About the Author
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
As a result of recent bilateral measures and increasing tensions, there are few exit ramps ahead to de-escalate tension between Pyongyang and the U.S. – South Korea alliance, Dr. Victor Cha, Korea Chair of the CSIS think-tank, told NK News in Seoul on Tuesday.
And with data suggesting North Korea may conduct provocations around forthcoming joint military drills or the pending U.S. election, it’s hard to be optimistic about how things might play out in the coming months, should an incident occur.
Yet Cha said it’s likely the next President of the U.S. will want to keep an option for dialogue with the North firmly open, as history books won’t judge a leader well if a sustained lack of exit ramps to diffuse tension leads to war.
However, Cha warned that Washington’s unprecedented naming of Kim Jong Un as an abuser of human rights and South Korea’s closure of Kaesong Industrial Complex add serious hurdles that complicate any path to resuming dialogue, even if there is desire from all sides.
NK News: So tell us, what’s the mood like in Washington right now regarding North Korea?
Dr. Cha: I think it’s pretty much a one track mind right now. As North Korea continues to conduct regular ballistic missile tests it seems like both the policy community and the administration are very much one voice, which is, continuing to ramp up the sanctions.
We’ve reached new thresholds on sanctions over the past few months. I don’t know how much of that was intended or how much of that was a reaction to the high level of testing by North Korea. But nevertheless, that’s the policy we have today, which is also breaking new ground in the sense that the human rights element is now part of the security question – which we haven’t seen before.
I think the administration has also pretty clearly communicated its message… they are still open for dialogue
I think the administration has also pretty clearly communicated its message, at least to those in Washington, that they are still open for dialogue. But the North Koreans have made clear officially – and through a number of these Track 2 and Track 1.5 negotiations – that they are not interested. So that’s where we are.
NK News: With this recent push for sanctions what’s your forecast for the next 12 months coming out of Pyongyang? How do you see things playing out?
Dr. Cha: We are now in the cycle, from June to August, where the North Koreans are at least rhetorically talking more about peace. We often see this around August 15, but then we are headed into a difficult period, when the U.S.-ROK military exercises start.
North Korea will claim they extended an olive branch and the United States responded with these exercises – even though they are annual– and then we will head into an election period.
So on the diplomatic side, I don’t think North Korea is really going to be interested in any sort of talks because, ‘Why talk to a lame duck administration that won’t be able to lock in anything?’
And so the real question is how they respond when the next administration comes in. Are they going to respond hard with a fifth nuclear test, for example, or are they going to respond with some sort of opening gesture?
It’s hard to say at the moment. My guess is their response is going to be on the hard side, because that’s what we’ve seen under the current leader in North Korea. And that will then be followed by spring exercises, so we are not in a very good period right now.
NK News: And what would be your policy advice for the next president – be it either Mr. Trump or Ms. Clinton – if there was one of these hard responses?
Dr. Cha: It’s difficult to know what one could do at this point. Obviously, you’d have to do a policy review, see where the last administration left off, then see if that’s where you want to pick up.
(But) I think two things will remain on track, regardless of who the administration is led by. One will be the sanctions effort, which I think will continue and maybe even get stronger. The other element is the defense and deterrence element, and I think we will see more missile defense exercises, more trilateral cooperation, these sort of things.
What’s not clear to me is on the engagement side. I think the previous two things I mentioned make sense given where we are, but the next leader knows when historians write about them; if they write that while there were military exercises, ballistic missile defense, and sanctions, there was no dialogue; no wonder we fell into war.
So every responsible leader knows that there has to be some effort towards dialogue, and maybe that can start with smaller Track 2 stuff.
When we are in a hole with North Korea, that’s often where it starts. But again, the record of Track 2 under Kim Jong Un so far has not been encouraging. The North Koreans come and participate in some events; they come, but the message has not at all been encouraging.
NK News: You’ve been following North Korea for decades. How would you judge the current situation compared to all the years you’ve followed the subject? Are you optimistic or..?
Dr. Cha: I’m not optimistic, I think it’s pretty bad. ’93/94 was a bad period and I think this is one of the pretty bad periods. The thing that’s a little bit different now is we really don’t have a good sense of what this leader is going to do.
Based on our Beyond Parallel data, it looks like we will see provocations is response to the exercises in August, and it looks like we will see some provocations around the elections, or sometime in September. Beyond that, it’s not really clear.
And I think that’s what’s the most disturbing thing about the current situation: it’s that we really don’t have any good sense of Kim Jong Un, what he wants to do and what level of restraint he practices. And that’s part of the reason why we are trying to collect data at Beyond Parallel.
So, yes, I’m not optimistic.
NK News: From a South Korean perspective, what conditions do you think it would require for dialogue to resume with North Korea?
Dr. Cha: I think there are some basic things here. For example, that the starting point has to be some sort of freeze. The North Koreans can’t be testing if any talks were to start. And I think ideally, the United States and South Korea would want to see not just a testing freeze, but actually a freeze on operations that is verified.
But realistically speaking, why would North Korea give that? So I think there is that hurdle on the U.S. side. On the North Korean side, there is a new hurdle which would be to take the leader’s name off the human rights list.
An administration that does this will be taking a name off a list for human rights abuses when there is no evidence that the human rights abuse is easing up
And while that may seem simple enough if you can get a freeze and get them back to the negotiation table, politically, it’s going to be a very difficult issue. That’s because an administration that does this will be taking a name off a list for human rights abuses when there is no evidence that the human rights abuse is easing up. So I think that’s going to be difficult.
And for South Korea, it’s going to be really hard to restart the Kaesong Industrial Complex, because once you shut it down – and who knows what North Korea has done to the facility since then – then it’s going to be even harder to start it up.
So in a sense, the sanctioning not being unprovoked, things have gone to a level now where it does make the hurdles for getting back into diplomacy different from what they’ve been in the past, and so that’s a problem.
The reason why I’m not optimistic is in other scenarios in the past you could see exit ramps, but you don’t really see any exit ramps right now for the rest of Park, certainly for the rest of Obama’s administrations. And you have things that North Korea normally reacts to in the exercises and elections.
The reason why I’m not optimistic is in other scenarios in the past you could see exit ramps
NK News: Finally, your new project – Beyond Parallel – is focusing on data and unification. A few years ago the term “unification bonanza” was in vogue here in the South, but do you feel there is still appetite for that to the same degree anymore?
Dr. Cha: I don’t know if there is and I don’t know if there will be in a new administration in South Korea. (But) broadly thinking, I think that’s the way Koreans and the world should think about it.
For ten years during Sunshine Policy we thought about unification as being unknown, horrible…worse than Darth Vader’s armpit! So I think the administration has tried to say we have to think about this in a constructive way, in no small part because it could just fall into their lap, and so you have to start thinking about it.
I think Beyond Parallel in general sees unification as potentially a positive-sum gain for all of Asia, including the people of North Korea. But we can’t get there unless we have information, unless we are talking, unless people are sharing data, unless we know at least what the experts think, what the main priorities are for each country – so that we can start comparing them, these sorts of things.
So in that sense, I think we are not advocating for unification, we are just trying to create some transparency and discussion for unification. And I honestly mean it when I say we want to be a non-ideological non-partisan portal for everybody to talk about. That’s why we have some of the best China scholars on Korea on the board, some of the best Japan scholars, we have a unification minister from the conservative administration here in South Korea, and a foreign ministry official from a liberal administration. So we’ve really tried to cover all of our bases in messaging that we want this to be about data.
NK News: Any final thought about the current situation?
Dr. Cha: I think in policy you always try to make lemonade out of lemons. And so I think the one lemonade that comes out of this is there is now much better trilateral coordination among the U.S., Japan, and Korea.
This administration at the level of Deputy Secretary Blinken has done a serious job, with every quarter these bilateral and trilateral vice ministerial meetings. In terms of machinery, when you have one of your principals that commits to engaging in something on a quarterly basis, that really helps the wheels of policy to move because they are basically moving towards that meeting every quarter.
So it actually is a great help inside the government bureaucracy to get policy moving. I think that certainly has been one of the positives that have come out of all this, from at least a Washington perspective, that’s one of the positives. And I think the feeling is shared – I know it’s shared by the South Koreans and the Japanese, so that’s good.
Main picture: Oleg Kiriyanov | Profile picture: Korea and the World
As a result of recent bilateral measures and increasing tensions, there are few exit ramps ahead to de-escalate tension between Pyongyang and the U.S. - South Korea alliance, Dr. Victor Cha, Korea Chair of the CSIS think-tank, told NK News in Seoul on Tuesday.
And with data suggesting North Korea may conduct provocations around forthcoming joint military drills or the pending U.S. election, it's hard to be optimistic about how things might play out in the coming months, should an incident occur.