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Dealing with a Nuclear North Korea

Original Broadcast Date:
October 14, 2017(UTC)
Recording at Odusan Unification Tower in Seoul, South Korea

This time on GLOBAL AGENDA: rising tensions over North Korea. Despite warnings from the international community, North Korea is accelerating its nuclear and missile testing programs. But the countries most deeply involved in the issue cannot agree on how to respond. What will it take to make them overcome their differences and find a solution? Our experts from China, the US, South Korea and Japan help us understand the options.

War of words escalates tensions

Our first topic was the ongoing war of words between the leaders of North Korea and the US. Dr. Lee Chung-min from South Korea warned that mutual demonization is the worst possible diplomatic outcome. Dr. Chang Xiaohe offered the Chinese perspective: the war of words may lead to a real war, so the US and North Korea need to exercise self-restraint and find a way out. Dr. Narushige Michishita from Japan added that the two leaders are doing what they might be expected to do: acting in a calculated fashion as part of a pre-negotiation bargaining process. But he warned that if they start acting based on emotions rather than calculation, the situation might become dangerous.

Evaluating North Korea's threat

Mr. Bruce Klingner from the US described the North Korea's threat as real and growing. However, he said it should not be surprising since, back in 1999 when he was a CIA officer, he and his colleagues predicted that North Korea would have the ability to hit the US with a nuclear weapon by 2015. Michishita said North Korea is already capable of attacking Japan with nuclear weapons. In addition, he said that maintaining the trilateral security partnership among the US, South Korea, and Japan is extremely important since the whole purpose of North Korea's nuclear missile program is to decouple South Korea from the US and Japan in the event of contingencies or war.

China's influence on North Korea

The panelists moved on to China's role in North Korea's growing nuclear capability. Cheng said the Chinese government has taken several steps, such as endorsing the passage of about 11 UN Security Council resolutions. Klingner said that many in Washington think China and Russia have always acted like North Korea's lawyer in the Security Council, insisting on watered-down text and loopholes for Pyongyang. He also said China has talked a good game on sanctions but they are not fully implementing what's required.

The option of military action

Klingner said that there is concern or confusion about whether the US would be the first to launch an attack. His concern is that things will get out of control. A clash could escalate into an all-out conflict, or a miscalculation. Lee warned that in the first few days following a preemptive strike by the US there could be hundreds of thousands of causalities in Seoul. He said that the US president must fully understand the possible results of military action. Moreover, he said that such a strike would require almost perfect intelligence, and even the US cannot detect every single North Korean site. Therefore, without that perfect intelligence, a surgical strike may work but it would not take out every site in North Korea. Michishita also said that the North has stored massive numbers of nuclear weapons in a very well-concealed manner, so it would be very difficult to take them out.

Kim Jong Un as a leader

Michishita thinks that Kim Jong Un might be a smarter and better leader than his father, Kim Jong Il. In fact, the North's nuclear missile capabilities have improved during the younger Kim's regime. However, he said in order to determine if Kim Jong Un is more capable, we have to engage in dialogue. Cheng said that Chinese leaders see Kim Jong Un as an ambitious, young, compulsive risk taker. However, Cheng thinks that Kim Jong made a misjudgment when he decided that nuclear weapons and missiles could bring security to his leadership, his regime and his country.

Klingner shared his insights from a June meeting with North Korean officials in Sweden. He said the officials stated clearly and emphatically that denuclearization is totally off the table. Their message was: accept us as a nuclear state and then we either prepare to talk about a peace treaty or fight.

International responses

Klingner suggested leaving the door open for diplomacy, but not rushing back into negotiation. He also said that there is a lot more we can do to pressure the North, and he stressed that the main factors will be implementation and enforcement. Lee said we have to dry up Kim Jong Un's hard currency sources, and the EU plays an important role because Pyongyang does most of its trading through the euro. He also said that China, North Korea's ally, must stop its oil deliveries because this is the only way that these people will really understand how serious China is. On the other hand, Cheng said that everyone focuses too single-mindedly on sanctions and pressure. He suggested providing a way out for North Korea.

The way forward

Cheng said that China needs to send a clear message that North Korea has no hope of acquiring more nuclear weapons and missiles. And he thinks China needs to walk with other countries through the Security Council and other multilateral mechanisms to increase the cost to North Korea of continuing its development programs. Cheng emphasized that China should work with other countries to find a way out, including through talks. Otherwise, the only option is war. Michishita said that we have to attempt dialogue, probably starting with the six-party framework. On the other hand, he said we must consider a fallback position which is to strengthen deterrence and defense capabilities.


Cheng Xiaohe

Associate Professor, Renmin University of China

Dr. Cheng is an associate professor at Renmin University of China and Deputy Director of the university's Center for China's International Strategic Studies. His research focuses on China's diplomacy and its relationship with North Korea.

Lee Chung-min

Professor, Yonsei University

Dr. Lee was a member of former president Lee Myung-bak's foreign policy advisory board. He served as South Korea's Ambassador for National Security Affairs from 2013 to 2016.

Bruce Klingner

Senior Research Fellow, Heritage Foundation

Mr. Klingner was a CIA deputy division chief for Korea and analyzed political, military and economic issues for the US president. He took part in unofficial meeting between Washington and Pyongyang in June.

Narushige Michishita

Professor, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies

Dr. Michishita has been researching North Korea's diplomatic brinkmanship for more than 20 years. He has worked for the Japanese Cabinet on national security policy and issues related to the Korean Peninsula.


Miki Ebara