In his New Year speech North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shocked the world by threatening to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), declaring that it’s in the final stages of ICBM launch. At the same time he reaffirmed his determination to beef up North Korea’s nuclear capabilities in a clear defiance of the continuing tough UN sanctions for its several nuclear tests. Some Korea analysts regard Kim’s ICBM threat as his intent to force Washington to negotiate on Pyongyang’s terms. Changsop Pyon of RFA’s Korean Service asked diplomat-turned-scholar David Straub about the implications of Kim Jong Un’s calculated statement on the possible ICBM launch and US-DPRK relations this year. Former chief of Korea Desk at the State Department 2002-2004, Mr. Straub served as associate director of the Korea Program at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center of Stanford University until recently after retiring as a Senior Foreign Service Officer in 2006.
RFA: In his New Year speech, Kim Jong Un didn't specify anything about US-DPRK relations this year, with the new Trump administration set to start on Jan. 20. Do you think he wants to wait until the Trump administration comes up with its NK policy review or he will continue to do what he has done before, namely test another nuclear device or long-range missile to challenge the Trump administration?
We can only make educated guesses about North Korea’s tactical moves, such as the timing of nuclear and missile tests. We don’t have reliable, real-time intelligence about North Korean leaders’ intentions. I believe that North Korean leaders tested a nuclear device—their second—in 2009 soon after President Obama was inaugurated because they observed that President Bush softened his policy toward them in 2006 after their first nuclear test. The North Koreans apparently thought that President Obama’s reaction to a second nuclear test would be similar, that is, that he would become more willing to negotiate on North Korea’s terms. In fact, the opposite happened. The second test convinced the Obama administration that North Korea’s leaders were not prepared to negotiate about ending their nuclear weapons program. The Obama administration’s reaction probably surprised the North Koreans. So what do the North Koreans think President Trump’s reaction would be to a new nuclear test? We just don’t know. And since President Trump himself probably doesn’t know how he would respond, I think that the North Koreans have a lot of serious risk assessments to do before they decide how to proceed. This new and increased uncertainty coming from the White House should make them hesitant about testing again. But whether they will or won’t test soon after Mr. Trump becomes president—we just don’t know.
RFA: In the speech Kim Jong Un mentioned that North Korea was in the final stages of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch, sparking off negative reactions around the world. Do you believe he made that remark with the new Trump administration in mind? If so, what kind of message was he trying to convey?
Kim Jong Un undoubtedly made his remark about being close to test launching an ICBM with the Trump administration in mind, although he almost certainly also had other aims, such as making himself appear strong and decisive to his domestic audience. His remark was consistent with the now decade-long record of North Korea’s leaders clearly signaling their intent to become an internationally accepted nuclear weapons state. I believe that the North Koreans want to use a credible threat of being able to nuke the United States to force Washington to negotiate on their terms. Those terms include the United States’ accepting them as a nuclear weapons state, lifting sanctions, and ending the United States’ alliance with South Korea. North Korea’s strategic goal of making the United States itself feel threatened is why the North Koreans announce in advance their nuclear and missile intentions and even exaggerate their capabilities. As they proceeded along this path, especially for the past decade, the United States did not use force to try to stop them, so now the North Koreans seem to believe that the United States never will. In other words, the North Koreans may no longer fear the United States and therefore Kim feels free to make such statements publicly.
RFA: As you know, the US and S. Korea conduct their annual joint military exercises in March. Don't you think Kim Jong Un might use the joint military exercises as a pretext to justify military provocations like another nuclear or missile test?
Yes, I think that’s quite possible. The North Koreans aim to be accepted internationally as a legitimate nuclear weapons state. One of the ways they seek to do that is by portraying themselves as a victim of American nuclear and other threats. They say that they must have nuclear weapons to defend themselves, even though it has consistently been their side attacking ours militarily, and not the other way around, from the Korean War in 1950 to as recently their artillery shelling of a South Korean island in 2010. Thus, their propaganda always portrays the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises as a prelude to war. They demand an end to those defensive exercises, but they don’t mention their own annual military exercises. The North Koreans’ long-term effort to demonize the U.S.-South Korean military exercises is consistent with their grand strategic aim of undermining and eventually bringing about an end to the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
RFA: If Kim Jong Un goes ahead with an ICBM test, how would the Trump administration react? Is there any possibility for the Trump administration to take military action, in addition to additional economic sanctions?
No one, including probably President-elect Trump himself, knows how he would react to a North Korean ICBM test. But in response to Kim Jung Un’s announcement that his country is in the last stage of preparations for an ICBM launch, President-elect Trump tweeted, “It won’t happen.” I don’t think that a Tweet like that is enough to frighten the North Koreans into not conducting further tests. And if they do so after he is inaugurated—and testing is something that sooner or later the North Koreans are virtually certain to do—President Trump has put himself under great pressure to respond very forcefully. Already, even before his inauguration, he has alienated China, so it will be difficult for President Trump to get China to cooperate with him on a very strong response. That may mean that President Trump will feel he must rely on the U.S. military. In that case, would he order the military to intercept a North Korean missile? Or would Mr. Trump order a preemptive strike against a North Korean missile on the launch pad? Would North Korea respond with attacks against South Korea? Right now probably no one, including North Korea and President-elect Trump, knows the answers to such questions.
RFA: In the speech Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his determination to strengthen North Korea's nuclear capabilities. Given Kim's intransigent attitude, what do you think about the fate of the troubled 6-Party talks and the denuclearization efforts by US and its allies?
There have been no Six Party Talks since 2008 at the end of the Bush administration. From the U.S. perspective, the Six Party Talks were all about reaching a negotiated end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. When North Korean leaders’ words and deeds made it clear to the Obama administration that they were not willing even to consider giving up nuclear weapons, the Obama administration declined to return to Six Party Talks. The Obama administration did try bilateral negotiations with the North Koreans and reached a nuclear and missile test freeze agreement in early 2012, the so-called Leap Day deal, but the North Koreans spectacularly violated it almost immediately by conducting a rocket launch. We’ll have to wait and see what kind of North Korea policy the Trump administration develops, but it’s hard to believe that the United States will ever agree to negotiate with North Korea on Pyongyang’s terms—that is, accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and gutting the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
RFA: Former high-ranking NK diplomat Thae Yong Ho told the S. Korean press recently that Kim Jong Un would never give up North Korea’s nuclear programs even if he were rewarded with ten trillion Korean won (US $8.31 billion). What do you think is the best way to tackle NK's nuclear issue?
The international community must never accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. That would be the beginning of the end of the global nonproliferation regime. On the other hand, I don’t believe that the United States should attack North Korea preemptively, because I don’t believe that North Korean leaders are crazy enough to attack the United States with nuclear weapons. Instead, the Trump administration should put North Korea at the top of its agenda, bolster defenses against it, and massively strengthen sanctions pressures, including through tighter sanctions implementation. As a careful reading of Kim Jung Un’s New Year’s speech indicates, Kim Jong Un is under great psychological pressure to make the nuclear threat succeed in getting the United States to negotiate on his terms. Otherwise, the economic chasm between North and South will just keep growing, as Mr. Thae noted in his press conference, and that is a strategic disaster for Kim Jong Un. The Trump administration must make Kim finally realize that his nuclear threats will never work and that, indeed, they will only make his situation more difficult.
Reported by Changsop Pyon for RFA's Korean Service.