Interview: ‘The Tables Have Been Turned, And North Koreans Are Really Terrified by Uncertainty’

2017-02-09
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North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) inspects a sub-unit of the Korean People's Army Unit 233 at an undisclosed location in North Korea, Jan. 19, 2017.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) inspects a sub-unit of the Korean People's Army Unit 233 at an undisclosed location in North Korea, Jan. 19, 2017.
AFP/KCNA via KNS

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un started the new year with a provocation aimed at the United States and the incoming administration of President Donald Trump, saying the country could launch an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S. at any time. Trump retorted with a tweet saying “It won't happen!" But now that Trump is in office it remains to be seen how he will handle such threats from Pyongyang. RFA’s Roseanne Gerin asked North Korea expert Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul about the Trump administration’s stance towards North Korea, Pyongyang’s approach to the new U.S. administration, the future of the Kaesong joint industrial complex, defections by high-level officials, and North Korea’s response to the disarray in South Korean politics. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.

RFA: What policy should the Trump administration pursue in East Asia to contain North Korea?

Lankov: I’m not going to suggest a more aggressive policy because I already think it’s way too aggressive. The ideal policy, which is not going to be implemented anyway, is a policy of basically sunshine, as they say in South Korea, or détente as they used to say in Europe in the 1970s; that is, negotiations with North Korea, lifting all nonmilitary sanctions, although the sanctions targeting nuclear missile development should remain in place, and as many exchanges as possible. Why? If North Korea feels a bit less threatened and much more exposed to the outside world, then the North Korean government will find itself under pressure to change. The current policy of sanctions is actually helping Kim Jong Un to remain in control. As a common rule, sanctions have been a complete failure. Once sanctions were introduced in 2006, the North Koreans began to recover from the grave crisis of the 1990s, and now it is growing pretty fast. However, I understand that what I have said is not going to sell with the American public because sanctions are popular. I think we are indeed likely to see something more aggressive, and I don’t like it because it might end up badly. But more likely it will be just a waste of time and resources. But it’s likely to happen. I’m sort of a pessimist.

RFA: What direction do you believe the Trump administration will actually take regarding North Korea?

Lankov: There is a probability that the Trump Administration will indeed start negotiations. However, once negotiations begin very soon, President Trump and his advisors will learn that North Koreans are not going to negotiate about denuclearization. This is the bottom line for the American leadership, because  what North Koreans are going to talk about is not disarmament, but arms control; that is, some agreement that would recognize them as a de facto nuclear power. If they’re satisfied, they will probably be more careful and not do nuclear tests or launch missiles. But it’s not acceptable to the United States for the time being, though more and more American diplomats are beginning to say privately that at the end of the day this is the only realistic solution, because everything else is worse. Anyway, it looks like Trump probably will try to do negotiations, but he’ll realize that the only realistic solution is not exactly to his liking.

And then there is another threat. North Koreans are working very hard to develop and deploy an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental United States. Judging by the speed of their technological advancement in the last few years, they are likely to reach this goal within about five years. It means that in the world there will be another country capable of hitting the United States with a nuclear warhead. There are so far only two such countries—Russia and China. There will be a third country which basically has a pretty bad public image. So the question is whether Donald Trump and his advisors will quietly accept it or whether they will try to use what is called kinetic action—that is, a preemptive strike against North Korean military facilities. Temptations are high, but the consequences may be quite disastrous because the North Koreans are likely to deliver a counterstrike to Seoul, and the result may be the Second Korean War.

RFA: Will North Korea likely change its approach to the U.S., especially considering Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ recent warning to Pyongyang that any attack on the United States or use of nuclear weapons will lead to retaliation that is both “effective” and “overwhelming?”

Lankov: North Korea is not going to use nuclear weapons first, at least now, and it is not going to attack the United States; therefore, these warnings don’t change anything. Even if North Koreans want to do something, they are not going to do it anyway. But will that attitude change? My feeling is that the North Koreans are sort of terrified now. We know about the preemptive strike talk. Technical details are secret or top secret, but the general line of thought in Washington is widely known. And I know that the North Koreans know that these issues are seriously discussed here, and they are sort of disoriented because for many years they were playing the madman. They were behaving irrationally, or they wanted to be seen as irrational, and they benefitted much from that, because when your neighbors believe you can start shooting at you at any time, they are always going to be careful with you. Now the North Koreans have the same attitude toward the current situation in Washington. Sometimes it’s even kind of joyful to see how the tables have been turned and how North Koreans are really terrified by uncertainty, because for decades they were masters of creating uncertainties and terrifying everybody else.

RFA: What about the future of the shuttered Kaesong joint industrial complex? Any chance that North Korea will try to woo back the South Koreas to reopen it? Or will North Korea try to woo another country to reopen the facility?

Lankov: If they have a choice, of course, North Korea would prefer another country. The only country that could conceivably do it is China. But why would China do it? It’s not a good idea in many ways. Logistics are a nightmare, and conditions are not as good as most people believe. For China, it’s not a convenient way to do business. The Chinese have a very long history of being cheated by the North Koreans, of being burned by the North Koreans. The common assumption in China is that unless you have government guarantees or unless you plan your business in a quiet sophisticated way, you will likely be cheated of your money if you start making money when working with North Koreans. Therefore, I think China is not the slightest bit interested. But if the progressive liberals win the next presidential elections in South Korea in May or June, they will likely start a kind of soft-landing policy towards North Korea, and once they do it Kaesong will likely be reopened. Essentially the decision will have to be made by the South Koreans, not the North Koreans. The North Koreans cannot woo South Korea because they have almost nothing to offer. And Kaesong was and will be not particularly profitable, perhaps even a money-losing enterprise given all the peculiar features of North Korea’s economy. If the left indeed wins the coming elections—and this seems to be pretty certain—there is a very high probability that the Keasong industrial zone will restart.

RFA: Can you give us your estimate for the number and trend line for recent high-level DPRK defections, and what impact the outspoken diplomat Thae Yong Ho may have on the situation?

Lankov: If you are living in a dictatorship, as a rule of thumb your best policy is to keep as far from the center of power as possible, but this was not the case in North Korea for decades. High-level officials could be arrested and sent to prison for a few years, but most likely they would be returned and basically restored to something similar to their earlier positions. But North Korea under Kim Jong Un is different. He is kind of explosive, he feels offended by other people’s very minor remarks, and he is trigger happy when it comes to people around him. Of course, once some high-level officials are killed or disappear without a trace, people who are just one or  two levels below them will run away, not because they don’t like the system, but because they realize if they don’t run away they are almost certainly dead. Thus we have a large number of defections which is a result of these purges. Everybody who is related to purged people who can travel overseas basically takes a one-way ticket.

Thae Yong Ho is a different issue. For the first time ever we have somebody who can claim a role, who can reasonably successfully execute the role of a leader of the North Korean opposition. There were some high-level defectors before, but none of them was even remotely as smart, realistic, outspoken, and educated, as Thae Yong Ho, who comes from the top North Korean aristocracy. There are about 100 such families in the country, and they all by definition are eligible for the best jobs. He speaks good English, which is vital because it is the language of the world, but inside North Korea pretty much nobody speaks English. All things combined, we’ve probably got a leader of the North Korean opposition. I’m not saying he’s going to become a Vaclav Havel or an Andrei Sakharov of North Korea, but at least we have a figure who is going to speak his own mind, and maybe if necessary challenge the South Korean establishment, argue with other political forces, and create a serious support base. He’s a very remarkable personage.

RFA: Do you expect North Korea to take advantage of the political disarray in South Korea? What forms will Pyongyang’s actions take?

Lankov: I would expect them to take advantage of it were they not faced with exaggerated disarray in Washington. Right now the North Korean government has its tail between its legs. They are really afraid of triggering some kind of American reaction. In the past, they probably would have done a lot to influence the outcome of the South Korean elections, using everything from military provocations to bribing some politicians with secret funds. But it’s not going to happen on a large scale now because they are avoiding any wrong move that would cause Americans to start to shoot. It’s almost a kind of comical relief to see that they are behaving exactly in a way that for decades has made everybody around behave.

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Anonymous Reader

Lankov is far more persuasive and better informed than Eberstadt (in the interview). Please keep Lankov on as a commentator and let's hear less of Eberstadt's broken record of his wrong predictions about North Korea's demise just around the corner (since 1999 at least when Eberstadt's book came out).

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