As part of the 2018 College and University Educators Workshop, Patricia M. Kim, Gary Samore, and Sheila A. Smith speak with Mitchel B. Wallerstein about the threats posed by a nuclear North Korea and prospects for a Trump-Kim summit meeting.
FASKIANOS: Thanks very much. Welcome to the second day of the College and University Educators Workshop. We have a great day planned for you. Our first session is on North Korea. And I’m pleased to turn it over to Mitch Wallerstein, president of Baruch College.
WALLERSTEIN: Thank you, Irina.
And good morning, everyone; nice to see such a great turnout here. I’m pleased to serve as the moderator for the session, where we’ll be talking about the threats and risk of a nuclear North Korea and the prospect for a Trump-Kim summit meeting.
Irina and her team at the Council on Foreign Relations must have been prescient in organizing this session as part of your workshop, given that it’s hard to imagine another topic that is more timely and important at this particular moment in history.
The problem of a nuclear North Korea, of course, is a powerful example of what some have referred to as wicked hard problems. (Laughter.) And it’s certainly been that way for many, many years. In fact, we were just talking before the session began about how far back—how many administrations back this goes. And we think we’re pretty confident that it goes back at least as far as the administration of Ronald Reagan. So every single president has tried to find a way to deescalate the North Korean efforts and to reach an agreement, and none have succeeded.
But given the progress that the North has made in recent years, both in advancing its nuclear-weapons designs and its long-range missile capabilities, the prospect for a non-diplomatic solution to this problem is essentially zero. The toothpaste is out of the tube, as they say.
So what we need to talk about and hope for is creative and aggressive diplomacy that can convince both sides that it’s worth trying to reach an agreement.
You will hear this morning from three distinguished experts. You have their bio information, so I will not repeat it at length. But let me just briefly identify and introduce them.
Patricia Kim is the Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She specializes in Chinese foreign policy, U.S.-China relations, and East Asian security issues. Her current research portfolio includes projects on the North Korean nuclear crisis and the future of the Korean Peninsula.
Gary Samore I have next on my list. I’m sorry. Let me just do it in the order I have it. Gary is the Executive Director for Research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. Gary, I should acknowledge, was a former colleague of mine in the Clinton administration, and he went on to hold a series of important senior leadership positions in the U.S. government.
Dr. Samore served for four years as President Obama’s White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction. As I said, he also had a senior role in the Clinton administration a Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Nonproliferation and Export Controls. And prior to that he worked at the State Department on proliferation matters.
And Sheila Smith is a Senior Fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She’s an expert on Japanese politics, foreign policy, and a frequent contributor to major-media outlets in the United States and in Asia. She’s the author of a volume called Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China, as well as a second volume on Japan’s new politics and the U.S.-Japanese alliance. Her current research focuses on how geostrategic change in Asia is shaping Japan’s strategic choices.
So you have a panel that covers all the bases in terms of this upcoming meeting.
The format of this session will be as follows. I will pose a series of questions to the panel for about 35 minutes, after which I will open it to all of you. And we’ll have a good conversation, I’m sure. So let’s get started by addressing the nature of the potential threat posed by North Korea as a result of its nuclear-weapons advances and its long-range missile testing.
So let me start with you, Gary. What—I’m going to sort of give you a series of questions that you can respond to all at once. So perhaps you could bring everyone up to date on the current status of North Korea’s efforts to develop a long-range missile capability that could deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States.
And while you’re talking about that, perhaps comment on this fairly recent test of the so-called Hwasong-15 missile, which was launched in a very high-arc trajectory but seemed to travel far enough to have intercontinental range. And the question is, is this a—do they—should we now assess that they do have an intercontinental capability? And, if so, what can we do about it? Can we defend against it?
SAMORE: Thanks. Thanks very much, Mitch. Nice to see everybody here. Good morning.
So the simple answer to the question is we really don’t know. I mean, North Korea has made tremendous progress in the last two years in both nuclear-weapons development and long-range missilery. They’ve tested a thermonuclear weapon, a hydrogen bomb. As Mitch mentioned, they’ve tested a long-range missile that seems to have sufficient capacity to carry a nuclear warhead to the United States.
What the North Koreans haven’t done yet is a test that combines all of the elements of an ICBM, including a warhead, a reentry vehicle, and a missile that is tested in a normal trajectory for a long-range missile. And until they do that, I think there’ll be some question about exactly what their capabilities are.
So the test moratorium that Kim Jong-un is currently observing, I think, is useful. I think until they have completed a testing program that demonstrates they have a reentry vehicle that will work at long range, we can say that there’s still some doubt about the reliability, accuracy, and survivability of their long-range systems.
Now, there’s a debate among the experts about how much North Korea can do without atmospheric testing. So, of course, they’re working away in their laboratories on reentry vehicles, and they can simulate, to some extent, the heat and vibration of, you know, reentry into the atmosphere. But even the North Koreans, in laboratory conditions, won’t know for sure whether the thing will work in real life.
And I think the important thing for all of you to remember is that a North Korean ability to attack the United States is not an on-off switch. It’s a question of, you know, what is the reliability. So if they had 10 missiles, maybe one would work, right. And as they get better, 10 out of 10 will work. So our objective here is at least to try to slow down their ability to perfect systems that they’ve, you know, clearly made dramatic progress on since 2016.
Just very briefly on the defense question, we have a very rudimentary national-defense system. I would hate to rely on that as the only way to protect ourselves against North Korea, because our system has never—like the North Korean system, we’ve never tested or used our system in a real-life situation where we’re facing an enemy firing missiles at us.
On paper, the system has enough interceptors to work against a country like North Korea that would only have a handful of ICBMs. But if you’re dealing with nuclear weapons and it’s only 99 percent effective, that’s not very satisfactory for the people who live in the city who get attacked with a nuclear weapon.
So we should think of our defense as not just missile defense, but also, I think, our ability to deter North Korea. And, of course, we’re much more powerful than North Korea in every way you can measure power. And I think the combination of defense and deterrence gives us some confidence that we can prevent North Korea from using nuclear weapons against us.
WALLERSTEIN: Thanks, Gary. Just one corollary question, if I may. Up until now, the North Korean missile capability has been liquid-fueled—
WALLERSTEIN: —missiles. But we know they’ve been working on solid-fueled missiles and also looking at new ways of launching; I mean, road-mobile and also SLBM, submarine-launched missiles. How much does that change the calculus as they move in that direction?
SAMORE: You know, the more and more the North Koreans advance into solid fuel, the more difficult it becomes for us to intercept or to attack those missiles when they’re on the ground, because the advantage of solid fuel is that it’s much more mobile and you can move it around the country, and there’s much shorter time between decision to launch. I mean, the reason why all the big countries have moved to solid-fuel systems is because they’re more effective militarily.
So right now the North Korean long-range capability is all liquid-fueled, based on old Soviet designs. And I think they’re probably still some years away from having submarine-launched or road-mobile solid-fuel systems. So for the time being, I think the threat is really liquid-fueled. The long-range threat is really liquid-fueled systems.
Patricia, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un are meeting one week from today, on April 27th, in the Truce Village at Panmunjom. What should we expect from the North-South summit? Do the South Korean interests regarding an agreement on nuclear and missile issues differ to any significant degree from those of the United States and Japan? And how does South Korea deal in its calculus with the fact that if the summit were to fail and there were to be further testing, they would bear the brunt of any kind of kinetic response?
KIM: Let me start by saying thank you for having me on this panel. It’s great to be here with Sheila and Gary and to see some old friends in the audience.
So for South Korea, South Korea sees its upcoming summit with Kim Jong-un as a means to set the direction for the Kim-Trump meeting, which is the really important one. It has three main items on its agenda. The first one is inter-Korean reconciliation, working towards a peace agreement, and finally, denuclearization.
So the big item in the news these days is that the two Koreas are going to talk about ending the Korean—formally ending the Korean War when they meet next week, since basically the Korean War has been under an armistice or has stopped with an armistice that was supposed to be a temporary ceasefire but was actually in place for the last 65 years.
Now, the interesting bit is that South Korea is actually not a signatory to this armistice. It was actually signed between China, North Korea, and the United States. And the reason why South Korea didn’t sign back then is because Rhee Syng-man, who was the president at the time, wanted to continue the war. He wanted to sort of consolidate the entire peninsula under his control, as Kim Il-sung also wanted to do. So that’s why he didn’t sign.
And then we’ve come to 2018. And so any final peace treaty between the parties will have to include everyone, including China and the United States. But my sense is that the two sides are probably going to release some sort of, you know, expression of intent to sign a peace treaty or to work towards one. And, you know, the rumors are that the two sides are talking about getting rid of the guard port—guard posts in the DMZ and sort of taking out military assets, so to make it really a demilitarized zone.
And my sense is that this is an initial confidence-building measure that Moon is pursuing. And if it goes well, he’s going to do more and more to try to facilitate reconciliation and to incrementally get towards reunification.
And the third agenda item, which is denuclearization, obviously is one that South Korea has the least say over. And the two sides will probably release some sort of broad statement that, you know, they agree to work towards denuclearization. And I think it’ll be worth paying attention to what Kim Jong-un says that he’s willing—or what he wants for denuclearization.
So he’s been very vague so far. He’s said, oh, you know, if you give us a security guarantee, then we have no reason not to give up our nukes. But he hasn’t specified what exactly this means. So I think it’s worth watching what he’ll say when he meets with Moon. And I think this will give us clues to whether there’s a potential for some sort of bargain to be struck between Trump and Kim when we come to end of May, early June.
And according to South Korea, you know, North Korea has been—is—has expressed its willingness to have U.S. troops stay in the peninsula. So this is an interesting development. But I’m sure that Pyongyang will ask for some sort of adjustments in the U.S. presence, in military exercises and so on. So we’ll have to watch and see what they say. And for sure, North Korea will be asking for sanctions relief and economic rewards. So this could become a point of difference between the United States and North Korea.
And, you know, South Korea is going to be hard-pressed not to accept these demands. And this goes to your question of whether South Korea’s interests differ from the United States or Japan. I mean, if you put yourself in South Korea’s shoes, by virtue of its location it is the most vulnerable state in all this. And it’s willing to do as much as it can or everything it can to make diplomacy succeed and to accommodate North Korea’s demands.
And this is what Moon has been doing since actually he started, since the start of his administration and the Olympics. He really bent over backwards to accommodate North Korea during the Olympics. And this raised a lot of eyebrows here in Washington as well as in Seoul. But he put a lot at risk because he thought, you know, maybe this will create an opening. So far it has. But I think we’ll have to see how the other summits go to see whether the gamble paid off.
SAMORE: Yeah, I just wanted to clarify one thing. For years talks to conclude a peace treaty to end the Korean War have gotten nowhere, because North Korea refused to accept South Korea as a signatory to the peace treaty, because, as—you know, because, just as Patricia said, the South did not sign the armistice.
My South Korean friends tell me that North Korea has now changed their position and they’re willing to accept South Korea as a signatory to a peace treaty. If that’s true, it’s a major change in North Korea’s position. And I think it helps to explain why there’s so much optimism and enthusiasm in South Korea now, that it might actually be possible to have a formal treaty to end—you know, to end the Korea war after 65 years.
WALLERSTEIN: Interesting point.
Just as, again, a follow-up, your point about the symbolic aspect of taking down guard posts at the DMZ, do you see any prospect for a further confidence-building measure where the forces would be pulled back away from the border? North Korea has about a million soldiers near the border.
KIM: So I haven’t heard anything about, you know, that sort of measure yet. I’m assuming that this guard-post move will be sort of be—
WALLERSTEIN: First step.
KIM: —the first step, and then see where it goes. And I’m sure Moon wants to do more.
KIM: But, you know, that’ll have to go well first.
WALLERSTEIN: Great. Thank you.
Sheila, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just finished a bilateral summit meeting with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Could you bring us up to date on the key elements of their discussions and whether you assess that Japanese equities regarding the upcoming Trump-Kim summit were assessed, were addressed successfully? And also could you comment on whether the Japanese could accept an agreement that did not include a specific element dealing with medium-range missiles—
SMITH: Great. Thank you.
WALLERSTEIN: —which is a threat to them?
SMITH: And like my colleagues here, I’m delighted to be with you today on the panel. A number of our research associates in the Washington office said to say hello to their advisers in the room. So if I approach you after this panel, you’ll know what I’m up to.
You know, the Japanese equities in this have largely been—up until now have largely been to watch as both Koreas try to discuss the question of a nuclearized Korean Peninsula or to watch the American president and subsequent administrations try to deal with the question of Kim Jong-il’s nuclearization ambitions.
The Japanese today, though, feel that North Korea is a direct security threat. They see the development of the missile capabilities of the North as changing their calculus in terms of their own safety and security. So there’s several layers of the Japanese equities that are probably important to put out here.
Of course the Japanese worry about a nuclear North Korea, absolutely. And they worry about the long-term impact of decoupling the U.S.-Japan alliance, the U.S.-ROK alliance, from the American strategic protection, the nuclear umbrella. So that’s a long-range, large question for Japan.
But the more immediate question for them is really this missile problem. And there’s a lot of missiles with the same technological capabilities that Gary was talking about—solid fuel, mobile, that are shorter range. There’s a whole bunch of them that last year Kim Jong-un aimed in the direction of Japan that fell short, that fell into the EEZ, that the Japanese were very worried about.
They have invested with us in ballistic-missile defenses that, again, like Gary—as Gary pointed out, are OK if it’s one or two large missiles that you can identify and predict are coming in your direction. But should there be a larger context of conflict in which many missiles may be aimed at Japan, these systems are really inadequate to protect the Japanese.
Many of you know that the Japanese constitution has been interpreted to prevent the Japanese from acquiring offensive-strike capability. But you should be aware that today that is no longer the way the Japanese see their constitution. They also see the situation deteriorating sufficiently to consider with us developing a conventional-strike capability that would put a little bit more bite into their deterrence, much as—as Gary pointed out, we would want to have that kind of capability as well.
What happened in Mar-a-Lago was interesting. Mr. Abe has a little bit of political challenge at home. The Japanese have seen him as Mr. Trump’s best friend and have counted on that personal relationship. We can talk more about that if you’d like. But they have counted on that relationship really to make sure that the alliance is steady, as our rather mercurial president has moved on Asia policy in directions they can’t quite predict.
So the Abe-Trump relationship is one piece of Mr. Abe’s strength at home. So he really needed to come to Mar-a-Lago and he needed President Trump to reassure him that he would be consulted on the process, should there be a Trump-Kim summit; that he’ll continue to be an important piece of the consultative mechanism that has largely been a trilateral conversation between South Korea, Japan, and the United States, the alliances in Northeast Asia.
But he had some very specific asks as well. And you heard the president use complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. He didn’t put all of those words together in one sentence. But CVID is the acronym, right, of that—of the nonproliferation world. He used those words, and I think he used them specifically to reassure Japan that complete denuclearization is really what President Trump was aiming for.
The prime minister also made reference to the Pyongyang Declaration, which is an agreement that former Prime Minister Koizumi made with Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father, back in 2002 when he went to Pyongyang. And that too included a missile moratorium. So, again, this is going to be a very important piece for the Japanese.
And then, finally, there is the question of the Japanese citizens that were abducted by the North Korean regime, largely in the 1970s. And the whereabouts of these Japanese are not yet confirmed by the North Korean regime. So that too is a very important political—domestic political issue in Japan.
WALLERSTEIN: Great. Thank you.
Patricia, back to you. Kim Jong-un recently made an unannounced visit to Beijing, his first trip out of the country since becoming head of state. What are the likely implications of that bilateral consultation for the upcoming Trump-Kim meeting, if it happens, particularly given that it is widely acknowledged that China is the key player in terms of keeping the pressure on the North to be forthcoming?
Do you assess that the Chinese are going to be willing to keep the economic pressure on, the sanctions, enforcing sanctions? Or do you think that some sort of deal has already been cut there?
KIM: Well, let me start by saying that Kim’s visit to Beijing was a very smart move on both his and Xi Jinping’s part. It was intentionally timed to come before Kim would meet with his—with Trump and Moon. And it strengthened both China and North Korea’s hands.
So for China, it showed the world that Beijing would not be left out of any negotiations in its neighborhood and that it would play a central role. And it also sent the message that despite the fact that the Sino-North Korean alliance has been on shaky ground in recent years, that it’s still—it’s still alive and that the two sides still find value in coordinating their actions when they’re dealing with the United States.
For North Korea, it also strengthened Kim’s hands, because Xi—or Kim got Xi to reiterate publicly together next to him that China opposes any military solution to the nuclear crisis. I mean, this is great for Kim. And I think one immediate consequence of this reset between China and North Korea is that it’ll be harder to sustain at least the economic portion of the maximum-pressure campaign.
So China has only been willing to go along at the rate it has with the sanctions campaign in the last year because, you know, it felt that North Korea’s provocative behavior was undermining its interest in stability. And so it was better to go along with the sanctions than to face war on its doorstep.
But now that North Korea has reached out to China and said, oh, you know, we’re willing to talk, I think China will probably be looking for a time to, you know, push for relaxing sanctions. And we got a preview of this when Kim Jong-un actually said, you know, when he went to Beijing, hey, look, I think South Korea and the United States should be reciprocating, you know, my moves by showing good will, which—you know, which means sanctions relaxation.
And I think another consequence is that Kim Jong-un is going to feel more empowered to push for his own timeline or idea of denuclearization now that he knows that China has his back. So in that sense it strengthened its hands.
But I do want to note that Kim’s visit to Beijing, you know, hasn’t completely restored China-North Korea relations, and it doesn’t mean that the two sides are, you know, best friends now or again. And, in fact, it’s important to understand that the suspicion between these two countries go back many, many decades, to the founding, actually, of the countries, even though they fought side by side in the Korean War, with North Korea bristling often at what it feels like is Chinese overreach into its own internal politics, and Beijing’s frustration that North Korea, which it sees as a junior partner, is willing to defy many of Beijing’s preferences.
And it’s also no secret that Xi Jinping just personally hates Kim Jong-un. (Laughter.) So, you know, that’s not a relationship that’s going to get repaired overnight just because they had one summit. But, you know, Xi was very smart to welcome Kim Jong-un with open arms. And now that he’s—Kim Jong-un has paused his testing and he’s saying the right things—so he said most recently, when the—so China just sent a delegation of performers to Pyongyang, and Kim Jong-un said, you know, he was so pleased to see them and that he’d be—he wanted to follow the Chinese model of economic development.
This is the Chinese dream for North Korea. For, you know, many years they want North Korea to become a mini-China. And he’s saying these right things. So it’s very smart on his part. But it’s a complex relationship. And I think, you know, that both sides will be working together when there’s—when their interests match, when dealing with the United States and South Korea. But they’re also very wary of each other as well.
WALLERSTEIN: Gary, back to you. You know, perhaps as well as anyone from past experience with the agreed framework in the 1990s and other attempted negotiations with the North Koreans, that they are very tough and clever negotiators and that they often even demand concessions simply to come to the table. I don’t know if that’s the case in this—in the current run-up to this summit, but it’s certainly possible.
On occasion, the DPRK has engaged in questionable interpretations of things they’ve even agreed to. And in at least one case, we know that they cheated outright in their covert pursuit of a second nuclear-materials line. The agreed framework had focused on plutonium enrichment—plutonium production. But they were secretly pursuing an HEU enrichment line.
Even under the most optimistic scenario regarding the terms of any new agreement, is there any reason to believe that the North will behave differently this time? And are there technological safeguards and inspection regimes, perhaps similar to the ones put in place for the JCPOA agreement with Iran, that should be part of this agreement?
SAMORE: So it’s a really good question. Up to now, the North Koreans have only allowed international inspection at their one declared nuclear facility called the Yongbyon Nuclear Center. And they’ve allowed inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor that facility. They’re not doing it now, but in the past they’ve gone there to verify that those nuclear facilities have been shut down.
In fact, the North Koreans deny that they have any nuclear facilities outside of the Yongbyon center, which nobody believes. I mean, everybody believes that they must have substantial undeclared nuclear facilities producing material for nuclear weapons. And, of course, nobody’s ever gotten access to any of North Korea’s missile-production facilities.
So until that changes, I think all the high-minded statements about denuclearization are meaningless. And the question will be, if we get into a negotiation with North Korea about interim measures to limit and delay their nuclear program, are they willing to agree to the kind of international inspection that the Iranians, for example, have agreed to in the JCPOA, the deal between Iran and the six parties?
I’m skeptical. But nonetheless, I think there is an argument that Kim Jong-un may feel he has enough nuclear weapons now, after more than 25 years of production, so that he can afford to accept a real freeze, a real cap, on further production of nuclear weapons. And if the offer is sweetened with sanctions relief and other economic goodies, it’s at least possible that he may be willing, for the first time, to accept a nationwide verification system.
And I think that’s what we’ll be testing in this negotiation. I personally doubt it. As Mitch said, from my own experience, I find that quite, you know, unlikely. But things change, and Jim Jong-un is a new leader, not his father or his grandfather. And the North Koreans may have reached a point where they’re willing to accept a real cap on their program as a first step toward denuclearization.
Let me ask the three of you now to become prognosticators. Clearly developments associated with the run-up to a summit meeting are accelerating. We learned only in the last two days that CIA Director Mike Pompeo made a secret unannounced trip to—I guess it’s by definition secret if it’s not announced—(laughter)—to North Korea over Easter weekend and met directly with Kim Jong-un.
Nothing is for certain, but it seems safe to assume that the meeting will not take place unless there is at least some prospect for an agreement in principle, even if, as has already been suggested by our panelists, the details will need to be negotiated afterwards. And, of course, that process could go on for quite some time.
Of course, there is the real possibility—indeed, the likelihood, you might say—that the major areas of disagreement could be deemed insurmountable, in which case the summit either could collapse or it might not be held at all. But, in fact, President Trump has already stated that he would not be reluctant to depart early if the discussion was not fruitful.
So I’m asking you, all three of you, to read the tea leaves. Do you find reason for optimism that the summit will take place? And if you do, do you think sufficient progress will be made so that near-term military action or even further enhanced economic sanctions will be unnecessary?
And Sheila, we’ll start with you.
SMITH: I—you know, for me, I feel a little optimistic about the conversation between Trump and Kim. What that conversation is going to yield, I am, again, on the side of skepticism. But I do think we have a moment of pause in the tension that we watched escalate throughout last year. And I think it’s very important to recognize that that was—that that’s a constructive thing, right. Whatever we see in the conversation ahead, we should be grateful for the pause. And I think, again, President Moon Jae-in’s Olympic diplomacy gave us a framework to allow that to happen.
What’s interesting to me—and I am not a North Korea expert—is what we’ve heard both of our experts here say is we don’t know what Kim Jong-un’s motivations are. We don’t know if he’s really serious about bringing some issues to the table that his father was not or that he hadn’t been in the beginning of the Obama administration. We’ll have to wait and see. But I think it’s important.
So I’m optimistic in the sense that I think it’s a good place to be compared to where we were three or four months ago. So that’s one piece of the puzzle.
The larger second piece, I think, is kind of regional structure here. We are not just talking about North Korea in these talks, however they transpire. We’re really talking about the future of the regional security order in Northeast Asia. And the last time we tried to do this—and again, Gary’s the expert on this—is in the context of a six-party framework. And it was noteworthy to me that when Kim Jong-un went to Beijing, he referenced the six-party, which, of course, China hosted. The Japanese were very uncomfortable with that process.
But that’s a long time ago. That’s a decade or more ago, right. So trying to reapply that framework to today’s problem may reveal new vulnerabilities, I think, in the diplomatic task ahead. China and Japan are not at ease with each other in the region. That was not so explicitly obvious in the early 2000s. Japan now is much more aware of its own vulnerabilities, its strategic and military vulnerabilities. It will be very, very careful in any kind of acquiescence to either a slow denuclearization prospect or the lack of a freeze on the missile capabilities itself.
So you’ve got a Japan that’s a little bit on the cusp here of shifting gears militarily in the region, and it will need a lot more assurance from us. And obviously, in the trilateral with South Korea, it’ll need a lot more assurance that the Moon Jae-in regime is not willing to sacrifice regional stability for a North-South compromise.
So there’s a lot of variables here under the surface that could emerge that we’re not talking about yet because we don’t know the contours of the negotiation but we should be alert to.
WALLERSTEIN: Thank you.
KIM: So I’ll start by saying that one development that makes me at least, you know, cautiously optimistic is the fact that Pompeo went to North Korea. He met with Kim Jong-un. And whatever exchange they had, the Trump administration was, you know, happy enough with it to continue planning for the talks.
But having said that, I think the biggest obstacle to success, you know, even if Trump and Kim do meet in June or May, is that the two sides probably have very different roadmaps in mind to denuclearization. You know, the White House wants North Korea to CVID—you know, completely, verifiably, and irreversibly get rid of its nuclear weapons within a very limited timeframe. You know, I’ve heard six months to two years, or something very limited. And it doesn’t intend to loosen economic sanctions until North Korea takes—is well on its way to this goal.
North Korea, on the other side, probably wants, you know, the sanctions relief, the economic goodies, much sooner than later. And it’s also unclear, like Sheila said and as Gary has said, you know, what are North Korea’s true intentions in this flurry of diplomatic outreach? You know, is Kim just trying to stall and, you know, buy time to work on his program? Or is he at a place where he’s comfortable at capping? Or does he really intend to take his country in a new direction and, you know, work on economic development, like he has said?
So we don’t know. You know, and would he be comfortable enough to do that if he were to get security guarantees? We don’t know that. My sense is that North Korea wants some of all of this. It probably will be cheating, but it also is looking for an opportunity to develop economically and to maybe integrate itself a little bit more into the region. And I think the goal for us here is to sort of carefully negotiate with North Korea and slowly build confidence and trust to the point where Kim feels maybe comfortable to start giving away his nuclear weapons.
Obviously, this is something that many talented diplomats, including Gary, have tried to do for decades. So, you know, we have to be very cautious about being optimistic. But perhaps there’s something there.
SAMORE: So at the staff level, the Trump administration is saying we’re not going to fall for North Korea’s tricks again. We’re going to insist; you know, just as Patricia said, North Korea has to make an unconditional commitment to give up all of its nuclear weapons within a short period of time—couple of months; maybe a couple of years. And only then will North Korea get the economic and political rewards.
Now, if we stick to that position, I think there won’t be a summit meeting, because Kim Jong-un is obviously not going to come to a meeting where he’s confronted with demands that he can’t accept. So the issue, in my mind, is whether the Trump administration—whether President Trump is persuaded to pursue a more realistic outcome, which would be a broad framework where North Korea commits to give up its nuclear weapons in the context of establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula and normalizing relations between the U.S. and North Korea, and then kick the issue to negotiators to try to work out the step-by-step, phased, verified approaches.
I don’t know whether Trump will be persuaded that that’s the only realistic outcome. I think Moon Jae-in and Xi Jinping will be trying very hard to persuade President Trump that if you want to have a successful meeting, that’s the only approach that’s realistic. I’m somewhat optimistic that, at the end of the day, Trump will accept that advice, in part because the alternatives for us are pretty bad.
If we try to maintain maximum pressure in the face of Kim Jong-un’s very effective charm offensive, where he’s wooing the Chinese and the South Koreans, and maybe the Russians and the Japanese, it’s going to be very hard for us, in an isolated position, to maintain even the existing sanctions, much less impose more sanctions. And as Mitch said at the beginning, if diplomacy fails, the military options are so unappealing that it’s not something I think the U.S.—that President Trump would like to face.
So I have some optimism, at the end of the day, President Trump will be willing to accept a general statement of principles or framework that would then kick the issue to negotiators, who may or may not be successful, but who could negotiate for 18 months or two years to try to come up with a realistic, you know, game plan for first limiting and then completely eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons, which I doubt we’ll see any time soon.
WALLERSTEIN: I can’t resist adding one corollary to this question, based on the last point you were making, Gary. If we assume that the outcome of the meeting at best will be an agreement in principle, but at the same time we know that the Trump administration is seriously contemplating the possibility of walking away from the JCPOA, and especially with Bolton now as—
WALLERSTEIN: —since he’s been publicly opposed to it, how do they square that circle? How do they walk away from the one agreement and still continue to negotiate on the other?
SAMORE: Yeah. It’s a good question. I mean, the conventional wisdom in Washington is that on May 12th, when Trump is required to extend the sanctions that the U.S. has against Iran for another 120 days, the conventional wisdom is that he’ll refuse to do that.
I’m not so sure about that. I think the Europeans and the Americans are negotiating on an agreement to, as Trump would be able to say, fix the flaws in President Obama’s JCPOA. And I think the smart thing for Trump to do is to accept a deal with the Europeans that addresses most of his demands. Or, failing that, he can kick the can down the road another 120 days and say I’m going to give my new secretary of state, Pompeo, a crack at negotiating something with the Europeans.
So, on balance, I’m more optimistic than most people that Trump will find a way to keep the JCPOA in place for the time being, in part because it would just be incredibly stupid for the U.S. to walk away from the deal without support from our allies. We’ll then be faced in a situation where we’ll be reimposing sanctions on Iran, which means imposing sanctions on European companies, at a time when we’re trying to work with Europe on a range of issues, including Syria, Russia, and so forth.
So I’m—I mean, maybe it’s a flaw in my thinking, but I often believe that common sense, that good thinking, will prevail in the end. And Trump sometimes disappoints in that respect. (Laughs.) But this time I think he may—he may see a way to do the right thing.
Well, I think we’ve reached the point where we want to open this to the audience. Let me remind everyone that we’d like you to state your name and your affiliation. I think there are staff around the room with microphones. I also ask that you keep your comments brief so that we can make the best use of our remaining time. And if you have a question, please indicate to whom on the panel you wish to direct it.
Q: Sarah Federman. I’m from the University of Baltimore.
WALLERSTEIN: Just get the microphone.
Q: Hi. Thank you. This was fascinating personally and professionally. Thank you. Much more fun than watching the news. (Laughter.)
I believe my question is for Patricia; but, please, if you know about this. (Part of this ?), of course, is very cautiously optimistic that North Korea is going to be rejoining the society of peoples in the general sense. And I’m thinking, if I’m Kim Jong-un, one of my biggest concerns might be that if I start to do that, that my people are going to actually have a revolution and I might lose a lot of face and a lot of control. And that would be my biggest concern.
Just speak to that. I mean, I know we’re just guessing what’s inside. But that’s what I would worry about. Thank you.
KIM: No, I think you’re absolutely right. I’ve heard someone say that economic rewards or opening North Korea is sort of like a poison carrot, where, you know, it could sort of benefit the regime right away and bring in cash and what not, but it’ll sort of—it’ll open up the country, which is something they don’t want to do.
Having said that, I think Kim is in a very interesting place. He’s promised his people that he’s going to do economic development. And North Korea actually looks very different from Kim’s father’s time. So if you look at pictures today, you know, there are fancy buildings. They apparently have, like, pizzerias and beer festivals. I mean, it’s—people are wearing, you know, sort of miniskirts and carrying—not iPhones, but, you know, cell phones, sophisticated cell phones. So it’s a different place.
And I think, you know, North Koreans are a lot more aware of what’s going on outside than ever before, you know, through just sort of watching Korean dramas and all that. So I think Kim’s in a hard place where he needs to sort of satisfy the demand, especially among the elites, for more—for a better quality of life. But at the same time, if he does that too much, then it opens up the country. So he’s in an interesting spot.
And I think that’s where China feels like it could serve as a model to North Korea, you know, with China sort of developed with a tight control, with the party’s tight control over the country. So maybe Kim sees a model in China. We don’t know. But I think, yeah—but you’re right. There is that contradiction there.
WALLERSTEIN: Yes, sir. Wait for the microphone, please.
Q: Thank you so much. My name is Yohannes Gedamu. I am from Georgia Gwinnett College, northern Atlanta. Thank you for speaking to us, first.
And the question is directed to Professor Gary Samore. And it’s been widely reported that President Obama told then-President-elect Trump North Korea will be his really toughest challenge. And one thing that came to my mind, when the South Korean officials announced this meeting, this summit with Kim Jong-un, was the way in which they announced it.
It seemed a little bit pompous. They praised President Trump’s leadership. And that was very much interesting for me, because I’m very much interested in studying sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle Eastern countries. And some of these countries, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia—of course, Israel is very much understandable—that they say United States leadership was very much absent.
And for me, at least when it comes to the classroom, I always try my best to give two different sides of the argument to my students so that they don’t call me a liberal or something like that, right. (Laughter.)
So what do you think President Trump did right when it comes to such developments, regardless of this, you know, summit being very much successful or not? We don’t know. But within a year and a half, I think it’s pretty fascinating that he was able to achieve something like this. So I would appreciate if you address that.
Q: Thank you.
SAMORE: Well, I think you’re right. I think President Trump has been very effective in building up economic pressure against North Korea in response to Kim Jong-un’s missile-testing campaign, which really infuriated the Chinese and moved the Chinese to support U.N. Security Council resolutions that imposed very broad sanctions on North Korea’s economy, including export of key commodities and import of key commodities.
So in that respect, I think the Trump administration exploited Kim Jong-un’s testing campaign to build up bargaining leverage. I mean, we’re going into this negotiation with some real chips we can play, which is the offer of sanctions relief in exchange for verified limits on North Korea’s nuclear and missile program.
I also think that President Trump’s threats to use military force also created openings, mainly because it terrified South Korean President Moon Jae-in. I mean, the South Koreans were really, really worried that if Kim Jong-un continued to conduct tests, the Trump administration would take some kind of military action that would trigger a broader conflict on the Korean Peninsula, which, of course, would mean, you know, tremendous suffering and loss in South Korea.
So I think Moon Jae-in had a very, very strong motivation to make an overture to Kim Jong-un, which he did in the context of the Winter peace Olympics. And that, of course, set off a whole chain of events that we’ve seen in this spring of summits.
Now, the big question mark, which nobody knows the answer to, is what motivated Kim Jong-un to accept the offer to send, you know, athletes to the peace Olympics and then offer a series of summit meetings. One argument—it’s probably a combination. One argument is that he has now reached the point technically, after two years of very intensive testing, so he can afford to take a break. In other words, he’s satisfied with the technical capabilities he’s achieved. And for him, pausing in the testing program for a couple of years even, to see what kind of economic goodies he can get, really doesn’t cost him very much. He can always resume testing in the future.
The other argument is that Kim Jong-un was himself nervous about Trump’s threats to use military force, and so he had an incentive to pivot to a peace offensive. And he wanted to get some sanctions relief for his economy.
So we don’t know the answer to all of that. You know, what I say is the Trump administration has done a good job of building pressure. Now the question is whether they can use that pressure in a diplomatic campaign to get some real constraints on North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. And we don’t know the answer to that yet, of course.
WALLERSTEIN: Sheila, you had another comment?
SMITH: Just a footnote, because your question—you know, I was in Washington. I live in Washington. I’m at CFR in Washington. And the summer or the year of the election in 2016, lots of think tanks in Washington were focused on the North Korean issue. Precisely the reason that President Obama brought this up to President-elect Trump is everybody knew that there was a confrontation coming. There was a threshold of technological acquisition that the North Koreans were approaching.
Kim Jong-un had also been demonstrating his willingness to use violence against his own people—assassination of his half-brother, et cetera—so in ways that were a little bit more extreme than his father, for example; so all kinds of reasons to understand that, whoever was elected in 2016, they would face this conundrum. They would face this problem.
One of the things the Trump administration, I think, doesn’t get enough credit for—and again, this is be it the tweets and the language of our president, as Gary said, was deployed in a way we were uncomfortable—many people were uncomfortable with, including some of our allies, right. Terrified is one word. The Japanese were very uneasy about not quite understanding how the military instrument was being considered.
And very early in that first year of the Trump administration, the Japanese reminded the new government, our new government, that there was a memorandum of understanding attached to the bilateral security treaty, that meant the United States had to consult with Japan, prior consultation, on the use of military forces from Japanese territory.
So there are mechanisms that the allies began to use to say, hold on, let us understand a little bit better what your thinking is here. But on the large scale, from a little bit further back, the Trump administration understood very quickly—and you saw Secretary Mattis go out to the region very early. A day or two after he was confirmed, he went to Seoul and he went to Tokyo to make sure that our allies understood the importance of the alliances in our management of the North Korean issue; and again, coming off the campaign trail, where the president basically was saying, ah, Seoul and Tokyo can take care of themselves vis-à-vis the North, they reversed that very quickly to say the Trump administration does not believe our alliances are not important.
The second place where I think we don’t shine the light so boldly for the Trump administration is in the U.N. Security Council. And again, there—and I’d love to hear Patti and Gary’s comments on this—but I was very impressed by how forcefully they managed to push forward sanctions that were far broader and far tougher on the North than I think we’ve ever been able to see before.
So I think there are several layers of this that we don’t actually think about when we think about the Trump administration that it probably would be worthwhile pointing out to your students.
SAMORE: So just, I mean, very quickly, I think, you know, Sheila’s right that the Trump administration, other Cabinet officials, have tried to emphasize the importance of the alliance. But I hear that President Trump continues to believe that stationing U.S. forces in Korea and Japan is a waste of money, and he would be perfectly happy to bring them back home.
So I think there is some nervousness in Seoul that, as part of Trump’s bargaining with the North Koreans, he will be willing to agree to end the security alliance and withdraw U.S. forces from Korea, which is more than the Koreans want the U.S. to give. But if Trump thinks that we’re being taken advantage of and we’re wasting our money by keeping our troops out there, then he might very well, you know, go further than our allies would be comfortable in his dealings with Kim Jong-un.
WALLERSTEIN: Thanks. Presumably that point—that would be number one on Kim Jong-un’s hit parade, were we to withdraw the forces. It creates all sorts of new vulnerabilities, of course.
SAMORE: Yeah, although there’s a debate about that. I mean, some people think that the North Koreans have demanded that, but in reality they like having some American forces there because it constrains the South Koreans from attacking them.
KIM: And I would add to that. I mean, I think China would be the happiest—
SAMORE: Yes, China would be happy.
KIM: —if that happened.
KIM: You know, like I said, there’s this—you know, this tense relationship between North Korea and China, despite their alliance. So I think, in the grand scheme of things, North Korea wouldn’t mind having U.S. troops there as a balance against China as well.
WALLERSTEIN: In the back, yes. Wait for the microphone, please.
Q: Hi. I’m Katherine Barbieri. Is this on?
SMITH: It is. We can hear you.
Q: From the University of South Carolina. So I’m not an area expert in this. But you just raised the issue over what third parties might think about the issue, you know, about thinking about other security relations.
So what I was interested in, for Sheila, if you could talk about how much does Japan prefer that the belligerence of North Korea remain so that it can use that excuse to build up arms to balance China? So, in a sense, it has an interest in perpetuating the conflict and the missile attacks, because then it could say we need to change our constitution so that we can rearm and nuclearize.
SMITH: Thank you. It’s a great question. And it’s often written in the press that the North Korea threat is being used by Mr. Abe to remilitarize Japan. I just happen to have a book manuscript. (Laughter.) It’ll be out in the spring, if I can advertise. It’s called Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power. But it’s a book that really looks at this question of how, in the post-Cold War era, the Japanese have had to rethink this question of the utility of the military instrument, and not just for defense but also in their diplomacy.
The fact is it’s very hard for the Japanese to spend more money on their military. I mean, that’s the nuts and bolts, right, is even if there is a great, you know—
Q: (Off mic.)
SMITH: Just fiscal, fiscal. You know, again, Mr. Abe has tried to push that defense budget to grow. It hasn’t grown in over a decade in real terms. So Japan—as China and, you know, you could argue North Korea, continue to, you know, develop more lethal arsenals, the Japanese have not invested, right. So there’s that sort of nuts-and-bolts issue.
But the domestic public opinion on the military in Japan has actually shifted. It doesn’t mean that they embrace conventional strike, that everybody feels that Japan should have a big military. But they are less hesitant about the need for strong defenses. And I think the consensus in Japan is actually growing that maybe that Japan ought to think more carefully about the kind of capabilities its neighbors have and whether or not Japan can really defend itself adequately.
So there’s a lot of question about the alliance. There’s a lot of question about whether or not President Trump is really going to defend Japan, as promised in the treaty. But on the domestic side, what you see the investments that I see coming—and again, this is a year where the Japanese will announce their next five-year military plan, their procurement plan—what I see coming is already they’ve begun to state that they’re going to invest in ballistic-missile defenses.
So this is the Aegis Ashore system. That may not be completely adequate, but it is a land-based system that will give them more depth. They will be able to tell when missiles are coming faster. They’ll be able to track them better. And, of course, this is an American technology. It’ll be—it’ll be integrated with us in the region as well. So ballistic-missile defenses are a big piece of what’s coming.
But they are investing now in striker capabilities. They have bought the F-35. This—they were putting missiles on that aircraft that will allow them to strike surface ships and other kinds of targets, should they need to. The Japanese are not investing in bombers, right, so they’re not taking their military capability offshore. But I think there is a debate about this conventional strike if negotiations move forward. And our two speakers are correct that we are going to move now into this more optimistic phase of negotiation with North Korea. There will be less support for that option in Japan.
Q: But can I just ask, I mean, I’m really seeing this as a reaction to China growing—(off mic).
SMITH: Sure. And the Chinese—I mean, the Chinese—
Q: They’re not doing it because of Korea. Korea is, as I said, the excuse.
SMITH: It’s not one or the other. So as you—I mean, again, this is just a background, but the Korean Peninsula has driven Japanese thinking about its defenses since the beginning of the Cold War, since—you can go back to the Korean War—as it has us, right. That was one of the flashpoints in Northeast Asia that the U.S. was very focused on, has been focused on all the way along, even as this nuclear ambition develops by the Kims.
So the Japanese—the most likely scenario in which force will be used in Northeast Asia, I think, is still the Korean Peninsula. That being said, I think your point is very—is a good one. China is looming large over the horizon for Japan. And as I said in my earlier remarks, that is now shifting Japanese thinking about what it may need to do in terms of managing the military balance in the region.
The Japanese military is moving towards the south; as you know, lots of islands. They’ve had the island dispute in the East China Sea. They see Chinese pressure, maritime pressure, on them in the south in ways they never did before. It used to be Okinawa was where American forces were largely stationed, and there was a minimal Japanese military presence in the south. That’s changed. They now have two fighter squadrons, right. They’re building up their capability to see what’s happening in the East China Sea, but nowhere near at the pace or scale of the Chinese.
So if you look at the two defense budgets, even as we—if we accept at face value the Chinese announcement of their defense budget, the Japanese are way below Chinese military spending. So they’re not able to keep up in that way. They may want to do more, but they’re not going to match, you know, dollar for dollar or yen for yuan—(laughs)—or military system for military system. They are getting outpaced by the Chinese pretty considerably.
WALLERSTEIN: Yes, over here.
Q: My name is Laszlo Molnar. I’m from the New Jersey City University.
I have a short comment and a question, both related to what I heard from Gary. My comment is that whatever agreement may come up, if we will have at all any of that, the crux of the matter and really the most important aspect of it will be whether North Korea will be able and will be ready to open up to an intrusive regime of inspections by the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency. So this is really going to show us something that they are serious about it.
The second one is a question. It goes back to 15 years ago. In January 2003, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT.
Q: And I am addressing this question in a different capacity. I was the one who was chairing the Preparatory Committee meeting of the NPT review process in 2003, just three months later, and I had to figure out what to do with those problems, like the withdrawal and the Iranian case.
And as far as the withdrawal is concerned, the member states of the NPT were divided half and half. Half of them said that basically this is a sovereign right of North Korea; we have to let them go. The other half said that, no, it’s not allowed because they have to comply with certain rules according to Article X of the NPT.
So basically, in order to be able to start with the process and do the review process itself, I had to figure out something, which was a trick, to sweep the problem under the rug. And basically, we could manage that and we could proceed, but we did not decide on the status of North Korea then. And then, later on, there was no decision passed on that either.
So my question is, this was 15 years ago, but as far as I know, the situation is still not settled in a clear-cut manner, which is an enormously difficult issue since it set a precedent at that time. We are still facing it. And, you know, if others follow suit, what could happen to the regime itself?
SAMORE: So, you know, first of all, I think you’re absolutely right that whether North Korea is now willing to agree to a real inspection regime will be a key test of whether they’re serious about even limiting their nuclear program, much less giving it up.
On the NPT question, it continues to be unresolved. I’m sure, in any broad statement of principles, the North Koreans will promise to return to the NPT at the end of the day. Whether they do so or not, of course, is something that we probably won’t know for many, many years.
I think the good news is that, for the time being, I don’t see many other countries that are likely to follow the North Korean model and to withdraw from the NPT. I think, in the long term, there’s a concern about both South Korea and Japan. I don’t think there’s an immediate risk.
But certainly in South Korea there are quite a few conservatives who’ve argued that the only way South Korea could really be sure of protecting itself against North Korea’s nuclear weapons is to have their own nuclear weapons. And many, you know, sort of ordinary people in South Korea, when you take a poll, they’ll say, well, of course we should have nuclear weapons. I think that’s less true in Japan, where there’s still a very strong normative antinuclear argument.
So, you know, to me, if we let the alliance system that we have in East Asia begin to erode, if there are questions about the U.S. commitment, which frankly I think President Trump has probably made worse, I think that could create over time a greater likelihood that South Korea and then eventually Japan will decide to leave the NPT and build nuclear weapons. But I don’t think it’s a near-term risk. I think it’s manageable for the time being.
WALLERSTEIN: A question in the back. Yes, sir.
Q: Thank you. Craig Miller from Penn College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
My question is for Patricia. I’m just wondering if you could speak to how you think China views the potential for reunification.
KIM: Yes, that’s a very interesting question, and not 100 percent clear. So China—in the past, South Koreans have tried very hard to try to push China to support reunification. And that was part of Park Geun-hye—the president who was just impeached—that was part of her initiative to reach out to China and to try to get them, you know, to listen to South Korea’s plan for reunification. And China had always said, no, we don’t talk about allies, you know, when they’re not here. We don’t—but more and more, you know, since North Korea has been sort of engaging in provocative behavior, China has signaled that it’s willing to live with a reunified Korean Peninsula. It hasn’t said in detail.
But what was very notable is that the U.S. ambassador—so the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, recently said in an interview that China, you know, supports Korean reunification. And when he was asked, well, is it OK if a reunified Korean Peninsula remains a U.S. ally, he said, oh, well, that’s up to the Koreans to decide. As long as it’s reasonable, we’re fine with it.
I mean, I don’t know how—you know, if this were to actually happen, I don’t know how China would react. But it’s interesting to see how much, you know, Chinese thinking vis-à-vis North Korea and sort of their traditional friendship has changed over the years. But again, because of this reset between the two sides and because North Korea is going on its charm offensive, we don’t know if it’s going to roll back these sort of developments in China. But it’s an interesting problem to watch, I think.
WALLERSTEIN: Yes, right here with the microphone.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much. Todd Robinson from the Air Command and Staff College.
Shortly after your remarks began this morning, President Trump tweeted out that the upcoming negotiations would now include chemical and biological-weapons production capability. So I’m wondering if that might lessen your cautious optimism, considering now we have another set of inspection regimes that’ll have to be put in place.
SAMORE: So, you know, the North Koreans are happy to agree to anything, right. (Laughter.) So the North Koreans will say, yes, we’ll get rid of our chemical and biological weapons when we don’t need them anymore—when there’s peace on the Korean Peninsula, when the U.S. doesn’t pose a threat, when we’ve received economic assistance and sanctions relief. So that just adds another, you know, detail to be negotiated by the inspectors.
But I will say that, compared to the nuclear challenge of verifying nuclear declarations, verifying chemical and biological declarations and production facilities is much, much more difficult, because it involves smaller facilities, easier to hide, dual-use facilities that are used to produce, you know, pesticides. Or antibiotics can also be used to produce chemical and biological weapons.
So I don’t think it matters very much whether you add that to the list of things to be negotiated. You know, for me, even getting an agreement on the nuclear is foreboding enough. But to get any of those other things makes it even more difficult.
WALLERSTEIN: Worth noting that North Korea has a long history of tunneling—
WALLERSTEIN: —so lots and lots of things already underground.
Patricia—I mean, Sheila.
SMITH: I’ll go after you.
KIM: You know, I would add that this obviously raises the bar at the negotiations. But I think, personally, this is something I’ve been arguing for. You know, I think it’s important that we seek a comprehensive deal with North Korea so that we don’t just focus on the nukes but we look at chemical weapons, you know, cyber activities, restraining conventional military capabilities as well.
I think all of this has to be on the table, because if it’s not, even if, in the most optimistic case, we were able to strike some sort of deal on its nuclear weapons, we’re going to walk away and be disappointed at some point when North Korea reverts back to, you know, shelling South Korean islands or, you know, shooting down their submarines, or whatever, you know, or engaging in aggressive cyber activities. We’re going to end up in sort of an Iran-deal situation where, you know, everyone’s sort of disappointed and disillusioned.
So I think ultimately, if we are trying to aim for some sort of real resolution of the conflict on the peninsula, we have to have a comprehensive agreement. But obviously this raises the bar for negotiations. And it also raises questions. You know, how serious is North Korea about restraining these other areas?
SMITH: It doesn’t surprise me that he tweeted it today. I—the Japanese have been talking to the Trump administration about other weapons of mass destruction in addition to the nuclear for some time now. And Japan—those of you may remember, in 1995 Japan had a domestic terrorism attack on its subway system with sarin gas. It was ostensibly by a domestic religious cult, who then later on had proven ties with contacts in the Russian Far East, and potentially North Korean engagement back then.
So the Japanese are very worried themselves about weapons of mass destruction in domestic terror. The Olympics are coming in 2020. But the prime minister in the Japanese Diet, in the Japanese legislature, last April raised this question of chemical and biological arsenals on the part of North Korea, again, back to the missile threat, that these could be delivered just as easily as a nuclear weapon, and that we should be addressing weapons of mass destruction more broadly.
WALLERSTEIN: I think there’s a question right here.
Q: Hi. I’m Mai’a Cross from Northeastern University.
There’s a tendency, I think, to assume that Kim Jong-un is a rational actor, including, to some degree, on this panel. And I’m just wondering, is there any role for emotion, psychology, the fact that he’s been socialized in this kind of family authoritarian dynasty, that could affect, you know, some of the outcomes in upcoming diplomacy? Or is it correct to assume that he’s rational in the international-relates sense? He’s materially self-interested and able to calculate, more or less, perfectly what is the best outcome he can get from all of this? Thank you.
WALLERSTEIN: Who wants to take that one on?
SAMORE: Well, let me start. I mean, I think that he has played his cards extremely well. And I think, as I’ve followed his career since he took over in 2011, I think he’s really improved his performance. In the very beginning he did a couple of things that were, I thought, very self-destructive. For example, he reached an agreement, the so-called Leap Day Deal, with the Obama administration, which was a very modest first step that limited North Korean nuclear and missile activities in exchange for some food assistance.
But then Kim Jong-un violated the agreement within a matter of weeks. And I thought that was a very bizarre way to behave. But I think, since then, as he’s consolidated his position and killed off, you know, his relatives who posed a threat to him—(laughter)—I think he’s behaving more and more like a rational actor. (Laughter.) So—I know that sounds funny, but—
SMITH: You’re not recommending that course of action, I take it.
SAMORE: You know, when you’re secure in your position, it’s easier to—
WALLERSTEIN: Be rational.
SAMORE: —you know, to be rational. So, you know, my operating assumption is that we should, you know, treat him as though he were making rational decisions based on cost-benefit analysis and what he sees as national interest, which includes, by the way—and I think it’s very important—for him, you know, trying to revive the economy is a very, very important objective.
He’s established a strong military, at least in the nuclear, missile, and chem-bio field. His conventional forces are in horrible shape. I mean, the North Koreans are very weak compared to South Korea, except for their ability to fire artillery tubes at Seoul. And I think he really does want to improve the economy. And that means sanctions relief. It means economic assistance. And that means accepting at least some pause or some limits on his weapons-of-mass-destruction program.
So that’s where I think I have a little bit of optimism that we may be entering a period where, if nothing else, tensions will be reduced and the risk of war will be lowered.
KIM: I would just briefly add, you know, Kim really has done a good job in these past few months of sort of projecting himself as this normal, reasonable leader. You know, he’s bringing his wife along to his trips to Beijing. And there’s, like, speculation whether he’ll bring her to South Korea. Apparently when he met with the South Koreans, he was willing to crack jokes at his expense. You know, so he’s trying to project himself as a normal guy and to sort of, you know, push North Korea as a normal country.
But it’s hard to say. I mean, you know, we have so little information about North Korea, whether he’s really rational or not at the core. It’s hard to say.
WALLERSTEIN: We may have time for one more; in the back.
Q: Hi. I’m Neal Englehart from Bowling Green State University.
First, I just want to respond to the last question. So in 2011, shortly before Kim Jong-il died, I actually traveled to North Korea. And on the way back to the airport, I asked my minder, when I go home, what do you want me to tell my students about North Korea? And he said tell them we are not crazy. (Laughter.) So I’m here to tell you all they’re not crazy. (Laughter.) And actually, I believe that they’re not crazy. I think they’ve behaved in a highly rational fashion for decades now with respect to this program.
The comment I have, though, is when I hear this talk about denuclearization, for me it seems highly unrealistic, because it doesn’t take into account the huge domestic benefits that Kim Jong-un gets from having viable nuclear weapons, right. It justifies the military-first policy, which has imposed a lot of suffering in the country. It builds up the pride of the military, which is in very bad shape, as was just mentioned.
And also it provides him with a range of threats and options if there was a domestic revolt—this sort of goes back to the first question—including threatening his neighbors if they don’t prop up the regime. And I just don’t see anything that could be offered to him in negotiations that would be better than that.
SAMORE: So you can tell from my comments I agree with you. (Laughter.) I don’t think we’re going to achieve denuclearization, at least not in any, you know, reasonable timeframe. What would happen in the long-term future, who can predict, right? None of us can know that far into the future.
I think the immediate objective is constraint, limits, delay. And I think that is achievable if we play our cards right, right. I think we have in our hands some very effective coercive instruments, which I have—you know, as I’ve said, I think Kim Jong-un is genuinely interested in modernizing the economy, because it’s in his interest to do so, including strengthening his military forces. And so we can use the bargaining—I think we can use the bargaining leverage we have to at least get some limits. Maybe it won’t be more than a, you know, prolongation of the test moratorium, the current test moratorium. If we can keep that going for a couple of years, I think that’s an important achievement.
Whether we can go much beyond that, as you know, I’m skeptical, because it requires pretty intrusive verification. But I think it’s worth making an effort. And it’s better than the alternative, which is an unconstrained North Korean program and the U.S. looking at military options, which would be, in my mind, just horrendous.
WALLERSTEIN: Sheila, you get the last word.
SMITH: Just a little bit of parameters on the U.S. position here, coming especially from our allies. But I think it’s going to be very important for the United States not to acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear power.
SAMORE: I agree.
SMITH: And that’s—
SAMORE: I agree.
SMITH: You know, that sounds rhetorical to us, but it’s important that we don’t say, OK, that’s fine. You’ve got them. You’re a nuclear power. We’ll deter you.
And part of the extension of the rational-actor argument in this larger kind of deterrence space is we can deter other countries. Why can’t we deter North Korea, right? So you have a pretty healthy debate. And I’m sure in your classrooms, for those of you teaching security and international relations, you’ll also have a pretty healthy debate.
So these two questions, in fact, are pretty important questions to ask. Your students, I’m sure, will ask them. But in policy terms, it’ll be very important that we don’t acknowledge Kim Jong-un as having—as a legitimate nuclear power, however this conversation moves forward with denuclearization.
WALLERSTEIN: Well, regrettably, I have to call a halt to this very interesting discussion at this point in order to keep your workshop on schedule. Please join me in thanking our three panelists. (Applause.)
SMITH: Thank you.
SAMORE: Thanks, guys.
SMITH: Thank you very much.
SAMORE: Great job. Great job.
WALLERSTEIN: This concludes this session. And I’ve been asked to inform you that you are invited to a coffee break and to a resource-table session on the first floor of the Harold Pratt House.
Thank you all.