FPI Conference Call Wrap-Up: North Korea's Dangerous Nuclear Escalation

September 15, 2016

The Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) hosted a conference call Wednesday morning on the implications of North Korea’s recent nuclear test—its fifth overall.  FPI Executive Director Christopher J. Griffin moderated a discussion between Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, Dr. Thomas Karako of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Key quotations from the panel discussion follow below. An audio recording of the conference call is also available on our website.  During the conversation, Dr. Eberstadt referred to a 2011 publication describing scenarios for a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, which is available on the American Enterprise Institute’s website.


North Korea’s Goals

“North Korea is not a lunatic state.  It is a state which has a coherent logic, a coherent structure, a coherent set of objectives… North Korea is a revisionist state deeply dissatisfied with the configuration of the global chessboard…  It is deeply dissatisfied with the existence on the Korean Peninsula of an alternative, competing Korean state, which it regards as being completely illegitimate.  And it is deeply dissatisfied with the U.S. security architecture… which protects the South Korean state, or helps to protect it through our alliance structure.” – Dr. Eberstadt

“I think part of the North Korean strategy involves improving its capability sufficiently to challenge U.S. extended deterrence…The North Koreans may perceive that they can split the U.S. and South Korea by achieving a direct-strike capability on the United States and then engendering a set of debates on whether the U.S. extended deterrent would remain credible in that circumstance…The North Koreans may perceive that is the weak point where they can divide the U.S.-ROK alliance.” – Mr. Snyder

“At the end of the day, I suspect the North Korean authorities’ objective tactically and strategically is to prepare for fighting and winning a limited nuclear war on their own terms in the Korean peninsula—not to devastate the entire area, but to force a crisis in which the U.S. backs down.  If the U.S. backs down, or hesitates, or waits, then the alliance is worthless…  If such a crisis can occur—the way that is advantageous to North Korean authorities—this could indeed break the alliance; it could indeed lead to the end of U.S. troops in South Korea and, for that matter, possibly Japan; and it could arrange for an entirely new security situation in Northeast Asia.” – Dr. Eberstadt

North Korean Capabilities

“Between 1994 and 2008, if you count up all the missile launches and the nuclear tests, there was about 1.7 per year prior to Kim [Jong Il]’s stroke. If you go from 2009 to 2016, you’re looking at over 9 a year, and I think 73 in total. 24 for the first period, 73 in total for this latter period. The tempo has increased dramatically, but so has the qualitative capabilities.” – Dr. Karako

“[People] talk more seriously about the prospect in the nearer term not only of a nuclear weapons arsenal, but also of Korea entering into serial ICBM production. And that’s going to really change the game for how we think about these things. We’ve been resting from a happily advantageous position in terms of the relative balance between our missile defense interceptors for both the homeland and the regional, and that’s going to be challenged, even more than it is now.” – Dr. Karako

“I would say we have to presume the North Korean government will continue with its nuclear and missile development no matter what because this is a top priority of state. Despite sanctions, without sanctions, either way. The only end to the North Korean nuclear threat, I think, is the end of the North Korean government as we know it.” – Dr. Eberstadt

Imagining a North Korean Nuclear Crisis

“If you look at North Korea compared to other states that have nuclear weapons, North Korea is different in system type.  There are literally no checks or balances on the Supreme Leader in a system where power is really concentrated at the top.” – Mr. Snyder

“Let’s say sometime in the future, a provocation is manufactured in the North… and the North responds with a very targeted military attack on Yongsan military base in downtown Seoul… What does the U.S. president in this future world do? … I had a chance to discuss this scenario with President George W. Bush ten years ago, I guess, and he declared that such a provocation were inflicted during his time in office, they’d bring it on. My response is that when North Korean decision makers were confident that there would not be a dramatic response, that was the time when such a provocation would be tested.” – Dr. Eberstadt

“I think the most worrisome situation, in light of North Korea’s enhanced nuclear-related capabilities and the attenuation of its conventional force is really related to the possibility of some kind of aggressive action by North Korea that is then accompanied by a threat of nuclear escalation. And that is really what we need to be prepared to respond to in as effective a manner as possible. The risk here is really that North Korea doesn’t have too many cards in its hand and if that conflict actually breaks out, there is a risk of miscalculation there given the possibility that they see their nuclear capability as the silver bullet that is going to protect them from any possible response.” – Mr. Snyder

“I think that South Korea has woken up to that inasmuch as in recent years, they’ve emphasized more heavily, more explicitly and take a more aggressive posture on what they like to call the ‘kill chain.’ And [the Obama] administration has extended the agreement on the offensive missile capabilities of the South up to 1,000, I think the South in particular is very eager to get more of that strike capability to respond to the kind of unpredictable miscalculation of the kind Nick and Scott just alluded to.” – Dr. Karako

The Regional Response

“It seems to me that the North Korean tests really takes advantage of the geopolitical space between the U.S. and China—the fact that both sides regard each other with mistrust and basically if that space were closed between the United States and China, North Korea wouldn’t be able to exploit this opportunity or really find a way of surviving.” – Mr. Snyder

“The North Koreans are probably encouraged by the fact that we’re approaching the 10th anniversary of North Korea’s first nuclear test and they can probably see a bit of ‘North Korean nuclear fatigue’ in the international community’s response. Yes, we’ve seen increasing sanctions through the U.N., but we clearly have not seen sufficient pressure to force North Korea to reverse direction.” – Mr. Snyder

“Over the course of the past year, we have seen improvement in the Japan-South Korea relationship, and especially in policy dialogue related to North Korea. I do believe the US, Japan, and South Korea are better placed to respond to North Korean actions currently, but it’s also true that North Korea could at some point perceive that it can divide the alliance response, especially related to extended deterrence issues. As Japan comes into range of the North Korean threat in particular, it really raises the question whether or not Japan and South Korea respectively are likely to have the same immediate responses if North Korea tries to use its nuclear capabilities as a way of threatening one or the other, so that’s an issue I think we should really be paying close attention to, the risk of divergent responses.” – Mr. Snyder

The Role of Missile Defense

“One of the pieces of the solution set here is the THAAD deployment, which for years and years has been a hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. There’s been no negotiations or talks going on because of the highly politicized, which is to say Chinese, opinions on the matter. And now South Korea has had enough. And so, with the satellite launch, they said ok, now we’re going to enter the talks, but by the summer they said we’re really going to deploy THAAD. The past 5 USFK commanders have endorsed that deployment, it’s a good part of the solution for this. There’s no perfect silver bullet and the [submarine launched ballistic missile] problem, should it emerge in a deployed way, will have to be solved in a way besides a single THAAD. But I think that’s an important step.” – Dr. Karako

“There is an apparent paradox between U.S.-Japan-RoK coordination and the desire to cooperate with China on North Korea, and we’ve begun to see this play out, really, with the THAAD issue, as the underlying concern with THAAD in China is related to the possibility that the THAAD system might be eventually linked up to the U.S.-Japan missile defense system. So, you know, those elements of geostrategic distrust give North Korea a clear pathway to pursue their nuclear development efforts with impunity.” – Mr. Snyder

“I’m not sure there is a convincing of China on the THAAD thing… This is more about symbolism and the potential future applications of THAAD than about the technical characteristics of a TPY-2 radar that would be deployed with a particular 120-degree view in central South Korea. It was alluded to earlier about Chinese concerns that this might in some way be stitched into a larger missile defense system. My response to that would be I certainly hope so. Which is as much as it’s going to be the United States military that is operating it, from my perspective, we ought to be able to point this radar in any direction we want to and it certainly ought to be connect to other U.S. military assets.”

North Korea’s Proliferation Partners

“I think it’s pretty clear that in terms of missile development, there has been active North Korean-Iranian interaction and cooperation, even possible kind of joint testing. The question is whether any of the North Korean—and they have a science and technology agreement that they came to a couple of years ago, which is probably a signal that cooperation extends to other areas—we don’t yet see direct evidence of cooperation on the nuclear side, though there are suspicions that there may have also been cooperation in that area. There’s nothing that I’m aware of that is the smoking gun on that, though.” – Mr. Snyder

“Of course we know there is a DPRK-Iran homework club, and this means we have to look at tests in Iran through a North Korean lens and tests in the DPRK through an Iran lens. We also need to pay attention to the troubling possibility of Chinese homework help through whatever means or levels with respect to DPRK WMD advances. Bruce Bechtel, who is certainly, I think, one of the authorities on DPRK WMD development, has made the case that the new submarine launched missiles from DRPK look a whole lot like Chinese JL-1s and that should be very troubling. We should know more about that.” – Dr. Eberstadt

“The pathways to proliferation here are many, are well-worn, and there’s dirty hands all around. Even if China is not actively aiding North [Korea’s] missile program right now, they have in the not so distant past… And proliferation as a policy on the part of China and transnational proliferation efforts with Iran and others are a very real thing.” – Dr. Karako

Sanctions and Pressure on North Korea

“The reason we might hope that coercive economic diplomacy might work a little bit better with the DPRK is because the DPRK has such a distorted and dysfunctional economy and is so self-evidently, desperately dependent on continued flows of outside resources to function. That being said… over the last four years, the black market exchange rate for the DPRK Won and the U.S. Dollar or Euro or other hard currencies has been essentially stable… Also, the cereal prices in DPRK Won all over the country have been more or less stable. This suggests to me the possibility that there may, in addition to the familiar Chinese trade bridge, there may be unobserved sources of income for the DPRK state that we really haven’t been paying attention to, and I confess I am a little bit baffled about that.” – Dr. Eberstadt

“I think the next round of penalties will probably have to be ones which have some sort of collateral fallout for China, very much in the way that the American approach that led up to Banco Delta Asia had some impact. Sanctions are fine, more sanctions are better, and the DPRK can be put back on the state sponsors of terrorism list and we can do lots of other things and we should. But I think we have to be like Willie Sutton and look where the money is and increasing the cost for China, I think, is the way to go.” – Dr. Eberstadt

“I think it’s right that one of the dilemmas related to sanctions is that China has all the leverage as everybody else shuts down their interactions. And the other aspect is that we need to see internal dissonance in North Korea. So working backwards from what Nick was saying, you know, If Kim Jong-Un is wedded to this program, there may be nothing we can do about it. If you step back, what you need is the kind of sanctions that will induce an internal debate.” – Mr. Snyder

“There is always a danger and human rights activists are wary of that danger, that human rights gets instrumentalized in foreign policy ad security discussions.  Recognizing that danger, it is also clearly the case that North Korea’s criminal Kim family regime is the most egregious violator of human rights on the face of the earth at the moment and there are good reasons, good human rights reasons for pursuing the regime, stigmatizing the regime and there would also be security dividends. For those who believe in the International Criminal Court, the ICC, bring the Kim family regime to accountability criminally at the ICC.” – Dr. Eberstadt

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