Professor Gordon Flake, CEO at the Perth USAsia Center at the University of Western Australia, has been focused on issues in the Asia-Pacific and on the Korean Peninsula for almost 30 years.
As part of former President Obama’s Asia Advisory team for his 2008 and 2012 campaigns, he now believes that the unification of the peninsula, rather than being an end in itself, could be a “means to an end” to solving the North Korean nuclear issue.
NK News sat down with Flake in early April at the Australian Embassy in Seoul, to hear his views on the legacy of Obama’s “strategic patience” policy towards North Korea, what steps the Trump administration might take in the future, and the role of China in slowing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
The timing made for an interesting interview, too: with North Korea beginning preparation for a major show of military force to mark the April 15 national holiday, the Trump administration’s launching of a missile strike against an air base in Syria and declaration that the era of “strategic patience” was over, there was plenty to talk about.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and readability
Gordon Flake: North Korea is only interesting to the United States because of its capacity to threaten our real interests in the region.
Our strategic interest is in the peace, prosperity, and economic progress of Northeast Asia – China, Japan, Korea, this region as a whole. Why do we pay attention to North Korea?
Because it threatens our strategic interests. I have often referred to North Korea as ‘the hole in the Northeast Asian donut’. We don’t pay attention to the hole, we pay attention to the donut.
As a result, I am skeptical of any policy whose objective is to solve the North Korea problem. The objective should be to advance our national strategic interests.
Our real interests are in making sure we sustain our relationships with our allies. So, if we do anything about North Korea, if it advances the relationship with North Korea but undermines our more important relations with South Korea and Japan, then we have lost.
And that’s something that a lot of people miss in that process. But that is the priority. That’s what we should do. Instead, people want some kind of magic policy.
“I am skeptical of any policy whose objective is to solve the North Korea problem. The objective should be to advance our national strategic interests.”
NK News: Do you believe the Trump administration’s policy toward North Korea will be significantly different to that of the Obama administration?
Gordon Flake: Number one, I don’t know because I don’t know who ‘they’ is. The Trump administration, as of yet, is not staffed up.
But to give you a specific concern, when the U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson came to Seoul, Tokyo a month ago, he made it pretty clear that he thought that diplomacy had failed, which if you ask me is a very strange thing for a nation’s head diplomat to be saying.
You can say negotiations have failed but you can’t say diplomacy has failed.
Then there was a recent interview that President Trump gave with the Financial Times about two weeks ago where he was asked about the strategy for solving the North Korea problem in relation to his relationship with China, and he responded quite clearly that either China will work with us to solve the problem or we’ll do it alone if it doesn’t work.
“The concern I have with that is President Trump does have a tendency to have a very ultimatum-driven policy”
That has left me kind of concerned because if diplomacy is not an option, or if you are not working with China, that means even sanctions are not an option, unless you are doing secondary sanctions on China, too.
When you say “all options are on the table” what you are really saying is that “we are going to use military force.” The concern I have with that is President Trump does have a tendency to have a very ultimatum-driven policy.
But if you are asking me is Trump going to be different than Obama; so far, the Obama policy was first and foremost about coordinating with allies and other partners. The Trump administration’s policy has yet to give me that confidence, so I don’t know.
NK News: What do you think are the chances that the Trump administration will actually take military action against the North?
Gordon Flake: We just had a very interesting preview: Trump launched a missile strike at a Syrian airport. So, one would have to believe that there is a scenario in which he could do something similar to North Korea.
For example, if North Korea did successfully test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), then subsequently announced another test to deploy a missile, there is a chance that Trump would respond. That’s harder to see. More likely the scenario would be one in which North Korea makes a mistake.
“When you say ‘all options are on the table’ what you are really saying is that we are going to use military force”
The real question you’re asking is what would happen if North Korea did something like that? Now, in that case, I would be really worried about President Trump’s proclivity to hit back twice as bad as he was hit. President Trump cannot let the slightest offense go.
The actress Meryl Streep says something bad about the president, he feels that he had to hit back hard. So far, on small things, he has not demonstrated the ability to refrain from responding to an affront or an offense. The worry I would have is that that would carry over on a strategic level to what happens with North Korea.
The worry I would have is that that would carry over on a strategic level to what happens with North Korea.
NK News: Would the U.S. launch a preemptive strike on the North?
Gordon Flake: There are very few scenarios I can imagine now in which that would take place, because that would imply a U.S. willingness to risk retaliatory strikes on Seoul. I don’t see that as being a Trump strategy. So, I would actually be very much more concerned about an uncoordinated U.S. counterstrike or reactive strike than a preemptive strike.
“The area where South Korea should be worried is in the risk of a North Korean preemptive strike”
If for some reason North Korea believed that the U.S. was preparing for something, the risk that they would make a miscalculation is higher. But even then, the best is to try to hold.
Either side has to recognize that if they initiate it, that fundamentally changes how the international community responses. And this in my mind goes back to why it is so important to coordinate carefully with allies.
So, if North Korea initiates something, one of the very first priorities is going to be for South Korea and the United States to make the case to China, to the international community, to the UN, to allies like Australia and Japan that we are reacting to the North’s provocation.
Under this administration, I’m not confident how well that process will work, but I’m hopeful.
NK News: The Trump administration emphasized China’s role in solving the North Korea nuclear issue, do you believe China will enhance its role?
Gordon Flake: I have often described it as China having a negative influence over North Korea. They have very little persuasive or proactive positive influence over North Korea.
In other words, China can’t tell North Korea to do anything. North Korea is the only country in the region that just basically blows off the Chinese. But what China does have is they have the ability to bring North Korea to its knees in the weeks. They could shut down North Korea.
If they cut off energy inputs into the North Korean economy, if they completely close the border, they cut off food imports, they could shut down the North Korean economy, literally in weeks. But North Korea is like a hostage taker holding itself hostage.
“North Korea is the only country in the region that just basically blows off the Chinese”
I do think it is important to recognize how far China has come. By now China has signed on to four different UN Security Council Sanctions Resolutions against its ally, North Korea.
The reality is China has already come a long way. There is a debate within China on this issue – it is a vigorous debate – in terms of what they have to do. China’s priority remains stability, stability, stability.
And if there comes a point when China believes that the North Korean regime itself is more destabilizing than the alternative than a collapse or a conflict, I think you are going to see some further movement in China. China has no good options either. If we are not going to act precipitately, why would we expect China to act precipitately?
It is this careful dance where China is trying to coordinate its own interests, its own domestic politics and risks, just the way we are trying to coordinate our own interests and our own domestic politics and risks. This is a gradual process.
NK News: Do you believe the current UNSC sanctions have been effective?
Gordon Flake: Clearly, sanctions alone will not convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. It is also true that engagement alone will not convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
This is an interesting question because philosophically, I am opposed to sanctions because sanctions are a very blunt tool of foreign policy. We impose them when we have no other option.
But there need to be consequences to repeated violations of previous UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. We don’t have the option to strike them because Seoul is held as a hostage. As a result, there needs to be a response.
“China’s priority remains stability, stability, stability”
For those who say that sanctions don’t work, candidly sanctions have been gradual, they have been carefully calibrated and they have been sort of cumulative. With sanctions, you don’t go back and start all over, you add to the previous sanctions.
And they are a necessary response to a longer-term strategy engaging with North Korea. I agree that sanctions so far have not worked. But first, they have not been fully implemented. Second, there is an awful lot more we can do.
But the priority is to coordinate with our allies and other partners.
If our objective is to solve the North Korea problem, which is probably unsolvable, then you’d say sanctions have failed. If our objective is to carefully coordinate with the other countries in the region, sanctions are doing exactly what they are intended to do.
NK News: But North Korea has accelerated its nuclear weapons development. Do you think sanctions are still effective or do we have other options?
Gordon Flake: The reality is that there are no good options and there haven’t been for a long time. And this is my favorite analogy to this is the Hippocratic Oath. When someone becomes a doctor, they take a Hippocratic Oath. The Hippocratic Oath says, ‘first, do no harm’.
North Korea’s got a brain tumor and this brain tumor causes it to occasionally have spasms that could threaten everyone around them too. And we know it is getting worse, but the only tool we have to use to operate on North Korea is a rusty spoon.
The truth is, every one of those options is like a rusty spoon.
Are we going to really abandon Japan just for the chance of improvement with North Korea? No, first, do no harm. What if we pursue a different approach, like a strike, that doesn’t coordinate with China? No, first do no harm.
When it comes down to it, everybody can criticize, ‘why don’t you do something, it is getting worse!’ well, yeah, but everything you do makes it worse and it damages our real interests.
In the result, what do you do? You continue to carefully coordinate with your other allies to make sure that you’re ready for whatever North Korea does. The truth is, every one of those options is like a rusty spoon: it does more harm than good. So, you don’t do it. It is not satisfactory, nobody likes it, but it is the right policy.
NK News: Then how do we solve the North Korean nuclear issue if all the options we have are rusty spoons?
Gordon Flake: If we could get North Korea to stop its illicit behavior – drug smuggling, counterfeiting, and become a normal world member state and make progress on North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, that would bring us closer to unification.
But I’m increasingly of the mind that you cannot separate the question of unification with the ultimate resolution of these issues.
I used to believe that the improvement on the human rights situation as well as the economic reforms were the means to the end (unification). And now I believe that unification is the means to the end, in other words, it is not the end.
Does anybody really believe the North will abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles with the absence of unification?
“Now I believe that unification is the means to the end, in other words, it is not the end.”
I don’t see how it happens. So ultimately, the answer to this issue is some form of unification.
I have long believed that there are three pillars of the North Korean regime. This is how they support themselves; they use the military to support it, but it is control over the flow of the information, control over the movement of people, and control of the means of production.
In general, compared to five years ago or ten years ago or fifteen years ago, those three pillars are weaker than they’ve ever been before and they will continue to weaken.
As market forces gain power, as people are less dependent on the state, as they get more money from relatives from Korea, from China, from Japan, as information penetrates into that society, that regime is weaker.
Now, I’m not saying there will be a collapse, I don’t know whether there will be a war, but some way or another, that process has to work its way out. I just wish I knew when.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Christopher John SSF‘s Flickr
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