Interview: U.S. Strategy Should Focus on 'Reducing North Korea’s Killing Power'

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) inspecting winter military drills in an undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Jan. 28, 2017.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) inspecting winter military drills in an undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Jan. 28, 2017.

As the Trump administration’s North Korea policy begins to take shape, North Korea’s nuclear threat has become one of its top foreign policy challenges, with White House spokesman Sean Spicer describing it as “the most prominent threat”.  A recent visit by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis to South Korea as well as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s discussion with his South Korean counterpart on the North Korean nuclear threat is another testimony to the new administration’s determination and seriousness in dealing with it. Changsop Pyon of Radio Free Asia’s Korean Service asked renowned North Korea expert Nicholas Eberstadt about the North Korean challenges the Trump administration faces and the possible remedies. Dr. Eberstadt, the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), drew a lot of attention by proposing a new approach called “threat reduction strategy” to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem at the North Korea hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 31. A founding member of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, he is an author of several books on North Korea, including “The End of North Korea” published in 1999.

RFA:  Secretary of State Tillerson defined the North Korean nuclear problem as "an imminent threat" in his phone conversation with South Korean Foreign Minister on Jan 7. Prior to that, Defense Secretary Mattis visited South Korea to reaffirm U.S. security commitment to deter North Korean nuclear threat on Jan. 3. It is clear that the new Trump administration regards the North Korean nuclear issue as one of its top foreign policy priorities. As you know, previous. U.S. administrations failed to stop North Korea's nuclear programs for many years. Don’t you think it’s time for the new U.S. administration to find a different approach?

Eberstadt: What we have seen for the last 25 years under Democratic and Republican American presidents is their bipartisan failure to achieve the denuclearization of North Korea. In fact, the problem has gotten worse and worse and worse over time. It’s clear that the American approach for 25 years has been a failure. So, we need a new approach. Generally speaking, I would describe the previous approach as something relying upon engagement. Of course, there was deterrence. Of course, there was the ROK-U.S. alliance. Of course, there was a military guarantee. But there was the hope that the North Korean government could be convinced to be denuclearized. In my view, that was a fantasy. The North Korean government will never denuclearize. In fact, the North Korean government, in my view, wishes to use its nuclear arsenal as a tool that can break the U.S.-ROK alliance and get American soldiers out of South Korea. So, instead, we need a very different approach. I recommend the approach that I describe as threat reduction, namely reducing North Korea’s killing power through a coordinated, comprehensive and sustained international strategy. That approach, a threat reduction strategy, is something we don’t need North Korea’s permission to achieve. We can do this by ourselves or with our allies.

RFA:  In your testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on North Korea on Jan. 31, you declared that U.S. policy toward North Korea has been a failure because the American public and its leaders don't understand North Korea and its intentions. What do you think should be the most important thing that the Trump administration should understand about North Korea's nuclear intentions?

Eberstadt: The single most important thing that the new Trump administration should understand is that North Korea has been gradually developing the capability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons. It has been developing for decades. It has continued on this program even when the country was in a food crisis. Instead of buying food for its people, North Korea developed its nuclear capability. The reason for this is because it is absolutely the top priority of the state. It is something the government will never negotiate away. The only way to solve the North Korean nuclear problem is to solve the North Korean political problem, namely to have a different government in North Korea. In the meanwhile, however, we can prepare systematically to reduce the North Korean threat to the U.S. and its allies and the international community.

RFA:  You just mentioned a “different government in Korea” as the solution to the North Korean nuclear problem. What is that?

Eberstadt: At the end of the day, the answer to the North Korean nuclear problem is Korean reunification, the reunification of the two parts of Korea under a constitutional democracy and market-oriented system, and I would say, also with the continuing military alliance between the U.S. and ROK that provides stability and international security.

RFA:  In your testimony, you also argued that North Korea will never give up their nuclear option, and international entreaties will never convince them to give up their nuclear program. As a workable solution, you proposed a “threat reduction” strategy. According to your definition, it is a long-term strategy that the United States, working with allies and others but also acting unilaterally, can blunt, then mitigate and eventually help eliminate the killing force of the North Korean state. How did the senators react?

Eberstadt:  Well, we can only know by their subsequent statements and policy suggestions. My impression from the hearing was that the North Korean threat was a big concern to both Republican and Democratic senators, and there was a very large number of Democratic and Republican senators that turned out to the hearing to ask questions and statements. The politics is really polarized in the U.S. right now, but one of the few areas that Democrats and Republicans in Congress agree on is the North Korean threat.

RFA: Do you think you can sell this “threat reduction” idea to the U.S. Congress and government?

Eberstadt: I don’t harbor any fantasy that it will be possible to negotiate away North Korea’s nuclear capability. Of course, diplomacy would still play a role in a threat reduction strategy because it is barbaric not to talk with one’s opponent, and because sometimes there is needless misunderstanding in addition to the deep fundamental differences that separate the governments. My point is that by better military preparations, by stronger economic penalties on North Korea, by international human rights efforts, by information campaigns, by what the North Korean government refers to as “ideological and cultural poisoning,” and by a more intelligent approach towards China and its support of North Korea, we have great opportunities to reduce North Korea’s capacity to threaten the world.

RFA: In other words, “threat reduction” approach is kind of a total campaign to reduce North Korean threat by using every means available, ranging from military and political to economic and cultural ones, right?

Eberstadt: Everything. We also need to pay attention to the coherence of the North Korean regime. Fortunately for us, Kim Jong Un may have already done great damage to the internal coherence of the North Korean leadership with the execution of his uncle and with steps that have been taken to consolidate his power. There may be more hidden cleavages and hidden fissures and hidden dissatisfaction at the top of his government.

RFA: As part of the “threat reduction” approach, you suggested THAAD systems for South Korea’s effective defenses against North Korea’s means of destruction. As you know, however, the THAAD issue has made it very hard for the U.S. and its allies to get help from China in resolving the North Korean nuclear problem. What is your take?

Eberstadt: THAAD is an instrument that I think should be non-negotiable. It is something that is needed to protect both South Korea’s population and Japan’s population. In my view, missile defenses are also required to protect America’s population. Interestingly enough, the Chinese government has only become cooperative on North Korean sanctions when their leadership perceived that South Korea was likely to implement THAAD. We in the U.S. and allied countries have not done nearly enough to emphasize to China about the big costs and risks that Beijing would face for its support for the world’s most odious government. And it’s not just THAAD. There are also other areas that China should be made to pay the penalties for their decisions. For example, international finance with secondary sanctions on financial institutions in China that help North Korea at the United Nations. Up until now, American diplomacy was very cautious about bringing votes to the UN Security Council about North Korea. The fear has been that China will veto that vote. I don’t think we should be afraid of that. If China wants to veto a human rights resolution on North Korea, let them do it. Let’s bring it back every week. Make China veto a human rights resolution on North Korea 20 times. Make them show to the world that they’re a jail keeper for the world’s worst jail. China has many other objectives in the world besides being the paymaster for North Korea. And if the spotlight is shown on China’s ugly connections with the North Korean government, it is going to be a lot harder for China to achieve its other objectives in other parts of the world.

RFA:  For many years North Korean human rights issue has taken a back seat to North Korea's nuclear issue.  You argued in your recent Senate testimony that "there is no contradiction between the objectives of human rights promotion and nonproliferation in the DPRK." Why is that?

Eberstadt: Well, I hope the North Korean human rights question will take a high priority in the Trump administration. We should have a much more active policy on human rights in North Korea for its own merits. Improved human rights also have the additional consequence of promoting threat reduction with North Korea. For example, there are countries in the world that are not involved in the campaign to denuclearize North Korea. I can think of lots of countries in South America and Europe that are not immediately affected by this campaign. But on the other hand, there are many countries, many democracies in other parts of the world that could be part of the international human rights campaign. North Korea is the worst human rights offender in the world today. Think what would happen if there was a campaign for human rights in North Korea similar to the campaign for human rights in South Africa thirty years ago. Think what this would mean about stigmatizing and criticizing and eventually delegitimizing the practices of the North Korean government. North Korean representatives would not be welcome in other countries because of their human rights crimes. North Korean trade would be restricted because of their human rights crimes. Certain governments would urge referral of the North Korean leadership to the International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity. All of this would have indirect impact on North Korean capability to maintain threats against the world.





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