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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
Like many long-time observers of the DPRK, Ralph Cossa – President of the CSIS Pacific Forum – is skeptical about the extent of real change beneath the new slogans associated with Donald Trump’s North Korea policies.
First dubbed “strategic patience and maximum pressure” but now referred to alternatively as “peaceful pressure” or “strategic accountability,” Cossa says the fundamentals of the strategy are broadly consistent with those of the Obama administration when it comes to North Korea.
But therein lies a problem, he says.
For if the U.S. is seeking to stimulate changes from North Korea as a result of pressure policies – all while simultaneously reassuring Pyongyang of its peaceful intentions – then “why should they do what we want them to do?”
Instead, Cossa says an alternative approach might consider working to more directly underscore to North Korean leaders that their very system will be put in peril should they continue not taking denuclearization seriously.
Longer-term, U.S. policy might, therefore, only likely yield results if policy makers move away from ambiguous talk about red lines which lacks specific responses, or too-little too-late pursuit of dialogue that will simply lead to testing freezes.
Cossa met NK News for an interview in Seoul.
NK News: It’s been over eight months since Trump was inaugurated. How do you grade U.S. policy so far towards North Korea?
Ralph Cossa: Someone once joked that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. I think that I would say the same thing about Trump’s North Korea policy. In many respects, it’s not changed significantly from Obama’s. We have given it a new name, so instead of “strategic patience” we are now talking about “peaceful pressure.” But if the aim of strategic patience was to actually pressure them to change their evil ways, that’s the same that peaceful pressure is doing.
All the strategies have been aimed at trying to transform the regime by making the cost of not denuclearizing higher than the benefits. I don’t see any reason to believe this one will be any more successful than the last one was.
Broader-wise, as security issues are concerned, trade and economics aside, there’s been a great deal of consistency between what Obama was trying to do and what Trump’s been trying to do, it’s just that Trump is doing it more loudly. And obviously there’s been a disconcerting aspect to the Tweets and some of the threats.
“One of my concerns with such talks is: are we really talking to the right people?”
NK News: You’ve worked with North Koreans in the past, how do you think they read those Tweets and pledges?
Ralph Cossa: It seems to me they are amused by the noise, more than anything else. I think if the aim is to frighten the North Koreans, it’s failed. If the aim is to frighten everyone else, it’s probably succeeding. But I think the North Koreans are pretty self-confident to the point now of being arrogant and very convinced that time is on their side and eventually we are going to give in to their basic demand to treat them like a nuclear weapons state and move on.
In short, I don’t think it’s had a real big effect on the North Koreans, it certainly hasn’t had a big effect on their behavior.
NK News: You may have seen reports in recent days about the idea that there could be some secret talks going on. What’s your sense on that?
Ralph Cossa: Well, if there are, they are not secret. That said, there’s certainly been a reactivation of the New York channel – Joe Yun didn’t just show up in Pyongyang on a U.S. Air Force airplane to say, “Surprise, here I am!” Obviously, there were talks that led up to that.
But one of my concerns with such talks is: are we really talking to the right people? And what kinds of messages are getting across? When we had talks going on – remember the Leap Day agreement – we were talking with the Foreign Ministry people who, in my belief, were probably negotiating in good faith.
But in the meantime, the military and the state security people were preparing for another satellite launch. I seriously doubt that the guys who were negotiating with us had a clue that that was about to happen. They were told to go out there and negotiate an agreement and that’s what they did.
“I think if the aim is to frighten the North Koreans, it’s failed”
As a result, if you are not getting to someone at a higher level, I’m not sure how much it works. So, while I assume there is some lower level direct contact going on and that’s useful, how relevant it would prove in the long run is still the question. At some point I think you probably have to have a high-level emissary go and talk directly to Kim Jong Un.
NK News: Most proponents of engagement these days say that the most realistic outcome is going to be some kind of nuclear or missile freeze. Is that really enough at this stage of the game?
Ralph Cossa: Freeze what? And that’s the big question. Everyone talks about a freeze but they are not talking about what’s going to be frozen and how you verify it. If you are just talking about a freeze in testing, I think that’s easy.
I recently predicted what’s going to happen – get to the bottom line first and then go back to some of the earlier stuff – if we don’t do anything to stop this current cycle. And then there’s South Korea’s President Moon drawing a red line but without any credibility at all… about the North Koreans obtaining an ICBM capability with a nuclear warhead, et cetera, the same thing we’ve long been saying is a ‘game changer’.
And we say it is a game changer without identifying what the game is, he says it is a red line but doesn’t identify the consequences.
If we are serious about it, then I think we have to articulate what the consequences are. They need to be clear, credible, concise and coordinated, in my view. It doesn’t have to be military action – one of the problems with red lines is that everyone figures if you cross the red line the next step is to draw up arms. That is the last resort. If that’s your threat to respond to a red line, the red line is going to get crossed just because the only red line that’s going to cause bombs to drop is the North attacking the South or attacking Japan or shooting a nuke at somebody. Then that is a red line and there will be some kind of response to that.
Below the rest of this stuff, what you need to do is spell out ‘here are the consequences’ and you need to tell them in advance if you are trying to deter the action from occurring.
If none of that occurs, however, I’ll tell you exactly what I think is going to happen: the North Koreans have a testing schedule. There are certain things they want to accomplish through their testing foremost of which is (a) to convince themselves that they have this capability and (b) to convince us that they have this capability.
So that’s going to require perhaps a few more ICBM tests and maybe one actual extended range test out to the open ocean to see that they can do it. And then at some point, they are going to do another nuclear test – I think they will wait until after they are done with their missile tests, so they have got what they want on the missiles and then they’ll do a nuclear test. And then they will circle in while the world is up in arms again because of the nuclear test, and they will agree to come back to the table and discuss a freeze in testing, not of their programs, but in testing, because they are not planning on doing any more.
“If you are just talking about a freeze in testing, I think that’s easy”
They will have got what they want and then ask, “how much will you pay us for us not to do what we no longer plan on doing?” And this is typical of the North Korean approach.
When I talked to the North Koreans and said “what do we need to do to demonstrate a lack of hostile policy?” They used to say “stop the exercises and the like” et cetera. Now the first thing they say is “lift the sanctions.” So that will be the quid pro quo they ask for – they will come in and say “we’ll stop testing (which we were going to do anyway, we’ve already accomplished what we want) and in return, you lift the sanctions or at least sanctions on economic assistance.”
And why would they do that? Because they have told us they have the Byungjin policy which is nuclear weapons and economic development and they want to do it simultaneously which is going to be pretty hard because of the sanctions.
So they want to do it sequentially: get their nuclear capability up to the point where they believe, that we believe, that they are capable of hitting us. And then they will put that in their pocket – not giving up, no CVID steps towards denuclearization, but they will stop testing in return for now making the second half of their two pillars for the economic development part.
NK News: One of the things that everybody seems to agree on these days is that it is extremely unlikely that North Korea is going to denuclearize. That being the case then, what’s really the strategy behind all this pressure and sanctions?
Ralph Cossa: The strategy behind it is we don’t have any better idea so we are going to continue with the pressure and hope for the best – hope that if the Chinese really get serious, that we are going to really force the North Koreans to decide, and if we can do that, then they will decide to denuclearize. There are an awful lot of ‘ifs’ in that chain.
NK News: Do you know if people really believe that right now? That pressure will lead to a change in Pyongyang thinking on denuclearization?
Ralph Cossa: Certainly there are Chinese that believe it, I hear that from them all the time. But if you listen to what the President is saying, he seems to believe if the Chinese turn up the screws, the North Koreans will yield.
At the end of the day, I believe the North Koreans are rational actors, I don’t believe anyone does anything they think is irrational. So you have to ask, why do they think that what they are doing is rational? So far it’s because it’s worked.
Irrational acts aside, if you can convince North Korea that the cost involved with pursuing nuclear weapons outweigh the benefits, and the benefits involved in giving them up outweigh the costs involved, then it becomes a simple solution.
How do you get the situation in your favor? You don’t get it in your favor by threatening “fire and fury” because North Korea won’t believe that – that makes everyone else nervous but has it made them nervous? No.
You get that by essentially presenting them with the choice of either “give up nuclear weapons or run the risk of your regime crumbling.”
“They now see themselves as a great super power. They are starting to believe their own propaganda”
But the current situation is problematic. We say we’ve got a policy of peaceful pressure: we emphasize the peaceful part and then we try to reassure the North Koreans that we are not trying to change the regime. Yet if we are trying to scare them to do what we want them to do, while assuring them that we are not trying to topple the regime, if they believe that, then why should they do what we want them to do?
So I would argue that to now we have seemed to go after the North Koreans with only two arrows in our quiver. One is economic and the other is military.
The military doesn’t work because the only time you use that is as a last resort and we are certainly not at that point. The economic hasn’t worked because the North Koreans have found more ways of getting around the sanctions and we haven’t implemented them and China is still not willing to bring them to the brink of economic collapse. They occasionally say they are but then they have had second thoughts.
But there are other ways you can threaten a regime. Instead of saying “we are not in this for regime change,” you start saying “well, our point here is to destabilize your regime until it either collapses or you say uncle. And we are going to do that through propaganda broadcasts, we are going to do that through recognizing a government in exile.”
There are a hundred different ways that you can come up with things that would get the North Koreans’ attention and try to separate Kim Jong Un from the elite or from the military or both. We don’t know a hell of a lot about him but he is obviously pretty paranoid – when you start putting your uncle and your stepbrother who is a goof-off to death because you feel there are threats, it seems he must be pretty paranoid.
So let’s play to that paranoia and let’s make him think that failure to cooperate is going to result in attacks against the credibility of the regime because that’s the thing that upsets the North Koreans the most – talk about bombing North Korea geographically, talk about Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy and they are in your hands.
NK News: What about looking at this from a North Korean perspective? Why should North Korea be treated differently to India, Pakistan or Israel? Why does it have to be an antagonistic strategy that the U.S. takes?
Ralph Cossa: Because North Koreans have chosen to make that the choice. We don’t have a territorial dispute with Pakistan and India and neither one of them have a history of proliferation, selling anything to anyone for the highest bidder, and neither one of them threatens to turn us into a sea of fire.
They may threaten one another but certainly not us.
The North Koreans one time used to ask that question “why don’t you treat us like Pakistan?” They don’t ask that question anymore. Now they say “why don’t you treat us like the former Soviet Union?” And this is now where their head is going. They now see themselves as a great super power. They are starting to believe their own propaganda. I think that’s why we need to be attacking if we want to get their attention.
“There are a hundred different ways that you can come up with things that would get the North Koreans’ attention”
NK News: Any final thoughts on the situation as you see it?
Ralph Cossa: I think we are at a turning point – though everything is a turning point with the North Koreans. Time is not on our side in the whole nuclear issue.
And right now, like it or not, both Trump and Moon have put their credibility on the line, in my view unnecessarily. Trump said ‘it won’t happen’ and ‘fire and fury’ et cetera and Moon said ‘this is a red line’. So I think they are now compelled to either look like they are bluffing – in which case prepare for the North Koreans to not believe you the next time and prepare for them to be even more atrocious – or you’ve got to sit down and say “there is a red line and here are the consequences.”
“This is a red line, if you cross it’s not about going to war or military action; it is a red line that if you cross, here are the twelve things that you don’t want to see happen that are going to happen.”
If the U.S. and South Korea talk in sync on this, that’s great. If we get the Japanese onboard, which should be easy, that’s even better. And if we get the Russians and the Chinese onboard, that is really good, but that might be a bridge too far. But it is Trump’s and Moon’s credibility that’s been put on the line by them and it is hard for them to either put up or shut up and the only thing worse than “put up or shut up” is “don’t put up and don’t shut up” which is what we seem to be doing.
And how that serves our long term objective is beyond my ability to comprehend as the strategic thinker I sometimes think I am.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. Air Force