I mean, there's a related issue, which Frank knows well, of course, and many others, of coordination within our own respective bureaucracies. And some of that is what has to happen within Washington, within Seoul. But, yeah, coordination. I think, it's just, you got to try harder. I mean, I don't think the idea of the whatever it was called, the working group or something, was necessarily a bad idea, unfortunately, became to see – it got kind of a bad name, I guess, in Seoul in some ways. But the other part of it is actually more substantive. I think, and that is, in my view, the U.S. has to understand that there has to be some scope there for the inter-Korean and the humanitarian area. And I think we have to be maybe a little bit more sensitive to that. And I would say, a little more flexible than I, my sense was at times, we have been over the last few years, that's just my personal view.

On the denuclearization, and that, you know, very doubtful that North Korea will ever denuclearize. I mean, I just would say, you know, prediction is hard and has been a long time. But, yeah, I don't think they have any intent right now. But, you know, I can think of other negotiations that the United States has gotten into where, you know, through the negotiation, you try to shape the choices, shape the environment, and harvest some short- and medium-term benefits in terms of tension reduction and reduction of capability. So, whether you go from freezes to dismantlement of production, to capping numbers, to inspectors, you know, all of those are important steps. And in that context, if you are also moving forward on the economic side, on the peace side, then you hope that later on in this negotiation, you're at a place where actual denuclearization, as originally defined, becomes more possible.

Scott A. Snyder: And Dr. Paik? Please try to keep it as short as possible. I've got a very long list of questioners.

Paik Hak-soon: In terms of what kind of steps are needed to take to start denuclearization down the road to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. It was pointed out already, but trust building is the key. You can agree on new agreements and also, which demonstrates the goals of your policy on both sides, but – And also in implementing the agreements, you have to have trust with each other, otherwise, you know, you go nowhere. And in that sense, you know, trust building, the important, the trust I have to emphasize one more time. Just a brief additional comment to Frank Jannuzi's question. Americans should not sideline South Korea in its effort to improve relations with North Korea and make progress in denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. South Korea is a Korean Peninsula country. We are not supposed to be sidelined at all. So this is a very important, you know, demand on our part to the new administration of the United States. Thank you.

Scott A. Snyder: Okay. I'm going to have Jim Clapper on the American side. And then the other panelists are going to be Korean respondents. And then I'm going to ask Susan and Jina to respond and we'll have to bring it to a close. So, Jim Clapper.

James Clapper: Can hear me now?

Scott A. Snyder: Yes.

James Clapper: Okay. Well, I'll be quick because I know time is short. I, personal perspective, based on my interactions with North Korea. North Koreans, they're not going to denuclearize. But having said that, one of the things I wish President Trump had done in one of his summits is ask Kim Jong-un straight on, what is it that would be required to induce you to denuclearize? As far as I know, we don't know the answer to that question. We might not like it. But it seems to me it’d be useful to know. So with that promise, I'd be interested in any of the panelists’ views on what incentives would it take to get North Korea to even consider denuclearization?

Scott A. Snyder: Thank you. Professor Chung Ku-youn is next on my list.

Chung Ku-youn: Hi, I have a few questions about North Korea's intentions, which is related to Clapper’s comments. Since North Korea has declared self-reliance after it exploded the liaison office last summer. How does that have been interpreted in the United States side as well as South Korean side? I, this question for all the panelists. The second question is, given that the situation between U.S. and China is getting worse, in the names of competition is going up to the kind of decoupling, then how does the two countries to cooperate on the North Korean issue if the demonstration has been changed in the United States or North Korea side?

Scott A. Snyder: And that also goes back to Gil's question, I think, which has not yet been answered. And I'm going to ask Seong-hyon Lee to ask the last question in this round.

Lee Seong-hyon: We are discussing North Korea, but we keep talking about China. So this question is for Susan. I know that you have a long, distinguished career in dealing with China. And as Hak-soon and others mentioned that, you know, China is not cooperating. China is not helping. Xi Jinping met with Kim Jong-un five times through summit. Xi Jinping told Kim Jong-un that the essence of China-North Korea relations is the socialism. It’s just like during the Cold War era. So my question is that, is it really realistic for us to expect China to play a constructive role? Or is it just our wishful thinking? Or because anywhere North Korea's main interest is the United States, not China. So I want to see more leadership of the United States. Now, I think, don't you think it's time for us to decide to solve the North Korean issue with China or without China?

Scott A. Snyder: With apologies to the remaining questioners on my list, I'm going to ask Susan and Jina to provide some final comments. And then also if there's any burning issues that have not yet been resolved, I will let Dr. Paik and Ambassador Stephens back on. But let me go first to Susan and then to Jina.

Susan Thornton: Well, thanks for all those questions. I too want to see U.S. leadership. So I hope that we're going to get some answers in the next couple of months on that, and we'll see if we do.

On the issue of U.S.-China relations getting worse and how will that impact, you know, the issues regarding getting the Chinese to help or not on the Korean Peninsular issues. I mean, it really depends on who gets elected. If Donald Trump is reelected, there will not be Chinese cooperation on getting any progress on North Korea because Donald Trump doesn't want any cooperation. He made that decision before the Singapore summit. And basically, that's when he started the trade war with China. He thought he no longer needs them for North Korea. And I can't see him walking that decision back and reversing it. I mean, he could. He does a lot of things. But I don't see that happening. But if Biden's elected, I think that, with regard to Gil's question, we don't need a China policy review for the Biden administration to talk to China about, you know, North Korea and the issues there. The Chinese are very eager to talk to us about North Korea, I think. As far as will China really help us? You know, I don't know. I have my doubts, but they can sure harm any progress that we would want to be making. And so it strikes me that, also akin to someone else's, I think it was Erwin Tan's comment, make sure that China and Russia, who both have the potential to play spoilers on this role, are in the tent with us. We can manage that, as Kathy said, through a contact group, through clever diplomacy. We've managed it before. And we can do it again. We've got to get Japan in as well. We want people to be in with us and approaching the North Korea from a united perspective. That's very important. If we haven't learned that lesson yet then we don't have any business re-approaching this issue, I don't think. So I'll just leave it there.

On the question of denuclearization, I think everybody thinks that, you know, the North Koreans aren't going to denuclearize. But we've got to get progress, you know, and we don't have to get all the way down that road to get progress and better security for South Korea, for the U.S., and for the region on this issue. So I think we should keep denuclearization as the goal. It's a long-term goal. Will we ever get there? Nobody knows, but we should stop talking about that. Keep it as the goal and work on practical steps to get there.

Scott A. Snyder: Jina, your response?

Jina Kim: Yes, I said earlier that the scope of threat reduction is very, very important. The U.S. argues elimination of all WMD program is ideal, but North Korea said, after a Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang in July 2018, well, the U.S. demand is a third. This implies that North Korea must have heard that the U.S. – what the U.S. wants. However, North Korea faces a dilemma because North Korea's decides to – if North Korea decides to give up nuclear capabilities, it has to rely on other asymmetric capabilities instead, because North Korea has inferior conventional military capabilities. So we have to address North Korea's security concern. North Korea may never come to the negotiation table if everything is on the table. So, some scholars argue that addressing North Korea's security concern serves a damage reduction and risk management purpose. I think we should go back to the Hanoi summit, where North Korea offered its demand, opening up Yongbyon facility in exchange of partial sanctions lifting as a first step to build trust. I think opening up of Yongbyon facility is not like a comprehensive denuclearization, but it can be a first step toward that goal. And we have to seriously think about corresponding measures, especially partial sanctions relief. The U.S. is concerned about going to, they're concerned about the possibility of going to the next step. But we can offer condition-based sanctions relief, based on verifying North Korea's compliance to the agreement. So I think, in that way, we can keep North Korea to the negotiation table. And I also think denying North Korea's nuclear status is very, very important from the perspective of upholding the NPT. Relaxing this position can set a very negative precedent for having future breakout crisis. And the ultimate goal is nuclear risk reduction. And considering issues such as North Korea's regime stability, nuclear command and control, and potential horizontal proliferation risks, like other nuclear weapon states, we should be united on the notion of denuclearization.

And my final point about the role of China. I think it is desirable that the U.S. cooperates with China on North Korea issues because Beijing plays a very significant role in presenting options to Pyongyang. From South Korea's point of view, the U.S. is always concerned about the possibility that North Korea not comply with the agreement. If North Korea fails to comply, then it becomes necessary for China to play a role to put some stronger pressure on North Korea. So whether or not there is an alternative option, such as pressure by China, contributes to increasing flexibility in the way to negotiate with North Korea indeed. So in this regard, the role of cooperative China is very important. So working, I think, working with other regional countries, including China, is very important to send a clear message to North Korea so that we can avoid unintended accidents in the future and keep some sustainable implementation of the agreement.

Scott A. Snyder: Thank you, Jina, I think it's pretty clear that we need more time and more sessions to discuss this. I do want to ask Kathy or Dr. Paik if they have any urgent last words that must be said before we conclude the session. Kathy? No. Dr. Paik? Very briefly.

Paik Hak-soon: Because, you know, very interesting question was raised by Jim Clapper. What incentives are needed to bring North Korea to the negotiation table for continuing denuclearization? I think, you know, Kim Jong-un wants to open his own era as a young leader. I think he has dual identity. One is, you know, [inaudible] identity, but the other being identity formed in Europe and studied, you know, in Switzerland as a teenager. And he's sort of looking for conditions to make his latent identity, which he earned in Europe, to express itself if conditions are met, and I think that is something we have to understand. And he needs, at least, you know, some science from the United States to relieve, you know, anti-North Korea policy, so-called, you know, sanction relief included and other security and the diplomatic, you know, items included, you know. So I think still we have a lot of room for, you know, continuing our negotiation over denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Scott A. Snyder: So Dr. Paik, I'm going to propose that our next session be about the future of North Korean policy toward the U.S. At which time I will ask panelists what their advice to Kim Jong-un is going to be for dealing with the next one hundred days. But for this evening in the East Coast, for this morning in Korea, I just want to thank everybody who joined us. I wish that I had my standing ovation sound effects track ready. But instead you'll just have to accept virtual thanks from all of us who have been on the call. And we really appreciate that we got a lot of material covered in a relatively short period of time. So, thank you to all the panelists and thank you to Sejong Institute for co-hosting with CFR.

Top Stories on CFR

Military Operations

The prospect of a contested U.S. presidential election has spurred concerns about militias appearing at voting locations. State and federal laws have strict guidelines for any deployment of forces at polls or to quell election violence, but worries persist.

Pharmaceuticals and Vaccines

Vaccines are a major public health success story, but the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the many challenges involved in getting a vaccine to everyone who needs it.

Sudan