North Korea’s ultimate goal is actually improving relations with US – fmr. Japan govt adviser

This year’s key show at the UN General Assembly was Trump’s speech on North Korea. With tough, hawkish rhetoric, it received a similar response from Kim Jong-un. Is this all talk and saber-rattling for the sake of ratings and diverting attention? Or is war on the horizon? A conflict on the Korean Peninsula would engulf the region. Just recently, a missile launched by the DPRK flew over Japan. Where is all of this heading? We ask former Japanese government adviser and military scholar, Dr. Narushige Michishita.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: Dr. Narushige Michishita, former Japanese government advisor and military scholar, welcome to the show, it's good to have you with us.  The latest North Korean test saw a missile landing 2,000 kilometres east of Hokkaido - the second missile to fly over Japan in less than 3 weeks. Air raid signals were sounded, people were told to hide in basements, and there’s been a boom in bomb shelter sales in Japan. Are you scared?

Dr. Narushige Michishita: I am not scared, but people are a little upset. Good news is that the people have realized, through media and different activities that they were asked to take, that Japan is pretty well protected, firstly, by Missile Defence systems. We have two different systems, one is sea-based, upper-tier, exoatmospheric system called SM3-Block 1A, and the other one is land-based, lower tier, endoatmospheric missile defence system, called Patriot PAC-3. Also, recently, the Japanese government has started to conduct civil defence exercises based on missile attack scenario. So, people are learning - I mean, there have been several mishaps. For example, the civil defence message told people to get inside the 'solid' buildings - in the area, there are not many solid buildings, so people became a little panicky, but we will be able to fix it, that kind of messages in the future, so, bad news - North Korea continues to launch missiles, good news - we are taking measures to work with that.

SS: Yeah, but my question is precisely because North Korea continues to launch missiles, why isn't Japan shooting down the missiles as they fly over your country? Are you sure Japan has an adequate missile defence system to take care of the North Korean attack?

NM: As long as the missile does not come down or fall inside the Japanese territories or territorial waters, there's not much need for us to shoot them down. But we know, if there's a war on the Korean Peninsula and missiles will start coming at us - we have pretty robust missile defence capabilities to take care of them.

SS: The latest bomb tested by North Korea is - according to some estimates - 7 times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You’ve said that as the North Korean threat grows, Japan’s defence capabilities must grow. Will this situation push Japan into easing its constitutional restraints on the military?

NM: Constitution amendment does not matter too much because whether or not the Constitution is there, we can deploy missile defence capabilities, we can enhance our civil defence measures and we can take, certainly, diplomatic steps to deal with the North Korean issue. So, the Constitution doesn't matter too much.

SS: Do you think that Japan will start thinking about its own nuclear weapons programme now?

NM: I don't think so. There are many things that we have to do before we start talking about nuclear weapons. As I said, missile defence is one, Japan has already made a decision to acquire more advanced version of sea-based missile defence system, called SM3 Block 2A and that will be a lot of money. These missiles are hi-tech, hi-end, very expensive missiles, so it costs a lot of money, and then we can take additional civil defence measures and also, there's an interesting debate about whether or not Japan should start thinking about acquiring certain level of strike capabilities - but those capabilities are all conventional. There's no talk about nuclear weapons, it's not a realistic option at this point.

SS: Can you solely rely on yourselves? Because the feeling that we got is that Japan has for decades based its defence on the assumption that Washington will come to Tokyo’s help. But now that America itself is in range of a North Korean missile, will the U.S. be more worried about its own security than the security of others, can Tokyo fully rely on this alliance? Can Tokyo still rely on this alliance?

NM: The point is, North Korea is not interested in attacking Japan for the sake of attacking Japan. North Korean aim is to undermine South Korea, which is its rival, South Korea is the only country which poses an existential threat to North Korea. South Korea is the only country which has ability and intention to absorb North Korea and unify the Korean Peninsula. So, North Korea's aim is to undermine South Korea, not to undermine or attack Japan. The reason why North Korea is trying to develop capability to attack Japan is to actually prevent Japan and the U.S. from assisting South Korea in case of contingencies. Because with nuclear and missile capabilities, capable of attacking Japan and the United States, North Korea can tell the Americans and Japanese: "if you are to assist South Korea, we would attack you with nuclear weapons", and North Korea will be telling us... their question will be whether we are willing to sacrifice Tokyo, Washington, New York or Seoul - and we, Japan and the United States will be put in a very difficult position.

SS: Do you think Japan and the U.S. will still come to South Korea's help, if anything happens?

NM: That's what we are committed to do, but as the North Korean capabilities grow, that will become more difficult. So, that's why we are trying to strengthen our defence capabilities, so that we will be able to remain committed in case of crisis to contingencies, and also we are trying to strengthen trilateral U.S.-South Korea-Japan policy coordination and security partnership in order to prevent that kind of consequences from emerging.

SS:  Japan and South Korea are sticking to the idea that sanctions will force Pyongyang into dialogue. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe has called on the international community to “stay united and enforce the sanctions”.  Meanwhile even the U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley admitted that the sanctions aren’t working. So why insist on them?

NM: Sanctions are not workings because sanctions are not in place yet. We have only adopted the sanctions, now it's the time for us to start implementing them. In our attempt to implement them effectively, Chinese cooperation is indispensable. So we are really trying hard to encourage China to implement important sanctions that are were adopted by the UNSC. If we impose all the sanctions which were adopted, we will be able to stop about 90% of North Korean exports.

SS: Yeah, but sanctions on North Korea are not a thing of today. They've been in place for a while. Other sanctions. I mean, this country has been sanctions to death for so many years. They haven't been working. They are still flying missiles over your head. Why do you think these sanctions - the new ones - will work?

NM: Previous sanctions were not imposed on North Korean import-export, broadly. Those sanctions were specifically imposed on transfer of missile or nuclear-rated equipment and materials. So, the recent sanctions are more robust and much broader than previous ones, so I believe that if they are fully implement, that would have a tremendous impact on North Korean regime's capability and intention to develop nuclear and missile capabilities.

SS:   In the same op-ed, Mr. Abe says that any dialogue with Pyongyang would be a dead end, that North Korea would see more talks as proof of its “victory” over the international community. But in this case, aren’t we at a dead end already - there are sanctions, and then launches, new sanctions, new launches, and no talking? What do you think?

NM: Politicians cannot say "well, this is a time for dialogue", so I think it's more of a rhetoric than it is a long-term vision. Mr. Abe is actually quite proactive in engaging in dialogue with North Korea. In 2013, just after he became PM, he initiated dialogue process with North Korea which resulted in an agreement, bilateral North Korea-Japan agreement regarding the abduction issues and humanitarian issues, in 2014. So, he knows that dialogue is important. What he is trying to emphasize is that dialogue at this point is pretty much over and dialogue without pressure will be fruitless.

SS:  There’s a Russian-Chinese proposal of a double-freeze – N. Korea freezing its programme in exchange for the U.S. and S. Korea freezing their military drills - why is it being rejected by the United States?

NM: Well,  because this is simply not the time for the dialogue, because unless we take necessary measures, including sanctions and necessary defensive measures against what North Korea has been doing, we will not be in a good position, you know, our bargaining position is not that strong. So what we are trying to do right now is to... I think, we should understand that ultimately, dialogue is a key, but in order to prepare for the dialogue we have to strengthen our bargaining position by imposing more sanctions and reinforcing our defence capabilities.

SS: Russia and China’s way of thinking, is that Kim Jong Un needs nuclear weapons for insurance against regime change. Is this so? Or do you think North Korea is actually gearing up for offensive?

NM: Well, not North Korea is gearing up for offensive diplomatically - so I think that North Korea's ultimate goal is to improve its relations with the United States and establish its status as a nuclear power, and based on that more stable international environment, Kim Jong Un might be interested in undertaking some kind of economic reform.

SS:   What kind of insurance can satisfy Kim if not nuclear weapons? How do you make him believe he will not have the same fate as Gaddafi?

NM:  North Korea has already tremendous capability to destroy Seoul. North Korea has deployed a large number of long-range artillery pieces, as well as long-range multiple rocket launchers which can be used to bring about major destruction of Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, which has worked to basically deter the U.S. from taking preventive strikes against North Korea. Back in 1994 when the U.S. government under President Clinton seriously thought about launching a preemptive strike against North Korea, that kind of conventional deterrent capabilities that North Korea had, basically, deterred the U.S. from going ahead. Those capabilities are still there, so Kim does not have to be too worried about it.

SS: Former President Barack Obama’s National Security adviser, Susan Rice, wants President Trump to accept North Korea as a nuclear power. His intel chief, James Clapper, admitted that preventing NK from getting nukes is a lost cause. Is it more productive now to just accept a nuclear DPRK and go from there?

NM: Whether or not we accept it or not, North Korea has nuclear weapons, so for the time being we have to formulate policies and take necessary action based on that reality. But it doesn't mean that we accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state in a long run. So we have to find a way to resolve this problem and dismantle North Korea's nuclear weapons by step-by-step approach.

SS: How realistic do you think is the North Korean understanding of their American adversaries? Do they seriously think they can pressure the United States into doing anything with threats?

NM: North Korea's brinkmanship diplomacy has worked twice in the past, the U.S. and North Korea, after more than a year of coercive diplomacy, signed an agreement called "Agreed Framework" in October 1994. In the second round of nuclear diplomacy North Korea, after 6 or 7 years of coercive actions came to an agreement in 2007 in six-party talks framework. So it has worked twice and they can work again.

SS: From internal North Korean propaganda it seems clear that the North Koreans are aware that if a war comes, it will be devastating, and the official line is that they are ready for that. How do you play the mutually assured destruction game - when one side isn’t afraid of destruction? Of self-destruction?

NM: North Korea says one thing and does another easily, and the North Korean leaders are not crazy or stupid. They have been quite rational in stopping short of going over the brink. They've been trying this brinkmanship diplomacy in the more than past 20 years. But they have not failed and went over the brink. So they are pretty good, they know their limits and they are playing the game within that limits. We see that they continue to play the game.

SS: This man, Kim Jong Un is a royal prince, a man who hasn’t heard “no” much in his life - unlike his grandfather Kim Jong Il, for instance. Do you think he will actually know when to stop?

NM: His grandfather was guerilla fighter, he didn't know the world too much, too well, his father didn't even study abroad. Kim Jong Un has studied in Switzerland and has been exposed to world affairs, he's a regular net surfer, and he's much more informed than his father. we don't know how rational or smart he is, but he seems to have been quite rational. Compared to his father, for example, Kim Jong-il, in the early years of his tenure, he was crazy, but Kim Jong Un has not committed that kind of atrocities yet. So, we have to wait and see, but there's a possibility that Kim Jong Un is actually a very smart and more rational than his father.

SS: Right after the American president said that the military option against NK is “locked and loaded”, Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson wrote a joint op-ed saying that the U.S isn’t after regime change in N. Korea. Is it wise to play confusion games when we’re talking about nuclear bombs?

NM: Everybody is playing the game here. All the countries are trying to enhance their bargaining positions. The U.S. talks about dialogue as well as strikes, North Korea talks about nuclear attacks, and the devastation. Kim Jong Un the other day said, after he reviewed a plan to launch missiles towards Guam, he said - according to a North Korean report - "Well, we have to wait and see what the U.S. might do about this!". So, both sides are playing the game and both sides seem to understand that ultimately they would have to engage in dialogue, but it's not the time yet.

SS:   How do you plan out your moves and their counter-moves, when it’s so hard to find anything out about this very closed country, North Korea? Is this a game where all the players are blind?

NM: Not really. Back in early 1990s not many people understood what kind of games that North Koreans were playing, so, we were wondering and there were diverse opinions as to what North Koreans were trying to do, but now North Korea has been playing the same game for the past, more than, 20 years - so, we know more or less the name of the game, how they play it, and how they try to ratchet up the crisis up to a dangerous situation when they suddenly start suggesting dialogue. So that kind of pattern, we have seen that, and that can be repeated. I'm not saying it will be repeated, but it's quite possible that this pattern will be repeated.

SS: Relations between China and Japan have been pretty dire over a territorial dispute. But now they have to deal with North Korea together somehow - could this bring the nations closer together, now that they have a bigger problem than islands in the sea?

NM: It's not necessarily good news - that we have North Korea - because world's attention is diverted away from East China Sea and South China towards the Korean Peninsula, nobody's talking about South China Sea anymore. So China has a freer hand to take actions in those areas. So we are pretty concerned, and our limited precious defense resources has been diverted to some extent - not entirely - but away from South China and East China sea, towards the Korean Peninsula. So, it's really, we are taking a hit in this situation.

SS: Mr. Michishita, thank you for being with us today. We were discussing how the international community should handle the North Korean nuclear crisis with former Japanese government advisor and military scholar, Dr. Narushige Michishita. That's it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.