Our panelists discuss the future of the U.S. relationship with North Korea under the Biden administration, including the country’s nuclear capabilities and ambitions, and China’s role in the peninsula.
The Transition 2021 series examines the major issues confronting the administration in the foreign policy arena.
HILL: Let me welcome everybody to what should be a very interesting discussion about a subject that is probably not new to anybody. You know, in the last day we could see in Washington a few crocuses and daffodils poking their way up, and I would say another great hardy perennial of Washington is what to do about North Korea. So here we are in the beginning of the Biden administration, and I think the question is very much going to be on the agenda. Do we do something new? Do we do something old? Do we try to ignore it and hope it will go away? How do we handle North Korea? Joining me today is, I think, this very distinguished panel. You should all have their bios, but I think you'll see they bring a strength of different backgrounds and I think we'll have a very full discussion of this issue. I'm going to start with the question of the threat from North Korea, has it gotten less, has it gotten more? Is it something that we should be even more concerned about as we look at this, as we go through these early months of the early weeks of this new administration? So I'm going to ask Dr. Victor Cha, who's a dean at Georgetown, CSIS, maybe to outline the sort of North Korean threat as it is today and maybe suggest whether he thinks we should ignore it or deal with it, or worry about something else, such as the possibility of a North Korean effort to gain some attention. So Victor, let me ask you, how do you assess the threat as we sit here at the end of February?
CHA: Well thanks, Chris. First, let me say I'm very happy to be part of this panel at CFR and to share the zoom stage with Stephanie, Duyeon, and of course, Ambassador Hill who I worked with very closely on the Six Party talks—that seems like a long time ago now—but on the Six Party talks, as his deputy on the delegation. So in terms of where we are on the threat, I think it's fair to say that President Biden has inherited a North Korean threat that has expanded significantly from where it was four years ago. It's not as much on the front burner as it was for Trump in the sense that, at least not yet, North Korea has not agitated like it had done to both President Trump and President Obama at the start. But on the ground, even though there are currently no missile tests yet, or provocations of that nature on the ground, there's no denying that their capabilities have increased over the last four years.
Everybody's got a different estimate, but somewhere around twenty nuclear weapons, fissile material for scores more in terms of capability, significant advancements in terms of their long-range ballistic missile capability, both in terms of fuel, solid fuel capability, and mobile launch capabilities. And perhaps even more concerning is what they have outlined in their agenda going forward at the Workers Party Congress in January, in which the North Korean leader essentially outlined the ambition for North Korea to become a modern nuclear weapons force, including long range solid field ballistic missiles, sea launch ballistic missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, tactical nuclear weapons, the whole range, the full spectrum of a modern nuclear weapons state. As your question suggested, you know, this is not something I think that can be ignored, it's not going to go away. I think what we've seen over the past four years, indeed, over the past three decades is that ignoring it, it only gets worse—the situation only gets worse. But of course, the problem as you suggested, Chris, is that finding the right approach to deal with it is very difficult because so many things have been tried, you know, and even during the Trump administration, you have to give them credit for trying things that had never been tried before and yet, we still have not made real progress on denuclearizing North Korea.
HILL: Stephanie, you are currently a fellow at the Stimson Center and you're also working on a project called 38 North, which is affiliated with the Stimson Center, but I know you have a lot of experience on various security issues, including, I think, a very important perspective you had on the sanctions question—because sanctions is one of those things that you know, it's one of those bad ideas whose time seems always to be on the agenda so I wonder if you could make some comments. One of our mitigation—probably our main mitigation strategy with North Korea is to throw the book at them with sanctions and yet, sanctions have a way of being a sort of depreciating asset, and I think there's a real fair question as to whether they're working in North Korea. So I wonder if you could comment on how sanctions are going as a policy instrument.
KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: So thank you very much, Ambassador Hill. I mean, I think that in general our current approach to North Korea is in complete disarray, and as Victor has pointed out, we have a worrying situation in terms of the capabilities that North Korea has been able to develop. You know, I think that whether or not you think that the President Trump gamble made sense, the net effect has been that we've really given away our leverage. We've fractured the international sanctions regime, we've fractured, you know, the consensus, the sort of fragile P5 consensus that was underlying the international sanctions regime, and meanwhile North Korea continues to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. So with regard to sanctions, as you said, they definitely are a depreciating asset, they've really become more of an end in themselves, rather than a means to get us to a certain place.
There's a widening Gulf at the UN on everything from the content and strategic direction of sanctions to the mechanics of implementation. We have tensions reminiscent of the Cold War, essentially making that regime—I mean, essentially nullifying its effect. We've had no action by the Security Council, no new resolution since 2017, which is an eon in sanctions terms because one has to continue to have new resolutions. And we have—North Korea has new capabilities, particularly as a cyber actor, they've been able to steal upwards of $2 billion, which really makes some of the sanctions that are aimed at preventing North Korea's generation of foreign income moot. So yeah, I think that those who say that we can just slap more sanctions on North Korea indiscriminately have to look at what sanctions have gotten us so far. And then we need to look at what we need, right? If we need in order to push North Korea, I think it's logical to say that we need China and Russia on board with any kind of a sanctions regime, and do we think that we can get China on board at this point, given where Sino-U.S. relations stand?
HILL: Thank you very much. Duyeon, you're a fellow or an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for New American Security. I know that you've written extensively on the North Korean crisis, and in some of your articles you've addressed some of the diplomacy of it. And I think what Stephanie is alluding to, or more than alluding to, what she actually said is, it's tough to get the sanctions to hold if you have partners on the Security Council who really aren't interested in that kind of policy prescription. So we have a couple of them, we have Russia and China as permanent members there. Also, we're members of the Six Party talks and certainly, Victor and I remember, or have some of the scars from the various disagreements we had on how to move forward, but how would you assess the diplomacy? Under President Trump, it was about trying a sort of one-on-one effort. In the past, it was much more multilateral with the six parties, and earlier before that it was four parties, and so what would be your recommendation given that sanctions, such as they are, tend to need partners and tend not to be very successful when they're being pursued by just one country?
KIM: Thank you so much, Ambassador, and thank you CFR for inviting me to this to join this distinguished panel. You know, I think you raise the question of the century and how to move forward and I think it's going to be extremely challenging and tough for the Biden ministration on basically all fronts. For starters, we're in a situation where North Korea just has been refusing to return to the dialogue table ever since the end of the Hanoi summit, basically. And they've been refusing meaningful working level negotiations. And so the question really is, how do you bring them out to the table? And, tying this into what are the challenges that Stephanie has discussed, before the U.S. administration and partners and allies have imposed sanctions to try to bring North Korea back to the table, but right now it's difficult to impose more sanctions, or perhaps even enforce existing ones because of the geopolitical dynamics that Stephanie has raised with China and Russia, but also we've got a South Korean government here in Seoul, a progressive government that is also against more or enforcing existing sanctions. But at the same time, we're in a pandemic and so it's almost curious how we can actually impose more sanctions when North Korea has basically isolated themselves.
It's pretty clear through their actions and their words that they see the Coronavirus as the ultimate threat to their survival, more so than American nuclear weapons. And so since they have practically closed their border with China, practically ended all trade with China, and perhaps even their illicit smuggling and whatnot, I think the big question is really, what more sanctions can we place? I think some could argue that we could do more on, you know, sanctioning North Korea's cyber activities, the revenue that they've gained through cyber hacking and in cryptocurrency, I would defer to my cyber colleagues and friends, specialists, on how to do that technically, but you know, it's really a difficult terrain. And you also have a South Korean progressive government here in Seoul, that would like to resume a peace process much faster and sooner than trying to elicit any meaningful denuclearization measures from North Korea. And so I think alliance coordination or policy coordination between the U.S. and South Korea, as well as with Japan is going to be extremely tricky, especially in light of the difficulties between Tokyo and Seoul right now.
HILL: And, Victor, let me ask you, do you think...you know, the Trump administration really took a whack at this issue—I mean, they were kind of engaged on it first of all, with the idea that they were going to essentially obliterate North Korea, and then it turned into sort of smothering North Korea with a lot of goodwill at Singapore—and the question is, is there anything of the Trump administration policy to North Korea that this administration ought to take with it? Or is it one of those things that we should just try to forget about, have some therapy, and move on?
CHA: Well it's a great question, it's a difficult one to answer, Chris. I think that the idea of holding out the possibility of a leader-to-leader level exchange as a part of the negotiation is important. In the end, right, this place is run by one person, and so you got to talk to that person. You know, I remember, and you probably remember well, when we did the 2005, Six Party joint statement, an expert based agreement, but a written document in which North Korea committed in writing to denuclearization, we still got criticism from the press, because they said Kim Jong-un—at that time Kim Jong-il—his signature wasn't on the document, we didn't have his personal thumbs up on the document. And so any U.S. negotiation was going to be subject to that sort of criticism, giving it to North Korea. So that principle, I think, is something that can still be carried forward. And I don't think President Biden has ruled it out. He hasn't ruled it out, provided there's a real negotiation that takes place in advance, so I guess that's something.
The other thing is one hopes that from a North Korean perspective, there was something that was learned from having the opportunity to be with the U.S. president on the world stage. And that there's something, even though it didn't work out, and Kim Jong-un had to take that long train ride home from Hanoi empty handed still, I mean, having been the center of attention with the U.S. president in Singapore, in Hanoi, meeting with the heads of state in Vietnam and others, and Singapore, including the United States, that hopefully this meant something to the North Korean leader, and that this notion of being part of the international community has some benefits to it. And then also, hopefully—even though Donald Trump is definitely not Joe Biden, and Joe Biden is not Donald Trump—meeting with the American president face to face and seeing that even Donald Trump didn't have fangs and horns on his head, that might that might mean something, at least for the North Korean leadership. But of course, it's really difficult to say.
HILL: I mean, Stephanie, you've pointed out that the sanctions regimes are what they are, they really don't work in the long run so I guess my question on sanctions is, could they be kind of...could we look at small increments of sanctions relief, understanding that it won't be around for long, and try to use small increments of sanctions relief for small increments of denuclearization? I must say when the North Koreans showed up in Hanoi and talked about this dismantling Nyongbyon, we all know that Nyongbyon is not the total picture of their nuclear program, may not even be the largest element of their nuclear program, but still, it's a pretty big complex. And I thought it was worth more than the four- or five-hour meeting with translation that we had to discuss it, I thought it was kind of worth going through building by building, what would you do here? What would you do there? And then do something in return—albeit, it wouldn't be the whole sanctions regime, because I think the Trump administration was very proud of that sanctions regime that they helped put together in the UN—but at least try to get some kind of notion of give and take, so what do you think?
KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: I mean, I definitely agree that the point of sanctions is to be able to point to the government sanction, to say, these are the things you could do to get out of these, right? Otherwise, they're just an end in themselves. And we've seen with the former Myanmar government, when it was sanctioned, undoing those sanctions is very difficult and painful, just because of the U.S. system and how many redundant sanction systems we have. But absolutely, in an ideal scenario, with a whole negotiation strategy, with our alliances strengthened, and with a common language, at least with some of the partners like Russia and China that are close to the DPRK that would be something we could attempt.
Unfortunately, as it did during two previous U.S. presidencies, North Korea is likely to provoke this administration through some type of a test, whether it be nuclear or ballistic missile, and then this in turn drives administration policy in a tough direction. And like I said before, I mean, North Korea knows that sanctions are a wasting asset. If you just read the latest reports—there'll be a report from the panel of experts at the UN about to come out any one of these days—just have a look at them, at how much the loopholes are huge these days, right, many countries in Africa and other places are still a bit confused as to why there still are sanctions because they remember the Singapore and Hanoi summits, and they're not following these things. So we've really stressed our alliances, which are necessary when we're looking forward, and we've not been able to keep a coherent understanding with these important governments like Russia and China, who, by the way, have hosted a lot of the cyber actors that have come out in the recent Department of Justice action, which has targeted three individuals that have been leading these attacks. So, Ambassador, I agree in the ideal that that would be something that we could do, but there needs to be a sense that there's really something that North Korea is gaining from it.
HILL: Yeah. Well, clearly, I mean, the biggest sanction on them right now is their own experience with COVID. I mean, they're kind of skeptics on vaccines. And—
KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: But here's the problem is that with COVID we're seeing the kind of recent encephalitis of the argument that people have been making for decades that I've been trying to go against, which is that North Korea is on the verge of collapse and the problem is going to take care of itself, right? That might well be the case, but if anything, North Korea has demonstrated time and time again that they can absorb pain, they absorb punishment, and they keep on going. So we need to depart from a reasonable assumption that North Korea is going to continue to endure, but all of these sort of well, they're going to be finished with COVID, I really am not convinced by any of those arguments.
HILL: Let me ask Duyeon, maybe also ask Victor about this. You know, I don't know if there's an oddsmaker thing in Las Vegas on whether we might get a North Korean—some type of provocation, there's probably some sort of odds there. And if they're not doing it in Vegas, they're probably doing it at CSI.
KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: There's an octopus somewhere, right? (Laughs)
HILL: Yeah. So what do you think? What's the chance of us waking up tomorrow morning or some morning and finding out they've just tested a new long-range missile or put someone into outer space? Duyeon, let me ask you first and then see what Victor thinks.
KIM: Sure. I think North Korea always has—
HILL: Yeah, go ahead.
KIM: I think North Korea always has a military imperative to continue testing all their weapons because they need to perfect the technology. Now, I think the political timing of it might be a factor for North Korean decision making on when to test and there two factors, domestic and international. So one is right now, it seems pretty clear based on the statements that are coming out, and the reporting that's coming out in their domestic media as well, that they're really having a hard time economically. And so they're narrowly focused on internal affairs, for the time being. And so I think for now, they might lay low, but at the same time they do like to display a show of force in some way and try to extract concessions and attention. And so in that sense they—clearly I think it's just a matter of time that North Korea will continue testing again, but I would hope that they do not conduct any sort of tests, even a short range ballistic missile test, before the Biden administration forms its team, before the policy review is over. I think it would be a big mistake for them to do that before everyone is in place. I did want to very briefly, just touch upon a previous point that was made, I think, going forward when we talk about sanctions relief for what in return, I think a key principle that the Biden administration should stick to, and also North Korea, is proportionate bargaining. So I was glad that the Trump administration walked away from North Korea's offer to give Nyongbyon in exchange for the lifting of the five key UN Security Council sanctions that just was not a proportionate bargain. If they had offered Nyongbyon plus, for example, and a previously undisclosed uranium enrichment facility outside of Nyongbyon then perhaps I think we could have entertained a barter, like perhaps giving them a time-bound sanctions exemption on something like textiles, for example. So, I think really proportionate bargaining has to be a key principle moving forward for both sides in terms of the horse trades.
HILL: Yeah, but what we saw from the Trump administration, it was sort of all or nothing. And I guess my question is, was the Nyongbyon decommissioning worth something? I agree, not all the sectoral sanctions, but I mean, could we have come up with a price and say, this is this is what we'll pay for that. What do you think Stephanie?
KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: Absolutely. We just walked away without even putting forward any type of a counter proposal.
HILL: Victor, I mean, if the North Koreans engage in a provocation, they kind of get, as chess players would say, the tempo, they become...they start to kind of control what we're all going to worry about, we're reacting to them in that case. So wouldn't they want to see that happen rather than they having to react to us?
CHA: Sure. And I think the data suggests that, right? I mean, the empirical records suggest that they like to take advantage of that, you know, they did it less than three months after Obama took office, they did three weeks after Trump took office, they like to do that and set the tempo and have us reacting to them. And I think that's what everybody is concerned about, that we're clearly not outside the window, I mean, we've only been a month out so we're not outside the window when they could do something, although they've been quiet. On the previous point about Hanoi, I mean, to me, what's extraordinary about Hanoi is—and Chris, you know this very well—like you have your negotiating position going in, it meets up with the other side, clearly there's a gap there and that's when the real negotiation starts. And to the extent that it is restrained, it's because we always have to go back to Washington to get approval, right, to do things like this. But the thing about Hanoi was Washington was there, right? I mean, the President himself was there and so if he had been prepared for an actual negotiation, then you know, he could have made a counteroffer.
HILL: You mean cracked his briefing book or something?
CHA: Exactly—cracked his briefing book and not simply watched the video that John Bolton had made for him because he didn't want to read the briefing books. But the same on the North Korean side, if they had been prepared for a negotiation too then that might have been possible. And so that would have been the place...I mean, that was the whole point of having the leaders meet, right, it was like Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik, you have the leaders meet and try to have them figure this out and that was what was missing. The last thing I'll say on the whole question of the collapses and all this, I think the point with regard to North Korea and COVID is not the concern about collapse. To me, the real concern is…it has to do with the people of North Korea, whether it's because economic pressures from a sealed border forces more smuggling that then becomes a vector for virus transmission, and a complete pandemic inside the country, which the failed public health system cannot control. Or that the government starts to undertake, because of COVID and the sealed border, anti-market activities, that tries to take hard currency out of the hands of North Koreans who use the market and then they clamp down on the people when they resist that. So it's really the human cost is what I'm worried about with regard to the impact of COVID on the country. You know, and what we've seen/heard from Kim Jong-un's Workers Party address, I mean, that's exactly what Victor was talking about the concern...it sounds like Kim Jong-un has decided to make a u-turn and go back to centralization, rather than allowing some sort of quasi-market style activity, is happening.
HILL: How long did his economic minister last? It was about one month, I think something like that, he was hired in January and fired in February, so it's not an easy job, it's not unlike some baseball managers. Let me ask you, you know, Victor, during our time, we'd sit there with the...because we've gone like 28 minutes now, and we haven't mentioned the word China. And during our time on the six parties, I'd sit there and I'd have the Chinese head of their delegation (inaudible) across me, and I'd say, you know, you can solve this China, you can really take this on, and you can make a big difference. And Wu would take a drag or two on a cigarette, and would offer me one, actually, and then he would say, "Oh no, this is all up to the Americans, you can solve this." So in sort of one of the great sort of moments of diplomacy, I said well maybe the two of us can solve this working together. Well, a lot has happened since those days and one of the biggest thing that's happened is this perception, we can't say whether it's true or not, is that we cannot work with China on most things out there, including this thing. So I think I'd like to ask all three of you, maybe starting with Victor, do you think the Chinese are really still committed to the idea that they should be the only nuclear power in Asia? Or are they prepared to kind of let the North Korean string this one out forever?
CHA: So I'm concerned, it's more of the latter. Now, you know, perhaps that was the case before, and, I do think that during the Six-Party process, I mean, I think one of the successes of the Six-Party process was it did really make China a stakeholder on the situation and as you mentioned, in the example you just gave, I think, in a sense, they did take it seriously for a period of time there.
HILL: You mean they were a responsible stakeholder?
CHA: Yes, that they were trying to take on that role. But I think given all that has happened since then, and in particular the growth of the program, that probably most Chinese folks think that there's not…it's not realistic to think that we can get them to give it all up and the real, the real issue is maintaining stability on the peninsula, you know, avoiding collapse or avoiding conflict. But I still think China plays a role, I mean, they play a very important role tactically, because they still have...even though the borders closed, if that border ever opens up, they still do occupy ninety percent of North Korea's external trade and they can still have an influence in bringing North Korea back to the table. But as you just described, once we're back at the table, right, the conversation on the Chinese side moves from, we'll squeeze them a little bit to get them back to the table to now it's all in your hands, right, the Americans and that's what (inaudible) used to say, right? He used to say to you, "no, no, you have to do this. They want to talk to you, they don't want to talk to us, they don't want to talk to the South Koreans, they don't want to talk to the Japanese, they want to talk to you, so you have to meet with them bilaterally—in the context of Six-Party—you meet with them bilaterally, Chris, and you figure this out." And so they immediately buck pass to the United States once they get back to the table.
HILL: Yeah, I almost took up cigarette smoking as a result of that. Stephanie, you've seen the Chinese in action a lot, you've certainly seen them in action in terms of trying to forge agreements on how we're going to go forward with North Korea, do you share with you that it may be at this point a bridge too far?
KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: I mean, frankly, the way we've acted over the past few years, we've raised the value for China of a divided peninsula. Diplomatic outreach has allowed North Korea to bring China and Russia more on side and then has translated those relationships into strategic and economic benefits far beyond the usual countries that it was dealing with. So we have this Sino-U.S. trade war, Japan and South Korea is falling out, the stalled U.S.-DPRK diplomatic process with the failure of Hanoi, and the lack of clarity and coherence in U.S. policy, which has all been to China's advantage—China and Russia's advantage. And so they have become more apathetic about sanctions enforcement.
A lot of the measures, it's no surprise, they're targeted at China, let alone some countries in Southeast Asia left and right, you know, that sometimes were abetting activity and not cracking down on it so much. This is one of the reasons that the efficacy of sanctions has dropped and we've seen in the Security Council these days, I mean, China is playing really sort of a role that's antithetical to what the U.S. would need to move forward. I think that North Korea was not front and center in our mind, as we just kind of ruined our relationship with them.
HILL: Duyeon, you've certainly kept your ear to the ground on how the South Koreans regard the future of this process with North Korea. My sense is that there's kind of a real frustration among the South Koreans with the North Koreans, perhaps with the U.S. as well, as some of the aspects of our alliance with South Korea have kind of gone through the wringer. But certainly, there's got to be a sense among South Koreans that we really tried with the North Korean and we're not getting—we've haven't gotten much back. I mean could you describe where they are? And maybe, Victor, you want to jump in on this one as well.
KIM: Well, I guess it depends on which South Koreans we're talking about. If we're talking about the Moon government, I think they still have a lot more energy left in them, they really want to step on the gas and get summits going, get a peace process going within President Moon's term, which ends next May. And so he really wants to leave behind this legacy of being the peacemaker of the Korean Peninsula. I think a lot of people that are observers and experts would argue that that's perhaps quite unrealistic with just one year left.
If you talk to the broader South Korean public or others who are not in Moon's camp there's a lot of concern, both criticisms about their own government, but also concerns and criticism about the Trump administration for not having had a real strategy, not having done enough, not having pushed North Korea harder, and now there are concerns among the broader, I guess, policy community in South Korea, about the Biden administration. They, as you can imagine, they're listening and watching very closely to what President Biden and Secretary Blinken and other senior officials are saying, and already you're hearing some grumbles and mumbling about how they're concerned that the Biden administration may not be as serious and put North Korea on the backburner.
And just a final point on China, I echo everything that Victor said and most of what Stephanie said. The one thing I would add to that is that I think China clearly has leverage in terms of the power to dial-up and down the sanctions lever on North Korea, but I think they really—the Chinese really need to realize that the more North Korea's nuclear weapons program develops both qualitatively and quantitatively, it really it's not good news for China either. That the more they grow, that China will also lose leverage and these weapons could actually be pointed at China as well, and so I think that's a realization that they need to make if they have not already.
HILL: We need to convey that to the Chinese?
HILL: In a meeting or something?
KIM: (Laughs) Whatever that is, whether is privately, publicly, whatever. I mean (inaudible).
KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: By virtue of the fact that we're conveying it, they'll do the opposite because why would they—
KIM: Perhaps, yeah (Laughs).
HILL: Well you don't have to do everything publicly (inaudible).
HILL: We're supposed to go to questions real soon, but I just wanted a real quick lightning round about, alright, we're at the end of February, if the Biden demonstration were to do something about North Korea next week, what should they do, Victor? Assuming no provocation. And I mean, assuming where we are today.
CHA: So I would say three things. The first is there should be—I don't know if it's next week—but at some point, there should be some contact with North Korea just to keep a dialogue channel open, again, all the data suggests that when we're talking to them, they're less likely to do these sorts of provocations. That's the first thing. The second thing related to China is, I think if the United States is looking at its Asia policy through the lens of U.S.-China strategic competition we have to think of ways to lessen Chinese influence on the Korean peninsula, because I think China feels like they're in a very strong position on North Korea right now. And then third, related to that, is really starting soon and for the remainder of the administration, working on a dialogue with South Korea to bolster extended deterrence, whether that's in terms of strike capabilities, or it's in terms of missile defense, that is good for deterrence, good for the alliance, it's good in terms of imposing costs on China.
KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: Absolutely, I mean, I would agree with Victor that there has to be communication of some sort, otherwise, we're basically ceding the place. And I also believe that there needs to be an elevation of the issue of cyber to one of the largest issues and with regard to dealing with North Korea writ large, so it needs to be reflected throughout the entire policy apparatus. And in so doing, we need to take account of the fact that there aren't easy measures on it, cyber doesn't lend itself to traditional deterrence, because you have zero-day attacks, you can't reveal capabilities because that neutralizes the threat, so there's a lot of different types of thinking and policymakers that are over a certain age, frankly, don't even understand the mechanics of cyber. So that would be something that I would also recommend that that be taken seriously.
KIM: Yeah, I mean, I would agree with Victor and Stephanie, I think just the only thing I would add is yes, convey a willingness to talk, keep the dialogue channel open of course, I just don't think we need to be eager beaver about it either. I think we can just be as a matter of fact about it. And on strengthening our deterrence posture—I think that's a definite must. It's all about how you do that. We certainly do not need to right now bring back strategic assets and bomber flyovers right now. We can do that when North Korea provokes but based on what we're hearing from Kim Jong-un's Worker's Party address and meetings after, they're really focused on tactical nuclear weapons and the smaller missiles that will actually be used on the battlefield for war. And so I think we need to tailor and strengthen our extended deterrence and deterrence posture to deal with those weapons, not just the ICBMs.
HILL: Okay, Teagan, I think we're ready for questions. There's so much more to discuss, but probably they'll come out in the Q&A. So Teagan if I can absolutely
STAFF: (Gives queueing instructions) We will take our first question from Barbara Slavin.
Q: Hi, guys. Nice to see you, Chris and Victor, and the two ladies. As you know, I cover both Iran and have covered North Korea in the past, so my question is this—How did the Trump administration's unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA impact North Korea? Do you think that has had an impact on their thinking? And if the US rejoins the JCPOA, will that help at all or is it irrelevant now to North Korea? Thanks.
HILL: So I think three of you would have a view on that but let me just ask Stephanie—how do you think that's (inaudible).
KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: Absolutely, they see the read across. They see that there was a huge amount of investment in a deal that was easily unraveled. I actually tend to try and steer clear of the Iran-North Korea, because in many ways they're actually more different than they are similar. One being that, you know, North Korea firmly has nuclear weapons, but I think the North Koreans have always done the read across, and most of the lessons they've learned have benefited them very well in terms of being able to create a structure that has allowed them to persist well beyond and grow and continue to develop their weapons of mass destruction programs beyond what we'd ever have thought would be possible.
CHA: Chris, can I take Barbara's question and ask you a question based on Barbara's question? Is that allowed in the CFR format?
HILL: To pass the moderator a question? I'll do my best.
CHA: So I wonder I mean really, we negotiated the last agreement, right, nuclear agreement we had with North Korea, really didn't have an agreement after that. And I wonder myself whether the North Koreans are capable of an Iran...I mean, I know they want an Iran type of nuclear agreement, but are they capable of negotiating an agreement like that, to the level of detail that exists? Not that there wasn't any detail in the six party, right? There's a lot of detail that we went into. But if you look at the document, the JCPOA document that was negotiated, on the Iranian side at a high, high political and technical expert level, you know, I just don't know if the North Koreans are capable of that, or it would have to all be written for them.
HILL: Right. I think, well, I think you're posing the question to me, because you know the answer, because you and I both saw this, they have real trouble fielding a team that could do the sorts of things that were done in that JCPOA. And just handling the broad outlines of it. You know, for all the comparisons of Iran and North Korea, these are very, very different countries, with just extraordinarily different historical endowments, and I don't think North Korea has some of these, just, capabilities of governance that the Iranians have. I did find occasionally the North Koreans would take something and claim that it was affecting their thinking when I always felt it was more of a talking point, they would talk about the demise of Qaddafi and Libya. I'm not really sure that's what animated their thinking. I think they have a sense that they're special.
There's a certain North Korean exceptionalism, if you will, and so I remember when the U.S., right in the middle of our deal with the North Koreans, went and told the Indians to go ahead and keep their military program and have a civil nuclear program as well. You know, the timing was, how to put, it not ideal. And the North Koreans certainly raised that. But I remember talking to Kim Kye Gwan, the North Korean, I said, Look, there's not enough time in the world for me to explain to you the difference between you and India, so don't go there. But I think your point, Victor is very important, which is even when we tried these working groups—or as the Russian interpreter would say, the groups that work—and we would talk about this idea of a regional association, the Northeast Asia Peace and Security Association, and we tried all these things. They just didn't have enough people to play the game and they didn't have enough negotiators. So I think capability is an issue and that's why we tried to keep things kind of straightforward with the North Koreans. And I always knew that when we got into the issue of really intrusive verification, which we couldn't go forward without, the North Koreans just couldn't take it—they were just too worried about what that would mean. And again, then we got a lecture on Saddam's palaces, so they're not without an understanding of what goes on in the world, but I think their problems are not what went on in Iraq or Libya, but rather what went on with their own—I'll put it in inverted commas—their own bureaucracy. Duyeon...
KIM: I would actually, I'm actually skeptical that North Korea would want a JCPOA-style agreement. JCPOA was really a verification deal and that's not what North Korea...North Korea does not like verification at all and it does not like transparency. And I think Ambassador Hill and Victor you would know, from your own experience in the six party talks, and we could even get to verification, but even during the disablement phase the North Koreans raise lots of issues, and they do not let nuclear experts on the ground an access to certain areas and to even talk to North Korean nuclear scientists and personnel, so that's one. And the other reason why I'm skeptical is that the JCPOA, it limits Iran's capability, yes, but so far we're seeing that North Korea seems to want an actual nuclear weapons program. They don't want just a civil nuclear energy program. And so in that sense perhaps it… perhaps North Korea would be willing to entertain a arms control style type of limits, but I'm very skeptical that they would want to go down to reductions and give up nuclear weapons themselves.
KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: Which is why I said it's perilous to go on the North Korea, Iran tangent, but we've done it so— (laughs).
HILL: No, you're absolutely right. But I remember, the Chinese came to us with the idea, why don't you establish unofficial relations with North Korea, the way we did with China in the 70's. So I had to…it's not easy to get people in Washington to agree to intersections in Pyongyang and Washington, but President agreed with it, Secretary Rice agreed. I met with the North Koreans in Berlin, and I said good news, Mr. Kim, we can establish intersections, you can have an office in Washington, we'll have one in Pyongyang, it will facilitate our communication, we'll be able to move along. And I thought, at the very least, he'd say that's very interesting, let me report back and he just said no right on the spot, and I remember it prompted Victor, at the time, to say they seem to want things until they don't, but in this case, I'm not even sure they wanted it in the first place. And I think the problem was, you have to kind of check with them and make sure it's really something that they want, because you end up doing a lot of effort and getting nowhere on this. So really, very tough.
And one other thing when we were getting to the point of negotiating the very intrusive, verification regime, and you recall, we had kept it kind of vague for the reasons that Victor alluded to, which is that the North Koreans are just not ready for that sort of thing. And we got to the point where we needed it in writing, and they only let us look at Nyongbyon, and even then, in a very tenuated way. And I remember one North Korean, said why don't you start this way and maybe we can expand the scope. But I couldn’t sell that in Washington, they'd look at me, like I become Kim Jong-il or something so I could not sell the idea that we'll get people on the ground and then enlarge the scope. But you know, it wasn't the worst idea I heard of the Six-Party—
KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: Well, the U.S. needs a strategy that contends with North Korea as a de facto nuclear weapons state. It's not that it's ever going to be formally recognized by the NPT. But informally, it's engaging in diplomacy with basically the entire world as a state that can nuke basically everybody. So that's de facto recognition, right? The problem with U.S. policy is that it refuses to accommodate this reality, even as any individual diplomat will admit to you privately that this is the case, right? They think that you have to hold rhetorically to full denuclearization, because if you don't know the world falls apart, but that's why we'll never—we're not going to get very far.
HILL: We're not going to say that, but I think the North Koreans, they know the reality and we know the reality. All right, let's go to question two, because there's so much stuff to discuss.
STAFF: Great. We will take our next question from Joan Spero.
Q: Thank you all for—can you hear me?
Q: Thank you all for a very interesting discussion. Could you tell us whether Japan or Russia have played any role in all of this, or are they irrelevant?
HILL: Oh, interesting question. Japan or Russia's role after all, we did it at four then we did it at six, you know, we don't know what the magic number will be next. Victor, what do you think?
CHA: So I think they both do play roles and in Japan's case, their role is important. First, because they're an ally—I apologize, my dog is barking—first, because they're an ally, but also because any deal...a big part of any deal would be the cross-recognition formula and Japan's normalization of relations with North Korea, which would carry a huge financial price tag, which the North Koreans, I think, would be very interested in. So I think that's one important...On Russia, I don't know how Chris feels about this, my view on Russia is that they can be helpful, but at times when you least expect it. And the example I like to give here is when contrary to a lot of opposition in Washington, we were able to get the United States to agree in writing to say that the United States would not attack North Korea with nuclear conventional weapons in writing in the Six Party joint statement. And as Chris said, the North Koreans had wanted some demonstration of U.S. non-hostile policy, and that was about as clear a demonstration as you could give, at which point, the North Koreans, again, seem to not really care very much. And the Russians at that point, told the North Koreans, no, you have to look at this seriously as U.S. intentions because we tried to get this from the United States throughout the Cold War, and we could never get them to say this. And Chris was able to get Washington to agree to this, so in that sense, they were very helpful. But sometimes they can be very unhelpful, for example, when we were trying to get them to be interested in non-nuclear technology as the trade off, and then I think the Russians went and did a press conference where they said, yeah, we'd be happy to sell them light-water technology, if the United States didn't want to do that—so they can be helpful at times, but very unhelpful at other times.
HILL: I always thought that the value of having Russia there was not where we were in the negotiations, but at some point, they could be—if we ever got to the point where the North Koreans were willing to give up fissile material or something—Russia, having had tremendous experience in arms control, would kind of spring into action and would know how to handle those kinds of complexities. So I always thought they were not helpful at the stage we were dealing with, but they could be helpful if in the unlikely chance we got to a further stage. And as for Japan, they were the first to have domestic politics right in the middle of this. It was tough for them. It was very tough for their negotiators. And there were a lot of critics of the Japanese often coming from the South Koreans saying, you know, we're talking about nuclear weapons or talking about abductees and issues like that. But I always thought to myself, how would this go if Japan were not involved, and I always thought would be a lot worse, and I felt it would exacerbate ROK-Japan relations, which were not good then but they did get worse anyway, so I could have been wrong on that, but I always thought that it was better to have them in than out and it would be helpful to alliance relations if we kept them in. But certainly, we had a number of people say why don't you go back to four power talks rather than six? Okay, Teagan, third question.
STAFF: We will take our next question from Robert Einhorn.
Q: Thank you all, excellent discussion. Two questions, should the Biden administration express support for the basic framework adopted at the Singapore summit? In other words, balanced progress toward denuclearization; U.S-DPRK normalization; and peace and security on the Korean peninsula. The ROK government would certainly like the Biden administration to do that. Second question, what should be done about the upcoming joint U.S.-ROK military exercises? There the ROK government definitely would like the Biden ministration to adopt the Trump approach of agreeing to scale them way back and so forth. And they believe that if we went ahead with these joint exercises, this would provoke North Korea, you know, to conduct a nuclear test or an ICBM range missile test. What should be done on both of those issues? Thank you.
HILL: Recently, I've heard from a lot of people in Korea that we don't want you Americans to, you know, having pushed this rock up the hill to just have it go right back down to the base of the of the mountain again, and could you Americans think in terms of building on some of these things, albeit partial but things that Singapore and elsewhere...and this is kind of something you hear a lot from the South Koreans—a little frustrated with the fact that we seem to start anew every four years. Any thoughts from your vantage point on that? And then maybe we'll go to Victor and Stephanie on the other aspects, which is what do we do about these military exercises?
KIM: Bob, thanks so much, those are great questions. You know, I think we should keep the spirit of the Singapore statement, just the spirit of it. The biggest issue I have with the Singapore statement, the biggest mistake that they made was agreeing to the order of the first three points that appear in that statement. That's the exact order in which North Korea wants to negotiate these issues, and that's first new relations and peace and then after all that, then denuclearization. So in that sense I think it was Victor who mentioned before, this is the first agreement where we have a Kim leader's stamp on it—yes, and that's important, so perhaps we can reference the Singapore statement in some fashion in a future deal, and of course, keep the elements of the top three. But that order is not the right order in which we should do this. And that's a big victory that, a big win that North Korea got in Singapore, not to mention the unilateral cancellation of military exercises. If I'm not mistaken, I'll have to double check this, but the last I had heard that the March exercises are going to go on as scheduled. I think they're computer-based simulations, I'll have to double check, but the problem is, North Korea has been taking issue for any which way we do this. Even with computer simulations, they've taken issue with that, even though there are no field exercises. And so I think…I really don't think that military exercises are the cause of North Korean provocations, I think our joint exercises, really just give them an excuse to keep testing. And so I would really argue against the causality that the military exercises cause provocations, because, again, as I mentioned before, they always—and you know, this very well, Bob—you know, they always have a military imperative to continue testing the weapons, because they, they want to perfect the technology.
HILL: I mean, Victor made the point that when you're talking to the North Koreans, they're less likely to engage in in provocations. And indeed, most of the Six Party time when we talked, they didn't engage in provocations. I think what shifted though in Singapore was we made an overt decision to do some things, that is hold off on exercises, in return for they're not engaging in provocations. So the big problem I have with some of what Trump did was, these were gestures on his part, starting with the fact that he met with Kim Jong-un in the first place, ending the deployment ending the so-called policy of isolation, and I'm not sure what we got from that. But Stephanie, maybe you have a different view.
KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: So I'm very reluctant because being a longtime Council member, we have one minute left. So I I'm going to defer on this one. I would agree you got to be talking to them. You're not talking, that's bottom line, I mean, we need to talk to our enemies. That's all I'd say.
HILL: Yeah. All right, Victor, I think you're going to have the final word here.
CHA: So I would reference the Singapore statement, just because Kim Jong Un agreed to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, so I'd reference it that way. Obviously, it's problematic that there's no definition of denuclearization as there was in the Six Party joint statement. And then on exercising, there is a relationship between non- dialogue, our exercising and North Korean provocations. If we're talking to them in the period before we exercise, then they're less likely to provoke that's, that's not me just bloviating that's based on data that we've collected on this, and so I think Chris's point is right. I mean, in Singapore, we gave away something that we really didn't need to give away, because they would not have provoked as long as we were talking to them.
HILL: And I think that's her, Stephanie's, admonition. I think we're on target here for on the hour. So it's up to you. I throw it back to you, Teagan, if we can do another question or declare this pretty, pretty good meeting as I feel it was.
STAFF: Yes, thank you everyone for joining, and we will end today's meeting.
HILL: Well, thank you all, it's been a real pleasure. And thank you CFR.