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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
North Korea has a clear and long-term strategy, but the U.S. side does not, Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute said in mid-June during an interview with NK News.
While Pyongyang has pursued goals that have changed little since June 1950, changes in U.S. government over the course of a generation have lead to an administration in Washington that responds to Pyongyang with “surprise, reactive measures, talks without objectives, and a lot of temporizing,” Eberstadt said.
The ultimate goal, he said, would be for Pyongyang “to achieve victory without firing a shot – to get the United States to blink in a confrontation and to undermine the capability of the U.S. guarantee of security for the peninsula.”
And in that regard, Eberstadt said it it is surprising that the “U.S. side doesn’t have a serious strategy for dealing with this increasingly potent international killing force in the state of Northeast Asia.”
Far from bringing North Korea to the table for serious negotiations about its nuclear program, Eberstadt instead thinks the goal of sanctions and outside pressure at this point should be simple: to reduce the killing power of the North Korean defense industries.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and readability
NK News: On Monday last week, General Mattis said that North Korea is now the world’s number one threat for the U.S., while the specter of an ICBM test is looming. What do you make of the emerging situation?
Nicholas Eberstadt: This isn’t a sudden development. The North Korean government has been methodically working for decades to prepare for the capability to face down the United States in a nuclear confrontation on the Korean peninsula, to fight and win a nuclear confrontation against the United States. The American side has been episodically aware of this and now we are hearing a little bit more about it.
But this isn’t something that is suddenly breaking news, this is a long strategic choice of the North Korean side. And how the United States deals with this is still basically an unanswered question, because the North Korean government is the side that actually has the strategy and the U.S. side for a generation has been wrong-footed and reactive and surprised by what really shouldn’t basically be surprising at all.
NK News: So where do you see all this going? Let’s say North Korea tests an ICBM three weeks from now and it is successful. What changes?
Nicholas Eberstadt: The North Korean side, with or without ICBMs, with or without deliverable nuclear weapons, is the actor in the game that has the least cards in its hand – it is the weak actor, not the strong actor.
To compensate in part for those weaknesses, the North Korean side has always paid vastly more attention to the contest with the U.S. with other powers than the U.S. has. So the North Korean side games through everything hundreds and thousands of times so that when they come to discussions with the United States, it’s basically gone through all of the decision-tree that the United States might make; and it’s the same thing in a nuclear confrontation.
“The North Korean government has been methodically working for decades to prepare for the capability to face down the United States”
This doesn’t mean that the North Korean side won’t miscalculate, it has miscalculated famously in the past. But it most likely means that the North Korean side has a strategy and a set of objectives and has considered different iterations and different possibilities for dealing with its confrontation with the U.S.
Let’s put it this way; one of the advantages that outside observers have in trying to understand the DPRK is that the objectives haven’t really changed terribly much. They are the same, say, as June 1950: the North Korean side wants an end to the U.S. presence, an end to the U.S. alliance, an end to the U.S.-nuclear guarantee for the ROK and by all indications, the North Korean side wants to absorb the South Korean side unconditionally.
If those objectives are assessed correctly, then the question is how the other North Korean strategy will unfold. And that depends upon contingency among other things. It is probably not bad for the North Korean strategy that a potential opening/gap between the U.S. and Seoul may present itself. It is probably good, not bad for the North Korean strategy that there is friction between Tokyo and Seoul and some degree of mistrust.
Ultimately, the optimal objective I would propose for the North Korean side is pretty much to achieve victory without firing a shot – to get the United States to blink in a confrontation and to undermine the capability of the U.S. guarantee of security for the peninsula. If I’m correct about that, the South Korean and the U.S. side would want to avoid such a confrontation and such a North Korean success at almost all costs.
NK News: You’ve been following this subject for some time. What is your level of apprehension about the current situation compared to everything you’ve seen in the past?
Nicholas Eberstadt: I would have said these things move slowly until they don’t. And at this point, outside observers don’t have a great deal of reason to think that the North Korean state has accumulated the sort of nuclear arsenal and perfected the sort of long-range ballistic missiles that would be optimal for unfolding this sort of a confrontation strategy.
But that being said, it is also true that power politics is very much a game of exigencies and if opportunities present themselves in the short run, under less than ideal circumstances, sometimes decision makers jump for them.
I would think that this is a very high-stakes gamble that the North Korean side is undertaking, and for all of its aggressive hostile international behavior, the North Korean state is also very risk averse in certain important ways – one of the reasons they are still here.
I may not be right about this, but I would expect that the North Korean side would wait for an opening at which point its leadership felt confident that it was in a position to achieve gains without any great sacrifices or state-threatening risks to the DPRK. As we look at the news today, is that environment worrying? I may be misreading it but I wouldn’t quite say we are there yet.
NK News: So what do you make of the prospects for Donald Trump’s new policy of maximum strength and engagement?
Nicholas Eberstadt: So far, the United States really hasn’t developed a strategy for dealing with the DPRK. And this isn’t a criticism of President Trump in particular, it was true under Obama, it was true under George W. Bush, it was true under Bill Clinton, it was true under George H.W. Bush, President Reagan didn’t really have to worry much about North Korea, it wasn’t a major independent concern at that time.
Until the United States has a coherent and plausible approach for making a bigger North Korean problem a smaller North Korean problem – from the standpoint of the U.S national interests – I think we can probably expect more of the same.
In other words, more of what we’ve seen for the last almost thirty years: surprise, reactive measures, talks without objective, and a lot of temporizing. But that’s to be expected if you don’t have an approach with an objective and with guidelines and a vision of how to deal with a state that does have a strategy.
Put it this way; the North Korean side does the U.S. side the courtesy of at least taking it seriously. The U.S. side doesn’t have a serious strategy for dealing with this increasingly potent international killing force in the state of Northeast Asia. It is kind of surprising.
“These things move slowly until they don’t”
And thus far as we have seen, President Trump’s approach has been to nag China to help out a little more in dealing with difficult North Korea. It is very hard to nag another power into doing something it doesn’t calculate as being in its own interest.
NK News: A lot of people that talk about sanctions seem to think they can bring the DPRK to the negotiating table to talk in good faith about denuclearization. What do you think should be the goal of sanctions?
Nicholas Eberstadt: The context of the United Nations Security Council sanctions is the diplomatist’s argument that sanctions are an arrow in the quiver of the negotiators and that shooting this arrow will help poke North Korea back to the negotiating table. I’m quite skeptical of the proposition that the North Korean side can be induced to change its mind about something that it seems to regard as a central pillar of regime security, because governments don’t negotiate away their central pillars of regime security.
If one were hoping to use sanctions to poke North Korea back to the negotiating table, I’m skeptical that the North Korean government would ever willingly sacrifice its nuclear option. I suppose you could hope maybe for a round of phony negotiations or shadow boxing or something temporizing, but certainly not anything more than buying some time. And under some circumstances, maybe time is worth purchasing. But it doesn’t seem like a very believing answer to the mounting international security threat.
I have my own alternative reason for favoring international economic penalties against the DPRK and it has nothing to do with the notion of bringing the North Korean government to the table or hoping if you sprinkle sanctions dust on Kim Jong Un’s bed, he’ll wake up in the morning with a different view of the North Korean nuclear program. It is that if applied correctly and comprehensively, economic penalties can reduce the killing power of the North Korean defense industries.
Does that change the North Korean objectives? No. Does it prevent the eventual development of the nuclear arsenal and the intercontinental ballistic missiles? Maybe not. But it complicates and potentially reduces the augmentation of military power by the North Korean regime.
What I’m describing would take much more comprehensive measures than has been undertaken by the UN Security Council so far. They would probably involve secondary sanctions by the U.S. government on financial concerns in China and other concerns that deal with North Korean financial institutions and with a dollar-denominated commerce. It is not something one would do lightly, but if the North Korean nuclear threat were regarded as a sufficiently serious priority to undertake such measures, they probably could have a big impact on the North Korean economy.
We got a full test of what the North Korean side thought about this back with the whole Banco Delta Asia thing, of course the North Korean government has had more than ten years to adjust, to adapt and innovate.
No matter what anybody says, the North Korean side is quite entrepreneurial, so the North Korean enterprises have not stayed in the same place since 2006, but comprehensive economic penalties I think still could exact a very big impact on the DPRK.
And one more thing about that is the history of coercive economic diplomacy is on the whole really unsuccessful. The reason that I’m suggesting that it might possibly be different for the DPRK is because the DPRK is still such a terribly distorted dysfunctional economy, so dependent upon a constant transfer of resources from abroad to function.
“I’m skeptical that the North Korean government would ever willingly sacrifice its nuclear option”
If it were a more capable, less distorted economy, I guess I’d be rather less confident about the sort of measures that I’d propose. Despite some very interesting developments under Kim Jong Un,with the North Korean economy there is more scope for this than there would be for, let’s say, dealing with an Argentina going nuclear and developing a big capability.
NK News: To vigorously enforce in the way you are talking about is really a question of resources. There seems to be a big disconnect between what is said publicly about the threat of North Korea and the investment of government resources into sanctions investigation and implementation…
Nicholas Eberstadt: I have no security clearances so I’m only a newspaper reader but I completely share your perception. It would seem possible, even likely, that the U.S. and other governments with their vast capabilities and resources and research potential could do orders of magnitude more than small nimble public groups with open sources have done so far. And those groups have done so much.
There is a famous notorious stove-piping of intelligence in the U.S. and I think that’s true in other places as well, people don’t play well, people don’t think creatively. But the homework project that the George W. Bush administration conducted back in the first term of the Bush administration when attempting to map the financial resources and the overseas accounts of the DPRK just shows what can be done with not that much money, but some intelligent leadership on a government team.
I have no doubt that if North Korea were accorded the sort of seriousness as a security threat that it ought to be by the intelligence community, we could do an awful lot more than we are doing now. It is in a way kind of baffling that we see this disconnect between public pronouncements by government figures and an absence of research and homework on dealing with the actual sinews of North Korean state capabilities.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: White House