On the heels of the long-range rocket launch in December last year and a nuclear test in February this year, North Korea fired multiple short-range missiles this week, raising tensions with the United States, South Korea, and the rest of the international community. Six-party talks on North Korea’s denuclearization have been stalled for nearly four years, and efforts by the Obama administration to engage North Korea in meaningful dialogue have been countered with defiant provocations, including the recent missile launches, nuclear test, and threats of war. Changsop Pyon of RFA’s Korean Service interviews Gary Samore—former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and the Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism and current director of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs—on the current situation on the Korean peninsula and possibilities for a breakthrough in the stalled nuclear talks.
Q: North Korea conducted several short-range missile launches from May 18 to 20. What do you make of their motivation behind such a belligerent action at this time?
A: The short-range missile tests are a way for Pyongyang to show that it is not submissive and weak even if it does not test longer-range missiles.
Q: Some say Pyongyang fired the missiles to draw attention from the United States. Do you agree?
A: No, I don’t think the short-range missile launches get much attention in Washington because they are so routine.
Q: I don’t think the missile launch would have happened without North Korean leader Kim Jung Un’s orders. As you know, it’s been almost a year and a half since Kim Jong Un assumed the supreme leadership of North Korea. There were some expectations that the new young leader might take a different course from his late father Kim Jong Il in dealing with the outside world. However, we still see the same pattern of North Korea’s belligerent behavior as evidenced by its long-range rocket launch last December and nuclear test in February. What do you make of Kim Jong Un, compared with his late father? Is he a more dangerous leader?
A: I don’t think we know yet. I think one of the big question marks about Kim Jong Un’s policy is whether he will follow the pattern his father established, which was basically a cycle of provocation and tension followed by a cycle of diplomacy, and whether Kim Jong Un is prepared to take more chances and engage in additional provocations and even limited attacks against South Korea. My guess is Kim Jong Un will be restrained by a combination of factors including China, the United States, and the ROK [South Korea]. So, my best guess is that when the U.S. and ROK exercises wind down, we’ll see that North Korea will indicate a willingness to return to the bargaining table, and then the question will shift to what are the conditions and preconditions for resumption of the negotiations. So, my guess is in the coming weeks and months the North Koreans will stake out their conditions and the U.S., ROK, and Japan will stake out their preconditions. And then the issue will be whether or not the two sides can come to an agreement on the conditions for resuming the negotiations.
Q: Let me turn to North Korea’s nuclear issue, our main topic for this interview. There are many explanations as to why North Korea has chosen to take the road to nuclear development. Some say it’s for their own security, while others say it’s for some sort of deterrent against the U.S. What’s your take?
Fear. I think North Korea is afraid of all of its neighbors: China, ROK, Japan, the United States. And I think North Koreans have always seen nuclear development primarily as a means to deter external pressure and attack. Secondarily, they have tried to use their nuclear program as a bargaining chip to extract foreign assistance from their neighbors. But I think the primary motivation has been to create deterrent, deterrent not just against the United States. I don’t think North Korea trusts anybody. They don’t trust Chinese, they don’t trust South Koreans, they don’t trust Japanese, and to the extent North Koreans can hold the threat of using military force to create conflict and instability on the Korean peninsula, they can blackmail China to leave them alone, to give them special treatment. They can deter the United States and South Korea. So, for all of these reasons I think Pyongyang has seen the development of nuclear weapons as an important part of their foreign policy and their defense policy.
Q: What’s the price that North Korea had to pay for continuing its nuclear program?
A: Well, it’s come with a very heavy price. If you look at North Korea, you see a really desperately poor, isolated, backward dictatorship. And that has basically been the price of North Korea’s nuclear program. So, somewhere along the way whether it was Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, North Korea had a choice to make: do we go down the path of nuclear development or do we decide to accept limits on our nuclear program in exchange for better relations with the United States and the rest of the world. And they made the wrong choice.
Q: I guess the North Korean leadership might have known a better alternative without going nuclear. In other words, without nuclear development, North Korea could have developed a successful economy with the necessary foreign assistance and economic aid, in addition to better political relations with the United States and the rest of the world. Why do you think North Korea has given up such a golden opportunity to build a better nation without nuclear weapons?
A: Very good question. I don’t know how much of it was the personality of the leaders; I don’t know how much of it was the system in North Korea that has a very suspicious and paranoid view of the outside world. It’s very difficult for me to explain their decisions because we don’t have good understanding. All I can say is that they were faced with their critical choice, you know, back in the 1990s, and they made the wrong choice. And I think the result of this is that North Korea has nuclear weapons and not much else. And ultimately I think it’ll mean the end of the system. I’m not sure when that will happen. Ultimately I think North Korea’s strategic choice will result in the collapse of the country, of the government.
Q: It seems Pyongyang thinks it can still expect better relations with the U.S. while keeping its nuclear program. As a former U.S. government official directly involved in North Korea policy, what do you make of that?
A: I don’t think it’s true that North Korea can have it both ways. North Korea can’t keep its nuclear programs and expect good relations with the United States. The two objectives are completely incompatible. So, Kim Jong Un has to make a choice. If he wants to have good relations with the United States, including the benefits that would come from economic and political opening with the United States and the rest of the world, including the big international institutions, the North Koreans have to be willing to limit and ultimately give up their nuclear weapons.
Q: As you know, North Korea has demanded that the United States recognize it as a nuclear power. Is there any possibility for the current or future U.S. administration to do so?
A: I don’t think so. If the United States did that, it would put tremendous pressure on Korea and Japan to leave NPT and build nuclear weapons. And I don’t think the United States wants to see further proliferations of nuclear weapons in East Asia. So, the U.S. has very strong national security interests in opposing, not accepting the North as a nuclear power. And in doing everything we can to limit North Korea’s nuclear capacity, (a) it doesn’t threaten the United States with long-range missiles, and (b) so it doesn’t threaten our allies, Korea and Japan, and put pressure on them to build their own nuclear forces.
Q: Do you think the U.S. can respond at all to the North Koreans’ demands for nuclear reduction talks instead of denuclearization?
A: I don’t think so. The U.S. will insist on the talks being about denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. I think that Pyongyang will very likely agree to that, even though they are not sincere, that they’ll say they accept the talks are about denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Q: You served as the White House czar on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and terror during the Obama administration’s first term. What were your biggest headaches while serving that position?
A: Well, I would say that the biggest headaches were the limits on America’s ability to persuade or put pressure on North Korea to give up or to significantly limit their missile and nuclear activities. The U.S. has limited options. The use of military forces is very unattractive because it’s likely to trigger a broader conflict on the Korean peninsula that would be very costly in terms of human lives and in terms of economic costs. And sanctions are very difficult to be very effective because China has not been willing to fully support the kind of economic pressure that could jeopardize the stability of the North Korean regime. And diplomacy is very limited as a tool because the North Koreans lie and cheat. So, at the end of the day, the U.S. has very limited capacity to affect the nuclear and missile program.
Q: Hearing what you say, I feel it seems impossible for the United States to make a breakthrough in the stalled nuclear talks.
A: I don’t think it’s possible to have a breakthrough. I think we can limit the nuclear and missile program, but ultimately the only solution is when the North Korean government changes.
Q: You just said, “when the North Korean government changes.” By that do you mean the end of the current North Korean regime?
A: Yes, but I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I do think it will happen. Obviously I can’t predict with any accuracy when that might take place.