The United States, Japan, and South Korea should forge stronger diplomatic and military ties to motivate China to take a larger role in mitigating the North Korean nuclear threat, says retired Admiral Mike Mullen, co-chair of a new CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force report. North Korea carried out its fifth nuclear test in early September and represents “an incredible danger” to the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia, says Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The combination of Kim’s inexperience and his family’s legacy should heighten the worry that he will somehow get to a point where he will use a nuclear weapon,” he says. Amid the diplomatic jostling, adds Mullen, leaders in Washington must be careful to maintain a level of trust with Beijing. “The U.S.-China relationship at the top is pivotal to making peace in the region, especially as North Korea becomes more of an instigator.”
What danger does North Korea pose to international security?
North Korea poses an incredible danger to the region and to the United States. In the not-too-distant future North Korea could put the continental United States under the threat of an intercontinental ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead. This is much more of a possibility now than it was one or two years ago.
How does North Korea compare to other U.S. security challenges?
[The North Korean threat] is at the top of the list. The country has a young, inexperienced, evil leader [Kim Jong-un] who is now near having the ability to launch a nuclear weapon and potentially kill tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of citizens in our close allies—South Korea and Japan—as well as in the United States. The combination of Kim’s inexperience and his family’s legacy should heighten the worry that he will somehow get to a point where he will use a nuclear weapon.
The report calls for raising the stakes for North Korea’s ongoing nuclear and missile programs. How do these steps differ from other sticks and carrots tried with Pyongyang before?
This is an incredibly complex issue that U.S. administrations have tried to address since the 1990s. This report tries to do a number of things: frame the North Korean nuclear threat and shed light on what has changed and what is changing as Kim Jong-un is getting closer to crossing an increasingly real nuclear threshold.
“With China’s leadership, denuclearization on the Korean peninsula can be solved, and without it, it is going to be a much more dangerous situation.”
The report identifies a path to address this threat starting with diplomacy and negotiations through China, which has great influence in North Korea. It recommends incentivizing China to lead toward an outcome that does two things:
- Peacefully resolves the armistice and ends the Korean War in the long-term
- Eventually denuclearizes the Korean peninsula by placing greater pressure on North Korea through increased sanctions and establishing a stronger deterrent—one that looks clearly at the possibility of military options, which I would characterize as self-defense measures to protect our allies and the United States
Why have previous policies failed to trigger changes in North Korea’s behavior?
The report does not intend to criticize any previous efforts. We are dealing with a country and a regime that is by and large a black hole. There is an awful lot that we don’t know, but we know more than we used to. We know that the nuclear threat is growing and becoming more dangerous. What Kim Jong-un has done in the nuclear and missile worlds in the last five years —in terms of the number of tests and size of the tests—dramatically exceeds what his father did in eighteen years. The number of executions and his ruthless consolidation of power are dramatically more intense than what his father did as well.
All the indicators are that the threat in North Korea is accelerating. We can no longer tolerate Kim’s continued nuclear advancement because it will directly threaten the United States, as it already does with our friends and allies in the region.
As you mentioned, the report places particular importance on the role that China needs to play. What are Beijing’s interests in this equation?
Beijing’s principal interest is a peaceful and secure region. Asia is the economic breadbasket of the world, and it will be increasingly so when four of the five major economies in the world are in the Pacific. Stability is critical for sustained development in the region and in China, in particular. There are signs that North Korea’s behavior is increasingly a problem for China. Beijing was supportive of the most recent UN sanctions in a timely and orderly way. However, there is still a question of China’s willingness to enforce sanctions, as the implementation of the most recent sanctions has been somewhat lax. China must do more.
Historically, China’s priorities have [included] stability on the peninsula, and it has also stated that it would like to see the peninsula denuclearized. My sense is that the denuclearization issue is moving up on the priority list. It is still to be decided how active China wants to be, how much of a concern it is for China, and how much it will lead. With China’s leadership, denuclearization on the Korean peninsula can be solved, and without it, it is going to be a much more dangerous situation.
How could China be induced to use its leverage more effectively?
“The most important bilateral relationship in the world over the next fifty to one hundred years is going to be the relationship between China and the United States.”
Instability and potential instability in the region should motivate China. Increasing the level of military capability of U.S. allies in Northeast Asia; having the United States, South Korea, and Japan work more closely together, not just diplomatically but militarily; the deployment of THAAD (missile defense capability into the region) are all Task Force recommendations that could help shift China’s standing on the North Korean threat.
At the moment, things are going in the wrong direction, and at some point we may start using military options to diffuse the nuclear and missile capability that Pyongyang is developing. These options could potentially incentivize China to take action more than it has in the past.
Does the report foresee reunification on the Korean peninsula?
The report does not recommend regime change. It is about getting to a point where the peninsula is denuclearized and creating incentives for all parties, including North Korea, to do so in a peaceful way. There is a possibility of reunification down the road, and the report speaks to the potential reduction in U.S. forces in a way that would only be supported by facts on the ground, in terms of threat reduction or threat elimination.
Still, it is important in the long run for the United States to send a very clear message to China, to the region, and to Koreans that the United States has no intention of extending what we are doing in the South to the North. China is very concerned about that.
Boosting the defense capabilities of the United States, Japan, and South Korea as well as increasing trilateral cooperation could be perceived by China as aggressive behavior. What are some ways to avoid inflaming the U.S.-China relationship?
The most important bilateral relationship in the world over the next fifty to one hundred years is going to be the relationship between China and the United States. Leaders in both countries have to figure out how to manage all issues with respect to this relationship. Trust is a critical component. Without some level of trust, it becomes difficult not to read increased capability on the military side as threatening. THAAD is a great example of that. China is concerned about the deployment of the missile defense system not so much because of what it would do with respect to South Korea, but more in terms of the capability it could give the United States to look into China.
The U.S.-China relationship is so important because of the size of the two economies and the fact that they depend greatly on each other. The situation that exists on the Korean peninsula, and in North Korea with respect to nukes and with respect to its leadership, has to be handled within the context of the constructive rise of China. The U.S.-China relationship at the top is pivotal to making peace in the region, especially as North Korea becomes more of an instigator. It’s doable. Leaders have to commit to it. It’s not easy, but it’s vital.
What are the risks of failed diplomacy?
The stakes are huge. Instability generated on the peninsula could cascade into China, making China’s challenge of providing for its own people that much more difficult. I harken back to the Korean War and how a small country with a small GDP and a small geographic presence was somehow able to lure three great powers into a war. I wonder if we are now on the same path. It would be a disaster if we were, and the stakes could not be higher, especially with the weapons that we have these days.
Why is the trilateral effort between the United States, Japan, and South Korea so important?
“The United States plays an incredibly important role in facilitating and supporting the trilateral relationship.”
The trilateral piece is critical because of the glue that the United States is in the relationship between the three countries. We agree on many things, including the long-term vision for economic health, the ability to provide for our people, and the democratic process. Some steps have been taken to enhance the trilateral relationship militarily, but the history in the region makes it extremely difficult. The leaders in these countries recognize that. Given the threat these countries face, leaders need to take a shared position, where we understand the past but we are able to move to the future. The United States plays an incredibly important role in facilitating and supporting the trilateral relationship.
The regime’s human rights abuses have to be part of the equation in reducing the North Korean threat, according to the report. The Task Force suggests threatening to revoke North Korea’s UN credentials. What would this mean for North Korea?
The assumption is that North Korea might be motivated by how it is received internationally. There have been instances of North Korea seemingly responding to actions taken inside the UN. The regime has been brutal with respect to its people. This is unacceptable from the United States’s perspective. All possible pressure needs to be brought to bear to change North Korea’s behavior. As best we can tell, human rights concerns are completely ignored by the regime in Pyongyang. That has to change. We can’t propose a future or possibilities of a future without addressing human rights because it’s part of who we are and what the United States stands for. The human rights issue is not secondary in any way, shape, or form. It is every bit as important as the denuclearization piece itself.
If North Korea were to signal a willingness to improve on human rights, what might it expect in exchange and what might it receive?
It would be looking for more acceptance on the international stage. The report focuses on the fact that that will not happen if human rights abuses continue and if the regime continues develop its nuclear capability. But if there were movement on these fronts, there could be a possibility of normalization of relationships around the world. When you start acting more like a normal country, those possibilities are out there. There could be a level of international acceptance and a certain level of engagement from international bodies and from individual countries.
This interview has been edited and condensed.