Avoiding a nuclear war with North Korea.

Why North Korea Is the Land of Lousy Options

Why North Korea Is the Land of Lousy Options

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April 28 2017 3:34 PM

The Land of Lousy Options

Read what a North Korea expert told Trumpcast about the escalating tensions between Washington and Pyongyang.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watches the ground jet test of a high-thrust engine in this undated picture.


This is a transcript from the April 17 edition of Trumpcast, featuring an interview with Victor Cha, a professor at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and the author of The Impossible State. Cha was director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

These members-only transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.

Jacob Weisberg: Explain a little to our listeners why China has leverage over North Korea. Is it mainly because they’re the country that has most of the existing trade with North Korea?

Victor Cha: For a long time, China had a very good political relationship with North Korea, and quite a great deal of influence. The current leader in North Korea executed his uncle in 2013—his uncle was the primary conduit for contacts with China. Since then, China has lost all political contact with the North Korean regime and really has no influence over it.

However, 85 percent of North Korea’s external trade is with one country today—China. Even though China claims they don’t have political influence, they still have a great deal of material influence on the regime.

If they were to cut off some of that trade, there’s not a whole lot of other people that North Korea can trade with. There are not a lot of countries out there that are willing or interested in engaging in the volume of trade, often at patron prices, that the Chinese are willing to do.

Weisberg: It sounds like sanctions from anyone else must be pretty pointless. If China has 85 percent, then if we’re talking about the rest of the world, we’re talking about 15 percent, which is meaningless in that context.

Cha: I think that’s absolutely right. To think about it, it’s kind of amazing that we were able to get two nuclear agreements with North Korea in the past, even though China was carrying on that sort of trade.

I think this time, the people and the policy community have really focused on this basic fact. I think Trump himself is focused on this basic fact. I think it’s become clear, based on the U.S. policy position, that if China is not going to help by cutting down some of that trade, as you mentioned in your earlier question, then Trump is going to want to go it alone.

Weisberg: It sounded like going into his meeting with Xi Jinping in Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s view was that he had to get China to use its leverage. Then he made that amazing statement, that after 10 minutes talking to Xi Jinping, he realized it wasn’t so easy. Did Xi Jinping persuade him that China can’t really do that much?

Cha: I would imagine that Xi Jinping deployed the same talking points that the Chinese always deploy when it comes to North Korea, and that is that they don’t have any political influence. That the United States has to sit down and negotiate with them, things of that nature.

I think, in the end, if we’re going to avoid any sort of conflict, there has to be some sort of diplomacy that takes place. It seems to me, it doesn’t make any sense for the United States to go back to the negotiation for a third time with North Korea while 85 percent of their trade is with China. There’s absolutely no pressure. There’s no pain that North Korea feels for pursuing nuclear testing as long as that trade continues.

One hopes that that’s the rationale. That’s the argument for a successful negotiation going in, is that you have to have a trade cutoff. Otherwise, North Koreans feel no compunction to deal.

Weisberg: We made this deal with them a couple of times. You were involved in the nuclear negotiations with North Korea under President Bush 43, but there were two deals that preceded you, where we essentially paid them in fuel or whatever it was to freeze their nuclear program. And it just didn’t work. They got the payment, then they went back to it.

Cha: That’s absolutely right.

And the United States in the past two agreements was providing funds for interim energy assistance in the form of heavy fuel oil to North Korea in order to keep the program freeze as we tried to negotiate a denuclearization package. It’s very hard for me to imagine that this president is going to want to pay for a freeze for something that hasn’t worked in the last few years. For those who are looking for a diplomatic offer, that’s an added complication that I think is unique to this presidency.

Weisberg: We know that Donald Trump really hates bad deals. In fact, there’s probably not a deal to be made with them, period, given there haven’t been any negotiations in a decade anyhow. Aren’t you worried that with that option foreclosed, that Trump, who is a hotheaded president, will resort more easily to a military option?

Cha: I think there’s certainly that temptation, but most people will agree that the Syrian theater or the Afghan theater is very different from the Korean theater in the sense that North Korea, even if we were to use any sort of military force on North Korea, they have an ability to retaliate that these other places don’t. They can retaliate immediately and very effectively against population centers in Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, or in Tokyo, the capital city of Japan.

Whereas the United States has tens of thousands of troops. And the 10 million that live in Seoul, and the millions that live in Tokyo. North Korea doesn’t have to fire missiles. They can just fire artillery, which is literally within 30 seconds’ warning time of the capital city, Seoul.

In a sense, North Korea has always had a built-in deterrent against U.S. attacks because of the sorts of casualties we’d sustain in the initial hours of a military exchange—we would eventually win, there’s no denying that, but there will be huge costs that comes with that. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of casualties, and trillions of dollars in damage.

That’s always been a difference of the problem when you talk about military options on North Korea. I think every president going back to George H. W. Bush, when they’ve done a policy review of North Korea, have looked at the military options. I think that the fact that none of them have chosen that option in the past really speaks to what a difficult military scenario this is when you compare to other places we use force.

Weisberg: Fear of that military blackmail has prevented robust retaliation from North Korean attacks. For example, the Sony cyber attack. We retaliated in some formal way, but it doesn’t seem like it was much of a response. And then this most recent bizarre assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half brother—it’s really dangerous to be semi-related to this guy. The Malaysians essentially capitulated. They let all these North Korean diplomats, really people who are involved in planning this assassination, go back to North Korea.

Cha: Yeah. They had to let them go back because the North Koreans basically held the entire Malaysian embassy personnel in Pyongyang, held them hostage unless they would let these assassins go. That’s what it’s like in terms of dealing with North Korea.

You mentioned the cyber piece. That’s also very important. We focus a lot on the nuclear and the missile program, but their cyber program, it’s quite advanced. Before the hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment, nobody thought they had those sorts of capabilities, but I think now people are very well aware of them.

Our own study of this has found that the cyber piece of this is something that is done in the same unit in the North Korean military and in the structure that carry out terrorist attacks, as well as the missile program and the nuclear program. They are prosecuting not just nuclear and WMD, they are prosecuting cyberterrorism at the same time.

Weisberg: In your book, Professor Cha, you say this regime is not ultimately sustainable. That really leaves the question of how does it end? Something that can’t be sustained has to come to an end.

Cha: I do believe that the regime is not sustainable in today’s day and age. The primary weakness, I think in the regime, is the fact that they have allowed market forces to grow inside of the country. They’ve done that largely because the ration system has broken down. People are starting to fend for themselves. People are living off the market and they don’t really care what the government gives them anymore.

The anecdotal evidence of any sort of social resistance in North Korea has always revolved around one thing and that is when the government undertakes any sort of antimarket or any antientrepreneurial activities. That’s when the people get the most upset.

The government seems to do this about every 10 years. I think it’s only a matter of time. Sooner or later, they will feel like they’re losing control of the system because people are making money. They are living in markets. They are developing civil society around markets. Eventually, they will try to crack down again. That will be the real important watershed moment. That will be the trigger if anything ever happens in terms of the stability of the regime.

Weisberg: You see it ending through implosion rather than explosion in the sense that the regime will be attacked from within. The people won’t be willing to tolerate it. There will be a rebellion rather than a provocation that leads to external conflict.

Cha: I think yes. The former is more likely. Of course, we can’t put any sort of timeframe on this because we just don’t know. In that sense, North Korea is stable until the day it’s not stable. The other thing is that social evolution is hard to imagine in North Korea just because nobody has arms except the military.

People in the elite now are also unhappy with the way life is and the way the regime is. I think it’s a confluence of forces that could eventually lead to some sort of significant dissonance or churn inside the system that could cause it to crack.

Weisberg: One way or the other, the past several presidents have deferred the issue. They’ve kicked the can down the road. Do you think Trump is going to be the one who either isn’t able to kick the can down the road for the period he’s in office or will choose not to and that will see the final confrontation under his presidency?

Cha: I think everybody who looks at this is concerned that we can’t kick the can down the road any further. Largely because North Korea is going to be able to demonstrate a capability to reach the continental United States during President Trump’s term in office. That will be the moment at which the entire picture will change. I think everybody thinks that’s going to happen certainly within the next three years, if not sooner than that.

On the other hand, if the United States can live with another country besides Russia and China having the ability to reach the United States with a nuclear weapon—in this case a rogue nation that has leadership that does all sorts of bad things—if we’re willing to accept that and just try to deter it, we can kick the can down the road again. Even further. I think most people believe that’s just not an acceptable outcome. Even President Trump himself tweeted a while back that it won’t happen while he’s president. If that’s true—

Weisberg: He’s drawing the line on the sand on that issue.

Cha: Yeah.

Weisberg: He said he will not tolerate that.

Cha: Right. I think his words were, or at least his tweet was, “It won’t happen.” That is drawing a line. In the past, you’ve been able to kick this thing down the road for decades now, but we may not be able to do that anymore.

Weisberg: What would your advice to him be as the North Koreans get close to testing that kind of capability? If ever there were a case for preventive war, it seems to me this is it.

Cha: It is tough. North Korea truly is the land of lousy options. When we made choices when we were in government when it came to North Korea, it wasn’t a choice of “This is a bad option. This is a good option.” The choices were “This is a bad option. This is even a worse option. This is the worst option.” There were no good choices, only bad ones.

I think that’s pretty much what President Trump faces when it has to deal with a threat like this.

To me, the big question is whether we are going to allow North Korea to end up with a three-stage rocket in which they would be able to test an ICBM capability. That is a question of declaratory policy whether United States is going to say, “We will not allow that sort of capability to be launched.” Or whether we’re going to not make any sort of declaratory statements and try to shoot it down once it’s in the air. Those seem to be the things I think that people are thinking about the most, but certainly not yet an attack on the North, a preventive or preemptive attack.

Weisberg: How soon do you think that that kind of missile test could come? The rhetoric from the Chinese seems very concerned. They seem to see that this is a very volatile situation right now.

Cha: I’m worried about it. I’m not trying to be cute or anything, but the spring season really is missile-testing season in North Korea. We’ve seen it historically. When President Obama took office in 2009, the first thing the North Koreans in April of 2009 did was launch a three-stage missile. Back then, nobody believed they could put a nuclear warhead on that, but now everybody believes they can. That’s a big difference now.

It’s certainly something that could happen through the end of this month, April, because of U.S.-ROK military exercises, which the North Koreans feel the need to respond to. May 9th is the South Korean presidential elections and all of our data shows that they like to do provocations around U.S. and South Korean presidential elections.

I think the next few weeks is a really important window to watch in terms of what they may do either on the nuclear side or in the long-range-missile side.