North Korea policy is unlikely to change in the short-term, despite uncertainty surrounding the recent surprise victory of President-elect Donald J. Trump, long-time North Korea watcher Bruce Klingner told NK News during a November interview in Seoul.
Time is necessary for Trump to confirm key appointees, conduct a full policy review, and decide whether North Korea will be a major focus of policy or not, all factors that suggest a continuation of the status quo is likely for the immediate period ahead.
A significant variable, however, relates to whether North Korea greets the Trump administration with a ‘provocation’ like a nuclear test or long-range rocket launch, Klingner, a senior analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C, said.
But measures like tightening international sanctions against North Korea and the ongoing presence of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) in South Korea have a much better chance at bringing the DPRK back for credible negotiations and containing the current threat than an outright effort to seek engagement, Klingner said.
Longer-term, however, one result of the ongoing political crises in South Korea – the possible emergence of an anti-American, progressive administration – could seriously undermine increased international pressure and scrutiny against North Korea, leading to potentially serious consequences for the alliance.
NK News: Is Donald J. Trump going to make North Korea a priority, in your opinion?
Bruce Klingner: The comments he’s made about Asia have been internally contradictory and contradictory with U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. And some of them have been walked back by either senior advisors or Trump himself.
So overall, there is great uncertainty and concern amongst Asian experts in Washington and in the capitals of our allies worldwide. We really don’t know what his policy is and what his priorities will be, which according to his campaign, could be viewed as immigration, ISIS, and economic relations with China.
That said, the world intrudes. And just as George W. Bush campaigned on a foreign policy of isolationism, obviously after 9/11 that dramatically changed and he became very internationalist.
North Korea, as we have seen in the past, doesn’t like to be ignored. It may be being quiet right now because it perceives that any provocation would distract the South Korean populace from their push against President Park. But we also know North Korea tends to conduct provocations within the first year of U.S. and South Korean presidencies in order to ‘train them like a dog’ – to use the phrase of some defectors.
NK News: Will Trump’s administration more likely favor engagement, an increase in sanctions, or simply put the North Korea issue on the back-burner?
Bruce Klingner: I think we are going to have a sense of inertia because Trump is not going to have all 4000 political appointees in place and confirmed on January 20th. We don’t even know how many cabinet officials will be confirmed by then – perhaps none because they have to wait for the president to assume the oath of office.
Certainly on inauguration day, then, the whole team will not be in place, let alone really policy guides, so the current U.S. policy will continue for some time.
So what if North Korea attacks on January 20th? Well, of course, we still have U.S. Forces Korea, we have the bilateral defense treaty, and someone will be answering the phone at the Pentagon. The American defense commitments will be maintained and sanctions are in place, so they will continue to exert pressure. We may not, therefore, have a difference either towards more engagement or towards more pressure until more of the administration gets into place.
Now, during that intervening time, foreign nations – both friends and opponents – will get impatient. We saw that when George W. Bush came into office: Kim Dae-jung frantically came to Washington to try to influence his view, I think prematurely. He came at a time when the administration hadn’t completed their policy review so there was a disparity between what Secretary of State Colin Powell told him and what George Bush told him. So in some cases, it may not be useful to try to push a new administration into defining its policy before it has done its own review.
North Korea may, however, want to have a vote.
They may want to either test the new U.S. president or try to gain his attention or try to intimidate him by doing something provocative. And that may cause a Trump administration reaction which may not be what they would have intended had there been nothing: possibly a strong, knee-jerk reaction.
(A North Korean provocation) may cause a Trump administration reaction which may not be what they would have intended had there been nothing
NK News: What’s the best-case outcome for sanctions pressure on North Korea in the next four years, i.e. by the end of Trump’s first term?
Bruce Klingner: Sanctions and targeted financial measures really serve five objectives.
One is to enforce U.S. law and UN resolutions. Two is to impose a penalty on those that violate them – if they are to have any meaning they have to be implemented and defended. Three is to impose measures to make it more difficult for North Korea to import prohibited items, including money from illicit activities that can further their nuclear/missile programs. Four is to put in place stronger proliferation measures. And then five, in conjunction with all the other instruments and international diplomacy, is to try and get them to moderate their behavior and live up to the commitments that they made before. I would argue on four of the five that they have had some measure of success.
Some would argue that ‘It’s simply been too hard to do sanctions’ or that ‘North Korea will simply adapt’. Well, that’s the equivalent of a city or police department saying ‘it’s just too hard to enforce laws, so let’s just give up’. And I would argue that you don’t just throw up your hands, you have to evolve like your opponents evolve and that has not always been the case.
NK News: According to those five goals, would the best case scenario, therefore, be containment of the current threat and a hope that there will be no more nuclear tests or missile launches?
Bruce Klingner: I think we are hoping by increasing the pressure, tightening the economic noose, and going around the world trying to pick off other economic engagers with North Korea, we are hoping to get them back to the negotiating table. And offers of conditional engagement along with pressure are more likely to get them to the negotiating table than just offers of engagement.
So if we are on this highway of increasing pressure, the off-ramp could be if North Korea says: ‘We know that our continued path is only going to lead to greater financial strain so now we’re going back to the negotiating table.’
There is not a lot of hope or optimism – whether it is diplomacy or sanctions alone or the two working together – that North Korea is ever going to abandon the weapons. We still hope for this goal, but I think there is less optimism and a greater sense that really the only way to solve all the North Korean problems – nuclear and human rights – is for that regime to go away. But no one is really willing to bring about a collapse of the regime due to the uncertain outcomes.
I think there is less optimism and a greater sense that really the only way to solve all the North Korean problems – nuclear and human rights – is for that regime to go away.
I think by increasing the pressure, you are hoping to get them back to the negotiating table in a meaningful way, trying to constrain their nuclear program, trying to constrain proliferation, and trying to get them to moderate their behavior.
The choice of just throwing up your hands and saying ‘there is nothing we can’ do isn’t a very beneficial option. Nor is just offering to abandon your own laws while providing more benefits to North Korea with no sense that they would actually abandon the nuclear weapons.
So it is really about turning up the heat on the regime along with increased information operations to try to bring about some turmoil. Hopefully that can open them to greater exposure to the outside world, while supporting citizens to try to bring about a change in the human rights policies. In other words, stirring the pot to see if we can bring about some changes.
NK News: If talks are the goal, doesn’t Treasury’s designation of Kim Jong Un as a violator of human rights prevent them from even starting? Has the U.S. not put itself in a ‘checkmate position’ if the ultimate goal of this pressure is to induce dialogue?
Bruce Klingner: The other side of the coin would be ‘what is the advantage of turning a blind eye to North Korean human rights atrocities which according to the UN Commission of Inquiry, qualifies as crimes against humanity?’
We have turned a blind eye to their human rights atrocities for decades and it didn’t get us any progress on getting the nuclear weapons destroyed. So I think it is a question of standing up for principles, standing up for doing the right thing.
Until being forced into doing so by the Congress; the Obama administration refused to do so. Whereas the U.S. had previously identified other leaders of other countries for less egregious human rights violations, the Obama administration pulled its punches on that. We have still only identified ten or so human rights violators and we know there are much more.
By not arresting bank robbers and by not criticizing perpetrators of crimes, that doesn’t achieve much. So the idea here is ‘Well, why not uphold principles and uphold the law?’
NK News: Isn’t there a risk that North Korea will lash out if pressure continues to raise, even though the escape valve for pressure – China – is still there?
Bruce Klingner: North Korea may do a provocation if we increase pressure, yes, but they do provocations anyway. We saw West Sea incidents under both ‘Sunshine era’ administrations and even when we were engaging them diplomatically we saw violations of UN resolutions and attacks across the DMZ. So they are going to do these actions whether we are sanctioning them or not.
China certainly is the escape valve and China has repeatedly shown itself to be part of the problem. It acts as North Korea’s lawyer in the Security Council.
But there is a way of weaning Chinese banks and businesses away from engaging North Korea, even if the Chinese government doesn’t want to. We saw that with Banco Delta Asia, where we finally decided to enforce our own laws after turning a blind eye for years, leading to the Bank of China to cut ties with North Korea. And we know through White House officials that the government of China didn’t want the Bank of China to severe relations, but the bank said for their own continued existence and access to the U.S. financial system it required them to cut off North Korea.
North Korea may do a provocation if we increase pressure, yes, but they do provocations anyway: we saw West Sea incidents under both ‘Sunshine era’ administrations
So the impact of secondary sanctions is that even if the Chinese government doesn’t want these entities to stop doing business, you can force them to them to do so, lest they face their own sanctions.
The ones that are truly criminal, you go after them because they are violating our laws. Those that are more legitimate businesses, they are in existence to make money and so any business will do a cost-benefit analysis.
If you either reduce their profits or increase the risks, they, like good businessmen, will see it as not in their interest anymore to engage with a nefarious customer or a nefarious supplier. So you can alter their cost-benefit analysis and get them to not do business with North Korea, or to also increase their due diligence so that they come to the conclusion that they don’t want to be involved with this criminal organization.
NK News: Do you see any risks if a liberal administration emerges successfully in next December’s presidential elections here in South Korea?
Bruce Klingner: I think there could be a very strong impact on the U.S.-South Korean relationship, similar to what we experienced under President Roh. Back then you had a president who said publicly “what’s wrong with being anti-America?” and he played up nationalist anti-American feelings created by the tragic deaths of the two girls with the American armored vehicle. Then, after he was elected, he went to the U.S. embassy and said ‘ignore everything I said during the campaign’. That didn’t go over very well.
So you now have perhaps Moon Jae-in as the leading candidate if Park resigns or even just at the end of the December 2017 election. He was a chief of staff to Roh, so he may reverse the THAAD decision, reverse the GSOMIA decision, push back against the comfort woman agreement, bring back the Kaesong Industrial zone – which very likely itself is a violation of UN Security Council resolutions because of the lack of transparency –resume Kumgangsan tours, and undo sanctions that are in place.
So this could be very detrimental to international efforts to try to pressure North Korea and I think it could put a strain on the bilateral relationship.
NK News: What do you think was the biggest missed opportunity of the Obama administration during the past eight years with North Korea?
Bruce Klingner: I think the missed opportunity was only timidly implementing laws and sanctions. As I said before, the Obama administration talks a good game but then under delivers. There is a long list of things that they said they could do and then didn’t do or did only on a minor basis.
Even after the human rights violations and State Department officials saying more was to come, we are still waiting. The Sony hack, the threats of 9/11 style attacks on the U.S. – which fulfills a legal definition of state-sponsored terrorism – didn’t really lead to any sanctions on cyber entities in North Korea.
I think had they not had this timid incremental aspect and had done what they are now saying they are doing, but several years earlier, we could have been further along in trying to moderate North Korean behavior.
NK News: Any final thoughts?
Bruce Klingner: Uncertainty about the Trump administration’s policies towards North Korea and allies, combined with the tremendous uncertainty of the political situation in Seoul, is not a good combination when we are facing an increasingly growing North Korean nuclear missile threat. There are, consequently, a great deal of reasons for concern at this time.
Featured image: NK News edit
This interview has been edited for clarity and length