Sanctions, China’s pressure won’t halt N. Korea’s nuclear program – State Dept. veteran

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are running high. The North refuses to give in under pressure from the rest of the world and abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. With patience running thin and the crisis between the two Koreas reaching the boiling point, can it be solved before the situation unravels out of control? We ask veteran State Department official, senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University – Joel Wit.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Joel Wit, veteran U.S. diplomat, now a senior fellow at US-Korea institute at John Hopkins University, welcome to the show, it's great to have you with us. Now, North Korea has just recently tested ‘ground-to-ship’ missiles, with American warships in nearby waters - is Pyongyang ready to strike a U.S. vessel, or are they just bluffing?

Joel Wit: I think the U.S. ships actually left the waters and then the North Koreans tested but the point is made that the North Koreans are ready to defend themselves against U.S. forces, whether it's on the ground or at sea and I think that's what they were trying to show everyone. I don't think they would attack those forces unless they were attacked.

SS: Why is that North Korea been so brash lately, all these defiant missile tests - why do their leaders think escalating the situation is beneficial for them?

JW: I'm not sure if they're escalating the situation. If you remember, the last year, the North Koreans conducted a number of missile tests, more than they did this year, and so I think what the North Koreans are responding to is not only the fact that there were U.S.-South Korean joint exercises, over the past few months, but they are responding to the Trump Administration’s heightened rhetoric and at the same time, don't forget, they are  developing weapon systems that they could use and to develop those systems they need to test them. So, it's a combination of all of the above.

SS:Could the US strike a North Korean nuclear site - if Pyongyang continues its tests? Will South Korea ever agree to that - and can Trump strike without Seoul’s consent?

JW: Well, there are of course a number of considerations here for an administration that might be thinking about launching such an attack. The first consideration is, if you're talking about attacking North Korea's nuclear weapons programme, the big problem - we don't know where its weapons are and we don't know where most of the facilities associated with that program are, so it's kind of hard to attack something when you don't know where it is. Secondly, there's also the danger, and I think it's a very distinct danger of a North Korean military response. I for one believe that if there was such an attack, the North Koreans would respond militarily with some sort of attack on either South Korea or Japan. Then, of course, the last question, which is related to that, is what would our allies feel about that and that's what you're asking, and the fact is that neither South Korea nor Japan would support such an attack. So on all of those accounts, I think, the idea of U.S. military attack is really impractical.

SS: So if the U.S. strikes to ensure its own security, the allies will have to pay for the consequences, right?

JW: Well, if the U.S. tries to launch a military attack, yes. Because the fact is that North Korea's military response can't reach the United States right now, they don't have that capability, but they certainly can reach South Korea and Japan and they can also reach U.S. military bases in the region. So, the military response is clearly, as I said, impractical. But that doesn't mean there aren't other steps that can be taken to enhance the security of our allies and our troops in the region, and one of those steps that the administration recently took was deploying the anti-ballistic missile system called THAAD. But there are other steps that can be taken too, that don't involve a military attack.

SS: South Korea has seen a wave of protests against the U.S. missile defense system THAAD - with locals afraid that the system will make their cities targets for the North Korean military. Are South Koreans right to be worried?

JW: Well, there are probably a number of fairly good reasons why the South Koreans should be concerned about the escalating situation on the peninsula, and also the deployment of that system, but the fact is that South Korean cities are already a target for North Korean missiles and have been for some time. So, the deployment of THAAD is not going to change the situation in terms of North Korean military plans. It might change the situation in terms of being able to better defend South Korea against North Korean missile attacks.

SS: I wonder what it all means, because the new leader of South Korea has halted the deployment of THAAD - is Seoul bowing to pressure from China here, and does it mean that the South isn’t that scared of the North after all?

JW: The new leader of South Korea as everyone knows has come into office and he's much more interested in dialogue with North Korea than its predecessor was, and he has a very difficult task in front of him, because, first of all, he has to deal with the North Koreans, and that, of course, is always difficult. Secondly, he has to try to repair the relationship with China, South Korea's relationship with China which has been damaged by the deployment of this U.S. anti-ballistic missile system. Third, he has to maintain a close relationship with Washington, because after all, the U.S. is South Korea's main ally. So that's a very difficult balancing act, and I think what he's trying to do through delaying or suspending the deployment is send a signal to China and North Korea while hopefully not damaging the U.S. relationship, and on top of that, he's taking other steps to signal North Korea that he's interested in dialogue. But it's going to take a little bit of time, to make any progress here.

SS: I wonder if South Korea can flat out refuse to deploy the American missile shield system on its territory?

JW: That would be very difficult, of course, at this stage of the game. The decision has already been made to deploy, the previous government agreed to it. So I think refusing deployment in a circumstance where the North Korean threat continues to mount without any progress in president Moon's effort to create dialogue with North Korea, could create serious problems. On the other hand, if President Moon can make progress in rebuilding some sort of dialogue with North Korea, and in making some sort of progress, then I think he has a stronger case to make that maybe the deployment of THAAD should be suspended to see how far that dialogue with the North can go.

SS:So, you've said we're seeing this balancing act in play. Trump has been critical of the U.S.-South Korean alliance many times, and he is now demanding that South Korea pays a billion dollars for the missile shield, threatening to shut down the US-Korea free trade agreement. Who should the South Koreans be more afraid of - Trump or Kim Jong-Un?

JW: That's a good question, I'm sure you can find some South Koreans who are more afraid of Trump, but the fact is that yes, President Trump did say that, but I think almost immediately afterwards, his National Security adviser told the South Koreans that in fact they didn't have to pay for this system. So, yes it's confusing, yes, President Trump may say "Yes you do!", he may say that again, but right now we're at the situation where it's very clear that the United States is going to pay for this. Of course, it may come up in the upcoming summit between President Trump and President Moon, which is at the end of this month and I'm sure that issue will be discussed. So there's a lot of turbulence in the relationship, just as there is in other relationships now between the U.S. and other countries.

SS: Who decides the South Korean security issues in Washington? Is it Trump or his National Security advisors?

JW: You know, this is, of course, a very difficult question to answer nowadays. There's of course a lot of confusion in the administration about different national security issues. You can see different factions. There's President Trump, who earlier, I said, telegraphed to South Koreans that they have to pay, then there are all of his National Security advisors who are saying: "No, you don't have to pay" - so I can understand how people can be very confused about this and I don't know how it all will play out, but it seems overall that the main national security advisors are continuing the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy.

SS: You mentioned earlier that South Korean President Moon is ready for a sort of a detente with the North, can he make the Americans listen and soften their approach, as well?

JW: Contrary to some of the media reporting, there's an overlap between the U.S. position and the South Korean position. I think what's missed in much of the media reporting is that, in fact, there's a strain of thinking in the U.S. administration, that is interested in restarting dialogue with the North Koreans, and it's get overshadowed by a lot of the threats that are made and a lot of media hype about those threats. So, that strain is there  and I think that strain and President Moon's interest in dialogue creates some common interests between the U.S. and South Korea dealing with North Korea. That may be reflected in the upcoming summit, but we'll just have to wait and see.

SS: Washington has been pushing China to play a more active role in curbing North Korea’s programme. And Beijing’s position on it has been restrained so far, despite Pyongyang openly accusing them of collaborating with the U.S. How long will it take until China’s patience with North Korea runs out?

JW: It's a very good question. I've been hearing for almost 20 years that first of all China is the only country can solve this problem, secondly, we think that patience is running, and the fact is their patience hasn't run out and I don't think it will run out. The bottom line here is that for the Chinese, while dealing with North Korea's weapons programme is very important, even more important is maintaining stability on their borders. In order to do that, they're very concerned about putting too much pressure on North Korea, because that may result in instability in North Korea. So, China may move tactically from good relations with North Korea to not-so-good relations with North Korea, but it's never going to move to the point where there's a big break with North Korea.

SS:Do you think China really has enough clout in North Korea to force Kim Jong Un to do anything?

JW: That's another part of the problem. Theoretically, China may have enough clout, but the fact is the North Korean mentality is such that if China really tried to put a lot of pressure on North Korea, North Korea would respond, and I'm not sure how they would respond, but you know, one of the things about North Koreans is they're not going to roll over and play dead, they like being tough guys, they feel that as a small country, if they show any weakness in dealing with big countries - it's suicide. So, China may try to put that kind of pressure on North, but I think it may backfire, if they did.

SS: The Libyan regime gave up on its nuclear programme in exchange for normalising relations with the West - and then the West bombed it into chaos. Are nuclear weapons the only real insurance against regime change?

JW: I think if you could talk to North Koreans right now, they would say "yes" - I mean, that's why they have them, because they're trying to protect their regime against external threats. So when we talk about re-establishing dialogue with North Korea, one of the objectives of that dialogue of course is to try to get the North Koreans to eventually give up their nuclear weapons, but another objective of the dialogue would be to replace the temporary armistice that ended the Korean War with the permanent peace agreement, and that would reflect a changing political relationship between the U.S. and North Korea. And that, in turn, would give the North Koreans more confidence that if they gave up their nuclear weapons, they wouldn't suffer the fate of Libya.

SS: On the other hand, can we really blame North Korea for feeling threatened when we have world's number one superpower holding war games every year right next to its borders?

JW: Well, look, the fact here is that there's 50 years of hostility between the United States and North Korea, dating back to the Korean War. There was one period during the 1990s when we were making some progress in lessening that hostility, but that, of course, has evaporated. Because of the hostility, at least from the North Korean perspective, it's very understandable that they feel the need to protect themselves. The trick here will be to change the political equation and that, in turn, will allow us to deal with these security challenges for both sides - and that's not going to be easy.

SS: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that America isn’t seeking regime change in North Korea. The White House has even acknowledged that North Korea is building nuclear weapons out of security concerns. But does North Korea have any real guarantees against U.S.-imposed regime change?

JW: It's good that you're picking up on that - there's signalling process going on, where the U.S. Administration is sending signals to North Korea, singlas that it's not interested in things like "regime change" and the North Koreans are signalling back - they're not personally criticizing President Trump, which is quite interesting. All of this is intended - we hope -  to lead to some sort of dialogue. But the bottom line is that for the North Koreans - and it's quite understandable, you know, pledges of not seeking regime change or statements of not intending to seek regime change are not enough. So what is needed, as I said earlier - not statements, not pieces of paper, but a real change in the political relationship, and that's going to require working through a number of tough issues.

SS:Tillerson also said that the U.S. administration would “wait as long as it takes” for talks to start, provided North Korea conducted no new nuclear tests. Does Washington have that much patience in its arsenal? Is this, basically, just a continuation of Obama’s “strategic patience” policy?

JW:That's exactly right. Being patient isn't going to solve this problem and it certainly didn't under the Obama administration, and so, yes, if North Korea conducts another nuclear test or if conducts a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile - that's going to result in a very serious escalation of the situation. But what we should be doing now is to avoid that outcome and to avoid that outcome we need to see if a dialogue is possible and indeed, if it possible, then it's possible to make progress. We may have a window of opportunity now, and so we can't afford just to sit back and see how things develop.

SS: Let me ask you this: do you think Trump cabinet really has a clear Korea policy? Because we're still seeing a lot of mixed signals here - on the one hand Washington says “wait and see”, on the other it’s sending warships to the peninsula, and threatens drastic action? What's your take on that?

JW: What I would say is this is a work-in-progress, but I have a friend who says that it's not really a work-in-progress, they're lurching towards a policy. So we're in an initial phase where you're seeing different strands of a policy, ranging from sending carriers to the region, to threatening military action, to thinking about enacting more sanctions, and finally - to seeking some sort of dialogue. The issue what comes, of course, is how will the Administration pull these strands together in a rational way that deals with the problem, and I don't know if we're quite seeing that yet.

SS:Trump said he would meet Kim Jong Un “under the right circumstances” to defuse tensions. But really, can you imagine an actual meeting of Trump and Kim Jong Un - that’s just in the realm of fantasy to me… Do you see them shaking hands?

JW: On a number of different levels that's kind of hard to imagine, but, you know... yes, it would not happen overnight, it might not even happen in the next few years, but the fact that Trump said that, I think, is a very important signal to the North Koreans. It's a signal that under the right circumstances, the President of the U.S. would meet with their leader, and I think that's very important. Whether we get there or not is another issue, but it's an important signal that you would have seen send in the Obama Administration. So, in that sense it's very different from the Obama Administration is doing.

SS: Another state with a nuclear programme - Iran - was able to somehow reach a deal with the int’l community. To do that, the countries involved agreed to start talks without preconditions. Why isn’t the North Korean problem being solved this way?

JW: Well, there are a number of different challenges here, of course. The main challenge is, as I said earlier, there's only  a temporary armistice ending the Korean War, and the U.S. and North Korea fought a war for a number of years. That never happened with Iran. Secondly, North Korean nuclear programme is much further advanced than Iran's nuclear programme. North Korea has a nuclear weapon! So that makes it a much tougher problem to deal with. Third, of course, Iran, was much more susceptible to economic sanctions and other measures to put pressure on it. North Korea is not really susceptible to those measures. So, for all of those reasons, this is a very tough nut to crack, but on your last point about holding talks without preconditions - that's absolutely essential. And one of the problems with the Obama administration for a number of years is to establish preconditions. So, for those of us who are interested in seeing this dialogue in work, an essential first step is what's called "talks about talks" where there are no preconditions, and both sides explore whether formal negotiations are worthwhile or not.

SS:Can you also tell me briefly something that blows my mind: how is it that the world has isolated North Korea, sanctioned the hack out of it, yet it’s still building nukes? Are all these sanctions ultimately useless?

JW: It depends on what role you want sanctions to play. I used to work on sanctions in the U.S. government, and we think about "what is the purpose of sanctions?". If the purpose is to put pressure on another country - fine. If the purpose is to stop a nuclear weapons programme in another country - that's a different thing. If the pressure is to make the country collapse - that's a very different standard. So in the case of North Korea, it's unclear to me what our intention is other than to send the signal to the North Koreans, and to make their lives more difficult - but if there's one thing that North Koreans know how to deal with, is when someone who's putting pressure on them, and so they've been able to - even during this period of increased sanctions - improve their economy through evading sanctions and also through, and it's very important, their link to China, where there's been an enormous growth in the economic interaction between the two countries. So you can argue whether sanctions have made life more difficult for North Koreans, but they're not going to solve this problem.

SS: Alright.Joel, it's been great talking to you. Thanks a lot for this lovely insight. We were talking to Joel Wit, a long-time State Department official, now a senior fellow at U.S.-Korea institute at John Hopkins University, discuss North Korea's nuclear weapons ambition and the dangers that it may bring to the world. That's for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.