The North Korea Challenge, With Scott A. Snyder

Scott A. Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the global implications of North Korea’s recent missile tests.

March 22, 2022 — 27:49 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Scott A. Snyder

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

Show Notes

Scott A. Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the global implications of North Korea’s recent missile tests.

 

Books Mentioned on the Podcast

 

Scott Snyder, South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers (2018)

 

Articles Mentioned

 

Scott Snyder, “A ‘Political Novice’ Will Soon be in Charge of South Korean Foreign Policy,” CFR.org via Forbes, March 7, 2022

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Transcript

Jim Lindsay:

Welcome to the President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies, at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week's topic is The North Korea Challenge. With me to discuss the global implications of North Korea's recent missile test, is Scott Snyder. Scott is Senior Fellow for Korea studies and Director of the program on US-Korea policy at the Council. He has written widely and well on issues affecting the Korean Peninsula. His most recent book is "South Korea: At the Crossroads, Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers." He also blogs about Korean issues at Asia Unbound, which you can find on cfr.org. Scott, thanks for joining me.

Scott Snyder:

Thanks for the invitation, Jim.

Jim Lindsay:

Now Russia's invasion of Ukraine has understandably dominated the news in recent weeks, and it has overshadowed troubling signs coming out of North Korea. Since the start of 2022 Scott, North Korea has ramped up test flights to ballistic missiles. If my math is correct, North Korea has conducted 10 ballistic missile tests so far this year. What's going on?

Scott Snyder:

Well, the North Koreans are actually implementing a checklist that they created in January 2001, in terms of charting a set of military development objectives. And at this moment, I think there's a wider opportunity for North Korea to pursue this trajectory unimpeded. Having said that the trajectory is preset and it really has been only a matter of time until North Korea's trajectory bumped up against the tolerance of the international community for these tests. And we're beginning to see that happen at the beginning of 2022.

Jim Lindsay:

Let's talk a little bit it more about this Scott, because my sense that the North Koreans, as you know, have been on this pace to develop a nuclear and ballistic missile force, but when it comes to ballistic missiles in recent years, particularly in 2019, 2020, most of those tests were relatively short range, ballistic missiles. Something seems to have changed since September of 2021 where North Korea seems to be launching longer range in newer systems. Can you sort of give me the context around that?

Scott Snyder:

Sure. Well, North Korea's pledges of self restraint with regards to ICBMs and nuclear testing came in the context of the flurry of summitry that occurred in 2018 with the South Korean president Moon Jae-in with the Chinese leaders Xi Jinping and also with Donald Trump. And so even despite the failure of the Hanoi summit in 2019, North Korea had retained its pledge of self-restraint. However, it was clear, I think by January of 2021, when North Korea laid out its five year plan for military development, that there would come a point at which they might abandon those pledges of self-restraint. And in fact, we saw the North Koreans publicly can't in the most clear fashion yet that they were going to abandon self-restraint on longer range testing of missiles at a meeting that occurred on January 20, 2022. And then 10 days later, we saw a transition from the short range, ballistic missile testing that we have seen regularly from 2019 to the longer range category of missiles that are now driving attention related to North Korea's testing program.

Jim Lindsay:

Now, both the United States and South Korea have suggested that they see signs that North Korea is about to launch or test an intercontinental ballistic missile, which would be a break with North Korea self and post moratorium on ICBM test, which I guess has been in place since 2018. What would the significance of ending that moratorium be Scott?

Scott Snyder:

Well, it would really return us to the kind of environment that existed in 2017, at which time the North Koreans were testing longer range missiles with greater frequency. It tests the tolerance of the United States, obviously, and of others, the international community for allowing these kinds of tests. It possibly generates pressure for renewed diplomacy, but it also generates a great desire to enhance deterrence, given the potential consequences of North Korea, having a global reach in terms of being able to deliver a nuclear capability. And in fact, in January of 2021, one of the objectives that North Koreans laid out was to develop an ICBM with precision strike to 15,000 kilometers. And so in some ways this is unfinished business from late 2017, the point at which the North Koreans indicated that they were willing to stop, but it's definitely bad news that they appear to be returning to the trajectory that they had on at that time.

Jim Lindsay:

Scott, I have to ask, what is the significance of having a ballistic missile that can travel 15,000 kilometers, which I guess is about 9,000 miles.

Scott Snyder:

It would basically give North Korea global reach to strike any target possibly with the nuclear weapon that it wants to on the earth.

Jim Lindsay:

Including the United States.

Scott Snyder:

Yes.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, let's talk then about the warhead that would go on top of such a ballistic missile. What is the status of North Korea's nuclear program, Scott? My recollection is that North Korea last tested a nuclear device back in 2017 has observed a moratorium since then.

Scott Snyder:

That's correct. But September, 2017 test was really notable for a dramatic expansion in yield. And the possibility that North Korea was testing a hydrogen based thermonuclear device.

Jim Lindsay:

And what's the significance of having a hydrogen based rather than a standard fission device?

Scott Snyder:

Well, it greatly expands the yield and destructive power of the nuclear detonation. And so it essentially, in a way, it removes the imperative for accuracy with regard to any sort of strike that you can imagine. And it definitely exceeds our own experience with possibility of nuclear weapons used for war purposes, compared to what we saw at the end of World War II.

Jim Lindsay:

So they've observed the moratorium since September of 2017. Does that mean that the North Koreans haven't been working on trying to improve their nuclear weaponry in the interim?

Scott Snyder:

I think there are a number of areas where they have possibly been working on trying to improve their nuclear weaponry, but it simply has not involved testing. And the main issue of focus among analysts really has been the question of whether North Korea has mastered reentry technology to be able to...

Jim Lindsay:

Can you explain that for us, when you say reentry technology?

Scott Snyder:

Yes, if your the ICBM, design actually and range would carry the device outside of the earth's orbit, and therefore it's necessary for a device to be able to survive re-entry into the exo atmosphere without burning up.

Jim Lindsay:

And that's quite a feat of engineering to be able to do that.

Scott Snyder:

It is. It's actually the last remaining unproven dimension of this technology that stands in the way of North Korea being fully recognized, as capable of delivering a device with accuracy to any point on earth. And so, I think that at this moment, they still are regarded as, you know on the threshold with ambiguous capabilities in terms of delivering an ICBM to strike a long distance target. Having not yet fully proven that they've mastered that technology.

Jim Lindsay:

And I would imagine they can also do work in laboratories and in research facilities on the issue of miniaturization to be able to actually not just build a nuclear warhead, but be able to fit it into a ballistic missile.

Scott Snyder:

That's right. And it's clear that the North Koreans have indicated that has been a priority for them. It's part of their checklist of desired military capabilities that they released in January of 2021. The most significant aspect of that really is related to the desire to have tactical nuclear weapons, which essentially suggests that the North Koreans are conceiving of their nuclear capability as also fieldable for battlefield use.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, let me ask you about that. What is a tactical nuclear weapon versus a strategic nuclear weapon?

Scott Snyder:

Well, a tactical nuclear weapon would be one which could be used on the battlefield for particular military purposes rather than one that would be designed for long distance use, possibly for political demonstration purposes or in the context of sending signals about regime survivability.

Jim Lindsay:

And I would think with tactical nuclear weapons, you're probably talking about lower yields, lower explosive force.

Scott Snyder:

You are talking about lower yields and so that's the reason why people have been paying attention. Even though North Korea has not violated its self-imposed moratorium, the issue of the types of short range ballistic missiles that they have been continuously testing since 2019 also becomes relevant. As we think about what sort of payload those missiles might be able to carry as well as North Korean efforts to develop a missile capability that can evade existing missile defenses.

Jim Lindsay:

Now, as we've been talking about this and particularly in focusing on ICBMs, we've been thinking about what this means for the United States, but obviously with shorter range ballistic missiles, where North Korea clearly has had some technological success. This is a significant issue for US treaty allies, particularly South Korea and Japan.

Scott Snyder:

That's correct. Clearly the big development of the past decade has been that North Korea with its missile testing program has been able to extend its threat capability beyond the Peninsula. And so this has impacts both for Japan and for the United States and for US forces deployed off the Peninsula but in the Pacific theater.

Jim Lindsay:

Scott, I want to get back to the issue of how other countries are reacting, but before we do that, I want to talk a little bit more about the nuclear program in North Korea. I have heard word that the IAEA is concerned that North Korea has restarted one of its nuclear reactors. I think South Korean officials have reported that there's activity at another potential nuclear site. What's the significance of those developments?

Scott Snyder:

These are also related to North Korea appearing to prepare, to move past the moratorium that it had observed its own limits in terms of self restraint, with regards to the Yongbyon facilities that the IAEA has focused on. It's likely that those have been operating both uranium enrichment and plutonium process in order to expand North Korea's availability of fiscal material. That's been ongoing, frankly, without effective international monitoring now for over a decade.

Jim Lindsay:

But didn't North Korea supposedly shut the facility down in 2018.

Scott Snyder:

It's not clear to me that it was completely shut down. I think that there has been periodic reporting with regards to the plutonium reactor. And that is the one that is susceptible to international monitoring. But frankly, I don't think that there is a good public source vehicle by which to confirm that North Korea might have stopped or whether or not North Korea would have stopped uranium enrichment, which would generate a different pathway to obtain nuclear material.

Jim Lindsay:

So at best this is shut down with quotation marks around the world.

Scott Snyder:

Yeah, I think that it's safe to say based on North Korea's past record that, and based on the fact that they developed a covert uranium enrichment program in the 1990s at the same time that it was observing an agreement with the US to shut down that very reactor from producing plutonium, that it's likely that North Korea was continuing to move forward in some form. And the sporadic reporting that we get based on satellite observation of those facilities suggests that there have been pauses, but we don't necessarily know the reasons behind those pauses. And they don't necessarily signify a cessation of interest or activity as related to the program.

Jim Lindsay:

So Scott, why is this all happening now? At the beginning of our conversation, you talked about essentially a 20 year plan on the part of Pyongyang, but I've also heard people speculate that some of this has to do with timing, 2022 is supposedly a big year for Kim Jong-un, his 10th year in powers, the 80th anniversary of his father's birth and the 110th anniversary of his grandfather's birth. I've heard other people suggest that Kim is taking advantage of the fact, the international community is distracted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Still others arguing that he's taking advantage of supposed weakness on part of the Biden administration, that he respected president Trump, but he doesn't respect the current occupant of the white house. How do you assess those arguments or any others you might be aware of about trying to explain what it is that North Korea's doing today?

Scott Snyder:

Well, I think to some degree, you're going to end up with an all of the above menu with regards to the options that you laid out. But I really still believe that the most significant one was that North Korea took a period of assessment following the failed Hanoi summit and following a period of time where North Korea left the door open to a major US concession in order to get talks back on track to a default position that the North Koreans have taken since early 2021, that they really have no expectations for reengaging diplomatically with the United States, and that they're going to move forward on their own timetable to achieve a set of military objectives that would make them considerably more powerful and considerably more self-reliant, in terms of their capacity to defend themselves from perceived outside threats.

Scott Snyder:

And so what that has meant is that North Korea has essentially looked at the history of its engagement with the United States has determined that even prior to the November 2020 election, that the US hostile policy quote unquote from North Korea is unchangeable, unlikely to change, and have proceeded accordingly. And so as a result, what that actually means is that North Korea has set its objective on affirming that they have a nuclear capability, that they are a nuclear state and they really are sidestepping or ignoring any possible diplomatic interaction that would be designed to roll that back. And so that is, I think, one reason why we see a stalemate on the diplomatic front between the US and North Korea, the US is putting on the table objectives that the North Koreans have moved on in terms...

Jim Lindsay:

Well, let me ask you about that, Scott, what precisely is it that the North Koreans want, cause obviously the Trump administration for all the summitry didn't deliver those concessions, but what is it that Kim thought he was going to get from either Trump administration or had wanted to get from a Biden administration?

Scott Snyder:

Well, I think that what we learned from the Trump-Kim summit back in 2019 is that Kim Jong-un's objective actually was to offer partial denuclearization in return for sanctions lifting. And Trump walked away from that. And since then, I think that what we have seen is that any negotiation offer that has complete denuclearization on the table as the ultimate objective is simply going to be treated by the North Koreans as a non-starter.

Jim Lindsay:

Right. And that's the US position that North Korea has to denuclearize.

Scott Snyder:

That's right. The Biden administration has made denuclearization the centerpiece of its strategy toward North Korea.

Jim Lindsay:

But so did prior American presidential administrations, correct?

Scott Snyder:

That's right. And so the big question in a way, the real challenge for North Korea policy is, how do we manage the situation where North Korea has clearly attained this capability, and yet they did it outside the non-proliferation regime in a form that might be pursued as destructive to the regime.

Jim Lindsay:

And how would you answer your question?

Scott Snyder:

I think that the United States is caught in a fundamental dilemma and trap in the sense that it simply cannot accept North Korea as a nuclear state because of the damage that would do to the non-proliferation regime. And so as a result, it's still keeping North Korea in the penalty box. And North Korea is threatening to get out of the penalty box, but thus far absent the ability to get North Korea to rollback its program. The administration has settled for essentially a nuclear containment strategy as related to any prestige benefits that North Korea can gain in terms of acceptance of its program as legitimate.

Jim Lindsay:

And how is all this being viewed from South Korea, Scott, where we just had a presidential election that is going to usher in come May, a new administration?

Scott Snyder:

Well, we're going to see a very interesting transition in South Korea from a policy perspective. From a progressive administration, that had really focused on trying to keep the door open to a peaceful process of dialogue between the US and North Korea, that ideally would lead to agreement on denuclearization. To an administration that is taking a much more conservative and some would say realistic approach to North Korea and is going to be very much focused on deterrence of North Korea and responding to the capabilities that North Korea has developed. But very much focused on really a piece through strength approach in which the fundamental prerequisite for engagement of North Korea is to demonstrate that South Korea and the international community have the upper hand.

Jim Lindsay:

Let's talk a little bit about president elect Yoon. You have written on CFR's Asia Unbound that he is a political novice when it comes to foreign policy, but he's bringing a harder line, if not a hard line to the blue house, what do you expect him to do differently?

Scott Snyder:

I think he's going to work with the United States with a focus on deterrence and focus a lot less on diplomacy.

Jim Lindsay:

So the sunshine policy is out.

Scott Snyder:

Yeah. I would say that, yes, the emphasis on diplomacy as part of the mix of options for the US and South Korea working together is going to diminish in favor of a focus on how to strengthen deterrence.

Jim Lindsay:

And is he going to favor intensifying the US-South Korea, military relationship, expanding military exercises, things like that.

Scott Snyder:

Yeah, he's indicated that he wants to look at a resumption of a much more active military exercise regime focused on writing us. There's a desire, I think in South Korea to talk with the United States much more actively about extended deterrence and in particular, how the US actually intends to deter North Korea's nuclear capabilities. There has been discussion in the campaign, although I don't think this is going to happen of whether or not South Korea should invite the US to place tactical nuclear weapons on the Peninsula and perhaps more relevantly an examination or a look at nuclear sharing arrangements have been discussed in the context of NATO.

Jim Lindsay:

What do you mean by nuclear sharing arrangements Scott?

Scott Snyder:

Well, nuclear sharing arrangements would really be a more explicit understanding between the two leaderships with regards to how and when to potentially deploy or use nuclear capabilities. You know, under current circumstances, basically the US figuratively has its finger on the button and nobody else is around to touch. But if you're in South Korea and you're faced with a nuclear capable adversary, somehow at this point, certainly judging by public opinion in South Korea, it doesn't feel like it's enough to know that your friend has a button that they can press. You also want to be able to influence or have voice in any decision that's related to ensuring your own protection.

Jim Lindsay:

On that theme, Scott, is there any chance that South Korea may decide to develop its own nuclear capability? I know that one of the talking points that has come out of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that it would never have happened if Ukraine still possessed nuclear weapons.

Scott Snyder:

That particular talking point, I think goes most directly to why the North Koreans are unlikely to give up nuclear weapons. Ukraine has just been added to the country list of reasons that North Korea will give for why they'll never denuclearize.

Jim Lindsay:

Iraq, Libya.

Scott Snyder:

Exactly. With regard to South Korea, it's I think a slightly different story, but it's still driven by if you're in South Korea, on the one hand, the view that nuclear deterrence might have worked well in the Cold War and might work for global challenges, but it doesn't necessarily fit with your particular regional need. And so the complicating factor, I think for South Korea might end up coming from, for instance, the South Asia situation where India and Pakistan both have nuclear capabilities and there has been risks, but also one could argue if you're in South Korea, you would note that maybe that's also contributed to some form of stability. And so the sense of vulnerability related to not having a nuclear weapon and the concern about potential nuclear blackmail from your adversary, I think is driving South Korean public opinion. And to some extent South Korean public opinion, as related to the desirability of acquiring a nuclear capability and South Korean leadership, potentially in the direction of enhancing the conversation on how to have voice in nuclear decisions made by the United States.

Jim Lindsay:

My sense Scott is that South Korea has a very well developed domestic nuclear program for civilian uses. So the jump to acquiring nuclear weapons wouldn't be that significant, correct?

Scott Snyder:

Yes. That's correct. One of the primary restraints on South Korea moving in the direction of developing a nuclear weapon relates to the provisions of the nuclear cooperation agreement between the US and South Korea that essentially require US ascent to use of nuclear materials for any non designated purpose. And then there's also the restraints of the international atomic energy agency and the nuclear nonproliferation regime, which also would make it somewhat more difficult for South Korea to move in that direction because they would be abandoning international norm and presumably would face penalties, especially economic penalties for stepping across the line and violating that norm.

Jim Lindsay:

You mentioned Scott, that president Yoon intends to pursue a peace through strength foreign policy, any chances that will egg North Korea on rather than deter it.

Scott Snyder:

Yes, the tradition in North Korea has been to challenge new leaders. And so I do believe that in addition to the anniversary celebrations that you mentioned, another major event on the calendar is the May 10th inauguration of the new South Korean president. And really the question of whether or not North Korea sees a way to try to socialize Yoon into some understanding of what to expect from the relationship with North Korea. And in the context of a deterrence focus leader, I think that it's likely that North Korea just as Yoon has pledged an approach of peace through strength, it's highly likely that the North Koreans will want to be signaling that they are entering into or continuing the inter-Korean relationship from a position of strength.

Jim Lindsay:

So what advice do you have to the Biden administration, as it tries to navigate this situation, you have laid out some big challenges in dealing with North Korea, that the objectives on both sides are at odds. There's no obvious overlap in terms of outcomes. It is clear that North Korea continues to advance in terms of its ballistic and nuclear weapons programs. But I would imagine right now at 1600 Pennsylvania avenue, they are consumed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. How do you navigate a situation in which, you know you have a challenge coming over the hill, but there's already a bigger and more immediate one at your doorstep.

Scott Snyder:

I think the main thing that the Biden administration is trying to do is to signal that it's aware that there is a potential risk and essentially trying to take measures to deter that risk from getting out of control. But before I go down that road, I would just want to step back a little bit more because, you know, the Biden administration also faces a dramatically different environment from the one that existed in 2017, when we last saw a rapid intensification of testing by North Korea. And the biggest one is that the UN Security Council had been the primary instrument by which they tried to punish North Korea for those tests through 2017.

Scott Snyder:

But in 2022, the Chinese have essentially abdicated enforcement of the regime. There's no likelihood of additional sanctions coming from the UN as related to conduct of these tests. And obviously there's not going to be an agreement with the Russians at this moment on any additional sanctions toward North Korea. So what I see the Biden administration doing is trying to signal that they have attention and capability to manage two theaters at the same time, but fewer instruments by wish to do so. And the main instruments that I see that they've been using so far have been declaratory holding a trilateral foreign ministers meeting right in advance of this is a trilateral US Japan, South Korea, foreign ministers meeting.

Jim Lindsay:

So it's basically symbolic actions.

Scott Snyder:

Symbolic, but also we saw recently for the first time in a very long time, a US aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea area to the west of the Korean Peninsula. And we are seeing signals of the reintroduction of strategic weapons delivery signaling around South Korea. This is the introduction by the US military of bombers and other assets capable of delivering nuclear weapons as a way of signaling to the North Koreans front and center. Be careful don't step too far.

Jim Lindsay:

Do you think the chances of miscalculations of Pyongyang are significant?

Scott Snyder:

Yeah. I think that there is a risk of miscalculation. One thing I think that we learned from summitry is that Kim Jong-un is more dialed into reality than many people might have thought. And so I do think that there is a capacity to try to estimate where not to step over the line, but there are also tremendous risks of miscalculation. And now, may be one of the highest ones because North Korea may perceive that it has an open field. There's no UN Security Council restriction that is going to be meaningful. They're trying to buttress their relations with China and Russia. And I think that where it gets really complicated is, in this new strategic environment, in some respects compared to 2018 North Korea become more salient as a geostrategic piece in the context of the China-Russia-North Korea relationship than as an object in and of itself, just as the US has tried to use US-Japan-South Korea trilateralism in order to buttress kind of it side of the equation in the context of an environment of heightened rivalry and confrontation.

Jim Lindsay:

On that sobering note, I'll close up the President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Scott Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea studies and Director of the program on US-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Scott, thanks for joining me.

Scott Snyder:

Thanks, Jim.

Jim Lindsay:

Please subscribe to the President's Inbox and Apple Podcast. Spotify, wherever you listen and leave us a review. They help us get noticed and improve the show. You can find the books and articles mentioned in this episode, as well as a transcript of our conversation on the podcast page for the President's Inbox on cfr.org. As always, opinions expressed in the President's Inbox is solely those of the host, or our guest, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Today's episode was produced by Zoe Collis, with senior producer, Jeremy Sherlick. Zoe also did double duty as our recording engineer. Thank you, Zoe. Special thanks brought to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

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