When a former negotiator once known for advocating dialogue with North Korea says it’s time to force the Pyongyang regime to ponder its own demise, it’s hard not to pay attention.
But that’s exactly what Evans Revere, one of the State Department’s former top Asia hands and a long-time Korea watcher, is saying today with increasing urgency.
Having watched “everything else we have tried fail” over recent decades, Revere said that following May’s Seventh Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang he is now more pessimistic than ever about the future of U.S.-North Korea relations.
As a result, Revere says only an “unprecedented” level of sanctions designed to threaten the very system Kim Jong Un defends through nuclear weapons can have any chance of bringing about denuclearization.
And without credible efforts toward denuclearization, Revere thinks “serious dialogue” is all but impossible with North Korea, meaning there is little way to see any path to an improvement in relations between the U.S. and North Korea.
NK News: North Korea has recently indicated an increased willingness for discussions with both the U.S. and South Korea. What is your reading of this?
Revere: Behind all of this “openness” and willingness to “engage” is a presumption on the part of the North Koreans that any future dialogues that take place with either the United States or other parties will be based on an acceptance of North Korea’s status as a de facto nuclear weapons state.
That is obviously not acceptable to the United State and is unlikely to be acceptable to the ROK. Accepting the goal of denuclearization is a prerequisite to improvement in relations between North Korea, South Korea and the United States.
So the idea that somehow we can have a serious dialogue with North Korea that doesn’t touch on the nuclear issue – that doesn’t address the specific issue of denuclearization – is just not on.
… the idea that somehow we can have a serious dialogue with North Korea that doesn’t touch on the nuclear issue … is just not on
And so I think our friends in Pyongyang are seeking to gain tacit acceptance of this new status. Indeed, one of the central outcomes of the Party Congress was their self identification as a de facto nuclear weapons or nuclear-armed state, and that’s just not acceptable for the United States and others.
NK News: It appears we have a situation in which North Korean long-term objectives and U.S. long-term objectives really couldn’t be further apart. What will be the impact of this contradiction?
Revere: I have long been an advocate of U.S.-DPRK dialogue, and where things stand right now, I keep asking myself, “If we are going to have a discussion with the North Koreans, what are we going to talk about?”
And the North Korean position as it has evolved very clearly since late 2008 is that they are not prepared to have a conversation about denuclearization. That being the case, I am more pessimistic than I have ever been about prospects for serious and productive conversations between the United States and the DPRK.
Absent a North Korean commitment to return to a discussion of denuclearization, it’s very hard to see a path back to any kind of serious dialogue or productive conversation which can lead to an improvement in relations.
NK News: What then would be your advice to the next president of the U.S., in terms of North Korea policy?
Revere: The policy the United States has begun to implement in recent weeks, especially since the nuclear test, is essentially the policy I have been advocating for the last several years.
I have long since come to the conclusion – after seeing everything else we have tried fail to achieve the objective of freezing and then eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons program – that we need to try something different.
And that “something different” is to begin to put at risk the one thing that the North Koreans treasure more dearly than their nuclear weapons, which is the stability and the future prospects for survivability of the regime.
Now I know that sounds very ominous, but we have tried engagement, we have tried removal of sanctions, we have tried commitments to normalize relations, we have tried the establishment of liaison offices. On the dark side we’ve tried threats and sanctions and pressure, etc., and none of this has worked, except on a temporary basis.
So I have come to believe over the years that the only thing that is likely to get the North Koreans to focus on the importance and the necessity of denuclearization is to convince them that if they do not return to serious denuclearization discussions, they are putting at risk the survivability of their regime.
So if they define these weapons as key to their survival, what we need to do is to say to the North Koreans, “You will not be able to survive if you go down this path.” And the way to do that, in my view, is to ratchet up sanctions to an unprecedented degree; and that’s the course the U.S. is on right now. The steps that have been taken by the administration so far are helpful, but they are also rather preliminary. I think there is a lot more coming, and a lot more will have to come if this approach is to succeed.
(We need) to take North Korea to the edge and have them stare into the abyss of the possible collapse of their system
Now, having said this, I’m aware of the risks that are involved here; the risk of pushing the North Korean regime to the brink where it responds in some kinetic fashion, or perhaps even collapses.
I’m not advocating collapse, but if you look back on the history of our interactions with North Korea, the one thing that really got their attention back in 2005 was the Banco Delta Asia sanctions. It focused the North Korean regime as it’s never focused before on its ability to survive. And so I have concluded that we need that sort of an approach, writ large and much more intensive, to take North Korea to the edge and have them stare into the abyss of the possible collapse of their system if they do not return to the negotiating table.
Years ago, President Roh Moo-hyun – of all people – said privately to us just before his inauguration: “We have to give North Korea a choice between nuclear weapons and survival.”
That remark has weighed heavily on my mind over the years and I think that is the direction that we probably need to try to take U.S. policy. And I think that’s the direction in which ROK, Japanese, and to some extent European policy may be going. Once again, I acknowledge the risks, but it’s the one thing I don’t think we have tried.
NK News: One line of thinking suggests sanctions can never work unless mass human security is threatened. But following hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths after economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the UN Security Council in the 1990s, the UN made clear sanctions could never again have such fatal side effects. As such, is what you are proposing not impossible from a UN perspective?
Revere: There are limits to how far I think the UN Security Council (UNSC) is prepared to go in terms of sanctions. At the end of the day, some combination of Moscow and Beijing will limit the degree to which these sanctions will have the sort of dramatic implications that I talked about. And so the pressure that could be put in place by some combination of steps taken by the U.S., ROK, Japan and a few other partners will have to be relied on more than just the actions of the UNSC.
But having said that I don’t think we’ve reached the end of what the UNSC is prepared to do or can do. I think there are other steps that can be taken. Short of the sort of overwhelming sanctions that might be required, there is a lot more that can be done.
The loopholes in the current UNSC sanctions on North Korea are enormous: DPRK front companies are still operating in China’s northeast; there are a number of smaller Chinese financial institutions that are still engaged in business with North Korea; ships are still going back and forth; the border is still a lot more porous than it should be; payments for North Korean labor are still being made; oil is still being transported and other commodities are still being transported.
So there is a lot more that can be done and it is possible that another tranche of sanctions, approved by the Security Council, could have the sort of effect that I’m talking about – to focus North Korea’s mind and attention on its survivability – short of the sort of the dramatic level that you described in respect to Iraq.
The goal here is not to punish or hurt the North Korean people. I was one of the biggest advocates of food assistance and other assistance to North Korea back in the ’90s and I think the assistance that we provided – and other countries provided at our urging – really made a difference in the lives of the North Korean people.
There are things that we can be doing to North Korea’s economic viability that would help focus the North Korean leadership’s attention
But there are things that we can and I think should be doing to North Korea’s economic viability that would I think help focus the North Korean leadership’s attention in ways that have not been done in a number of years.
And it goes without saying that the level of sanctions that we have applied on North Korea frankly pales in comparison to what we did on Iran and other countries. And so this is a work in progress and I think there is a lot more to be done and that should be done.
NK News: But do you accept the premise that to have the kind of effect the U.S. is looking for, there will – whether we like it or not – have to be be some kind of side effect for the people of North Korea?
Revere: I think there are ways to protect the basic livelihoods of the North Korean people through food assistance and in other ways.
What I have in mind in terms of sanctions are things like financial transactions that relate in any way, shape or form to the sustainability of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, their military machine and to illicit activities.
There is a lot more that we could be doing that I don’t think will have a direct effect on the lives of average North Koreans.
NK News: When it comes to sanctions, we often hear about China not doing enough. In that regard, is there not a fundamental problem related to a difference between what the U.S. is looking for and what China really wants, which is stability on its border? If so, is there scope for real consensus between what Washington wants and what Beijing wants?
Revere: It’s hard. We are not always on the same page as our Chinese friends. And the way to put it most bluntly is that increasingly, the United States seems to be looking to bring North Korea closer and closer to the brink, in the hope that it will change minds in Pyongyang.
But at the same time, if you look at it from the Chinese perspective, that is precisely what they seem to be keen to avoid. The closer North Korea comes to the brink, the closer North Korea may come to going over the brink into the abyss. And that obviously is something that the Chinese have no appetite for, at all.
The Chinese priority has for some time been stability more than denuclearization and you can see it in their rhetoric. There have been some weeks where denuclearization is the number one priority on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but then on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday it is stability.
There is a contradiction between where we are and where the Chinese are in terms of our respective postures
But I think the essence of the Chinese approach now is that stability is their core concern, with denuclearization an important but secondary goal. And so there is a contradiction between where we are and where the Chinese are in terms of our respective postures.
Having said that, we’ve come a long way in terms of convincing the Chinese to do more and to do more directly to put pressure on the North Korean regime. I’ve been working on China since the late ’60s – as long as I’ve been working on Korea – and it’s remarkable when you think how far China has come in terms of developing a very different posture vis-à-vis North Korea. The days of a relationship as close as lips and teeth are long gone; they might have disappeared decades ago.
And so we are in a different place – Chinese popular attitudes towards North Korea have changed dramatically: public opinion polls and the blogosphere in China show remarkable criticism of North Korea. Chinese experts, including many former officials, express views on North Korea that have changed dramatically from the old days..
However, among the leadership, the party, the military, the leading institutions in the PRC, and in some other quarters there is still some nostalgia for the old relationship with North Korea. And there is a grudging acceptance of North Korea as a necessary partner among others. There are some in China who may even value in maintaining North Korea as a useful irritant to the United States in the region, and there are other Chinese who look at North Korea and say, “the real problem is America. It is not North Korea. It’s America’s hostile policy and America’s unwillingness to deal directly with North Korea.”
So you’ve got a range of views inside the leadership in China. But the fundamental problem is that while there’s really been a sea-change in attitudes towards North Korea inside China, that change has not yet come at the geo-strategic level in Beijing.
And so China is not yet ready to regard the DPRK as a net strategic liability, despite the fact that many Chinese experts do regard it so. And so this is a work in progress.
NK News: Any final thoughts about the current situation?
Revere: I’m more pessimistic than I’ve been in a long time.
I was pessimistic going into the Party Congress and I’m infinitely more pessimistic coming out of the Party Congress. The messages were precisely the worst ones that we could have imagined.
I had feared that’s what they were going to do with and that’s indeed what they did and so here we are: the North Koreans have declared themselves to be a certain type of state – a nuclear armed state – that the United States and the ROK and Japan and most of the international community finds unacceptable.
Main picture: NK News edit of Rodong Sinmun still
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