Donald Trump’s first ten months have been whirlwind for North Korea watchers. From “fire and fury” to “maybe someday he will be my friend”, it’s been an unusual time to have an eye on how the world’s most powerful nation deals with Pyongyang, especially as the DPRK’s missile and nuclear program grows closer and closer to completion.
It’s been a shock in Washington DC, too, and the first few months of the administration were chaotic. Amid the jostling for the newly-vacated positions in the foreign policy world, Patrick Cronin, longtime Senior Director at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), was swept up in something of a political firestorm: in line for a “plum” job (the words of the Washington Times) at a Pentagon-linked think tank, he was outed as a “never-Trumper.”
Things have quietened down now – Cronin has even met with the President’s arch-controversialist and now-deposed Chief of Strategy Steven Bannon. But despite this, he still doesn’t appear 100% on the Trump train.
“This is untraditional, I’ll grant you that,” he told NK News in Seoul, just days after the President’s first visit to Asia came to an end.
Despite his misgivings, however, he does think Trump’s new approach, so different from his predecessors, might bring results, and argues that there is far greater unity of thought in the administration than many assume. Diplomacy remains the U.S.’s priority, he says, and there is greater unity than ever in East Asia on the North Korean question.
In a wide-ranging interview, Cronin discussed where U.S. policy towards the North might go from here, and what path, if any, exists towards dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and readability
NK News: President Trump is back from his first trip to Asia. What were your impressions?
Patrick Cronin: My impression is that the administration achieved its basic objectives, not without unintended consequences, but still it achieved the basic objectives.
One: they now put a framework for Asia policy on the table. It is largely based on continuity, although there are some differences, the fundamental difference being the multilateral to bilateral trade stance, but we knew about this, it is not news. Secondly, it mobilized the region but especially Northeast Asia, on a common pressure strategy on North Korea nuclear weapons.
“President Trump, to his credit, has gone around and won support”
There is no doubt that the President has made the North Korea policy a top-tier agenda for his overall administration, not just for Asian policy.
I think the degree of the President’s strategy mixed with the rhetoric has its critics, but there are many who see the wisdom of putting really high pressure on North Korea given the fact that we are at a milestone in the progression of the North Korean nuclear program.
The point is they are marching toward really significant rapid progress of building a nuclear-armed ICBM capability that puts the U.S. homeland at risk and this changes the political discussion, if nothing else. It may embolden North Korea as well, and may empower North Korea to take advantage of that situation. So because of that, this is a moment where we haven’t tried serious pressure strategy before, maybe Banco Delta Asia was an exception, this is the time to try.
President Trump, to his credit, has gone around and won support, he’s given things up, basically, to China, he’s really sought out help more rather than asking for it, and praised them for some of the help they have given.
NK News: Do you think there is an underlying message there, with China in particular, that if they don’t help the U.S. there will be secondary sanctions in a much stronger way?
Patrick Cronin: The Trump administration did not just ask the Chinese for help, they also may have helped their own self-interest because if they wanted to stay off the secondary sanctions, if they wanted to stop Chinese banks and other entities from being closed out of the American market, they had to act and act quickly.
That’s why there was this sort of dripping step by step approach, with Secretary Tillerson and others announcing the fact that they were going to target some entities and then they were going to have a general resolution and they were going to start to enforce that quickly.
You have the desire of pushing other countries into the unilateral sanctions that could be taken on top of the UN sanctions. So all of that is meant to pressure China as well as to win China’s support for a higher pressure strategy, not an endless pressure, not a destabilizing regime-toppling pressure.
What we heard from the President was an agreement with President Moon on that pressure strategy but not the use of military force, we need to solve this politically, which is what the Chinese wanted as well.
NK News: What do you think about this theory that there could be some kind of targeted strike on North Korean missile capabilities?
Patrick Cronin: On the one hand, I’m kind of in the Moon camp saying “just make sure you guys know this is not Syria, this is not the Middle East.” You can strike a Middle Eastern country and nothing would directly happen, maybe later down the road, yes, but not the same way. North Korea has the ability to strike South Korean targets, Japan, and there are other things they could do.
I think that there are two facets; one is that we strike them with something that is more deniable, like cyber warfare. The other is if we strike them with a kinetic military action, like the Syrian strike, it is going to be hard for people not to know that because there are too many people watching the space right now.
I think that any attack on North Korean territory is going to trigger a response from North Korea but not necessarily a nuclear one, imagining they have the nuclear capability to fire. I think there are a lot of people thinking about limited localized conflict.
NK News: So what, then, happens when can say ‘we can strike the homeland with nuclear-tipped ICBMs, now we are going to start dictating terms’. This is the scenario. What can the U.S. do in that situation?
Patrick Cronin: Well, we can laugh at the dictating terms part of that because if that were true then we should be dictating terms to the world – we have more nuclear weapons – it doesn’t work that way.
NK News: But that’s how they see it, right?
Patrick Cronin: Because it is such an important threshold for them in terms of preserving the regime, countering any intervention, keeping out, as one friend says, the outside world and the illumination that would bring about change inside the government. In other words, it is still regime survival and it is the ultimate regime survival card.
“Any attack on North Korean territory is going to trigger a response from North Korea but not necessarily a nuclear one”
American military power is so superior to anything they are going to have but that capability of an ICBM really provides help. While it does help them avoid a military intervention, it doesn’t help them project power. Deterrence and containment can work within this reality and the officials know that, the Trump administration knows that, but they don’t accept it. Now, saying you don’t accept something doesn’t mean you don’t live with it for a while, it just means that’s not something you are going to be accepting reverently.
You are going to be seeking to counter that through various means, all options on the table kind of thing, but the point is, that’s the ambiguity that people don’t want to clarify too much because they want pressure to be felt in Pyongyang, uncertainty, unpredictability, they don’t want us to be so readable, they also want the maneuvering room to act differently as context changes.
NK News: What do you make of these two schools of thought about the missile program; the first is that it is about preserving the regime and the second is that it’s part of a long-term strategy to forcibly unite the peninsula?
Patrick Cronin: They are not mutually exclusive, right? And is that really a policy? It’s sort of like “yeah, I’ve got a vision. I’ve got a vision for unification, I’ve got a vision peace, I’ve got a vision for world prosperity, end of poverty, and I really mean it and I really would like that but I really don’t have any actual plan for getting there and so that’s where we are with those plans, by the way.” Now, as a deterrent matter, and if you are in the military, you take it seriously because of Lawrence Freedman’s famous quote that “deterrence works until it doesn’t.”
You don’t want to test the ‘doesn’t’ part of that, so you want to err on the side of caution with respect to deterrence. This is a very long-term objective that could change over time and it could become an opportunity over time too. The U.S. withdraws, South Korea solves its problems, North Korea suddenly finds a bonanza, who knows? We are all dead in the long run. So I’m not sure what future we are talking about.
“This is the first year of a very unorthodox, untraditional Republican President”
It is just not on the cards right now. Right now on the cards is that North Korea wants to be seen and recognized as a nuclear weapons state. I think it is plausible they want more of a Pakistani-style robust strike capability, so enough nuclear weapons that they can survival right after the initial attack, or at least make sure we don’t know that we could take out all their nuclear weapons and that seems to be where they are heading.
Now, are they willing to negotiate at some point along the way? I think they have proven that they would be interested in negotiations up until just a couple months ago, and they will be interested again, the question is would they be interested in credible discussions?
NK News: Both the U.S. and North Korea have such contrasting ideas about how dialogue will even begin to happen.
Patrick Cronin: I don’t find that such a difficult situation. If you put aside long-term visions and you put aside resolutions and you think about more manageable issues. If you are North Korea, you want permanent nuclear weapons status and your recognition going into these talks is that “you Americans are now recognizing my nuclear weapons status.”
The Americans look at the North Koreans and say “they recognize that they ultimately have to denuclearize and this is the first step to denuclearization” and the words the diplomats come up with to allow that framework to move forward. And that is where you move into the diplomatic space. A freeze for a freeze is shorthand for one formula that would allow you to move into that diplomatic space.
So it is very important not to give away your hand in negotiations, not to negotiate with yourself ahead of time especially right now when North Korea has told us repeatedly, and has told the Moon administration a hundred times, no.
Every single overture that the Moon administration has tried is absolutely in the DNA of Moon Jae-in is “we must have diplomacy, we must have dialogue, we must fulfill the legacy of reuniting where my family came from in 1950, we have to do this’ and North Korea basically says ‘no, not interested.’
NK News: The North Koreans seem to consistently want to undermine South Korea and South Korea’s role in this problem.
Patrick Cronin: And to President Moon’s credit, he understands that unity in the alliance and even unity with Japan and China allows him continued leverage despite North Korea’s policy. We understand that. I mean, we expect our allies to pursue their national self-interest, we are at some level, the Chinese too, and the Russians even, we are all in this together, on one end to fight to deter, contain or even roll back, if possible, this nuclear weapons program. That’s what we’d like to do but can we do that without starting a war?
What President Trump made clear on this trip or to answer the question about what did he achieve; one thing he achieved was that he clearly indicated to Xi Jinping, to Moon Jae-in, to the region, that the United States, even under the Trump administration, is very interested in a diplomatic outcome.
NK News: Would you not accept, though, that there has been less clarity of message from this administration? Does it help when the President says his Secretary of State is “wasting his time”?
Patrick Cronin: This is the first year of a very unorthodox, untraditional Republican President who is not a traditional Republican at all, who has a social media addiction. He is unprecedented. And he has a style from his own “Art of the Deal” kind of real estate brokering and reality TV that’s served him well.
There has been some ad-hoc communications working in different directions in the first year, but I don’t see it as a contradiction and let me just explain why. The North Korean policy is one of the foreign policy issues that they actually did introduce on day one inside the Trump administration. A lot of other issues had been there, but this one they did.
“To President Moon’s credit, he understands that unity in the alliance and even unity with Japan and China allows him continued leverage despite North Korea’s policy”
The principals sat around the table in the Situation Room and they agreed on the strategy. They knew their roles. Secretary Tillerson knew his role was diplomacy, Mattis knew his role was going to be the defense and deterrence component of this, and for the President to come out and disparage Tillerson and his diplomacy was disruptive communications, deliberately designed in his mind to signal that “I’m unpredictable and we are serious with our pressure strategy so China and North Korea, for different reasons, get much more serious about what I’m saying.” That was the communication.
That is not contradictory. He was actually reinforcing the diplomacy. This is untraditional, I’ll grant you that. Is it sloppy? Yeah, it is even a bit sloppy. Is it dangerous? Potentially, but not nearly as much as it is made out to be because deterrence is stronger than that.
NK News: How is the State Department working on North Korea, in your view?
Patrick Cronin: First of all, we have a great diplomat in Joe Yun – he’s already been the envoy under the Obama administration, he’s been tagged with the responsibility of thinking about diplomacy with North Korea. He tried repeatedly to reach out to the North Koreans. We tried after the election, North Korea rebuffed us. They said “we don’t want to talk to the Obama administration.” We tried in February through the New York channel and Kim Jong Nam was assassinated – not a good time to be inviting North Koreans to New York.
We tried later on over the release of the Americans and that led to the Otto Wambier tragedy. Once again, rather than building goodwill, it has been just the opposite. Every time we try diplomatically, there’s been a setback to relations. We are still trying.
We also have to be realistic that China has different interests and the administration is aware of that. The question is not whether China will do what we want, the question is whether China will do more of what we want than not. So it is a relative metric, it is not an absolute metric.
I think Secretary Tillerson needs to also defend his staff for doing diplomacy. So if Joe Yun finds an opening, we need the Secretary of State to go to the White House and make sure that he is not shut down because the hard-line point of view of “we must just maximize pressure until some infinite level” needs to be balanced out. We need balanced statecraft: “Diplomacy without force is like music without a symphony” is the famous phrase.
We need the pressure strategy and shows of force and economic strangulation, we need to have very strong incentives, diplomatic channels ready to go. We need diplomatic readiness, not just military readiness. And we know the compromises are difficult.
China is supposed to be leaning forward but they have a position that is unacceptable to us in terms of freeze for freeze, but there is a legitimate question about ‘freeze for what?’ So if that’s the next step, the ‘freeze for what?’, are we ready to seize that step?
NK News: Do you see a situation where the U.S. could talk about a freeze deal?
Patrick Cronin: There needs to be something on the table from the Americans. I know that suspending large military exercises completely, something that you can’t turn back on easily, is not equivalent to telling us that you are not going to fire something that you could end up firing next week. So there is a problem here. But I can think of a hundred formulas for things in between those two extremes.
This would not be acceptable to the North Koreans, but let’s say “if you agree not to launch missiles for the next two years, maybe we could talk about suspending the exercises.”
I’m not saying that is acceptable to the Americans either. Something that would be acceptable to the Americans would probably be “we agree not to do provocative demonstrations at all” – no strategic bombers, no bomb runs, and certain other types of activity that may be most inflammatory. We might be willing to suspend those while we are talking: “just like you are not firing missiles, we are not flying our planes.”
“I’m happy to live with a protracted cold war with North Korea”
At the end of the day we can agree to a certain degree that no one wants a war. So let’s find that space (of the Venn diagrams overlapping) and once we find that space, what do we agree on? That’s the next step. So what I’m outlining is not the “give me the detailed blueprint or a final peace architecture plan, but give me the bottom-up step by step approach that may not be very exciting, and it may be still a long road but it essentially takes a turn and it takes us down a notch on the tension,” rather than ratcheting it up until this point where there is no more up to go. That is where we are heading right now.
NK News: Why do you think we are heading towards that?
Patrick Cronin: We have irreconcilable policies. We want to maximize pressure to get them to desist and they want to persist in order to maximize their security, meaning the development of ICBMs that can strike the United States. And at some point to get there, they will cross thresholds that if they are not red lines, they are really dark pink ones and they are going to trigger some actions.
I’m happy to live with a protracted cold war with North Korea; we can wait them out, we can deter them. We still win, in effect, as long as there is no war. If our democracies and autonomies can flourish, and we have strong defenses to deter them from using these things, we can do that. Is that my preferred ideal world? Of course not, but we can live with it. And it is better than us trying to start a war to disarm them.
A preemptive strike is reserved in extremis – if the threat is literally being fired at us. It is just a question of where you do the preemption. That could be a limited localized conflict depending on where the North Koreans were firing the missile in the first place.
So are we going to have another nuclear test, are we going to have another long-range ICBM that goes at a normal, not lofted, trajectory? Those two actions will trigger responses and those responses will trigger reciprocal responses in North Korea, and what does that look like? And then what do we do in response to that?
That’s what we don’t know. And nobody knows that. Kim thinks we don’t use force and that’s why President Trump is right to kind of stress, in his maniacal way, that “you don’t know that.”
NK News: So it is about balance – keeping the North Koreans guessing but making sure the allies aren’t worried?
Patrick Cronin: That’s right. Even with Abe wanting to put maximum pressure even much more so than Moon, he doesn’t want a conflict. So we are all aligned on that issue. The question is are we willing to take some risks under Trump that we weren’t willing to take under Obama?
The situation has also changed. Obama is the one who told Trump “this is the number one issue…” so it is not like he didn’t see this coming either. So if Obama was still President, if Obama was like Xi Jinping and went into a third term, he might be taking a tougher line right now.
We have the ability for some diplomatic side ramps, if not off ramps, and that may falter or may succeed, tactically, it may come back and fail again or succeed more, you know, fits and starts. Don’t look for a smooth process here, but if we can avoid the major spikes of war, then we have succeeded.
We need to stick around and face the difficult challenges and manage them in intelligent ways like adults, and rely on deterrence and rationality. And I think that’s what the administration wants to do even though the President is an unorthodox free agent.
Featured image: White House
Donald Trump's first ten months have been whirlwind for North Korea watchers. From "fire and fury" to "maybe someday he will be my friend", it's been an unusual time to have an eye on how the world's most powerful nation deals with Pyongyang, especially as the DPRK's missile and nuclear program grows closer and closer to completion.
It's been a shock in Washington DC, too, and the first few months of the administration were chaotic. Amid the jostling for the newly-vacated positions in the foreign policy world, Patrick Cronin, longtime Senior Director at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), was swept up in something of a political firestorm: in line for a "plum" job (the words of the Washington Times) at a Pentagon-linked think tank, he was outed as a "never-Trumper."