In the wake of North Korea’s latest nuclear test, Trump threatened to impose sanctions on any country that trades with the country ahead of a crucial meeting of the UN security council to discuss fresh measures against the regime.
Deep breath, everyone. Our fellow Mira Rapp-Hooper, a Senior Fellow at Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School, tells us everything we need to know.
Can you put the recent developments in North Korea into perspective? How unprecedented are they given North Korea’s history?
North Korea’s “nuclear summer” certainly represents a significant set of technological milestones. As much as the public has been shocked by them, however, the same does not hold true for North Korea experts. We’ve been watching the North speed up its technological development for the last several years, putting both its missile and nuclear programs into overdrive.One of the leading North Korea nuclear experts, Jeffrey Lewis, anticipated ICBM and thermonuclear development at least a year ago.
In some ways, a more interesting question is why political scientists believed that North Korea would never be able to make its way to an advanced nuclear capability–why they thought historical precedent meant that Pyongyang would remain a laughable, second-rate nuclear aspirant. Because North Korea is an impoverished country, led by a personalist dictator, and with weak institutions, many scholars believed it wouldn’t be able to produce sophisticated weapons and missiles domestically. They’re not laughing now.
Are there any important details regarding North Korea’s missile development that were underreported?
In general, it is very hard to explain outside the expert community that nuclear and missile development-related knowledge is cumulative. Because North Korea is such an isolated country, media reports tend to treat its nuclear and missile tests as “signals” to the United States and others. Sometimes that may be true. But each one of these tests also bestows North Korean scientists with immense technical knowledge that they put to work before testing again.
North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 and its first few were not terribly impressive– just a few kilotons of explosive power, which often get referred to as “fizzles.” This makes them sound totally innocuous, when in fact Pyongyang’s mistakes (and its successes) were put to work in the intervening years to improve its designs significantly.
A similar phenomenon holds true of missile tests. North Korea didn’t test an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) until this July, but some of the components of that ICBM also reside in its MRBM missiles. So when it was testing those medium range missiles dozens of times in the last few years, it was actually perfecting its ICBM too. That’s why its first two ICBM tests were largely successful right out of the gate.
What is North Korea’s endgame?
It is hard to say for sure. Nearly all analysts believe that the Kim regime’s primary motivation in seeking deliverable nuclear weapons is to ensure its own survival. If North Korea can threaten its neighbors and the US homeland with devastating nuclear retaliation, it basically becomes impossible for the United States to invade the North conventionally to topple the regime. No nuclear state has ever been invaded or had its leaders deposed (contrast that with the fates of onetime nuclear aspirants Saddam Hussein and Mumar Gaddaffi). So it is an expensive, labor-intensive insurance policy with a proven track record.
Kim surely has additional goals, however. He would probably like to be “accepted” as a nuclear power, forcing the United States, China, and others to deal with him as a member of this elite club, and to make concessions accordingly. He likely seeks to undermine US security guarantees, convincing South Korea and Japan that the United States won’t come to their defense, as this will make them easier to coerce and intimidate. He may eventually hope to reunify the Peninsula under control of the North– the unrealized goal of the Korean War. But North Korea is the closest thing we have to an intelligence black box, so no one really knows Kim’s true endgame with certainty.
We’ve had sanctions in place for North Korea since 2006, why aren’t they working?
Determining whether or not sanctions are “working” is messy business.
The question of their efficacy is at least a two-stage one. First, do the sanctions produce the intended economic effect on the target state? Second, does that economic pain induce the desired political concessions. In this case, do sanctions drive North Korea to the negotiating table, making it more willing to give up its nuclear and missile programs. It is something of a myth, however, that North Korea is the most sanctioned country on earth. In reality, the UN Security Council has slapped North Korea with new sanctions every time it conducts a major test, but each new round of sanctions is really incremental in nature. We’ve sort of fallen into a pattern of applying new sanctions, but then implicitly accepting the new status quo and going about our business until North Korea tests again.
Since Pyongyang went nuclear in 2006, however, financial tools have improved quite a bit and can now be targeted and tailored in much more specific ways. The Iran case is instructive in that regard. North Korea is less integrated into the global financial system, and is less dependent on the export of a single commodity, the way that Iran depends on oil. Its economic nerve center runs through China, and that must figure in to any future sanctions.
How does China factor in?
Significantly. China and North Korea have had an alliance since 1960, but it is quite different than the United States’ alliances. The Beijing-Pyongyang partnership is mostly based on their shared communist history and political ties, and the Chinese have not declared a formal extended deterrence-type relationship with North Korea. Nonetheless, China supports 80-90% of the North Korean economy through trade and economic aid. A large part of the reason for this is that Beijing sees instability in North Korea as a direct threat to it.
China and North Korea share a border, and if North Korea collapses, millions of refugees would spill over that border and Beijing would have to secure it, as well as help secure North Korean weapons of mass destruction. China has long feared a world in which the Peninsula is reunified under the control of South Korea, as that would put US troops on its northern border. China would strictly prefer that North Korea not have nuclear weapons, but more than that, it has prioritized stability on the Korean Peninsula, so that a collapse scenario does not come to pass. This makes it less willing to crack down on its wayward ward, including to cut off trade or economic aid in ways that might destabilize the regime. So, China is a key consideration, but it does not share US interests on the Korean Peninsula. US leaders often think of China as a centerpiece of North Korea policy, but Beijing will not solve this problem on our behalf– it cannot be convinced to replace its own national interests with ours.
What policy should the US be pursuing in regards to North Korea?
Any sound US policy must start by acknowledging– whether just privately or also publicly– the political realities of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities. Kim Jong Un has given no indication that he is looking to bargain these capabilities away. He intends to hold on to them, and there are no good options for taking them away (a military strike against North Korea could result in a war that would cause a million deaths, including many Americans).
We should not expect to denuclearize North Korea any time soon. In light of this fact, the best we can hope for is to contain North Korea’s nuclear and missile reach, to deter it from taking provocative and coercive actions in the region, and eventually, to get it to agree to some limits on its nuclear and missile programs with time. A strategy aimed at this end would include all elements of national power. It would have a critical role for regional allies, may include more sanctions (including secondary sanctions against Chinese entities that continue to support North Korea), and would also include diplomacy and engagement.
North Korea can only make concessions at a negotiating table, and while we shouldn’t expect it to agree to limits on its programs soon, engagement also reduces the risk of miscalculation between the United States and the North at a very tense time.
How do you think Trump’s presence will influence North Korea-US relations in the coming months?
Thus far, Trump’s leadership on North Korea has been deeply destabilizing. From the beginning of his presidency, he has appeared to be reading from a playbook on how to do North Korea wrong.
In January, he promised North Korea would never acquire an ICBM, despite the fact that it was close and he could do nothing to stop it. Then he spent several months putting all his eggs in China’s basket, urging them to solve the problem, despite the fact that was doomed to fail. This summer, he took his mismanagement to a new level with his “fire and fury” and “locked and loaded” comments. Not only do these words bare no relationship to recognizable US declaratory policy, but they play upon Kim Jong Un’s worst fears that the United States is preparing a first strike against him. This could, theoretically, in turn, cause him to lash out first in really devastating ways, although that remains unlikely.
At the very least, these types of threats raise the risk of miscalculation and are also totally incredible (it makes no sense for the US to strike North Korea in response to mere threats). Perhaps the most damaging thing Trump has done, however, is in the alliance realm. For much of his life, he has exhibited an inexplicable antipathy towards America’s allies and has seriously damaged the relationship with South Korea in just a few months’ time. He has threatened to upend an important US-ROK trade deal, called on Seoul to pay for missile defense that the US is on the hook to deliver, and accused President Moon of appeasing North Korea. Public opinion of the United States and its reliability is plummeting in South Korea at a critical time. As mentioned earlier, one of North Korea’s goals is to split US alliances, and this becomes easier to do from a strategic perspective once it has acquired an ICBM (a phenomenon strategists call “decoupling”).
Trump is damaging the alliance with South Korea at a harrowing time, and doing it in ways that play right into Pyongyang’s hands.