Tensions have once again escalated between North Korea and the United States. What are the realities of the politics of North Korea, and what is the proper response of the US and the international community? Maria Armoudian discusses these issues with Stephan Haggard, Jacques E.C. Hymans, and Charles K. Armstrong.

Stephan Haggard is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies and Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, UC San Diego. He is an expert in Asia-Pacific politics and is the co-author of Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea.

Jacques E.C. Hymans is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. He is an expert in international security and is the author of Achieving Nuclear Ambitions: Scientists, Politicians, and Proliferation.

Charles K. Armstrong is the Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University. He is an expert in modern Korean history and is the author of The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950.



Interview Transcript: 

Maria Armoudian: I’d like to start with a historical context for the current state of affairs with North Korea. Charles Armstrong, let’s start with you: what do you think we need to know about the past to understand the current situation?

Charles Armstrong: I think the most important thing to know is that we’ve been in a state of war with North Korea for 67 years. The Korean war, which went from 1950 to 1953, ended in an armistice and Kim Jong Un has been good enough to remind us of the armistice by saying that it was nullified, which means there was never a peace treaty—there was never a formal end to the war.

The other thing to remember is that this sort of belligerence and bluster from North Korea is a recurrent theme and reached its peak during US-South Korean joint military exercises going back to 1976 and the so-called first Team Spirit exercise. And this is another reason that North Korea has really ratcheted up the rhetoric. A third thing to remember is that we’ve had a confrontation with North Korea specifically over their nuclear weapons programme since 1994, when we came very close to what appears to have been a serious military confrontation and a contemplation of a preemptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear facilities. What’s happened now is those things have come together, along with the sanctions that the UN has put on North Korea after the nuclear test. And finally, we have a leader in North Korea who seems to really want to show us and his own people that he means business and he can talk tougher than any of his predecessors.

MA: Stephan Haggard, let’s bring you in now: what else do you think we really need to know about the history that really will help us to make sense of all this?

Stephan Haggard: There are two other things I would add that have to do with more of the recent history. The onset of the current nuclear crisis was around the fall of 2002, so we’ve had about fifteen years where we’ve had heightened tension over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and that has resulted in a succession of nuclear tests, one in 2006, another in 2009, and most recently. And in the wake of each of those, the US has been able to orchestrate a set of UN Security Council resolutions imposing various sanctions on North Korea. And China has been a key player in those negotiations because the Security Council allows any of the P5 countries to veto such resolutions, which means basically we have to negotiate something that the Chinese can live with. And we’ve seen a bit of a stepping up of pressure on the part of China. They still are not willing to really use the full leverage they have over North Korea, but they seem to be willing to impose more costs on North Korea than they have in the past.

MA: Jacques Hymans?

Jacques Hymans: I think it might be interesting for your listeners to hear a little bit about the world context of nuclear proliferation over the decades and how North Korea fits into that. On the world stage North Korea actually started working on nuclear weapons, we believe, all the way back in the 1960’s. The Eastern European states had good relations with North Korea and so they were able to get a little bit more of an inside view than most Western states could have. And the North Koreans were pretty explicit already back in the 1960’s that they were trying to build nuclear weapons, so they’ve been pretty constantly at this work for a half-century now, and yet the world has sort of moved on. In the 60’s it wasn’t all that uncommon for states to be trying to launch nuclear weapons programmes but over time, thanks in part to changes in the way that states think about themselves and think about power in the world, and thanks in part to particular non-proliferation measures such as the nuclear non-proliferation treaty which came into force in 1970, states have essentially moved away from seeking nuclear weapons as a prime element of their international security postures. So today we really only have two states that are even widely suspected of seeking nuclear weapons that don’t have them already, one being North Korea and the other being Iran. And even in the case of Iran there are a lot of question marks about their ultimate intention. So North Korea is really sticking out like a sore thumb in the international context today in terms of its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

MA: You bring up another aspect of this which you say sticks out like a sore thumb: everybody else is starting to phase out their nuclear weapons. What does it mean with this leader pursuing nuclear weapons? People have called him crazy. Stephan, you’ve mentioned that you don’t think he’s crazy: what about the psychology of the leader? What do we know of him?

SH: Well, we don’t know that much really. First of all, he’s young, so that’s an interesting thing to take into account. He was schooled in Switzerland. We’re not sure that really makes any difference, but you have to look at a system like this not in terms of just the personalities, though those can be important, but in terms of a kind of coalition of political actors that are running a regime of this sort. This is clearly a very closed system. I think people all know that it has one of the worst records with respect to human rights and civil liberties. It’s obviously an autocracy, but it’s particularly narrow in its composition, and the military has come to play a very central role in both the support for the top family leadership and also in the legitimation strategy of the regime. In the 90’s, Kim Jong-il had to assume power following the death of his father in 1994; he didn’t have military credentials and very quickly turned to the military to get himself through an extremely difficult period, including a famine that killed somewhere between 600,000 and a million North Koreans. So, the military is very deeply implicated in the political structure of North Korea and I think that is influencing some of what we’re seeing today as well.

CA: North Korea has put a lot of investment—both political and, of course, economic—into the development of nuclear weapons in part because they don’t have much else. They have a very weak economy, one of the poorest countries in the world. They’ve had difficulties over the last couple of decades, and yet they have insisted that they will be a powerful and prosperous nation. And so increasingly over time they have made the choice that nuclear weapons are the way to go. They see this as a relatively economical deterrence against a hostile US and over the last twenty years of the confrontation between the US and North Korea over their nuclear weapons programme it’s become more and more evident that North Korea is not intending to give up its nuclear weapons. They have said that a number of times explicitly, and that puts us in a real dilemma because clearly the US and other countries do not find that acceptable.

MA: Jacques, you originally pointed out that North Korea has been failing in its efforts at building nuclear weapons but you also say that it has not merely been acting out. Do you agree with your colleagues on this?

JH: I agree in part with my colleagues and perhaps I would place a different emphasis on some factors than in their comments here. First of all, in terms of who is actually driving this programme forward, I obviously do not know the internal politics of the regime, how strong Kim Jong-un may have been immediately upon receiving the crown, but my impression of the North Korean regime is that the family leadership really is at the very pinnacle here and we should not view the military as some sort of alternative structure to the civilian political leaders. The civilian leaders definitely control the military. They are able to replace top military leaders seemingly at will. Kim Jong-un has replaced some top leaders so I don’t think it’s entirely right to portray this as a kind of tug of war. The family is in charge and it’s a very, very small group of people who are intensely committed to retaining their control. So, I do think that if not Kim Jong-un as an individual, certainly a very small group of individuals are making decisions about this.

And this has important consequences, because in modern states people at the top are able to take advantage of a large amount of thinking and planning and legwork that is being done for them by professionals who are working for the state. But in North Korea the people underneath the guys at the top are really afraid of the guys at the top and not able to apply professional training to writing the course of policy and putting it in a direction that would be, let’s say, sensible. I do endorse to some extent the sort of journalistic talk about the North Korean regime being crazy, not in the sense that the top family members that are running the state are clinically insane, but rather in the sense that the information that they are dealing with is certainly far inferior to the information that is at the fingertips of most other modern state leaders.

MA: You’re saying if they had that professional guidance that perhaps it wouldn’t be escalating quite like this?

JH: It’s much more possible that in this situation of tension and crisis that there is miscalculation around the corner, which might be a lower possibility if these people had better professional advice around them. I might also add just on the issue of the North Korean desire for nuclear weapons that, at least in my research, I have found that that desire has actually been quite constant over the years and I would not place a lot of stress on this or that external carrot or stick that might have been proffered to North Korea. This has really been a core element of North Korean international identity really very long before the end of the Cold War and I don’t think that we would expect at this stage or even ten years ago that this or that carrot or stick would have caused them to deviate fundamentally from their path. Of course, carrots and sticks could be and were used to decrease tensions at some point or increase tensions, but in terms of causing them to deviate from their strategic objective of having a nuclear weapons arsenal, I think that, basically, that was not possible from the start.

MA: Charles Armstrong?

CA: I’m not sure I agree with that. First of all, they did freeze their plutonium programme for eight years after the agreed framework of October of 1994, so it may be the case that nuclear weapons acquisition has been an important part of their strategy but it’s also a matter of degree. Maybe they could not be cajoled or incentivised to eliminate their nuclear arsenal altogether, but I think there have been means that have sometimes been reasonably successful to get them to at least freeze or slow down their programme.

MA: Is there a benefit to North Korea to keep the tensions heightened like this? Is there a domestic benefit to this? 

CA: It is important to keep tensions at a certain level to keep the society mobilised and to keep the focus on the leadership. So I think there is a domestic element to this, but I’m not sure that the North Korean leadership wants to push through this far on a regular basis because it is a huge drain on them economically to mobilise their military, to move missiles around, and so on. So yes, I think there is a sense in which the leadership needs an enemy to keep the country’s focus and to mobilise the citizens behind the leader, and this has been the case for over 60 years.

MA: I often wonder if that’s the case in most political leaderships. Stephan Haggard?

SH: Let me go back to something Jacques said. Jacques is right that the top leadership purged elements of the military following the transition to Kim Jong-un. And if you look back before the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011, there was clearly an attempt on Kim Jong-un’s father’s part to put in place a set of military and civilian party and family leaders who could support the transition. And what we saw is that after Kim Jong-un came to power he did, in fact, purge some of those military leaders, but at the same time he promoted his own military people into positions of authority. And we see that bodies like the politburo, the national defense commission, even the secretariat which is an administrative apparatus of the party, see this big influx of military personnel. So, I do think this still has to be understood as a regime in which the military plays a role, not so much a decision-making role but it’s a component of the key coalition or core coalition of the state.

But the other thing is that the military has become a kind of symbol for the whole country and when the father Kim Jong-il came to office he launched a political line which is military-first politics. And the meaning of military-first politics is very complicated, but one component of it is that the whole society should see itself as exercising and following a kind of military-style discipline in support of the leadership, and the objectives of the leadership and the military rather than the working class as, for example, under a traditional Marxist interpretation. And so, the nuclear programme and the space programme. which we haven’t talked about—and I take the space programme as being a euphemism for the missile programme—have really become very important tools of domestic legitimation for the regime. They’re on billboards, they’re on the news, they’re taught in the schools in study circles, and so forth. These are achievements of this regime and this leadership which I think have become important pieces of the new leader’s domestic position.

MA: Let’s turn to the international community’s response to North Korea. Stephan Haggard? 

SH: I want to raise one important point we haven’t discussed, and that’s the role of China in this because China, as both Jacques and Charles well know, is really a key player because North Korea is increasingly dependent on China. The sanctions the international community have imposed on North Korea have essentially made North Korea more, not less dependent on Chinese trade and investment, and so the geopolitics of the region and how we’re going to get back to negotiations, if we do, is going to have to go through Beijing making some strategic decisions about how much pressure it’s going to place on North Korea.

MA: Charles, please respond to that relationship between China and North Korea and other actors that you think are important, how they’re evolving, and how they might play out.

CA: We do have to think about a way out of this and to seriously consider how we will resolve this issue short of a military confrontation, and this brings us to negotiation, which of course also brings us to China. I don’t know if the six-party talks that were suspended in 2009 are the way to go but there needs to be some sort of forum in which the parties directly involved in this can figure out a way sit down and talk with each other to prevent this sort of thing from happening, and not merely to contain North Korea but to allow it a way to enter into the region in a more productive manner.

China is in an interesting position, it has signed on to the sanctions, it’s talked tougher than has in the past, but it’s not clear that they’re much more willing to do anything more than they had before to enforce sanctions. They still are not willing to risk destabilisation of their neighbour and they don’t want to push North Korea too far. At the end of the day, the Chinese say—and I think there’s some truth to it—they cannot tell the North Koreans what to do. North Koreans are tough customers and have always been so even at the peak of their alliance with China. And so we have to find, as difficult as it is to imagine now, a way to negotiate a solution to this problem that involves North Korea, China, and South Korea at a minimum.

MA: And in terms of the sanctions, do you think we should change our policy with that?

CA: The sanctions are there. The lifting of sanctions should be an incentive to North Korea if it does certain things and moves in a direction that is beneficial to others around it, but ultimately there has to be, as much as I hate to use this expression, carrots as well as sticks.

MA: Stephan Haggard?

SH: I think there are two dilemmas of US policy. One is that we simultaneously have to send signals of deterrents at the same time that we’re leaving a door open for negotiations. And those two policies are kind of in contradiction from the North Korean perspective because they see sanctions, they see deterrents, and at the same time, we have sent signals of a willingness to negotiate. And second, we have to leave the door open to negotiations even though it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the North Koreans actually have very little interest in negotiating, and I think that’s one of the reasons why the previous Obama administration did not invest a lot of resources in North Korea, because there’s just not much return to be had from doing so.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.