Endgame in Pyongyang:
The U.S., China, and the Geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
October 25, 2017
Dr. Bruce W. Bennett is a senior international/defense researcher at the RAND Corporation who works primarily on research topics such as strategy, force planning, and counterproliferation within the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center and the RAND Arroyo Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program.
Bennett’s work applies war gaming, risk management, deterrence-based strategy, competitive strategies, and military simulation and analysis. He specializes in “asymmetric threats” such as weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and how to counter those threats with new strategies, operational concepts, and technologies. He is an expert in Northeast Asian military issues, having visited the region more than 100 times and written much about Korean security issues. He has also done work on the Persian/Arab Gulf region.
Dr. Marco Milani is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Dornsife College – Korean Studies Institute, University of Southern California. He received his doctoral degree in History and International Relations of Asia with a dissertation on the cooperation between North and South Korea. Previously, he has been visiting research fellow at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies (South Korea) and at the Leiden Institute for Area Studies (Holland), and research fellow at the University of Bologna. He is currently working on a book manuscript based on his research titled, ‘The Evolution of Inter-Korean Cooperation: History, Theory and Practice.’ His research interests include: Inter-Korean relations, History and International Relations of East Asia, Korean Studies and IR Theory.
Dr. Dorothy Solinger is Professor of Politics and Society at the the University of California, Irvine. She is a leading expert on political change and Chinese domestic politics focusing on social and economic policy. She uses a comparative approach to issues such as industrial policy, urban welfare and democratization processes. She teaches courses on Chinese politics, introduction to comparative politics, East Asian politics, regime change in East Asia, and theories of the state. She is the author and editor of several books including, “China’s Transition from Socialism?”, “Contesting Citizenship in Urban China,” and “From Lathes to Looms: China’s Industrial Policy in Comparative Perspective, 1979-1982).
Chris Nordyke: Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the Nixon Library, my name is Chris Nordyke, I’m the Nixon Foundation events director. It’s a pleasure to have you all here for this very topical, very fascinating, very interesting subject.
In April 1969, President Nixon was confronted with the first foreign policy crisis of his administration. On the morning of April 15, Nixon’s beside phone began to ring. It was national security advisor Dr. Henry Kissinger. He informed the President that North Korean jets had shot down a U.S. Navy EC-121 reconnaissance plane with 31 one men aboard. Nixon had debated making a strike on North Korean airfields, or continuing with reconnaissance flights with the help of escorts. He opted for the second option because he didn’t want to involve the US in potentially another war in Asia. Nixon would later say that he was dismayed the Pentagon had delayed the order to continue the flights, and was troubled by the response they failed to make. He told Kissinger, “They got away with it this time, but they’ll never get away with it again.”
North Korea was a challenge nearly 50 years ago for the Nixon administration, and it remains one today. Here today to give comment is a distinguished group of experts who shape conversation on U.S. defense, the way we think about China, and the North Korean challenge. Introducing these experts and moderating this discussion is the Richard Nixon Foundation’s director of programming and research, Jonathan Movroydis. Jonathan.
Jonathan Movroydis: Thank you all for being here. Just as sort of an introductory question. Each of you can answer this. I’ll start with you Dr. Bennett. From each of your perspectives, what challenges do the Kim’s regime nuclear ambitions bring to the current state of U.S.-China relations?
Bruce Bennett: The Kim family regime is looking for nuclear weapons as a means of decoupling South Korea from the United States, and through that achieve U.S. removal of its forces from Korea and U.S. removal from the region. They would like to see the United States not dealing with North Korea, South Korea, or China. They want us out. But in the meantime, they also want to be recognized as a peer of the United States. While their economy is generously referred to as third world; they want to be declared the peer of the United States because Kim Jung-un needs that for internal political purposes. He’s weak, his economy is in bad shape, not growing very much, and growing only because of capitalism in North Korea.
Jonathan Movroydis: Dr. Milani.
Marco Milani: I think that in terms of U.S.-China relations, the main problem regarding North Korea is the fact that the U.S. and China have different interests on the peninsula, so I think that this threat from North Korea can also be considered as an opportunity to cooperate.
Marco Milani: This threat from North Korea can be also considered as an opportunity to cooperate between China and the U.S., but only if the two countries can really cooperate. That means taking into account the different interest of both sides. Because, my opinion, China is very concerned about the possibility of a collapse of the regime. They don’t really like Kim Jong-un, but they really like the North Korean regime that can maintain a sort of stability on the peninsula. Because one big problem is the fact that China fears the possibility of a reunification under South Korean terms, so with the possibility of the U.S. troops move to the border with China.
But I think that China is also very concerned about possible instability from a collapse of the regime. They already have nuclear weapons. Who’s gonna take care of the nuclear weapons if the regime collapse? Who can predict what happens after the collapse of the regime? What will happen? I mean, Chinese troops might go into the country from the north, American from the south, but nobody really knows. So, the collapse of the regime might create a lot of instability on the region. So, I think that the main concerns for China is instability, more than North Korea’s buffer state. So, my opinion is that if China and the U.S. want to do something on this issue, they have to start to really cooperate, then take into account the interest of both sides on the issue.
Jonathan Movroydis: Dr. Solinger?
Dorothy Solinger: Well, it’s a complex situation. In the first place, as Marco just mentioned, the two sides, the U.S. and China, need to cooperate. But underlying that, there’s a lot of animosity on this issue. Because, China, there are a lot of Chinese scholars and political leaders who feel that the U.S. is pushing too hard and causing tensions. Also, blaming the U.S. for the tension, feeling that because of Trump’s remarks and the unpredictability at the top in the U.S., there’s undue tension on the U.S.-China relationship and on North Korea, and that the U.S. is to blame for the situation. And at the same time, most policymakers in the U.S. have refused to think about China’s own national interest, which as you’ve just heard, is stability and a buffer on its north, on the border there.
So, even though they need to cooperate, there’s still tension with each side blaming the other, with Trump blaming China for not acting to control North Korea, which is not really possible, and the U.S. blaming China for not controlling the situation, but China blaming the U.S. for intensifying the tensions. However, within China, there is at least two standpoints. A diminishing standpoint claims that North Korea continues to be somewhat of an asset to China by serving as a buffer and by combining potentially with Russia against the U.S., South Korea, and Japan.
There’s another faction which is growing with time whose members are very frustrated with North Korea and they don’t want to see nuclear weapons, they don’t wanna see force against North Korea. But at the same time, they actually are this more, I guess you’d say, moderate faction, would like to potentially collaborate internationally, even with the U.S. and South Korea, to try to ameliorate all the tension and rhetoric. So, probably with time, there’s going to be more of a movement within China toward a stance that could cooperate more with the U.S. And it’s quite remarkable, the whole range of opinions within China, which maybe I can go into later.
Jonathan Movroydis: Sure. Let’s talk about the challenge at hand, the seriousness of the threat. In the early 1990s, the then leader’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, called together senior military officers and he asked them if they could win a war with the United States. He followed-up asking them, “If we lost, what do we do?” Kim Jong-il, the father of the current leader, spoke to him, said, “If we lose, I’ll be sure to destroy the earth. What good is the earth without North Korea?” In terms of seriousness of the threat, can we take the Kim regime at its word and how rational is the current leader, Kim Jong-un? I’ll start with you, Dr. Bennett.
Bruce Bennett: A lot of people think that Kim Jong-un is irrational. They call him crazy in cases. I think we’ve learned with his ability to outfox the United States that he tends to be crazy as a fox. He cuts through our red lines and we don’t really do very much. So, he’s been able to accomplish a lot.
This statement that you just said, this is posted in “Pyongyang,” talking with defectors, they say this is a fundamental part of the North Korean philosophy. And note that when he said, “I will be sure to destroy the earth,” he did not exclude China. The Chinese know he is prepared to target them with nuclear weapons. His weapons don’t just fly south, they can also fly west. If you don’t believe that, look at what China is doing now. They have bitterly, bitterly complained about the U.S. THAAD missile defense system put in Korea. They’ve already cost South Korea over $10 billion in economic warfare they’ve been doing against South Korea because of the THAAD system. But there is a lookalike to the THAAD that China has deployed, called the HQ-19. And where have they deployed it? They’ve deployed it on the peninsula in between Pyongyang and Beijing, exactly where you would put it to defend the Chinese capital.
So, the Chinese know that the North Koreans don’t like them. In fact, under Kim Jong-un, he has told his military, even though China is theoretically an ally, he’s told his military, “Don’t you dare do anything with the Chinese, you are forbidden to interact with the Chinese.” So, ally, well, not in any kind of term of ally that we have or that we know. The tensions, they’re substantial, and I think we have to recognize that, indeed, the Chinese are gradually swinging in the direction of “we have to do something.”
Xi Jinping, the leader of China, has recently said on a number of occasions, “I will not allow war or chaos to breakout on the peninsula.” Well, okay, he can’t stop North Korean missile launches, how is he gonna stop war or chaos? And the answer is, it’s called putting Chinese forces into North Korea. I think, in many ways, that was what caused the death, caused Kim Jong-un to kill his older brother in February, because he was worried that sooner or later, the Chinese could take him out and replace him with his brother, and he didn’t want that to happen.
There was no faction for the brother in North Korea. He’d already eliminated all of those people. If you were in the elites and you even knew Kim Jong-nam, the brother, Kim Jong-un started executing all of those people in 2010 when he was declared the successor. There was no faction for the brother in North Korea, was other reasons he took him out.
Jonathan Movroydis: Dr. Milani, how about you, in terms of the seriousness of the threat of North Korea and the rationality of the regime?
Marco Milani: I mean, if you talk about the rationality of the regime, I totally agree with Dr. Bennett. I mean, I think we’re past the point we still think that Kim Jong-un or Kim Jong-il are crazy or was crazy. Just think about, what’s the goal of the regime, the main goal? The main goal right now of the regime is survival. And if we talk about, in security terms, what’s the referent object for this survival? It’s the regime itself. It’s not the North Korean population. Because there is a total overlap in North Korea between the survival of the regime and the survival of North Korea as a state, as an independent state. Because this is part of the whole philosophy, of the Juche philosophy of North Korea. So, the most important thing to protect is to protect the regime, and in particularly, to protect the leader of the regime.
So, what has Kim Jong-un been doing in those years, from like early 2012, when he took power after Kim Jong-il’s death? Two things, consolidate the power inside the country, like with purge, with killing all the possible adversaries, like Jang Song-thaek, for example. And on the other side, try to achieve a strong position on the international environment to protect the country, first of all, but also to be in a stronger position for possible negotiations.
Because North Korea never said that they don’t want to talk with the United States or the international community, but mainly the United States. They don’t want to talk about nuclear weapons right now. This is out of the table. They repeated it like two, three days ago in Moscow, for example, but they want to talk and negotiate with U.S. from a stronger position. North Korea, right now, is in a much stronger position than 10 years ago, during the Six-Party Talks, or 23 years ago when North Korea and the U.S. signed the Agreed Framework. So, in this sense, I think that Kim Jong-un’s regime is very rational because he had the goal of consolidate the power inside the country and be in a stronger position outside the country, and I think he’s doing really well on both sides. So, I think the threat is serious, but we have to treat this threat as a threat from a normal country and a rational leader and regime. I think that’s a very important point.
Jonathan Movroydis: Dr. Solinger, in terms of rationality and the seriousness of this threat, what are your thoughts?
Dorothy Solinger: Well, definitely, I don’t think that Kim Jong-un is crazy. I think he’s got a very strategic approach to the situation. I think there’s probably no genuine danger of him attacking anybody, except with words. The real dangers are accidents or misperceptions or even setting off a volcano, whose name I don’t know how…
Bruce Bennett: Mount Paektu.
Dorothy Solinger: Say it again.
Bruce Bennett: Mount Paektu.
Dorothy Solinger: There was another one…Chang…maybe that’s a Chinese name, Changbai-something.
Marco Milani: You’re right, that’s the Chinese.
Dorothy Solinger: Yeah. Okay. So, the threat is an escalation of rhetoric or a pure accident, not an intentional attack. And, of course, our leader is intensifying that threat by playing back and forth with Kim. So, I hate to say this but I think the irrationality is more on our side than on the side of North Korea. At least North Korea and its leadership appear to have a very clear idea of what they intend to achieve, which is the perpetuation of the Kim dynasty and the security of the regime. They absolutely will not jettison their nuclear capacity, and as has already been said, recognition as an equal security guarantee from the U.S., all very rational objectives. Now, people may say the way Kim treats his own people shows that he’s crazy, the way he kills relatives. Well, I don’t know if it’s crazy, it’s certainly criminal, but it’s not irrational, given his objectives.
Jonathan Movroydis: Dr. Bennett, for the audience, can you give a brief history of the North Korea nuclear program? And also, specifically, the U.S. has offered a range of…over the past couple decades, carrots and sticks and trying to get them to denuclearize. What exactly have U.S. leaders done and what has been the outcome of the policy from the past two decades or so?
Dorothy Solinger: Excuse me, one minute. Is it possible to shift that light a little bit? It’s directly in our eyes.
Jonathan Movroydis: Thanks.
Dorothy Solinger: Maybe on a diagonal angle or something like that.
Bruce Bennett: All right, history of the nuclear program…
Dorothy Solinger: Oh, that’s much better.
Bruce Bennett: I’m good, I’m good.
Dorothy Solinger: Even my sunglasses don’t help.
Bruce Bennett: I’m good with that. History of the nuclear program. You have to remember, there were many Koreans who were in Japan during World War II. They had been brought into Japan as slave laborers. So, when the World War II ended, many of those Koreans went back to Korea, especially to North Korea, with stories of what had happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of the nuclear weapons going off, very dramatic stories that really raised interest in Korea.
So, as Kim Il-sung took authority in North Korea, even before the Korean War, he started pestering the Russians about, “I wanna get some of these weapons, I wanna get my people trained,” and so forth. After the Korean War, he really turned up that pressure. Why? Because at the end of the Korean War, President Truman and then Eisenhower put a fair amount of pressure on North Korea saying, “This war stops or maybe we use nuclear weapons.” And so, North Korea had been threatened with the weapons and they thought they needed their own.
In the ‘50s, they pressured and pressured and pressured the Russians. They eventually got the Russians to accept some of their scientists into graduate school training programs in nuclear engineering in Russia. They weren’t being trained how to build a nuclear weapon, they were just in nuclear engineering. That increased over time and eventually, they got more and more capabilities. Well, meanwhile as these people came back in the 1960s, they created their own research reactor. Small reactor, but where they could test nuclear reactions, learn how to do things with nuclear reactions, and they built that and they got the fuel for that from Russia.
Fast-forward, early 1980s. The North Koreans had been pestering the Eastern Europeans as well and the Russians, “We want our own real reactors,” and they got rebuffed, so they decided to build their own nuclear reactor. Now, this is still a fairly small nuclear reactor, roughly about 1% of the electrical capacity of the standard U.S. or Japanese or South Korean nuclear reactor today. They built it largely on their own. We can’t tell for sure how much it was truly on their own and how much they may have gotten individual scientific assistance. And then, as they move forward, they got to the point where they were starting to then test nuclear explosions.
To create a nuclear weapon, you got two ways. You can slam together two pieces of uranium that are below a critical mass. That’s called a gun type implosion, and it creates an explosion, not very efficient. The second way is to surround the nuclear material with a high explosive and have it explode in. That was what they were focused on in the 1980s. They did many tests, dozens of tests of that. Into the 1990s, they acquire uranium enrichment capability. They have their reactor already working.
The International Atomic Energy Agency comes out to inspect their reactor, because finally in the 1980s, to get more fuel from the Russians, the Russians had insisted they joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Well, they get inspected and, of course, the inspectors conclude they’ve been reprocessing plutonium, probably trying to prepare it for nuclear weapons. First nuclear crisis in 1993 occurs as a result of that, where the U.S. talked about going to war with North Korea and actually got relatively close. Eventually, former President Jimmy Carter went to North Korea, got an agreement called the Agreed Framework, was supposed to shutdown the North Korean nuclear reactor and other activities, only, sort of, kind of.
The North Koreans view agreements as something that’s the baseline for your activity, and you don’t really have to stick with them, you can kind of do what you want. So, if we’re looking for an agreement with North Korea, North Korea has already agreed in 1992 with South Korea not to produce uranium, highly-enriched uranium, not to reprocess plutonium, not to [inaudible 00:19:43] nuclear weapons. That’s still an agreement that’s in place and, of course, they’re violating it royally.
They build up their program. By the time they get into the 2000 timeframe under President Bush, they’re challenged about uranium enrichment. They had gotten from Pakistan, capability to do uranium enrichment, probably had a little bit before they even got it from Pakistan in the mid-90s. And then, they go ahead, the U.S. starts putting more and more pressure on them. And by 2006, they do their first nuclear test, it’s a half-kiloton test, roughly 4% the size of the Hiroshima weapon. And most American said, “That’s a fizzle, no big deal.” Then, their next test was a two-kiloton test. “Oh, well, no big deal.” Next test was an eight-kiloton test. “Oh, well, no big deal.” Now, they’re up to 250 kilotons with the latest test and people are still kind of saying, “No, big deal.”
The North Korean approach is incremental and conditioning. They gradually condition us to new capabilities and we don’t react in most cases, or if we do, it’s far less than would be required to get them to do something. So, sorry, but that’s the history.
Dorothy Solinger: Can I say something?
Jonathan Movroydis: Sure.
Dorothy Solinger: I defer to my colleague who’s a specialist and I’m not, but I have been reading about all this and my adviser, John Wilson Lewis, who died last month, went to North Korea and met with leaders there on multiple occasions and went with Siegfried Hecker in 2010 and was given a tour of their nuclear effort, and he puts this a little differently. And my understanding is the 1994 agreement was that North Korea was supposed to stop with its plutonium processing and it did. And eventually, the agreement was also that the United States would recognize North Korea and provide, I think it was two light-water reactors, but on the U.S. side, we didn’t follow through.
And within a fairly short time, I don’t know exactly when, North Korea did acquire the capacity to process uranium, I think with help from Pakistan, and that was discovered in the U.S., I think in ’01. And then, Bush Jr. came into power, in his presidency, and completely tore up the agreement, charging that North Korea hadn’t fulfilled its side, but we hadn’t fulfilled our side either. And it’s all somewhat about timing. When did North Korea renege, and why didn’t the U.S. supply light-water reactors? And I heard recently that, well, we were ready to do it, but North Korea didn’t have the port facilities to bring them into the country. I don’t know if that’s true, but from North Korea’s side, it looks like we didn’t do what we said we would do. So, it’s a little ambiguous.
It’s true that by processing uranium, North Korea was going against its promise to stop creating a nuclear capability. But to the letter, it was doing what it said. And I think, up until…well, certainly up until the time that Bush Jr. came to be president, there were no nuclear weapons in North Korea. And had it not been for the framework of ’94, the agreement, North Korea certainly could have achieved much more on the nuclear side than it did. So, I think I saw some agreement here. Did you agree with me? Well, Mark, I’m sorry, I forgot your last name.
Marco Milani: Milani.
Dorothy Solinger: Milani?
Marco Milani: Milani.
Dorothy Solinger: So, I don’t know. I mean, in a way, we’re two against three, but I’m not a specialist, so I’m glad one of the specialists is nodding.
Marco Milani: I mean, I…
Jonathan Movroydis: I’m sorry, go ahead.
Marco Milani: To my understanding, the whole issue of the Agreed Framework is controversial, at least. It’s not that North Korea violated the agreement 100%, so the U.S. decided to withdraw from the agreement. It’s a little bit more complicated. Because from the U.S. side, for example, the construction of light-water reactor, it’s true that the Korean Energy Development Organization was created and in some way financed, but the work for the construction of the reactors was slowed down in a way. And it’s also true that the Agreed Framework specifically address the issue of plutonium. Of course, this is like violating the substance of the agreement. And I think that President Bush said something like that, that North Korea is violating the spirit of the agreement.
But, yeah, I think that the whole issue of the Agreed Framework is controversial, at least. My opinion is that…it’s not that North Korea violated it, while the U.S. was fulfilling it 100% so the U.S. decided to withdraw. And my opinion is also that, as Professor Solinger was saying, having a way to, in a way, manage or control or supervise a program is better than do nothing. Because in the past 10 years, we saw that North Korea had all the time to develop their nuclear weapons and missile technologies, because basically, the U.S. government was not really caring about it. And now, we are at a point where we are today.
So, my opinion is that the Agreed Framework was not that bad. It’s not something that you can replicate right now, especially because North Korea now has nuclear weapons, so they don’t want to sign anything like that anymore. But my opinion is that, was not totally a bad agreement. It has some good points to like, try to limit, at least, the North Korean nuclear program.
Dorothy Solinger: And just one last thing, is that my adviser was hosting second track negations or informal talks with North Koreans and South Koreans as long ago as 1990. So, he found people he could talk with way back then. And he had…there was an oral interview, oral, what is it called when you…oral history, that he gave two years ago, and he simplified this a lot, but it really struck me. He said, “We didn’t respect the agreement, and so as a result, the North Koreans went nuclear,” and he said, “It gets worse every day.” That was in 2015. On September 3rd this year, as you all probably know, North Korea had its major sixth nuclear test. My adviser died the next day. And he was told right before that that he had up to six months to live. So, I think that killed him.
Bruce Bennett: If I may, we have to recognize that there were two agreements actually, North Korea had made. They’d made a bilateral agreement in 1992 with South Korea. That agreement prohibited any uranium enrichment, any plutonium reprocessing, any possession of nuclear weapons. Any of those kinds of things were totally opposed to that agreement, and North Koreas was doing all of those things at the time when it made the agreement and it didn’t stop doing those things.
The Agreed Framework came two years after, on top of it. Part of the Agreed Framework is that North Korea would abide the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It didn’t specify exactly what those were because they’re pretty clear. But the North Korean activities over the subsequent 10 years regularly violated the requirements of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. So, this is a pattern of behavior. Yes, the Agreed Framework did not specifically say, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” It did say a few things.
But North Korea didn’t do the Non-Proliferation Treaty requirements. Were the U.S. fully compliant with the agreement? No, we were not. Congress refused to provide some of the money we were to pay to North Korea at the timing that we were to pay it because Congress was unhappy with the president about the agreement. We eventually did, but we didn’t in a timely manner.
Did we try to build the nuclear plants? Yes, but we got South Korea and Japan to agree to pay for the plants. The U.S. was not paying for the plants. And they were not as prompt in carrying things out, and the North Koreans made it a miserable experience. You know, think, have you ever tried to build a house? How the zoning people and the building inspectors can cause you immense trouble. Well, North Korea had that about a 100 times over. They didn’t allow things to happen so they could make an excuse about not abiding by the agreement. So, this is a case of, “Yeah, we didn’t build it. We were to build to two reactors in 10 years. We weren’t even close to doing that, so we didn’t accomplish it, but we didn’t accomplish it for a lot of reasons, many of which were North Korea’s faults, some of it were South Korea’s, some of it were U.S.” So, there was other faults there. But North Korea did not abide the terms of the agreement in any way, shape, or form of either of the agreements they were under.
Jonathan Movroydis: Thank you. Moving on to the U.S., China, and East Asian perspectives on the Korean Peninsula, starting with you, Dr. Milani. On the one hand, China profits in a trade relationship with North Korea and enjoys the buffer against South Korea, as we talked about earlier, which is also the home of 29,000 U. S. troops and marines. However, China’s also been willing to put sanctions on Pyongyang and has bolstered relations with Seoul. How do you think China has been walking this tight rope in their pulse between, you know, bolstering North Korea regime, but also branching out and trying to be more diplomatic?
Marco Milani: Well, I think that currently, the strategic interest of China, regarding North Korea, did not change. They still need North Korea as a buffer zone, as we already said, and also because they feel the instability that can come from a collapse of the regime. We already talk about this. At the same time, I think that implementing sanctions has a twofold goal. First of all is to…both sides are signals, in my opinion. The first signal they want to send this to the U.S. and the international community, saying, “We are a responsible, great power in the region, so we implement the resolution of the UN Security Council that we voted.” And at the same time, they want to tell new American president, “We are doing something, okay, so we are trying to implement the sanctions. Now, it’s your turn to do something.” Because Chinese governments said, “Okay, sanctions and pressure on one side, but also dialogue on the other side.”So, our part is to help the U.S. with pressure and sanctions. At your side is to open some form of dialogue with North Korea.
And the other signal is toward North Korea, saying we are very unhappy with what’s happening. But I don’t think that implementing the sanctions means that China is changing its strategy or national interest priorities in North Korea. And it’s very interesting also, the relationship with South Korea, because it started to change a bit during Park years especially, because we saw that the South Korean president, former President Park, went to China as her second trip after coming to the U.S., and then in 2014, she was the only head of state of an American allies who went to Beijing for the military parade, or was it 2015.
Bruce Bennett: 2015.
Marco Milani: 2015, you’re right, yeah. So, I think that China tried to develop a very good relation with South Korea, mainly because they saw there was an opportunity to try to drive a wedge between South Korea and the U.S. But when North Korea, in early 2016, started again with nuclear tests and missile tests, everything came back to normal right away because President Park agreed to deploy THAAD on the peninsula, like one month after the…or a couple of months after the test in January.
So, I don’t think that anything really changed, in terms of strategy for China and both Koreans. They’re trying to find an opportunity with South Korea, and at the same time, they had tried to do something with North Korea, something different, like sending signals to North Korea and to the U.S. But I don’t think that Chinese strategy really changed on the peninsula in the last few years.
Jonathan Movroydis: Dr. Solinger, do you have any thoughts on how China has been dealing with the North Korea threat, in terms of both the, you know, diplomacy with South Korea and its natural relationship with North Korea?
Dorothy Solinger: Yeah. China’s playing a number of games. One of them has to do with its treatment of South Korea since the agreement on the THAAD. Let’s see, what’s the T for…?
Marco Milani: Terminal.
Dorothy Solinger: Terminal High Altitude.
Marco Milani: Aerial Defense.
Dorothy Solinger: Aerial Defense, thank you. Since that begun, China stopped a lot of its trade with the South and closed down Korean department stores in China. And a friend of mine was in South Korea this past summer, and she said it was really difficult because a lot of businesses in South Korea that dealt with China had been closed down and she couldn’t buy a lot of things she wanted to buy. And Chinese have also banned cultural products from South Korea.
And an interesting analysis is, which I’m not…and I don’t have the expertise to evaluate, but that the THAAD really can’t stop anything critical, that’s not China’s complaint. China’s worry is that it’s a means of the U.S. and South Korea’s military defense system becoming more integrated. And China’s fear that instead of the U.S. having a hub and spokes policy where it’s one-on-one with the various countries in the region, it may become an integrated defense system such as NATO and lead to a more deeply involved United States in East Asia, which China doesn’t want to see.
So, even though China as a country is treating South Korea in a negative way, at the same time, like I indicated before, there are scholars in China who think that China’s most significant means of dealing with the situation is to ally with South Korea, and Japan, and the U.S. against North Korea. And that group of voices is getting stronger. There are even people in China who are advocating…in the same group…advocating tearing up the agreement with North Korea, which was signed saying that China would come to the aid of North Korea if attacked. China will not support North Korea if North Korea were to initiate an attack.
But China, according to this agreement, would help North Korea if attacked. But there are now people in China saying, “Let’s not even promise that anymore.” But on the other hand, there’s voices in China saying, “Let’s support a unification of the whole peninsula,” which is really surprising because that was something that was very much opposed by China very recently with the fear that it could lead to a stronger U.S. presence in Korea. So, there’s voices all over the place within China with regard to the situation, blaming North Korea, some people blaming the U.S., other people. Meanwhile, the U.S. is blaming China. So, it’s a really complex situation. And it’s not enough to say, “What’s the stance of…,” as you may know, even within our government, we have Trump constantly bellowing out for using force, using any option, whereas his top advisers, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, have a much more reasoned, measured approach. So, it’s hard for China or North Korea to figure out what we stand for. We have more than one position. China has more than one position. Who knows, maybe North Korea does too. Maybe, one of these gentlemen knows that. South Korea certainly must. It’s not enough to just think it’s all settled between three players. And Japan, with the recent victory of Abe, I think is going to bolster its own capabilities.
Jonathan Movroydis: Dr. Bennett, do you have any thoughts on this?
Bruce Bennett: Sure. Happy to. We have to recognize that President Xi has said on multiple occasions…
Dorothy Solinger: Xi Jinping?
Bruce Bennett: Yeah.
Dorothy Solinger: Xi.
Bruce Bennett: Xi, all right. President Xi Jinping has said on multiple occasions that when he has met with the South Korean president, he’s met with eight times since he came to power and never with the North Korean leader, his ally. He said that he supports full Korean unification if it is done peacefully. Now, almost impossible for it to happen peacefully today, but he said he supports unification under those conditions. But meanwhile, he has indeed, just as Professor Solinger said, strongly opposed the THAAD missile system undoubtedly because he’s concerned about the strengthening U.S. alliance. South Korea has now taken him to the World Trade Organization for carrying on economic warfare against South Korea. They have banned tourists from going to South Korea in many cases. They’ve given real trouble to stores in China. Cost a lot of difficulty for the South Koreans. The South Koreans estimate that the damage that’s been done, even months ago, was over $10 billion. So, huge damage in this, economic, and that’s a violation of the World Trade Organization, and South Korea has questioned China.
So, there is a split of opinions in China. Some people in China are strongly favoring North Korea still, but many are moving in the direction of change. And you can see that in the sanctions, China has been prepared to implement. We don’t know how far they are prepared to go because they’re still trying to balance this situation. And quite truthfully, a lot of the trade that goes on between North Korea and China is illegal trade. It’s smuggling. And China has been gradually trying to rein that in but it’s hard. I mean, think about smuggling across our borders, it’s hard to rein in. So, some of that will still go on even if China is trying to stop it.
I think I’ll stop there and let you proceed.
Jonathan Movroydis: Okay. Dr. Milani, in terms of American interest, historically and I guess from a military and diplomatic perspective, what are U.S. interests in South Korea mainly?
Marco Milani: Well, South Korea is relevant for different reasons for the United States. First of all, abandoning South Korea would mean abandon North East Asia, I mean, because one of the major allies of the U.S. in the region is South Korea. And we don’t really know what Trump’s gonna do in East Asia. But under President Obama, with the [inaudible 00:43:30] strategy, South Korea was a very important point of the whole strategy. So, this is for strategic interest.
And another important point is that in some way, the U.S. are concerned about China rising in some way in the region. And for this reason, they’re trying to balance China in different ways, and one of this balancing action is external balancing, reinforce the alliance with South Korea, pan, and possibly with other countries in Southeast Asia, for example, Vietnam or the Philippines, even if it’s not going to so well in the Philippines after the result of the election. These strategic reasons are crucial for U.S. interest in Northeast Asia.
So, this is the first reason why the U.S. cannot abandon South Korea through [inaudible 00:44:32]. And also, the U.S. has 30,000 troops in South Korea. So, they have to defend these troops. They cannot just let North Korea attack in some way, South Korea, and put in danger the lives of millions of Koreans and also of American troops in the region. And this is the reason why, my opinion is that deterrence is still working on the peninsula today because the U.S. doesn’t really have a military option right now with North Korea. Trump administration is saying that they are preparing or they already have options to attack North Korea and limit the damage that North Korea can do to South Korea or Japan. I strongly doubt this because Seoul is a city of the 25 million people if we consider the whole area and its 40 miles from the border, so I don’t think that the U.S. can take down all the nuclear and conventional artillery, and all of their military facilities from the border.
So, I think that the U.S., right now, doesn’t really have a viable military option with North Korea, and that’s why deterrence is still in place. It’s a different kind of deterrence from what was between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But still, this is the situation we are in here, right now, on the peninsula and between North Korea and the United States.
Jonathan Movroydis: And just as a follow-up to that, Dr. Milani, what is the perspective of the other countries in the region on the Korean Peninsula, for example, Tokyo, the Philippines, and other East Asian countries?
Marco Milani: Me?
Jonathan Movroydis: Yes.
Marco Milani: Okay. Well, I don’t think that Southeast Asian countries are really interested in what’s going on in the region, in the Southeast, on the peninsula. But for sure, Japan is interested in that and is kind of using the North Korean threat right now. Professor Solinger just mentioned the recent election in Japan, and I think that Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is using this threat, because its final goal from the beginning, he said that was to turn Japan into a normal country. That means change the Article 9 of the Constitution. And North Korea is a perfect excuse for that. And I also think that somehow, the United States is using North Korea also as an excuse to balance China, military speaking, with these external balancing [inaudible 00:47:19] South Korea and Japan.
Jonathan Movroydis: Dr. Solinger, do you have any thoughts on U.S. interests on the Korean Peninsula and that of East Asian allies?
Dorothy Solinger: I think a very major motivating factor for the U.S. is to sustain its own credibility, which is under threat because of Trump’s unpredictability. And I think, if the U.S. doesn’t do something decisive, it’ll look bad, not just right there in that region, but beyond, including Australia, and possibly even Europe and Philippines, and other allies.
On the other hand, it’s really difficult to talk about a strategy in the U.S right now because it’s changing all the time and there’s contradictions among people making statements, so it’s difficult to see where things are heading. I don’t think anybody can be clear about that. Also, before all this began, South Korea and China were very strong trade partners beginning in 1992 when China recognized South Korea. So, this is all something very sudden that draws starker lines within the region with the U.S., Japan, and South Korea on one side, and in some ways, China having some agreement with Russia on the other end, that makes the situation more dangerous for the U.S. and for its alliance system.
Jonathan Movroydis: Dr. Bennett, do you have any thoughts on this?
Bruce Bennett: Sure. The United States does about a third of its worldwide trade with three countries, South Korea, Japan, and China. If the region is destabilized, if nuclear war were to break out, if something disastrous happens, that is really detrimental. I mean, think of it, how many of you have cell phones or TVs or other electronics made by Samsung or LG or other companies in Korea? Let alone from Japan, Sony. And many of us get lots of our goods from China. We may not think about it. We may not recognize it, but we do.
So, from a trade perspective, the region is critical. And if the U.S. were to give up its South Korean ally, a country we have maintained troop presence in and therefore paid substantially for for six decades, how would our other allies feel? Wouldn’t they feel like, “Gee, the U.S. may be giving us up next?” And so, you can’t start this process of unraveling our alliances unless you’re going to raise questions with others of our allies.
There are 140,000 American citizens who live in South Korea. These are not tourists visiting. These are people who live there. With tourists and other short-term visitors, numbers are probably over 200,000. So, there’s also an American interest of that kind. And our troops are not there to have to be defended. Our troops are there to guarantee to the South Koreans that if North Korea were to ever attack, the U.S. is all in. You know, North Korea will kill Americans if they attack.
But think, one other part. I just said we probably have 140,000 American citizens living in South Korea. There are one million Chinese living in South Korea, 3% of the population of the greater Seoul metropolitan area is Chinese. North Korea cannot attack South Korea without killing lots and lots of Chinese. So, there’s some degree of security and stability built into that. North Korea, all the time, threatens to turn Seoul into a sea of fire with artillery or nuclear weapons. That’s gonna get them in trouble with their big neighbor ally if they ever do that. So, these things are a little bit more complicated than on the face we might consider.
North Korea regularly deters by bluff, let’s face it. They’ve said, for example, if South Korea fires one artillery shell at North Korea, they’re going to decimate Seoul. If they decimate Seoul, Kim Jong-un will not survive. He will be dead. Because the U.S. and Iraq will retaliate and will respond, and the regime will not survive. Is he really going to shell Seoul if one artillery round lands on North Korean territory? Will we worry about that? It deters us from taking action. But in reality, he’s probably not going to do that, but probably is the uncertainty that helps deter us.
The other kind of thing to think about is the sanctions that China has put on South Korea have a boomerang effect. Think about it, South Korean companies, other Asian companies have heavily invested in China and now all of those countries have seen that if China decides politically to take you out, all your investments in China to make them unprofitable, they can do that. And so, a lot of South Korean companies and other companies from Asia are now diverting their investments into Southeast Asia. So, China will pay a price for what they’ve been doing and they’re just starting to recognize that apparently. I’ll stop there.
Jonathan Movroydis: Final question, and we’ll get to the audience’s questions. But throughout the course of this conversation, we’ve looked at a couple of scenarios on how this ends. United States could do nothing. The North Koreans could be incentivized to denuclearize. There could be regime change. There could also be reunification of the North Korean Peninsula on whose terms, we don’t know. But just in terms of prognosticating, how do you think, Dr. Milani, if we’re on the current course, how do you think this standoff ends?
Marco Milani: Well, I mean, right now, things are very complicated. I don’t think that the U.S. has many very good options on North Korea right now, and I don’t think that what happened, the last few months, is helping. Because President Trump’s responding to North Korean regime with this very strong and provocative rhetoric. Basically, it’s a game that he cannot win because this is North Korean game of making this kind of threat, and be very tough and insulting, and all this kind of nicknames and things like that. They cannot win this kind of game, because as I said before, I don’t think the U.S. has military options, a viable military option for North Korea, something that can do without a reaction of North Korea that would kill hundreds of thousands of South Korean, American citizens in the region, and maybe Japanese.
So, the first question is that, what the U.S. can do? Okay. But the other thing is that, what if the U.S. do nothing, like they did in the past, what’s going on? Probably, North Korea is gonna build more nuclear weapons or missile. And probably, they can build reliable ICBM that can deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States, and they are not at that point right now. Okay. And they can start like sell technology. This is gonna be a big problem for nuclear proliferation in the region and in the world.
So, one thing, in my opinion, is that the U.S. government can start thinking about something that the Chinese government proposed some months ago. Take the denuclearization of North Korea out of the table temporarily and start to think about a different approach, like for example, freeze-for-freeze approach. So, North Korea can freeze nuclear missile test, and at the same time, the U.S. can freeze the joint military exercise with South Korea. This is just an option that the Chinese government proposed a few months ago.
Anyway, I think that it’s better to try to negotiate with North Korea right now without putting the denuclearization as the main goal right now for the United States than doing nothing. Because if you keep on doing nothing, North Korea, already in past, show that they can go on building more nuclear weapons, and more reliable missiles, and things like that.
Jonathan Movroydis: Dr. Solinger.
Dorothy Solinger: Yeah. Well, actually, this proposal that Dr. Milani just mentioned is called in China the “dual suspension,” that is, the U.S. in South Korea suspend their military joint exercises and suspend the THAAD defense system. Meanwhile, the North Korea suspends its nuclear program. And there are people, scholars in China now saying, “That’s not gonna work either.” And it’s been called a “non-starter” in the U.S.
The best proposal I’ve seen is one made by Siegfried Hecker about two months ago, and he was formerly the head of the Los Alamos Research Facility. He’s been to North Korea seven times and he’s seen their nuclear facilities. He’s very knowledgeable about these things. And he said, “Negotiations really aren’t something we can do at this stage. Neither side really has something it’s going to give up. But what we should do is meet with them and send a few sort of realistic, calm leaders from the U.S., maybe Mattis, maybe McMaster, sit down with top leaders in North Korea and just come to an understanding of how dangerous the situation is for everybody.” And he said, “This has worked. It worked with Reagan and Gorbachev. It worked with Chris Chuff and the U.S. at the time. Just try to come to an understanding that we’re going to have to cool it. And we can’t offer to trade anything yet, maybe later.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Dr. Bennett.
Bruce Bennett: The former U.S. Secretary of State, George Schultz, made a presentation four years ago to the Council and Foreign relations in New York. As part of that presentation, he said he learned several things as the Secretary of State. One of the things he said he learned was, “Never want an agreement. Because if you want an agreement, the other side will hand your head to you.” It’s exactly what he said. We have to create a condition where both sides want an agreement. In 2015, that happened in Korea. North Korea had set up land mines which injured two South Korean soldiers. South Korea turned on propaganda broadcasts into North Korea. Right, you have this image, a propaganda broadcaster saying what a lousy guy Kim-Jong-un is. No, no. These were propaganda broadcasts of KPop, Korean Popular Music. And most of the North Korean soldiers in the frontline are from the elite class in North Korea, because they don’t want them to defect across the border. So, they were broadcasting right into elites, and that message was undoubtedly getting to Pyongyang fairly quickly. North Korea made an agreement in two days. Both sides have to want an agreement.
Now, I agree with my colleagues. We want an agreement with North Korea, but we have to make sure they want one too. How do we stimulate that? It seems to me that information is the key to that. Kim Jong-un doesn’t want information getting into his country about what kind of person he is, about how poor they are and so forth, and it does to a certain extent. The South Koreans love…or the North Koreans love South Korean soap operas, just love them because they show a lifestyle they will never have. So, that kind of vehicles is something that could create some motivation.
I’ve argued with my colleagues, we oughta make a soap opera on the life and times of Kim Jong-un, showing how he lives, wine, food, women, purges, executions, and all truthful, no propaganda, as truthful as we can make it. Because I think it would have an incredible impact in North Korea and Kim Jong-un would probably be willing to give some things up to trade for it. We have to create a condition where both sides want an agreement. We need to be working on that. There are options for doing that. They are not military attack options, as my colleagues suggest. We have to be more subtle. I think if we do that, it’s important…
Now, let me conclude by saying, most people in the diplomatic community are very harsh about statements that the U.S. Government has been making and especially President Trump. Let me tell you, about three days after President Trump’s General Assembly speech, Kim Jong-un wrote a personal response to President Trump. This is very unusual. He doesn’t write personal responses. And he said two critically important things. Number one, he said, “I hadn’t expected President Trump to say that.” Now, you have to understand, Kim Jong-un is the wannabe-God of North Korea. For him to say he didn’t expect it, he’s fallible. He’s not the God. That was an important thing to have come out. Second thing he said was, “Frightened dogs bark louder,” speaking about President Trump. Well, okay, yeah. President Trump had barked louder in that speech. But the whole rest of his personal statement is a statement about criticism of Trump, threats to the United States, threats to South Korea. He was barking louder. So, who else is a frightened dog? We have to create that balance if we want a good agreement. I think we do want a good agreement. We need to move towards it. That would be my objective.
Jonathan Movroydis: We have a time for a couple of questions.
Audience Member: Good morning. Thank you for your informative presentation. I’m James Bong [SP]. I walked out for a cup of coffee, so I missed some portion of the presentation coming from the panelist. Before I ask a question, I like to…oh, just the question? Well, I was part of a negotiation team among other things visiting Buyang[SP] Mountain up on North Korea, when it comes to supplying the light-water reactors to North Korea. Because I missed the portion of the presentation, I only can say a supplemental comment. We did perform our part of the obligation, in my opinion. They preached the spirit of the cooperation. I wanna be very clear on that, if there is ambiguity. My question to you is, do you see a possibility, rather, not a possibly, can you see a unilateral military action on the part of U.S. when it comes to preemptive surgical strike on North Korea nuclear sites?
Jonathan Movroydis: You want to take that one?
Bruce Bennett: Yeah. I think it’s a possibility. The Trump administration has not dismissed surgical strike as a possibility, but I think we have a bigger concern in that regard. South Korea has a doctrine which they implemented in roughly 2011 called the “Kill Chain,” which is a counterforce capability, a capability designed to destroy the North Korean missile and nuclear forces. They always, always, always talked about it as being preemptive. Okay. And what is the basis for that preemption? The basis is if North Korea ever takes their missile launchers out of their underground facilities.
So, there is a chance that the preemption could actually be by South Korea, as opposed to by the United States. That’s a possibility that could occur. The U.S. could decide to try to destroy something. I will give you an example though. North Korea’s foreign minister has threatened to fire a nuclear weapon over Japan into the Pacific and detonate it to demonstrate that North Korea is a nuclear power. Well, if you detonate a nuclear weapon over the Pacific, there’s a fairly good chance you’re going to shoot down some aircraft or sink some ships, because the pacific has a lot of traffic over it. If they kill Americans or Japanese or South Koreans in doing that, how does the U. S. respond? I think that’s the more likely case, if they are foolish enough to do that, where there could be a preemptive strike. And it’s not really preemptive at that point. I think we need to worry about the fact that North Korea is really the country that often makes the more extreme threats, the more extreme name calling, and we tend to dismiss that because we’re used to having them do it.
Jonathan Movroydis: Dr. Milani and Dr. Solinger, any thoughts on the idea of a unilateral preemptive strike?
Dorothy Solinger: I think it’s terribly dangerous. I think North Korea would certainly retaliate. And I don’t think it wants to destroy Seoul, but I think it’s escalating. There’s too much danger of escalation. I think it’s a very dangerous idea.
Marco Milani: I totally agree with Professor Solinger.
Bruce Bennett: I’ve actually written an article on there being no such thing as a surgical strike against North Korea. You can’t destroy enough with an aircraft attack or something like that for it to be really meaningful.
Dorothy Solinger: And I’ve also seen that we don’t know where all the nuclear capabilities are located within North Korea, so it’s not as if they’re all in one place that could be wiped out all at once.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our next question.
Audience member: Thank you. To the whole panel, I would appreciate it very much if you could comment on a question that was formulated to me years ago by a leader of the government in China. He said to me, “To us, North Korea is like a troubled child.” Now, how do you deal with a troubled child? And I’m trying to convert that question into the entire presentation of today. Do you make an agreement with him? How long would that agreement last? Do you threat? How long that threat lasts on a troubled child? Do you act and punish? How long that punishment will last? What are the consequences if that troubled child happens to have nuclear weapons?
Dorothy Solinger: Well, I can say that at present, what the Chinese government is doing is very gradually increasing its punishment. I don’t think China is willing to go to the extent of bringing down the regime, and furthermore, as it’s already been suggested, North Korea has ways of making money that don’t depend on China, even though it has depended a lot on China. It’s capable of smuggling. There’s other countries who would help. So, I think China has to be careful, and I think China knows the limits of the punishment.
Marco Milani: Yeah, I totally agree with Professor Solinger on this. And I think that North Korea, probably today, is not a child anymore. I mean, it’s not that easy to control North Korea from China in the way that they cannot control China…China cannot control North Korea as a child, I mean. They are finding new ways to get hard currency, even with this, grow with these kinds of sanctions, and they have nuclear weapons. So, I don’t think that’s very important because it’s not that China can rein in North Korea like a parent with a child, so they have to be very careful right now.
Bruce Bennett: As the parent of kids who are 20 to their 30s, they’re still my children and I still will tell them things. But they’re actually much better behaved now. I think the problem is maybe the 15-year-old that has decided he is independent and knows a whole lot more than his parents do, which is in some ways the way Kim Jong-un has acted, I think you have to take a multidimensional approach. We tend to like to play the one key in the piano, that is not a concert make. So, economic sanctions has a role, but why don’t we play a few other keys? There are many things that we could do, relative to North Korea, that the North would hate. And it seems to me that we need to do what North Korea has, this incremental conditioning kind of escalation, to make it clear that we’re not gonna turn over and play dead. You know, we did that with strategic patience during the previous administration. North Korea generally and culturally does not respect weakness. They respect strength. And in the end, most 15-year-olds also respects strength. Not all.
Dorothy Solinger: I just wanna say that the idea of a child is kind of shortsighted because North Korea has its own objectives and it behaves in order to meet those objectives. We don’t like the way it behaves, but that doesn’t make it into a child. It’s an adult with objectives that we don’t agree with. I think that’s a better way to look at things.
Bruce Bennett: My 25-year-old children.
Jonathan Movroydis: Thank you, guys. Please give our distinguished panel a round of applause. Thank you again all for being here. Please look on our calendar for future events. Thank you very much.