Experts provide an update on North Korea, including its relationships with South Korea, China, and the United States.
CALVIN SIMS: OK. If you can hear me OK, welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. I'm Calvin Sims. I'm a program officer for the Ford Foundation, and I focus on news media and journalism there.
And if you haven't been living in a cave for the last two or three months, you probably know that we've never seen so much activity on the -- on the Korean Peninsula that we have in the last couple of months. And we're here tonight with this Korea update to sort of answer some of the questions you might have.
So I'm pleased to introduce our distinguished panel for today. We have Victor Cha, who's here, who is the endowed chair in government at -- in Asian studies and the director of Asian studies at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown.
And we have Scott Snyder, who is a senior fellow for Korean studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy here at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Unfortunately, Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt is on a train, and we hope that he will join us before the evening is finished.
So I'd like to ask everybody, if you haven't already, to silence your cellphones and personal communications devices. And this meeting, unlike many of the other council meetings, is actually on the record, and as you can see, the media is here. So we should keep that in mind.
So to start out, I'd like to ask both Victor and Scott to sort of give me a headline in terms of what has been going on in this region and especially vis-a-vis your books, because both of you have books that are out in and are -- actually will be here for sale at the end of this program. So if you could start, Victor, I'd appreciate it.
VICTOR CHA: Sure. Well, I think the headline is pretty clear to everybody, which is that North Korea is acting up once again. The situation is a little bit different from the past, in the sense that very few people expected that after the Obama administration reached an agreement with North Korea at the end of February, that we would roll into a crisis as quickly as we did, and yet here we are.
The book that I wrote, called "The Impossible State," tries to give folks -- one a sense of, you know, how has this country lasted for as long as it's lasted and how have we moved from one crisis to another. It's actually the first book that I know of that's been out, published, that looks at sort of the implications of the previous leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, whose death in December of 2011 -- and looks to the future in terms of what the new leadership and what the United States may be facing in the coming months and years ahead.
SCOTT SNYDER: Well, I -- my book, I think, is on the more optimistic subject of South Korea's emergence as a producer of security, not only in terms of the contributions of the U.S.-Korea alliance on the peninsula but also its activities away from the Korean Peninsula, its cooperation with the United States in a whole range of areas -- nonproliferation, counterterrorism, international development assistance, peacekeeping, anti-piracy -- also Korea's involvement with Afghanistan.
All these are basically underreported aspects of the U.S.-Korea alliance that I think constitute a third leg of the alliance beyond economic cooperation and our focus on North Korea, and so that's really what I support in my book.
SIMS: OK. Why don't we start with North Korea and this new leader that Time Magazine has called "Lil' Kim," and take in the events that have happened in the last few months on his ascendency to the throne, as well as this horrible debacle with this missile. How would you characterize this regime? Are they more vulnerable, less stable than ever before? How would you characterize them?
CHA: Well, you know, it's a good question, Calvin. And I don't anybody has a good answer, quite frankly, inside or outside the governments involved here. You know, this is a leadership succession that I think was predicted, in one sense, that everybody knew that he would hand over power to one of his sons, but I think no one expected it would come as quickly as it did, including the North Koreans. So this fellow is barely 29 years old, we think, and has never really had the chance to prepare to take on this job.
And then for his first major event to be this attempt to launch a satellite into orbit using ballistic missile technology -- to have this thing fail in front -- I mean, they invited all this news media, and to have it fail in front of the entire world is not really an auspicious beginning for this -- for this young fellow.
So I think, as we all look at this, we're on the one hand hopeful that a new leadership -- because clearly we didn't get as far -- anywhere with the last leadership -- a new leadership that has spent part of his life educated outside of North Korea, might be more interested in a reform-oriented path -- and we're hopeful for that, and I think many people were -- had those kind of hopes in the two weeks after the February 29 agreement. But at the same time I think everybody is very concerned now that we don't understand how this fellow acts. Many inside the U.S. government have said very directly that, you know, we kind of thought we understood how Kim Jong Il behaved, and we kind of knew what negotiation would purchase us and what sanctions would -- they feel like they have no idea now with this fellow. And that's kind of a frightening situation to be in, since many people now expect that the next thing we may see is a third nuclear test.
SNYDER: Yeah, well, my favorite joke since Kim Jong Un has taken over among the North Korea watchers is what's the most dangerous thing that Kim Jong Un can do that now that he has taken power? And the answer is make a decision.
And I think that we're still at a point where it's not clear to me that Kim Jong Un has actually made any decisions. I think the satellite launch/missile test was an instruction of his father's. I think the negotiation with the United States was on the instruction of his father. And the odd thing is there's not now anyone there filling space who seems to be able to reconcile these contradicting priorities that we have seen play out so far.
And so a lot of what is going to happen, I think, you know, we'll just have to see whether he's the decision-maker or whether there's somebody else there who's -- in fact emerges as the key decision-maker.
SIMS: And I want to welcome Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt who's joined us. Unfortunately, he was delayed on a train. We are -- been talking about sort of the headlines of what has happened on the Korean Peninsula. And we've just been talking about this new sort of prince who's ascended to the throne and what are we to make of him. (Laughter.) And so on coming in, if you want to sort of jump into that and tell us what are we to make of him, especially this debacle and what we've seen so far.
REAR ADMIRAL MICHAEL MCDEVITT: I think the -- and this may have already been covered, but it seems to me the key issue is is he really in charge or is he -- is he essentially the talking dog for some sort of a regency that is essentially pulling the strings and making sure that he doesn't go too far one way or the other.
And -- but presumably, the intent over the longer term is the regency intends for him to actually be in charge, to actually rule, if you will. And so it's a matter of keeping him from going on the straight and -- off the straight and narrow until he's deemed to be sufficiently mature to take over himself.
Now, the other side of that is he's got all the title, he's got all the power, and everybody is paying attention to what he says because if you don't, you're out of a job. But who knows? I mean, it's a black box.
SIMS: Part of, I think, what had been thought of the thinking is that you had to prove your worthiness, your machismo when you actually ascended to the throne. Part of that is actually launching this missile or maybe actually initiating another nuclear test. Are we likely to see that? Is that the right thinking, that that's what you have to do to prove your worthiness within that structure?
CHA: I mean, I think -- unfortunately, I think it is. Their -- you know, once he ascended to the throne, they sort of retroactively started assigning him credit for the March 2010 sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the artillery shelling of a South Korean island, all this -- all this sort of stuff. So especially in a case like his, where, you know, his -- the first leader of North Korea actually had revolutionary credentials, inflated as they might have been, as a -- as an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter and all this sort of stuff. And this young 29-year-old just doesn't have that.
So I think there is -- there is great pressure on the system to try to make him look like he has these credentials. And that may mean assigning him credit for things that have happened in the past, but it also may mean, you know, creating more things that he can then assign -- so, you know, like a successful third nuclear test.
I would just say also that I don't disagree with Scott or Mike, I think, on the -- on the question leadership. The only thing I would add is I think it's difficult for us not to assume that he is not in charge only because the political culture of this country for 60 years has been one guy makes the decisions, and it's one of the -- it's one of the Kim family.
So we can say it's rational for them to form a consensus-based leadership around him since he's so young, but that would be like saying Republicans and Democrats should agree on the budget because if we don't, we're going to go bankrupt. And that's why -- and all my friends in Asia always ask me that question. They think it's perfectly rational. But the political culture is such that not -- that's not going to happen. I think it's the same way in North Korea. The political culture is such that this young fellow, while others may give him advice, in the end he makes -- he has to make a decision.
SNYDER: Well, I think we are probably looking at more provocations. That seems to be the path that we've started out on. And I think that it really is a function of the fact that whatever Kim Jong Un apparently needs to do in order to win legitimacy internally is precisely the agenda that is going to lose him legitimacy internationally. And so I think that's really the fundamental dilemma on which North Korea's future is going to hang as we go forward.
MCDEVITT: I would just add that as long as your official policy is a military-first policy and that -- and this is a continuum from his father -- and as long as you made the mistake, presumably with advice from his -- from his advisers, of inviting the world press to watch the missile launch and having it -- having it embarrassingly fail in a way that was -- you could not deny it to the people not only of North Korea, but to the world at large, that it seems almost inevitable there has to be some sort of a -- of a demonstration of success in a military realm to add to credibility.
SIMS: So how --- if we're likely to see more of these provocations, what should be the response of South Korea, the United States, interested parties in the region, to these provocations? How do you respond knowing why the -- knowing what's behind them?
CHA: It's a good question. You know, I think most likely if we do have more of these provocations there will be more action in the U.N. Security Council, more resolutions, more pressure on China and Russia to sign onto those resolutions and to enforce the sanctions that have been in existence. If you think about it, I mean, North Korea really has been sanctioned -- about as sanctioned as you can get between Resolution 1718 and -- what was it again?
CHA: -- 1874. Those two resolutions already carry much of the authority needed to sanction almost anything and they are written in very -- the language is actually very broad so that there's a great deal of room for interpretation. Nevertheless, I think if the North does a test, they do have to go back to the U.N. Security Council.
But the question is, what do we do beyond that? And personally, I think part of the issue is we need to put a little bit more pressure on China, but not simply asking China to twist North Korea's arm, if you will, because that's always what we seem to do. But I think we should try other things to get the Chinese more motivated on -- to help us solve this problem.
SIMS: Yeah, and I think that really is the key dilemma, is how do we get China more engaged? It seems that when we take actions that require us to depend on China, we don't get very far. If we start to get worked up in such a way that it appears that the tensions are escalating, that seems to be something that motivates China.
But that really is a challenge, because we don't want to go around trying to, you know, escalate the situation needlessly just as a tactic to try to get China more engaged. You know, plus there's this issue of the tension of the relationship within the alliance that exists over how to respond to these issues.
But really the core question is how do we hold North Korea accountable for these provocations? I don't think anybody has really been able to solve, that given the collective action problem that we have with North Korea.
MCDEVITT: If you look back at the history of provocations over the many decades -- and of course Victor lived through some of those as have all of us in one way or another -- we have our standard playbook which involves going to the U.N., military exercises to show resolve and what have you.
And I think those are normally fairly predictable. And the unpredictable piece that's been entered into the equation is the decision by the government of South Korea in the -- toward the end of 2010 to introduce something called preventive deterrence -- or proactive deterrence.
In other words, we'll no longer turn the other cheek for fear of starting a war -- escalating to a war. If we get hit, if we're attacked, we're going to respond in kind. And we may even -- and this is what makes everybody nervous -- we may even respond a little bit more in kind.
Now, that's where conventional military provocation, like a sinking of a ship or artillery shells, what have you -- there is no logical response in the South Korean doctrine to a nuclear test or to a missile launch. So those are sort of provocations that lend themselves to the usual playbook plus going, once again, to Beijing and saying see what your good friends are doing for you here.
SIMS: There -- Bill Keller, I think, over the weekend wrote a piece that was somewhat hopeful that there might be some internal change for the first time. And he wrote it about the informal market undermining the power of the state of Korea through its propaganda machinery -- that North Koreans are finally understanding a little bit more what's out there in the outside world because of all of these goods that are being brought in illegally and sold on the black market. And that that is one hope in the long term that will undermine this regime. Do you agree with that assessment? Is there any sense of that?
CHA: Yeah, I mean, it -- I mean, it is one of the things I talk about in the book, where I do think -- I mean, if you look at -- so North Korea's economy is decrepit, it's got food problems today and a new leadership. And if you look at North Korea in 1995, when they had a decrepit economy and a food problem as well, the one big difference between these two periods -- and they were also going through a leadership transition because the first leader of North Korea died of a heart attack as well. If you look at the two periods, what is different is the fact that there are markets now in North Korea.
And arguably, one of the -- one of the biggest legacies that Kim Jong Il when he died left for his country was not just nuclear weapons but really the creation of markets, because markets grew out of the famine of the mid-1990s.
And so there are official markets, there are informal markets, and they have been in existence now for 15 years. And while it's certainly not like North Koreans can go to the local Price Club and buy stuff, there is more of a sense that you have to make your livelihood not simply through government handouts but through the market. And recent defector testimony says that these people say as much as 60 percent of their daily livelihood was coming from markets, not simply from handouts from the state. When you introduce that sort of thing into a society, it's bound to have an impact on the way they think.
So while I don't think we're going to see a wholesale revolution or anything close to an Arab Spring, that is something that is different. And if the leadership continues to make mistakes, like this failed missile test or other sorts of things, you know, the society is just not the same passive society it was in the mid-1990s, or at least I don't think it is.
SNYDER: I agree that these are forces for changes.
I want to focus on the informatization part of that, because with markets come information. You know, with launches of satellites and the challenge of information of the -- from the outside, you have external media who were there in-country. And as a result -- and I -- and I think the purpose of the media was actually to reinforce the state central government message as a way of trying to heighten the credibility of the regime; it backfired. And as a result, you have a situation where the leadership had to fess up that it failed. You know, previously, they just announced that the satellite was revolving around earth and beaming back happy songs in praise of Kim Jong Il. So in a way, that's a perverse step forward, but on a time frame, that is not short enough to be very satisfying.
MCDEVITT: When I saw the column, the first thing that came into my mind was the comment during -- after Elizabeth Taylor's fifth marriage was the triumph of hope over experience.
It's -- there is -- there is the possibility -- because clearly the Chinese have been talking to Kim Jong Il and presumably now Kim Jong Un about follow our example, look what we're doing, look what the Vietnamese are doing, look at their economies; you need to do the same thing. So they've got a nag. Somebody's nagging them to do this. Whether they have the political courage to do so -- because most of the economists that you talk to about the people -- the handful of people who look at North Korea's economy argue that it would be very difficult for this regime to survive in a way if they actually tried to do what Deng Xiaoping did in China.
SIMS: Is this likely to be a big foreign policy issue in the presidential election? And if not, why? Are the policies of one party versus another party vis-a-vis North Korea the same? Are they different? Let's talk a little bit about that. It -- do you think it rises to something that would be a major issue?
CHA: I think right now it hasn't. I think it certainly has the potential to, if the North Koreans do more provocations, as many of us suspect, in the coming year. And how the administration responds to that will naturally cause a reaction of sorts from the other side, and it could very well become one of the -- one of the issues when they -- when they -- the candidates invariably debate on foreign policy.
But you know, if we put aside the politics of it and if we look at this -- the history of this, you know -- and in the book, I go back to the Reagan administration -- if you look at what each administration has tried to do with North Korea, more or less it's been the same thing. It's been we'll give you political normalization, we'll give you economic assistance, we'll give you energy, you know, a whole new lease on life if you just give up your nuclear weapons. And that has more or less been the deal. I mean, there have been different packaging, there is different tone, but overall, that's been pretty -- and that's, you know, essentially what -- where the Obama administration was headed as it wanted to move into talks with North Korea at the beginning of its administration, and it was slapped back by North Korean missile and nuclear tests, and then what it was invariably trying to do when it -- in this last iteration when it was trying to get back on the negotiation track and get back to six-party talks with the -- with the current regime. So I think overall, the policy is not that different.
But having said that and having dealt with this policy in the U.S. government, this is -- and no pun intended -- this is really a radioactive issue because if you are responsible for making a deal on this issue, you immediately become the target of people, you know, within the interagency as well as outside in the politics of Washington.
SNYDER: Yeah. I mean, I would agree with that. I'm not sure I have more to add on that.
MCDEVITT: Well, clearly it probably won't be a central issue, but clearly Governor Romney already put a couple shots across the bow with, hey, the administration bungled this; why didn't they get it signed in writing on the -- on the Leap Day agreement, on the February 29th agreement? But unless there is some major disaster, I don't think it will be a central issue in the campaign.
SIMS: Well, Les Gelb, who is the former president of CFR, has written that North Korea wants to have its "nuclear cake and eat its American food too." (Laughter.) So I think what he's saying is, is that they're still getting this foreign aid, they're still being able to feed their people and haven't given up anything. Is that likely to change?
CHA: I don't think it's likely to change unless, I think -- as some of you may remember, he wrote one of the first op-eds on the North Korean nuclear problem way back in the late 1980s, where he said that this was the next nuclear renegade state. And so he was -- he was right then, and I think he's right now in the sense that they do want to have their cake and eat it too. And the problem is that's not the deal that's been on the table from the United States and other members of the six-party talks for the past few years, which is that, you know, you have to give up one to get the other. And so it's hard for me to imagine that they will change that. I mean, everybody remains hopeful, and the negotiators remain hopeful that that would be the case. But, right now, there isn't a lot of evidence out there.
SIMS: Actually right now they're not getting anything from the United States. It was on offer and then, of course, they went ahead and tested their, you know, missile. And so it means they're not going to get anything, and that's actually the puzzle, I think.
Normally the North Koreans pocket their concessions and then create a provocation. And so I think that one of the, you know, differences that we've seen this time, that I think is actually worrisome, although a lot cheaper, is that they didn't pocket the concession.
CHA: I think the answer -- I think Les Gelb has it right. I, you know -- and they are going to continue to manipulate that. And I think the one thing that the Obama administration has done, although they won't admit it because it's politically sensitive, is they have essentially used food aid as a -- in terms of a political decision as opposed to -- as opposed to a humanitarian decision. I mean, that's not something you want to admit. But the reality is it offends a lot of people's common sense to be sending them food at the same time they're putting money into missiles.
SIMS: Well, let's take some questions from our members -- council members in the audience.
If you could wait for the mic and then -- this gentleman here -- and then just give your name and affiliation.
QUESTIONER: Winston Lord. I agree that it's very hard to figure out what's going on in Pyongyang. Having said that, could you speculate on this latest issue, why they didn't pocket the concession? So, put another way, why they went ahead with a missile launch?
It seems to me, very quickly, four possible explanations, none of which make sense. One, we didn't warn them (that ?) it would be a deal breaker, and I think it's pretty clear that we did --
MR. : Yeah.
QUESTIONER: -- everyone -- even if it wasn't in writing. Secondly, that they knew we were warning them, but they didn't think we'd want to give up the agreement, that we would swallow the missile launch and go ahead with the rest of the deal. Thirdly, they knew we were warning them, but they figured we would break the deal; but it would turn to their advantage and it would be us breaking the deal and they could maneuver us somehow in propaganda. And fourthly is there is disarray in the leadership and the military insisted on this, sort of carrying out the Dear Leader's orders on this, and there was disagreement between the foreign ministry and the military.
So I don't understand quite what happened, and I welcome your speculation on that.
CHA: I think all of those are right -- (laughter) -- Ambassador Lord. Ambassador, I think all of those right.
The fifth one that I would add would be -- Scott and I were both in Seoul, (the past ?) -- meeting with folks. The fifth one I would add is that some people believe that this was a deal that the North Koreans expected to be done in December --
MR. : Yeah.
CHA: -- when -- you know, in fact, the U.S. and the North Koreans were set up to have another bilateral meeting and, the weekend prior to that, Kim Jong Il died.
MR. : Right.
CHA: And so that kind of put a pause on things. And so the counterfactual is that the North Koreans actually expected this deal to be done sometime in December, the missile test would not come till April, so that they would have been able to pocket at least four months of concessions, allow the Obama mission to take credit for a deal and then, you know, number two, three -- at least number two and three of what you're talking about, started to kick in, in terms of thinking maybe they had us locked into something and that a missile test was possible.
I mean, I -- our negotiators have said very clearly we told them that there was a distinction between -- that there was no distinction between a satellite launch and a ballistic missile test. I believe them when they say that. At the same time, I also believe that the North Koreans for years had been saying that there is a -- that a missile test is different from a satellite launch. They've been saying that for years. And the idea that they would -- they would have given that up for only 240,000 tons of food also doesn't make a lot of sense to me.
So in the end, I would agree with -- mostly with -- especially with your two and three and then number five. So yeah. (Laughter.)
SNYDER: Yeah. I mean, I really do think it is number two, which is basically what Victor was elaborating, you know, actually, they were anticipating that it would be a harder decision because you would have had inspectors on the ground, and you would have had food aid delivery people on the ground at the point in time when the North Koreans would have actually announced that they were going to go ahead and, you know, conduct this test. And so I think they actually had in mind a much more difficult policy choice for the Obama administration than the one that played out. I mean, that's also the reason why I think that this whole thing was on autopilot. And there was an absence of a decision-maker who could actually pick between those two options.
CHA (?): Option three. (Laughter.)
SIMS: Who else has a question? Right here.
QUESTIONER: Rick Smith from The Pinkerton Foundation. We talked about the election-year politics in the U.S. What about election-year politics in South Korea? And with the government having enunciated a more proactive theory of response to future provocations -- and you've also said that you expect, given the circumstances in Pyongyang, that there will be more provocations -- what does the election-year dynamic in Seoul and in South Korea -- how does that come into play?
SIMS: Do you want to go first, Scott?
SNYDER: OK. Well, North Korea is a perennial issue in South Korean elections. North Koreans traditionally have been seen as trying to intervene, and they usually almost always get it wrong. And I think that this could happen again. If the North Koreans are committed to provocations, essentially, that is -- you know, possibly may help shift the mood of the electorate more to the right, although we'll have to see, you know, how that really plays out. And so it may be that the North Koreans are inadvertently taking actions that create an outcome that they don't necessarily want to see.
Regardless of who wins, I think they've created an environment where once the new South Korean president gets into power, the North Koreans are going to have greater expectations than any South Korean president is going to want to or be able to deliver. And the reason is that the North Korean benchmark is what Kim Dae Jung did and what (Moo-hyun ?) did. And those days, I think, are over as far as where the South Korean electorate is right now in terms of what kind of policy they want to see toward North Korea.
MCDEVITT: I would just add that the invective that they're pouring on President Lee is just quite remarkable. I mean, given the long history of North Korean invective, this -- they've reached new heights. And so I share Scott's view that it may -- I think that it's going to backfire in terms of the -- we've already seen it, I guess, in the -- in the National Assembly election that we're -- they didn't expect the conservatives to do that well. And so --
CHA: Yeah, I mean, the only thing that I would add is that I think there are a lot of people who don't like the current government -- the current South Korean government's policy, you know, which has been very hard -- you know, some say, very hard-line. But I think what it has done, as Scott mentioned, with regard to the populace is that it has moved the center of gravity really back to the center from where it was for 10 years under progressive governments. And I think for the general electorate, for one, I don't think they are going to vote based on whether a candidate says, I'm for sunshine policy or I'm against it. That won't be what they vote on. They'll be voting, I think, for the most part on social welfare issues for this coming cycle.
And the other is that I think whoever comes into office, they are going to -- whatever their inclinations are, to be tougher or to be softer, they are going to temper what they do because I think they have seen both the doves and the hawks in South Korea get burned by pushing too strongly on either side of the policy.
QUESTIONER: All three of you emphasized -- oh, I'm Lee Seagal (sp). I do some work on North Korea. (Laughter.) You -- all three of you emphasized the importance of markets, of information getting into the system, which strongly suggests you support the Chinese policy of engagement as a -- as a way of bringing about gradual but fundamental change in North Korea. So as you look forward, recognizing that the U.S. is not likely to do much of this, would you support more robust South Korean engagement, recognizing that the short-term consequences are to prop up the regime in North Korea?
SNYDER: I'm actually on the record as supporting the U.S. trying to do more in terms of promoting educational exchange with North Korea longer-term, including bringing North Koreans here to study. I would support that. I would support North Koreans getting out of North Korea for that purpose, you know, pretty much across the board, except in sensitive dual-use knowledge areas.
You know, we really need to focus on policies that exploit North Korea's partial exposure to the outside world. And we need to take actions that will help to stimulate the internal changes that are necessary, you know, to achieve that country's transformation.
MCDEVITT: I think that, you know, it -- the South Korean government, whoever wins -- to get back to the previous question -- is going to redo -- whoever the new president -- is going to do another reassessment of their North Korean policy. And I would be surprised if there wasn't an element of renewed South Korean engagement.
But that's -- I think that really is for the South Koreans -- decide. I don't believe that we should be cheering them on and saying, go engage. It's up to them to decide where -- it's a very political issue, as well as a hell of a security issue. And so it -- as a good ally, we should try to support whatever decision they come up with.
CHA: I think, you know, I mean, I understand your point -- (inaudible). I think as a social science experiment, that's what you do, right? I mean, you try to infuse the place with more information and separate the people from the regime, separate the elites from the elites, all this sort of stuff.
I just think the political reality is, as long as they're going full bore on their nuclear programs --
MR. : Right.
CHA: -- it's going to be hard for any leadership here in the United States or in South Korea, whether it's liberal or conservative, to advocate engagement -- you can't advocate engagement for the purpose of toppling the regime, right? -- but to advocate engagement, even if that may be your purpose, and in the meantime receive all this criticism for basically accepting a nuclear North Korea and then trying to coexist with it.
I mean, I think -- I understand what you're saying. I just think, given where we are today, the political difficulties of doing that are just -- I think they're clearly insurmountable here -- I mean -- I mean, "here" meaning in Washington, the United States. And I think they're probably as difficult in South Korea.
QUESTIONER: Graham Macmillan, Citigroup. Who are the people or factions that are whispering in Kim Jong Un's ear?
CHA: So there -- basically three groups that -- you know, that we generally think of. The first are members of the family. And there you're talking about Kim Jong Il's younger sister, Kim Yung Hi (ph), and her husband or the current leader's uncle, who is called by the name of Chong Sun Tek (ph).
Then there are members of the military. And there are a couple of military generals that have sort of risen to the surface as being key people that look like they're informing the leadership. They are always the ones seen in the pictures these days.
And then the third element is the party and the leading members of the party. And the view is that they form a sort of group around this young fellow helping to advise him.
But again, you know, my view is that while I think they're advising him, there is only -- well, there are only two people that are making decisions. The first is Kim Jong Il, but he's dead. (Laughter.) But he's still making decisions, as Scott said, even though he's -- even though he's dead.
And then the other is his son, because that's the way it's always been in this system. And others may talk around him and give him advice, but in the end I think he is the one making the decisions.
SNYDER: Yeah, I think he's the decision maker. But there's court politics in North Korea. And all those groups are the institutional groups. There's a North Korean elite that in many cases is -- you know, is occupying some of those positions.
You know, ultimately I think that, even though it's hard to define what that looks like, that's the group that he has to satisfy. That's where he has to actually perform, because they know about the outside world. They have a lot of things that are brought in from the outside world. And they know whether they're better off today than they were four years ago.
MR. : Yes, sir.
QUESTIONER: Rod Poach (ph). What's the likely Chinese official action in the next year, let's say, to deal with the nuclear issue? Are they willing to accept the gradual evolution of a serious nuclear state? Do they have no interest in suppressing it?
SNYDER: I -- Victor is now throwing all the hard ones to me, I see. (Laughter.) No, I --
CHA: I was being polite.
MR. : I'll take it. (Chuckles)
SNYDER: -- the Chinese primary interest in -- is in stability. They do, I think, have a secondary interest in a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula.
But over the course of the past three years at least, they've been prioritizing measures to promote stability in North Korea over any sort of focus on denuclearization. And that's where the U.S. and China have, I think, a gap in their approaches, respectively, on how to deal with North Korea.
SNYDER: China, I think, sincerely favors denuclearization of North Korea, they just don't favor it as much as we do. It's not at the top of their list vis-a-vis North Korea. It's somewhere down, I would say, toward number five or six. Stability of the regime is high.
The fact in many ways at least some Chinese academics who are responsible commentators argue that having a nuclear-armed North Korea actually improves stability on the Korean Peninsula, makes war less likely, i.e. North Korea has successfully deterred the United States and South Korea. And so there are -- there's a whole complicated calculus, I think, that goes into how China thinks about North Korea.
And finally, they don't want to twist North Korea's arm so badly that they would cause the regime to, you know, collapse or implode or cause something that would create more instability on their frontier. They're interested in less instability, not more. And so that's what -- that complicated calculus that feeds into the way they think about this and how much pressure they're willing to put on Pyongyang.
CHA: You know, I think -- I think the Chinese are -- they're paralyzed when it comes to this issue. They're free-riding in the sense that they want the U.S. to solve the problem. And they're very -- and they're very dissatisfied with where they are. I think all these three things are true, because of course they don't want to see a nuclear North Korea, but, as Scott said, their number-one concern is that this leadership transition move along stably and that they have a stable regime in North Korea. And that seems to -- that's a short-term calculation that seems to trump everything else.
And all of us have had countless meetings with Chinese scholars and -- you know, and others on this issue and, you know, the Chinese will be very clear. They'll say: Look, we know why you think we are supporting North Korea. It's because they're our little communist brother or because we don't -- we don't want to see 2 million refugees coming across the border or because we don't want to see unification with the U.S. military ally directly on our border. We know all those arguments, you know, basically implying that they're not true. That's not what -- that's not the problem.
The problem is essentially they just don't want any instability in North Korea. And for that reason, they're willing to count on its, you know, incredibly bad behavior and then focus largely on ensuring that the South Koreans don't retaliate, the United States doesn't go over the edge, not really thinking about the longer-term implications of this.
And so it is -- it is a policy position that their own policy over decades has worked themselves into, and I don't think they know how to get out of it. And for this reason, they know every time the North Koreans do something bad, all the pressure comes on China. They drag China's name through the mud. They know all these sorts of things and yet they feel like there's nothing that they can do except try to ensure that they can get past the next crisis to a period of stability, then hope to push it back to negotiations, i.e. the six party talks, where then all the pressure comes on the United States to make a deal. That's, I think, essentially is their -- is their game plan for right now.
MCDEVITT: Just one P.S. my comment and following on what Victor said, which I absolutely agree with, is they -- like all policymakers, you have to have a vision of how do you advance your interests over the long term. And I think that their vision is if we just hang in there long enough with North Korea, eventually they'll see the wisdom of the route -- the path that we have taken and demonstrated how to become a strong and powerful state, economic development. And eventually that lightbulb will dawn and then North Korea will do the right thing. So --
CHA: Yeah. And I think -- and again, we -- in the book, I sort of have a table that lists all the visits that the Chinese have hosted for the previous leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il -- the current leader has not gone yet -- from 1980 -- all the visits he's taken. And you can clearly see the Chinese strategy. They took him to a car factory, you know, a fiber optics plant, a cellphone factory -- just -- it's just so obvious.
And so I think Mike's absolutely right. This is their long-term plan. They've been working on it for quite some time. You know, they -- having their own model in mind or Vietnam in mind. The problem, I think, of course is that North Korea doesn't have Deng Xiaoping, right, a charismatic leader that was willing to do this. And the other is that, you know, the Chinese said to get rich is glorious; that was part of the whole piece of modernization. And I think for the political elite in North Korea, the issue is not money, it's still political control. And that's more important than anything else. And so for that reason, we haven't seen the Chinese strategy of trying to slowly and quietly promote reform in North Korea -- we haven't seen it -- seen it bear any fruit.
SIMS: There was a question here. Yeah.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Herbert Levin. The U.S. has announced this word "pivot." I understand that some people thought it was divot and created confusion for a few days. (Laughter.) But our pivoting towards Asia -- now, whether it's more battle carrier groups going through that part of the Pacific or whether it's sending the poor Marines down to check the snakebite medicine in Australia or whether it's deciding that we have great rights in the South China Sea, which no one knew we ever -- we ever had until the secretary of state discovered them -- do you see anything in these moves of the U.S., which are not appreciated by the Chinese, as making the Chinese more or less cooperative on these tactical things vis-a-vis North Korea?
You have said there's nothing strategic going to happen if the Chinese don't have a long-range view. I'm -- I don't happen to buy that, but this is what you fellows have all agreed on. Do you see anything in these -- this U.S. shift of military power and military thinking towards the area around China which is likely to make them more or less cooperative on these various tactical problems with the North Koreans?
SIMS: Michael, want to start?
MCDEVITT: North Korea has a long history of making China's security situation worse. It's kind of one of those things, with friends like these, who needs enemies type of thing. And of course, one of the -- one of the issues that the Obama administration is pursuing is a -- is a missile defense -- a phased adaptive approach for Asia, similar to the phased adaptive approach for Europe.
And one of those is sea-based missile defense. The Japanese have already got religion; they've already got sea-based Aegis cruisers that can perform missile defense. They've invested a lot into it. The South Koreans are slowly coming around. All these things are things that make China very uncomfortable. They're not anxious. They -- we're starting to hear more and more commentary from the Chinese about what are you doing with missile defense? I mean, it's all -- North Korea is driving that problem for them.
And so in terms of the pivot -- and I think the administration's preferred term of art now is the "rebalance," as opposed to "pivot," but anyway -- because if you can pivot in, you can pivot out -- is I'm not sure that it will make China any more or less cooperative with regard to North Korea. Clearly, some of the -- some of the documents that came out of the Defense Department leave very little doubt that China is in the crosshairs, at least in terms of some of the -- of the military capabilities that we're introducing into the -- into the theater.
But I'm not sure that China sees our military, whatever we choose to do -- and there's not going to be more stuff there, I can tell you that. There's not going to be a lot more ships or anything. But it will not -- it will not, I don't believe, influence them one way or another with how they choose to deal with North Korea. The thing that could influence them a hell of a lot of more is if we really do decide to sell F-16Cs and Ds to Taiwan and things like that. That'll ring their bell. I'm not sure that what we're doing so far is going to cause them to be any less helpful than they already have been in terms of North Korea.
CHA: See, it's a -- I just -- I think it's hard for them to be any less helpful. I agree with Mike. It is hard for them to be any less helpful on North Korea. I do think that the pivot -- I like the divot; that's pretty good -- I think the pivot really does -- I think it really does sort of set us up -- I mean, I think many in the region are welcoming, both Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, at least with the rhetorical shift.
And to some extent, they see it as a positive because they're really feeling Chinese influence now. It was a natural counterbalancing reaction. So when the -- when the United States comes back from Asia, they talk about how they feel like everybody is welcoming of the U.S.; we're back in Asia -- they're pushing on an open door because as long as China continues to expand, you're going to see that sort of reaction.
But I do think that we are going to see a lot more competition -- like Mike said, I don't think they'll be mass military movements by the United States now, but there'll be a lot more political and diplomatic competition, particularly in Southeast Asia. And we're already seeing it with this U.S. -- with the U.S. pursuit of the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Apparently, in the last bilaterals with the Chinese, they spent maybe 25 percent of their time talking about Taiwan and almost 70 percent of their time talking about -- asking questions about the Trans-Pacific Partnership because they see everything now that the U.S. does, in this case trying to promote free trade in the region, as part of a plan that's aimed at China.
SIMS: I think one last question here.
QUESTIONER: Donald Shriver at Union Theological Seminary. South Koreans make analogy, as they think about the possibility of reunification, to the problems that West Germany had to undertake in order to unite with East Germany. And I wonder whether the politicians of South Korea are really counting on the the -- in the event that the -- North Korea does collapse and you have the threat of great immigration to the South, are the South Korean politicians counting on the fact that the United States will pick up the tab for that?
SIMS (?): Go ahead, Scott.
SNYDER: I'm sure the -- I'm sure the South Koreans will take whatever support they can get from the international community. I think that they're making a misjudgement if they really think that the U.S. Congress is likely to contribute a substantial amount compared to what they already know they're going to have to spend.
MCDEVITT: Just -- as you know, the South Koreans have been studying the reuninificaiton of Germany for about the last 20 years now -- possibility -- implications. And when -- during the waning days of the Clinton administration, when things were -- and Secretary Albright was in Pyongyang and talk about the president going, et cetera, et cetera, there was a lot of -- a lot of study going on in South Korea.
And they -- at least looking at the -- as I recollect and talking to people and reading the papers, they felt they were going to be the (stuckees ?) for most of -- the vast majority. Maybe Japan kick in a little bit, but they were going to be the ones who are going to have to bear the bill. They weren't expecting a lot of money from elsewhere, and that's what scared them.
CHA: I'd -- I think they would look to the United States for help, but I certainly don't think they're looking to the United States to foot the bill. The South Korean government has now created a unification fund, or they're trying to basically save up for unification. And South Korea may call in some favors around the world. As you know, they're one of the -- they're a very -- they're the first -- one of the first international aid recipient countries that has now become one of the major donors of assistance; number one targets have been Afghanistan, Vietnam, other places. They have a 4,000-person-strong peace corps now that's going around the world doing all sorts of stuff. So I think they would certainly look to the international community for help, but in the end, you know, in international relations, it's all about self-help. So I think they'll certainly be looking to shore themselves up for this day when it comes.
SIMS: So we're just about the hour, and I just wanted to bring one more point up -- is that in the course of the discussion, we really haven't heard the kind of doomsday scenarios that have always been floated around North Korea and what could happen on the peninsula. That seems very positive and optimistic based on the transition that has just taken place. So I want to leave that sort of open to some commentary. It is because the missile actually, you know, blew up and didn't actually reach its goal? This seems to be a much more optimistic conversation for the long term than something -- some sort of doomsday scenario on the -- on the short-term horizon.
CHA: It -- yeah, Calvin, you know, it's interesting. I think right now it's not as bad as people thought it would be. Having said that, this thing could blow up tomorrow, and we wouldn't be surprised, you know. Somebody could -- you know, something could happen tomorrow, we wouldn't be surprised. I mean, I think overall, the trendlines are not positive and that -- and that it -- this leadership has to deal with real challenges in North Korea that the previous two leaders did not have to deal with. And it's young; it's inexperienced; it's never been in this position before. And so it's hard for me to say that, you know, things look OK for the longer term.
The other thing, just because we haven't really discussed it, and it deserves mentioning at least, is that, you know, when this place comes apart, it will be revealed as the worst human rights disaster in the history of mankind, or one of the worst. And that is something that I think Americans in general are paying more attention in terms of stories we're hearing about defectors who -- getting out of North Korea. But that is truly a doomsday issue.
MCDEVITT: I think a lot in terms of the future of the peninsula is going to be determined by what the circumstances are by the timing of when the balloon drops and what else is going on in the world. And I don't know if South Korea is going to get lucky or not. That's the real question, I think. But I'm interested in seeing how it plays out.
SNYDER: You know, South -- North Korea has the dubious distinction of being America's longest-running official enemy, 61 years and counting. And during at least the last third of that period of time, there have been periodic discussions about how North Korea is going to collapse; it's inevitable a year or two from now. And I've come to the judgment, right or wrong, that I don't think China will let it collapse.
SIMS: Well, with that, I want to thank the panelists for coming and thank all the members. (Applause.)
(C) COPYRIGHT 2012, FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC., 1120 G STREET NW; SUITE 990; WASHINGTON, DC - 20005, USA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. ANY REPRODUCTION, REDISTRIBUTION OR RETRANSMISSION IS EXPRESSLY PROHIBITED.
UNAUTHORIZED REPRODUCTION, REDISTRIBUTION OR RETRANSMISSION CONSTITUTES A MISAPPROPRIATION UNDER APPLICABLE UNFAIR COMPETITION LAW, AND FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC. RESERVES THE RIGHT TO PURSUE ALL REMEDIES AVAILABLE TO IT IN RESPECT TO SUCH MISAPPROPRIATION.
FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC. IS A PRIVATE FIRM AND IS NOT AFFILIATED WITH THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. NO COPYRIGHT IS CLAIMED AS TO ANY PART OF THE ORIGINAL WORK PREPARED BY A UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT OFFICER OR EMPLOYEE AS PART OF THAT PERSON'S OFFICIAL DUTIES.
FOR INFORMATION ON SUBSCRIBING TO FNS, PLEASE CALL 202-347-1400 OR EMAIL INFO@FEDNEWS.COM.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT.