“Talk is cheap” when it comes to North Korea policy, says Jonathan D. Pollack, Korea Foundation Chair at Brookings Institute in Washington, DC.
Military options against the North don’t seem credible, prospects that China can seriously reign in Pyongyang are low, and most of Washington’s current “cost free” tactics really look like they’re designed to contain – rather than solve – the problem.
But at the same time, Donald Trump is personally involving himself in the North Korea issue and prioritizing it to levels far greater than any other American foreign policy issue, all while placing great and public currency in counting on Chinese President Xi Jinping being able to offer real solutions.
Consequently, Pollack says, there is a growing risk that Trump may eventually put American regional credibility on the line, eventually becoming open to the idea of accepting outcomes or agreements that may only offer short-term solutions with Pyongyang.
Speaking to NK News in Washington just three days before Sunday’s surprise intermediate range ballistic missile test by North Korea, Pollack also questioned whether the longer it takes to fill key positions related to the Koreas, the more Trump will be able to “up the ante and raise expectations”.
— This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity —
NK News: What do you make of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure policy strategy” and hope that China will do more?
Jonathan D. Pollack: First of all, although it is a very public strategy now, when I look at it, objectively speaking, it looks like a sharper version of the Obama strategy.
Even at the very end of the Obama administration, there were growing signs of impatience on the part of the United States. There is every reason to believe – just to judge by the officials who were working for Clinton during the campaign, that the U.S. was going to tighten in the aftermath of the election.
But all of this was directed at and through China and I think that’s been the perpetual theme of U.S. strategy: that the key is China should be able to do it, China has the leverage, China has the access and the means.
Very frankly I’m skeptical of this, at least in the terms of a political sense, because there is no evidence that I can see that China has any kind of meaningful entry into Pyongyang.
There have been times when you even had members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo able to go to the North on visits, but the relationship changed quite qualitatively when Kim Jong Un rose to the top.
“It looks like a sharper version of the Obama strategy”
Kim Jong Il had an off-again-on-again relationship with China, but in the last ten years of his life, he recognized his dependence on China. He had nowhere else to turn, and those are the years that, of course, trade went way up, and the Chinese frankly made a wager then, in my view.
After the second nuclear weapons test in 2009, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao made a visit to North Korea with a gaggle of the top policy makers on a not unreasonable premise that with Kim Jong Il having had the stroke and the young kid clearly on the way up, there was an opportunity to knock open the door to something more significant economically, institutionally, and the like.
The expectation was that maybe this time, unlike all the other times, you could actually imagine a North Korean ‘reform strategy’ (even if we know North Korea never uses the term ‘reform’).
I could see China making that bet and it seems they put their markers and money down at the time – all this being orchestrated through Jang Song Thaek, as I understand. Then Jang was executed and others associated with him were either marginalized, purged or also executed.
So if the view still is somehow that China is the key here, how would this now be achieved?
I think the answer is the belief that the dependence of North Korea, in economic terms, on China is so comprehensive that if China really wished to tighten the screws, it could. Yet although Xi Jinping appears openly contemptuous of young Kim, he’s tended to more ‘walk on eggshells’ in the way he works with the country.
NK News: On North Korea, how much patience do you think the Trump administration is going to have with China?
Jonathan D. Pollack: The irony is that Trump’s policy seems to be ‘strategic impatience’ and however one judges ‘the threat of North Korea,’ the record is that you can always try the big roll of dice to see if you can get to the outcome you seek or the solution – whatever that is.
But Trump seems at this point to be so heavily invested in the relationship with China, a belief that his friend can make X, Y and Z happen – and Trump has elevated North Korea to be his highest foreign policy priority.
I think the Chinese have bought themselves some time with Trump, for now. However, I think the issue now is that Trump obviously has a very short attention span, but he is so invested in this issue that he expects to see some kind of return now.
“Trump’s policy seems to be ‘strategic impatience’”
Frankly, then, the immediate return may be ‘does North Korea test again?’
I like to say that any day there is not another nuclear test or long-range missile test, that’s a good day. And that might be the minimal but not insignificant expectation because the presumption would be, if you want to arrive at a mature and predictable and reliable weapons capability, you have to test, by one means or another.
So to the degree that such testing is not happening, that might be a return on this wager that he’s placing on China.
Now, that assumes that any ‘pause’ will persist indefinitely and that there will not be other evidence, tangible or otherwise, of other advancements that North Korea might be making in its weapons programs. And that’s always the dilemma, but tests are observable, they are visible. So what would the alternatives be?
[Editor’s note: North Korea conducted a successful, headline-grabbing test of a new Hwasong-12 intermediate range ballistic missile just three days after this interview was conducted, on the day China’s Belt-and-Road conference kicked off.]
NK News: What is it that the United States is really looking for when it comes to the North?
Jonathan D. Pollack: If you look at Trump’s language, if you look at what Tillerson says, they are claiming, ‘well, we are not arguing for regime change etcetera,’ even intimating there are some circumstances under which Trump might meet with Kim – believing that this would be sufficient validation to this regime and to this leader that he would forgo his treasured sword of justice.
I’m very skeptical of that, but knowing a little about Trump – I don’t know Mr. Trump, I’ve never met him – in a curious kind of way, it kind of plays to his own more fanciful notions of his own power, his own influence, and his deal-making capabilities.
I realize we are all now becoming students – we are all ‘Trumpologists’ right now – but he may be motivated in part to say ‘look at all these smart guys, fully staffed State Departments, Obama, Clinton, all the Bushes… they couldn’t fix this, I’m going to fix it’.
And that could lead him down other paths that might lead him to – I wouldn’t say devalue the relationship with the South – but sort of neglect it for the sake of this relationship with the North. Recognizing that in a lot of ways, would a left-leaning government in Seoul intrinsically object to the United States doing this as long as the U.S. consulted heavily with them?
The problem for Trump in this area is that he’s promised big results, and if he fails to deliver, or if the price tag to deliver is so unbelievably high, that it in effect devalues other aspects of American regional strategy, I’m not sure even someone who is often as outlandish as Donald Trump will be able to get there.
“I realize we are all now becoming students – we are all ‘Trumpologists’ right now”
But for the near term, I think as long as he can present an impression of China working on this, it actually gives him additional buy-in because he says, in effect, ‘we can come to more understandings with China on economics and whatever as long as they are helping out on North Korea’.
But it still presumes that the U.S. would make a determination of what is it that China needs to do, and that’s where it is pretty vague at this point.
When they met in Florida, the language they used in their briefing was ‘a coordinated strategy’; but a coordinated strategy would presume interactions between China and the United States of a sustained sort.
(A coordinated strategy) might extend to sharing intelligence information, it would clearly involve consultation such that if the United States is contemplating those other steps in the way of secondary sanctions, the Chinese would not be blindsided by it.
Some of it I think would be bearable for them. A lot of China’s economic activity in North Korea is not really centrally directed so far as I understand.
But at the same time, let’s think about some of what we have learned about covert activities that North Korea engages in either because the Chinese are blind to it or they are just ignoring it – that is an area where if China really wanted to tighten, it could, in theory at least, if they make that kind of investment.
And I think that that’s part of what China would likely try to do in order to forestall other measures that the United States might undertake or might consider. There are a lot of voices right now in the United States that clearly want the U.S. to take additional steps with respect to…
NK News: Military or pre-emptive strikes?
Jonathan D. Pollack: Military action… I don’t know what that would look like. Because then you come back to the risk factor every time. What is it that you propose to do?
For example, these leaks of a few weeks ago that said ‘if we had unambiguous evidence that they were about to test another nuclear weapon, we would hit the test site’.
“A lot of China’s economic activity in North Korea is not really centrally directed so far as I understand”
Now, putting aside how we would know unambiguously that they were about to test another weapon, what would the purpose of this be?
Even if, in some sense, you could disrupt or prevent another nuclear test, you run (a) the risk of spewing radiation over a wide span which I’m sure would be thrilling to the people of Korea, not to mention Japan, and depending on which way the winds blow, to China; so there is that.
And (b) it would almost absolutely guarantee major retaliation directed against the South and, unlike the wars that the United States has fought in Afghanistan or the missile attacks on Syria, those locations aren’t fundamental to the operation of the international economy.
NK News: But at the same time, while there is that huge cost, one could argue that by taking that action you might be saving five million people in Los Angeles five years down the line…
Jonathan D. Pollack: This has been war-gamed, if you pardon the expression, to death.
If the U.S. were contemplating any kind of significant military actions on the Korean peninsula, you’d be seeing a mobilization of U.S. capabilities on a scale that would be extraordinary.
But let me give you another scenario, something that I have thought about – it is probably my DFWU strategy. You could argue on the one hand that North Korea or Kim or others around him, they want to be validated as a real nuclear weapons state. They want the same spectrum of capabilities as India, Pakistan, etcetera, so that they can punch above their weight and that that’s the way they would be more a dignified nuclear state, as they like to say.
“You run the risk of spewing radiation over a wide span which I’m sure would be thrilling to the people of Korea”
But there is another scenario; if Kim believes that the walls are caving in, whether they are or not, if the pressures on the regime ultimately grow to such an extent that its longer term viability is in question, would it be so implausible for Kim to detonate a nuclear weapon on the west coast or a nuclear weapon on the east coast, signaling to the United States, South Korea, and China, and Russia probably as well, ‘don’t even think about intervening in North Korea because there is more where this came from’?
Faced with such a situation, would the United States, and would others be prepared to intervene militarily, if it is ultimately the question of controlling the assets of North Korea under the circumstances that you are in a nuclear-contaminated environment?
I’m not so sure. For all the brave talk you might hear, and so far as I know, maybe at the classified level this is being discussed, I really wouldn’t know, but if I imagine, what would you do with these capabilities?
Frankly, one of the problems is we have all these additive models of presumptions and expectations and assumptions of ‘okay, now we see that North Korea has X amount of fissile material and they’ve got this and they’ve got that’, and then you project that additive.
That is an open-ended process, and we might presume at some level that if they are here today, they will surpass the UK, they will surpass others, because what’s the outer limit? Does North Korea have a definition of what it would deem sufficient for its own purposes? We don’t know the answer to that.
NK News: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Trump’s capabilities in dealing with the North Korea issue?
Jonathan D. Pollack: I guess I could be agnostic. The risk that I think he runs, and I don’t mean a military risk, is that he seems to have made his foreign policy and his military strategy, at least in East Asia, very Korea-centric.
Is that an appropriate allocation of resources?
There are some people who are concerned that he is withholding things on the South China Sea, accommodating China not because he intrinsically wants to accommodate China, but because he thinks China is the key to unraveling the North Korea mystery.
In a way, talk is cheap. When Pence says all options are on the table, I don’t believe him. All options are not on the table. In an extreme crisis situation, to make good on America’s security commitments, yes.
But what happens in the process of any kind of a policy review is that the things that emerge in the tails of the distribution tend to wash out because the risks and the costs are deemed too great.
I don’t want to say that therefore the administration is trying to buy time. You could argue that’s a lot of what every administration tries to do, but challenge is the logic of what we are saying, implicitly, is ‘well, if we had a credible partner in North Korea, if they were really prepared to negotiate this, we would negotiate with them’, even though that has a lot of downside risks of its own.
“Trump seems to have made his foreign policy and his military strategy, at least in East Asia, very Korea-centric”
In a way, I almost can’t see that far but it is just that the expectations have been raised so high, politically and otherwise, that does Trump put American credibility at risk if he backs off this and basically does the thing the organization theorist Herbert Simon once said, what he called a “satisficing outcome”: rational in its own context but not something so comprehensive?
Would that be acceptable? Here again, the irony is that the movement now with the new government in Seoul and with the possibility that China will align itself differently may give Trump some latitude and flexibility because he might say, ‘we are getting what we need’.
But at this point, and I say this having no direct access to anyone in the administration, I think a lot of what they are trying to do right now represents the kinds of sensible, if not cost-free options that any administration would pursue.
As these capabilities have grown, you try to restrain, you try to inhibit, you try to make life as difficult as you can; you do not validate them. It is kind of a containment strategy, if you will.
Not optimal, but that too may be the best that you can achieve under these circumstances.
Will Trump look back on this and say ‘well, they still have X number of nuclear weapons’? I don’t know. Regardless of his words, what I can’t say for certain is, is his degree of engagement and involvement in this so great, relative to all of his priorities that this is job one in his foreign policy? I don’t know.
Any American president has to decide – when you are a global power, where do you put your things?
North Korea’s latest missile test drew international condemnation
NK News: But is it really a priority for Trump? No ambassador to Korea, no Assistant Secretary for East Asia at DoD, or State…?
Jonathan D. Pollack: I am keenly aware of that.
Can Trump really expect to truly conduct a comprehensive national security strategy on that basis? I have grave doubts about that. That might be the ultimate weakness of all the ambitious things that are passed without having the means at your disposal and the personnel.
I think he has some people who are working for him who fit within what I call a ‘conventional great power frame of reference’ – when you think of Mattis and others, who are prudent, who I’m sure understands the risks that are here from thinking about more extreme measures.
But does this become something that is so much part of Trump’s political identity that he ups the ante and heightens the expectations? I don’t have a clear answer to that now; I really don’t and I’m not sure that he’s really thought it through either.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: White House
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