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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
U.S. President Donald Trump will most likely offer North Korea some kind of relief from international sanctions or a peace treaty in the near future, a prominent DPRK watcher and legal scholar told NK News last week.
Speaking in Washington DC ahead of a conference hosted by NK News’s parent organization the Korea Risk Group, Tufts University’s Sung-Yoon Lee said the international community’s growing lack of political will to enforce sanctions will likely allow the U.S. to reward Pyongyang for what he described as its “fake concessions” on the nuclear issue.
“Trump will be willing to lift sanctions formally, I believe, not all sanctions, but he might say, ‘okay the poor starving North Korean people, they are suffering, so let’s lift sanctions on the ban of export of seafood and textiles,'” Lee, Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and Assistant Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said.
“If the U.S. takes the lead in bending the rules – U.S. rules as well as UN Security Council resolutions – who will object? China? No. South Korea? No. Russia? No. Britain and France which really don’t have a bone in this fight? No,” he added. “So it’s all up to Trump and I think Trump is more than willing to offer premature sanctions relaxation.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Lee also discussed why he believes it’s “too late” to bridge the gap between the U.S. and North Korea on denuclearization definitions, ROK President Moon Jae-in’s role in promoting dialogue with the DPRK, and what he sees as Pyongyang’s long-term goal: forcing U.S. withdrawal from the peninsula and the region.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and readability
NK News: Do you believe that 2019 will be a year of progress on the Korean peninsula?
Sung-Yoon Lee: In the short term, things will be more placid, they will be less turbulent than what 2017 was like, or 2016. Let’s not forget that in the year 2016, North Korea conducted two nuclear tests. But North Korea’s last major provocation was a powerful ICBM test in late November 2017, so it’s been a little over a year – a year and almost three months – things have been very different. Okay, I concede that. I fully agree.
But what does that mean? Well, in the past, there have been three different time periods/intervals when North Korea refrained from resorting to a major weapons test. After North Korea’s first nuclear test on October 9, 2006, it wasn’t until almost three years later that North Korea conducted a second test which was on May 25, 2009. So a little over two and a half years in the meantime. And then it was almost another three years before North Korea’s third test which was on February 12, 2013, so just three months shy of a full three years. And then North Korea waited another three years until its next test, the fourth test, which was on January 6, 2016, which is one month shy of three full years.
The question becomes, during those nearly three-year intervals, what did North Korea do? Not build bombs? Not enhance its capabilities? No, clearly they did. So just one year after North Korea’s major provocation, to let out a sigh of relief and say, “phew, things are different now,” it’s a bit premature, it’s a bit early.
North Korea will play nice, I think, throughout this year, possibly next year, but at some point, I don’t know when, but say two years from now, at some point, North Korea, in my view, will follow up on its very serious threat by Ri Yong Ho, the foreign minister, in September 2017 in New York City, when Mr. Ri said that North Korea may conduct the most powerful hydrogen bomb test ever above the Pacific.
“North Korea will play nice, I think, throughout this year, possibly next year”
What does that mean? It means a massive megaton yield hydrogen bomb test, put on an ICBM, exploding in outer space. It means, most likely, there will no loss of lives. It means, most likely, there will be no destruction of property. What is the basis for my projection? Because we’ve seen this. Between 1958-1962, the U.S. and the Soviet Union conducted 21 such tests in outer space. No one died. It was serious.
But, North Korea, I believe, will have an incentive to go there to make the point even more emphatically that it is a nuclear state on par with certainly the UK and France and India and Pakistan and Israel, but to be treated like China, Russia, and the U.S. So at that point, what will the U.S. do? Start a war when no one’s died? I don’t think that politically feasible. The U.S. will come across as the crazy bellicose party.
There will be another UN Security Council resolution, but in the end, there is nothing that the U.S. can do at that time. There is nothing that the neighbors in the region will be able to do in terms of military force or resumption of tough sanctions because it will be already game over by then.
NK News: Do you think that the ultimate goal of North Korea is to be recognized as a nuclear weapons state?
Sung-Yoon Lee: I think then it will go further and periodically threaten war, or to blow up LA, or Washington, D.C. unless the U.S. completely withdraws from South Korea and let the Koreans themselves work it out.
And at that point, no American leader, I can imagine, when that threat becomes credible will commit him/herself to fulfilling treaty obligations and defending South Korea at the risk of hundreds of thousands of American civilians dying.
NK News: Why does the Trump administration want to take these kinds of risks?
Sung-Yoon Lee: There are smart people in the U.S. government who take this view. It sounds far-fetched but there are people who take North Korea very seriously. They don’t think North Korea is just modeling through, or some crazy child wanting attention.
There are some people who read North Korea’s strategic endgame and take the view that North Korea’s ultimate endgame is to liberate South Korea.
“Diplomatic pressure is gone”
How does North Korea achieve that? First become a credible threat to the U.S., get the U.S. to withdraw from South Korea, end the alliance, all but in name, and then continue to be a credible threat to the United States thereafter so that South Korea is cowered, the United States abandons South Korea as it abandoned South Vietnam for political reasons after about 60,000 American lives were lost in the war.
But then it seems almost like science fiction to politicians. Kim Jong Un looks bizarre. He looks sometimes crazy, sometimes nice, but he is weird. North Korea is a backward tiny country and it’s very hard for Americans to take North Korea seriously.
So politicians, elected leaders, President Trump especially, will be more prone to saying, “oh, no, no, they don’t have the guts to do that, no… okay, yeah, let South Korea take care of themselves. let South Korea defend itself, South Korea is unwilling to pay more for the cost of stationing our troops… go build your nukes if you want.” This kind of flippant reasoning, shall we say, it is kind of on a very simplistic level powerful logic from America-first centric kind of view.
But I think it really increases/raises the risk, the probability of U.S. entanglement and war and loss of more American lives in the future. The last time the U.S. withdrew from South Korea, as we know, we had a war the next year in 1950.
Things are very different today, and it will be more difficult for the U.S. to abandon South Korea, but when North Korea, as a de facto nuclear state, is threatening to blow up San Francisco in a credible way, through graduated escalation, then abandoning South Korea becomes a politically feasible and perhaps even necessary option.
NK News: North Korea’s state-run media has urged Washington to relieve sanctions in response to measures Pyongyang has taken towards denuclearization. Do you believe that the Trump administration will accept this in the future?
Sung-Yoon Lee: Yes. The U.S. is not fully enforcing sanctions. Diplomatic pressure is gone, there is really no desire on the part of any UN member states to work hard to enforce sanctions because they don’t have a stake in this game. Mexico, for example, or Peru, or even Canada, really they don’t have a stake in this game to enforce sanctions, to make sure no Canadian snow blowers and jet skis are sold to North Korea.
We know everyone violates UN sanctions – Austria selling gondolas, the United States also facilitating the transfer of Mercedes sedans through China into North Korea. So the will, the pressure to enforce sanctions is already gone.
Trump should not relax sanctions for small gestures by North Korea. Why? Because there are statutory conditions, legal conditions for the gradual suspension of sanctions and ultimate termination of sanctions. These are stipulated clearly in Section 401 and 402 of the 2016 North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act.
Trump will ignore those. Trump will be willing to lift sanctions formally, I believe, not all sanctions, but he might say, “okay the poor starving North Korean people, they are suffering, so let’s lift sanctions on the ban of export of seafood and textile, let’s increase the quota for North Korea’s import of heavy fuel (refined petroleum products)”, which are all UN Security Council resolutions.
But if the U.S. takes the lead in bending the rules – U.S. rules as well as UN Security Council resolutions – who will object? China? No. South Korea? No. Russia? No. Britain and France which really don’t have a bone in this fight? No.
So it’s all up to Trump and I think Trump is more than willing to offer premature sanctions relaxation.
We’ll have to wait and see but I believe that President Trump is amenable to making more substantive concessions in return for North Korea’s illusory or fake concessions like decommissioning a test site, as North Korea did May last year, that it no longer needs.
But President Trump unilaterally surprised everyone, including the Pentagon, and the South Korean Ministry of National Defense, by declaring in Singapore, right after meeting with Kim Jong Un, that he’s canceling the scheduled combined military exercises in August 2018.
“I think Trump is more than willing to offer premature sanctions relaxation”
So I believe President Trump will be willing to make more concessions, for example, sign a peace agreement. A treaty would require ratification by the Senate, so an agreement. An international agreement, even if you don’t sign it, if you tell the world about the terms, the government, the contracting parties, then it becomes a legal agreement. There is no written agreement, no signature, but it has the effect of international law/international agreements.
So, I think President Trump would be amenable to signing a piece of paper that formally declares the end of the Korean War, replacing the armistice with this peace agreement, without perhaps the full realization about the implications of such an agreement, which will, at the very least, dismantle the UN Command, which is a big plus for North Korea because then the UN has no legitimate presence, no legal presence in the Korean peninsula.
Now it’s all left to North Korea, South Korea, China, and the United States, how things turn out. The political condition then will call for the phased withdrawal of U.S. from South Korea, because if you have a peace agreement, people (Americans too) will say why are the troops there? So I think President Trump is willing to make that concession.
I think President Trump is willing to make more concessions on the premise of, for the foreseeable future, full suspension of military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, perhaps even removal of some strategic assets from the region, not fully from Japan obviously at this point, but another gesture to placate North Korea. So I think the upcoming summit, and I believe the second summit will take place because both sides want it, I think Kim has more to gain from the upcoming summit that Trump does.
NK News: Apart from a peace agreement and sanctions relaxation, what kind of corresponding measures can Washington take to accelerate the denuclearization process?
Sung-Yoon Lee: Those will be big wins for North Korea because the atmospherics change even more dramatically in Kim’s favor. And it could even lead to, say, the first sister, Kim Yo Jong visiting the White House later this year, it could even lead to Kim Jong Un may be speaking at the UN General Assembly in September. Then, it’s almost game over because, at that point, Kim is a completely legitimate, rational, reform-minded, peace-seeking world leader, even as his domestic/internal repression of his people, even as the fluid insecurity in North Korea have not changed one bit.
Even as he still holds onto and expands his nuclear arsenal, Kim is a partner now. So I think that where North Korea’s headed. And after that, it’s fait accompli, North Korea’s nuclear status. Nobody will be able to erase it. After twenty years have passed, no one confronts Pakistan about its nuclear weapons. No one confronts India. No one confronts Israel.
“I will not be surprised if we have the reopening/ resumption of the Kaesong Industrial Complex later this year”
NK News: Some argue that Washington could give a green light to the implementation of inter-Korean economic cooperation, including the resumption of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) and the Mount Kumgang tourism as a corresponding measure. What do you think of that proposal?
Sung-Yoon Lee: I think the U.S. views it that way – “at the right time we won’t object to this resumption of inter-Korean rail linking and other economic projects”. That view, in my opinion, is misplaced because from what we have seen, and there is ample evidence accrued over many years.
Between, for example, 2003 and 2008, during the Roh Moo-hyun years, South Korea gave North Korea USD$4.4 billion. More than half of that was in cash, for wages of North Korean laborers at Kaesong Industrial Complex, not directly paid to the workers, but to the government, of course. So it raises certain red flags that what did the Kim Jong Il regime do with that kind of massive cash infusion? Buy food for the people? There is no evidence of that. Probably diverted much of that towards its WMD development program.
So for the United States to say, “that kind of almost a billion dollars of cash and other blandishments transfer from the South to the North a year in the near future is okay with us as long as Kim Jong Un makes some more concessions”, I think it’s misplaced. But I do believe the Trump administration views it as an acceptable risk as, a doable/feasible concession.
So I will not be surprised if we have the reopening/ resumption of the Kaesong Industrial Complex later this year because the only party who opposes it is Trump right now, it’s the U.S. government.
But if things move along in terms of the atmospherics, as North Korea makes more less than substantive concessions, perhaps presenting the U.S. with an inventory of nuclear facilities and bombs and so on, even if its fake, even if there is no way of verifying all that, then I would not be surprised to see the Trump administration lift sanctions, sign a peace agreement, and give a green light to South Korea to resume that kind of massive aid to North Korea.
NK News: Seoul’s role was paramount in facilitating the U.S.- DPRK negotiations last year, while some criticized Seoul for speeding ahead with inter-Korean economic cooperation before denuclearization took place. How can we assess the Moon administration’s role last year?
Sung-Yoon Lee: If one takes the view that negotiations between North Korea and South Korea, between North Korea and the United States, even if they don’t produce immediate results are much better than the absence of direct talks, then one has to take the view that President Moon has played a masterful game, has played a very constructive role in facilitating the dialogue between North Korea and the United States.
The risk is, however, that South Korea has gone way too far in sort of selling the story to the U.S. Because when the National Intelligence Service Head, Suh Hoon, and the National Security Advisor, Chung Eui-yong, visited President Trump in the White House on March 8, 2018, their message was, Kim Jong Un – whom they had just met three days before, on March 5th in Pyongyang – “Kim Jong Un told us he is committed to full denuclearization”.
They stop there. They did not say ‘denuclearization of the Korean peninsula’. But, intuitively, of course, one thinks that must mean ‘denuclearization of North Korea’. They also said to Trump that Kim has told them that he will henceforth stop all nuclear and missile tests, which Kim has, of course.
So, you might say South Korea may perhaps, inadvertently, oversold Kim’s good intentions and now we are stuck with the basic definition of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. It remains to be seen how things will work out, but I fear that South Korea may be blamed later on by the United States.
Now the U.S. is also complicit in playing along, but the U.S. may lay the blame for the failure of negotiations or for North Korea’s next nuclear test, point the finger at South Korea without reflecting on its own decisions.
“South Korea has gone way too far in sort of selling the story to the U.S.”
NK News: In this context, there is an obvious difference in the definition of the denuclearization between Pyongyang and Washington as well as Seoul and Pyongyang, which has caused an impasse in nuclear negotiations. In spite of multiple rounds of nuclear talks having taken place over the decades, why haven’t the three parties come to an agreement on the definition of the term?
Sung-Yoon Lee: In a way, the fact that since 2005 Washington has been a willing partner, sporadically/occasionally, to this charade ‘denuclearization of the Korean peninsula’ without insisting on a much clearer, more precise definition ‘denuclearization of North Korea’, it shows you incompetence/inability on the part of Washington to address the issue.
Washington and Seoul have felt that if we push North Korea too hard, they will go back into their cocoon, they will become belligerent, they will become a political issue, a headache, so let’s play nice, let’s be patient, and just get them to the negotiating table.
In fact, that is now the rationale presented by the Moon administration because, during President Moon’s January 10 press conference, this question was raised by a Washington Post reporter, and President Moon gave a sort of a roundabout answer.
And it was raised again during a Parliamentary hearing at the National Assembly a couple of days later, and the unification minister, when pushed, had to admit that North Korea and South Korea have very different views/definitions of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
So it’s now become an issue, but the fact is the U.S. and South Korea just let it sit, just played along with North Korea’s game. Everyone knows what North Korea means by it because they tell you. It’s not a secret that’s been revealed all of a sudden over the past month.
In view of that, the fact that Washington and Seoul have played this game, being a partner to North Korea’s charade is quite telling. It shows you that neither South Korea nor the United States took North Korea as seriously as they should have, neither in bringing this issue up with North Korea, hence they are having to deal with it now so late in the game when North Korea is a de facto nuclear ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) state.
NK News: Therefore, your view is that Pyongyang and Washington will be able to reduce the gap in the definition of denuclearization in the future?
Sung-Yoon Lee: No, because it’s too late. And you could say it was always very unlikely even before North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. But, had the U.S., and South Korea, and Japan, and China, and Russia, and the UN Security Council members not signed onto this bogus phrase ‘denuclearization of the Korean peninsula’ and had pushed North Korea back in the mid-2000s, “let’s make it explicitly, denuclearization of North Korea.”
If they had done that we may not be where we are today. But everyone played the game.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: White House