The ICAS Lectures


Freezing North Koreaís Nuclear Arsenal

Joel S. Wit.

ICAS Spring Symposium

May 17, 2016, 1:00 PM - 4:30 PM
Hart Office Office Building room 216
United States Senate
Washington, DC

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

Biographic sketch & Links: Joel S. Wit

Freezing North Koreaís Nuclear Arsenal

Joel S. Wit. *
Senior Fellow, US-Korea Institute SAIS
Johns Hopkins University

May 17, 2016

Alex Kim: Thank you Dr. Kim for this privilege to introduce the honorable Joel S. Wit. Mr. Wit, Senior Fellow at the US-Korea Institute at SAIS, and adjunct Senior Fellow at the Columbia Universityís Weatherhead Institute for East Asia, is an expert on Northeast Asia security and non-proliferation issues. He wrote the first national intelligence estimate on ballistic missile proliferation while on detail at the CIA. In 1993, Joel joined the staff of Ambassador Robert L Galucci that developed the US-North Korea agreed framework. Joel was a state department coordinator tasked with implementing the agreement, the formation of KEDO, and worked with North Korea on aspects of the agreed framework. Founder of the 38th North Website, Joel has written articles on North Korea and proliferation and co-authored Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis. He is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and in the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Senior Associate at the Henry L Simpson Center, and Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Joel S Wit


Joel Wit: Thank you. Iím not all of those things right now. I have been all of those things, but it would be quite an accomplishment for me to have all those positions at the moment. Anyway, Iím [unintelligible] at Columbia now. So thank you very much. Iím very happy to be here today. I suspect Iím going to inject into this conversation a somewhat different perspective than what youíve been listening to for most of the afternoon. My assigned topic is Freezing North Koreaís nuclear program, so Iím going to focus more on security issues. But I did want to say up front I was here a little bit before. I had a chance to come up here and I do recognize that human rights is an important issue that needs to be dealt with, and I think itís wrong to say that the Obama administration has ignored the human rightís issue in North Korea. It hasnít. Itís been very active in trying to focus attention on that issue. And for those of you who are familiar with whatever Iíve written, Iím not a big defender of the Obama administration at all. But nevertheless, I think we need to give credit where some credit is due.

So today Iím going to focus on the security issues, and particularly the nuclear program. Iím not going to start off with a lot of wonky, boring, technological facts. I want to step back for a minute and conduct an exercise in thinking about where we should go in the future with North Korea, but also thinking about why we failed in the past. One of the things that this gentleman didnít mention is that Iíve spent twenty years basically dealing with North Koreans. In the US government for a while, in think tanks, and now at CSIS. And of course weíre working on the issue of North Korea. I visited North Korea many times, including WMD facilities. Iíve worked with all sorts of North Koreans, particularly government officials of course. I still meet with North Koreans in Europe. And actually, one of our main interlocutors was just promoted to be Foreign Minister. So Iíve known him for twenty years. And Iíve also worked a lot with South Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, and others on dealing with this issue. I say all of this because what Iím about to say about the substance is informed by my experience with the North Koreans. Iím not an academic. I didnít start out life studying Korea. I started out actually working on US- Soviet arms control. On this particular issue, this may sound surprising to you, but I think now itís pretty clear that North Koreaís nuclear and missile programs are a threat, and theyíre growing. It may sound surprising because over the past few years, I think our attention to the issue has been spotty at best. And last year, actually, we did a long study for the whole year on North Koreaís nuclear future. We have a number of papers published on our website, 38 North, that look into the future to 2020. And everything thatís been happening over the past few months in North Koreaís programs is not surprising or shocking to anyone who studied this issue. All of these activities represent a continuation of a steady program to develop and deploy nuclear weapons, and to build bigger and better missiles.

As I said earlier, these all Ė all these programs have serious implications for our security. Everyone now understands that. For extended deterrence, for defending our allies on the Korean peninsula, for the effort to rebalance our foreign policy focus in Asia, for stability in the region, and of course thereís always the danger that these kinds of technologies are going to find their way into the hands of people we donít want it to find their way into in other regions. So the threat is real and itís nice that people are starting to recognize that. And indeed, I have to say that one of my big problems the past year is that I get really angry when analysts call the North Korean missile program fake. There have been guys who say itís a fake program, theyíre justÖ Itís a Potemkin village. I think now theyíll probably shut up.

So the next topic I want to address is why have we failed? Because itís not as if this program has materialized out of nowhere. I think certainly, since 2002, itís gathered a lot of momentum. But weíve known about whatís going on for a long time, certainly since the Reagan administration, and even earlier. Iíve seen satellite photos from the 1960s of the Yongbyon Nuclear facility, when it was just starting up. And this is North Koreaís main nuclear weapons facility. So there are all sorts of reasons why we failed. And I would say first of all a very big one is the North Koreans themselves. Theyíre not crazy and theyíre not irrational. They are tough and determined, and they know what their national interests are. And they understand the countries they have to deal with. And their goal is very clear. They see themselves as a small state surrounded by more powerful countries, and under those circumstances, they see nuclear weapons as guaranteeing their survival. But thereís another really big problem here, and itís one I find extremely frustrating, and thatís ourselves. We are a big problem. Figuring out what makes the North Koreans tick will help us figure out what to do about the problem. Thatís not of course easy, but I think we failed miserably on that front. And we see that failure reflected in all sorts of misconceptions about North Korea. Thereís this sort of comic book uninformed view that you find in media articles, that you find among elected officials, not the Congresswoman who was just here, but others. And even in US government officials. In that context, I think there are 5 myths about North Korea that help explain the mess we find ourselves in today.

The first myth is that North Koreaís leaders are crazy. You see that all the time in the media, maybe not so much anymore now that Kim Jong Un has been in power for a few years, but we heard the same thing about Kim Jong Il when he took over in 1994. Yet when people met him, they found him well informed, confident, rational, but of course also ruthless. Second myth, North Korea is a failed state. The idea that North Korea desperately needs economic assistance from the outside world and the only way for them to get it is to give up their nuclear weapons is wrong. Iíve been hearing that for at least the past decade, and obviously it hasnít proven to be true. Myth 3, North Korea is a hermit kingdom. Well yes, it may be isolated from the United States, so for us it is a hermit kingdom. But there are over 200 other countries in the world, and I bet you if you go to places in Africa or Southeast Asia, or other places, itís not a hermit kingdom. They have interactions with North Korea. Myth 4, and weíve all heard this a thousand times, Beijing will solve this problem for us. The idea that China can just snap its fingers and North Korea will do whatever it wants is just not true. That represents a fundamental misreading of any alliance relationships, not just that one but our alliance relationships too. We donít snap our fingers and our allies do what we want. It just doesnít happen that way. Myth 5, and thisíll be a particularly controversial statement I guess, that diplomacy canít work with North Korea. Iíve heard this more than a thousand times. Iíve been listening to this for twenty years. The North Koreans have tricked us into agreements that only serve their purposes, and the same argument of course has been raised with all sorts of other countries from the Soviet Union to the recent Iran deal, and even sometimes by the same people. Some of the same people who opposed the Iran deal were opposing Ronald Reaganís efforts to reach agreements with the Soviet Union. Itís true, some deals have failed, and itís certainly true they have cheated. But I stand by the view, and I can certainly defend it, that the agreed framework was in fact successful for as long as it lasted. And Iíll just give you one factoid. I was in government then. I was reading highly classified intelligence estimates. They were telling us North Korea, by the end of the 1990s, could produce 30 bombs a year. 30 bombs a year. And these were good estimates, because you could see their facilities. And they were large, and Iíve actually visited some of them since then. By the time we got to 2002, because of the agreement, they werenít producing nuclear weapons at 30 bombs a year. Indeed, they only had enough material for a handful of weapons. And people will say, well yeah they were cheating, they were trying to produce uranium. And we knew about it sure. But the fact is they havenít started producing any uranium until recently. And 2002 was over 10 years ago. So to me, that was a successful agreement, and Iím not saying we can replicate that particular agreement, because the situation is very different today. But diplomacy can work. So I guess the major first point I want to make is understanding what we are dealing with is the first step to formulating sensible policies. Basing policy on myths only increases the chances of failure.

The second major problem, and Iím sure this is going to be very controversial here, is magical thinking. What I call magical thinking about policy options, that builds on these myths and some other unrealistic thinking. We are formulating ideas about how we wish North Korea would be rather than understanding how it is. And I think Iím just paraphrasing, but Bill Perry, who was the Secretary of Defense, used to say. So to my mind, a prime example, or one prime example is the Obama administrationís policy towards North Korea over the past 7 years, which itís called strategic patience. And I think thatís been magical thinking. Itís based on flawed assumptions that we can further isolate an already isolated. That North Korea was weak. And by doing that, we can convince it to stop behaving badly. Well obviously that hasnít worked. Over the past 8 years, itís pretty much had the opposite effect. And I know North Koreans who will say to you, "we withstood everything you were trying to do to us over the past 8 years, and we came out okay." So in some ways itís emboldened them. Thereís another example, which I like to talk about, which is Ė this is going to be counter to some of the things youíve been hearing. It has to do with regime change and Korean reunification. I consider a lot of the discussion of that magical thinking. Itís unrealistic and unanalytical. Iím not saying I oppose Korean reunification. I think it would be great if it happened. Itís a nice vision. The authoritarian rule would end. So would the security threat, human rights violations. Weíd have a peaceful, probably democratic Korea. The peninsula would be a much better place than it is today. But what Iíd like to do is conduct a little bit of an exercise and ask you to step back for a moment and ask yourselves some difficult questions.

For example, if regime change is our objective, how do we achieve it. I know a number of experts keep talking about, over and over again for the past, I guess itís thirty years now, that North Korea is on the verge of collapse. Obviously, it hasnít happened. It could happen any day. Iím not saying it couldnít. But I think the bottom line is the regime is much more resilient than most people would give it credit for. Others have recommended that somehow we engineer regime change. How do we do that? When I teach courses, and a lot of mastersí students of course want government jobs, one of the things they have to learn is how do you write a policy memo. Two pages, memo to the Secretary of State, recommending a certain course of action. State your objective, means to achieve that objective. In all the years Iíve been doing this, Iíve never seen anyone in two pages say how they would engineer regime change in North Korea. I donít think that policy exists.

Letís take this a step further. Letís say Iím wrong. Letís say the regime does collapse, whether itís internally induced, whether itís externally induced. Would we be better off today than Ė would we be better off than we are today. Yes, it sounds like a strange question, but just think about it for a moment. Think about all the examples of regime that have occurred in the past decade for example. Werenít we saying regime change in Iraq and Libya would result in a better situation there? Theyíd be without authoritarian regimes led by crazy dictators. Are those countries better off today? Are we better off today because of regime change? I ask those questions because historical experiences with regime change should teach us that the outcome may not be better but worse. There are always unanticipated consequences to regime change. And in the case of North Korea, we may face a similar problem. The likelihood of unanticipated consequences. I and others up here go to lots of discussion around town about Korean reunification and of course everyone is very familiar with the reality that itís going to be very expensive. Usually, these discussions skip over the part about establishing security in a collapsed North Korea. So "itís going to be difficult, but itíll work. And then weíll move on to all these other things about rebuilding civil society." And we even heard earlier the Congresswoman comparing Korea to Germany. The German reunification experience and Korean reunification have a lot in common. I think in fact thereís very little in common between Germany and Korea. The East Germans pretty much welcomed being absorbed by the west, but the North Koreans arenít East Germans. I hate to say it, but thereís this view that all the North Koreans desire is freedom. I donít think thatís the case. The North Koreans have been subjected to a totalitarian regime for 50-60 years, that has convinced them that it is the right form of government and that in fact they are not going to welcome being absorbed by South Korea. I think thereís a good chance theyíll resist, that the soldiers will certainly resist. Thereís certainly a lot of stuff out there that says special operations troops, thatís what they do. And North Korea has tens, almost two hundred thousand of those guys. So thatís going to be a serious problem. Itís quite possible theyíd be a large scale insurgency in North Korea. All the ingredients are present, including the fact that the North Koreans have distributed weapons all around the country for precisely the purpose of fighting invaders. So rather than an easy reunification or a slightly reunification, you could have an insurgency that could drag on for quite a while. And the main impact of that is going to be on South Korea, and Iíve seen CIA estimates that say that the combination of the economic burden and the possibility of insurgency could destabilize South Korea.

I havenít even mentioned the weapons of mass destruction stockpiles in North Korea. So in that chaotic situation, youíre going to have large stockpiles of chemical weapons and growing stockpiles of nuclear weapons. So Iím just highlighting for you, Iím trying to bring the discussion of reunification back to what may be the reality of what could happen.

So what does all of this mean for the future, for US policy, for the next administrationís policy? Once again, this may seem counterintuitive, but I really think we need to get serious about dealing with this problem. Stop perpetuating these myths. Stop the magical thinking. And start thinking seriously about what our policy should be. To start with, let me lay out three general guidelines. First, once again this is going to seem counterintuitive, make this a foreign policy priority. Itís not. Itís not a foreign policy priority. It hasnít been a priority for the Obama administration. That may be strange. It seems strange given the idea of rebalancing to Asia, the importance of our alliances in Northeast Asia, nuclear security. But it hasnít been a priority and indeed it hasnít even been a priority in our discussion with the Chinese. There are a lot of senior level meetings with the Chinese. North Korea doesnít even come up. Other issues are out there. Theyíre important. I understand that. Like climate change, South China Sea. But North Korea isnít at the top of the list. Second general guideline, take domestic political risks to secure our national interests, as long as there are no security downsides. I canít tell you how many times Iíve heard that we canít pursue a strategic, an active strategy with North Korea to deal with the threat that includes also diplomacy because of domestic politics. No one wants to be attacked for pursuing that kind of approach. And third, I think this is the most important one, we need to think strategically and not tactically. Our current policy is totally reactive, and itís also based on unrealistic objectives without the means to achieve them. A case in point has been the idea of achieving denuclearization. People think that ratcheting up sanctions, that reinforcing our alliances will somehow lead to denuclearization. Itís not going to happen, I can tell you that right now and Iíll get into that in a minute. So we need to ask ourselves basic questions. What should be our objectives? How do we achieve them? What tools should we use? And in that context, we also need to better understand the situation in Pyongyang. So what would be the elements of a strategy? As I said a minute ago, thereís no disputing that one element should be to take every step we can to reassure our allies and to protect them from North Korea. No doubt whatsoever, including THADD or anything else that needs to be done. I donít think anyone, well there are probably people who would dispute that, but I certainly would not disagree with that. And they also send an important signal to North Korea. This is one component of a strategy. Second component is of course steps to increase pressure on North Korea, mainly sanctions. Sanctions we have are certainly stronger now because of the recent UN resolution, but still not so strong. I think the media overplayed how strong they really are, and in fact, the sanctions put the Chinese in the driverís seat because they have their hand on the spigot. They can enforce them or not enforce them. And believe me they are looking at us now and saying "what are you going to do for us now that weíve supported these sanctions" So the point here is yes, these measures are important. We should be doing them. But at the end of the day, as I said a minute ago, they are not in and of themselves going to result in North Korea stopping its nuclear weapons programs. And as a result, we are going to face a problem thatís going to get worse and worse and worse. I say the North Koreans arenít going to stop because for a North Korean, any sign of weakness, particularly since theyíre a small country facing off against more powerful enemies, they view it as regime suicide. They will never give in to outside pressure. And itís also magical thinking to think that somehow the Chinese can or even be willing to force the North Koreans to give in because the North Koreans arenít going to submit to Chinese pressure. And moreover as we all know, the Chinese have other interests. Theyíre not our ally. We having conflicting interests.

So this brings me to my last point, which is the only possible way to move forward and to have a chance of doing something about this is to combine all the measures Iíve talked about with some active pursuit of diplomatic solutions, including direct negotiations with the North Koreans because that will allow them a face saving off ramp from the current confrontation. And thatís where freeze comes in. And Iíll talk a little bit about that, but I also want to be clear I donít think a freeze is the endpoint we should be aiming for. I know everyone says theyíll never denuclearize. And people have been saying that for eight years. And of course, the situation has gotten worse and worse and worse over the eight years, so eight years ago there might have been a chance theyíd denuclearize. Now thereís much less of a chance. But we should always push for that objective. My main problem is that those who, and there have been a number of pieces written recently about a freeze, those who are pushing for it may also be engaging in magical thinking. We used to do this in the US government too. Weíd always have objectives, what we wanted to achieve in a negotiation. We never really thought much about what the North Koreans would want in return. And when we did, we always sort of minimized what we would give in return. I wrote lots of papers leading to the agreed framework about that. And I can tell you based on my recent contacts with North Koreans thereíll be a price to pay for even a freeze. For me, the key issue here is what do we think we can achieve by a freeze and of course what are we going to pay. I want to say up front, the days are long gone when we will achieve limits on North Koreaís WMD program by giving them humanitarian assistance or some energy assistance. Thatís just not going to happen anymore. The price has gone up because their program has gotten more and more advanced. And this has been increasingly clear since 2012, when the Leap Day Deal collapsed. The North Koreans are going to be looking for us to address what they say are their security concerns. We can dismiss them, but thatís what they believe. They think that the United States is a threat to North Korea. And youíve seen that in the proposals theyíve been making recently. The proposal for a moratorium on US-ROK joint exercises in return for a freeze on nuclear testing. Weíve seen that. Thatís popped up a lot in the past year. And even before the last year, it was part of the Track 2 discussion with North Korea, including with the now Foreign Minister, who brought up that issue a couple of years ago. In order to secure a full freeze, beyond nuclear testing, we need to go even further and engage in detailed negotiations on a peace declaration saying the Korean War is over and then on all the steps necessary to secure a peace regime. I think the North Koreans are willing to include their nuclear weapons program in that negotiation, and moreover, I think that while those talks are going on, itís quite possible they would freeze all of their nuclear activities and their missile activities. And Iím not saying we should trust them. Of course that would have to be verified.

All of this may just be a ploy by the North Koreans. Totally get it. Weíre not naÔve. But I would say itís at least worth exploring, particularly if we think a freeze and what might come afterwards serves our national interest. If North Korea stopped its nuclear weapons tests, would that prevent it from developing a nuclear warhead for its new ICBM? It might. They certainly can put a warhead on the Nodong, maybe the Taipodong, which they can stick on a launch pad and try and fire it at the United States, but I bet you thereís a 100% certainty it would never make it. But in the KNO8, which is a road-mobile ICBM, who knows. So in that context, freezing nuclear testing might make sense. Certainly freezing the production of physical nuclear material makes sense. Thereís some people who say "well who cares if they have five nuclear weapons, or fifty nuclear weapons." Well I think it makes a difference and we can discuss that more. And the issue is they might make even more than fifty. So does that serve our interests? And certainly if we can figure out a way of preventing them from developing new generations of missiles, including the ICBM, the KNO8, that serves our interests too. I can guarantee that the first time the North Koreans test the KNO8, it may not work. I think Rebeccahís right. Thereís going to be Ė itís going to have a big reaction to that. And itís going to create serious problems in the region and also in the United States. So we need to be thinking ahead about this stuff. And I understand the sensitivity about having a moratorium on exercises. We may not even need to have a moratorium on all exercises. There may be ways to deal with that. And of course we need to maintain readiness and we need to maintain deterrence. But weíve done it in the past. We did it with Team Spirit in the past. And itís quite possible that if there was enough to get in return, we could do it in the future. So Iím going to stop there.

Moderator: Thank you. David?

David Maxwell: Well thank you, Joel. You certainly have given us some provocative thoughts and a lot which I do agree with. Let me just make a couple points and ask you a question. First, I think if Ė you said the administration policy of strategic patience, I think if [unintelligible] or Danny Russel were here, theyíd say that they never called it strategic patience. But I think that is the best description for it.

Joel Wit: I think Secretary Clinton called it that.

David Maxwell: But I know that since [unintelligible] and Danny Russel both have said that is not the name of their policy. But like you, Iím not a defender of the administration, although I do agree with your point about human rights, in particular Ambassador Powers at the UN last December, she was Ė she made some very strong statements on human rights that I thought were very good. Iíve been very involved in [unintelligible] planning for the last thirty years, and Iíd to just say that one of the things from the military perspective, is we never predicted collapse. Our only problem is, if it happens, we believe it could be catastrophic. And therefore we must prepare for it. And I agree that there is a potential for an insurgency in North Korea that would make Iraq and Afghanistan pale in comparison. So your comments about their special operations forces, and just the indoctrinationÖ Adrian Busso in Guerilla DynastyÖ the basis for the legitimacy of their regime on anti-Japanese partisan warfare. So I agree with you and that will be a problem that we will face if there is a regime collapse. And it will be expensive andÖ blood and treasure on South Koreaís part would be enormous. But my Ė youíve debunked unification, youíve debunked the regime change, which I agree it is not for us to change the regime. And your point about our historical Ė the history of that is very well taken. But my thought exercise to you is if regime collapse does occurÖ Itís catastrophic, the regime ceases to exist. Thereís internal Civil War. Thereís resistance to outside forces. What do you envision as the outcome of that? And is there something other than unification that would occur? And again, my assumption is regime collapse, there is no longer the Korean Workerís Party able to control. What other than unification would you envision as an outcome?

Joel Wit: Thatís a great question. We have a project on this also at CSIS. I may be exaggerating but thereís this kind of view when people talk of, not you Dave, but when people talk about regime collapse, itís almost like one day the regime is there and the next day, all the government office buildings are empty and the military is nowhere to be found. Itís like a vacuum has all of a sudden occurred. And in fact that is not how it will occur. The regime may collapse. I mean if Kim Jong Un died one day, sure that would have an effect. But itís not going to disappear. You may have people stepping in saying they could take over for him. You may have different factions. You may have splits regionally. Thereís all sorts of different scenarios. And I canít predictÖ people like predicting. I totally agree, we should be planning for everything we can. And I donít know where thatíll lead. It could be an incredibly chaotic situation that will drag on for a long time and drain resources from the United States, from South Korea, maybe even China. And I donít know where that will lead honestly. I wish I could answer your question with some certainty. I donít want to sound like Iím Dr. Doom. I just want to inject into the discussion a measure of greater reality about where this might go.

Moderator: Joe?

Joseph Bosco: Thank you, Joel. You werenít kidding when you said you were going to be provocative and unconventional. Weíd need about three hours to take on many of the statements you just made. Iíll just take two. You quoted Bill Perry as saying that we should treat Ė look at North Korea as it is and how we would wish it. Would you also go along with Bill Perryís recommendation that we attack North Korea to get rid of their nuclear weapons? Thatís question one. The second one is, you mentioned at least half a dozen times that China doesnít have the power to influence North Korea or control it, and yet you criticize the Obama administration for not bringing up North Korea with China for the last several years. So which is it? Should we ask China to play a bigger role or not?

Joel Wit: On your first point, indeed I was part of an administration that was willing to attack North Korea and Bill Perry Ė I was just a little cog, but Bill Perry was Secretary of Defense. And we had a plan for a pre-emptive strike against the Yongbyon Nuclear Facility if they moved any spent fuel rods out of that. And I think that was the right thing to do. Secondly, not only did we have a plan to do that, but from the very beginning of 1994 to that spring, the US was very gradually ramping up its forces in Korea in preparation for a possible North Korean attack, because the North Koreans kept saying they were going to attack if we imposed sanctions, new sanctions on them. That was going on. General Luck, who I think is a great American, was right in the center of that. So I have no problem with doing all of that if itís part of a strategy. And it was in 1994. Secondly, on Chinaís role. Yes, it seems a little contradictory what Iím saying. I think what Iím trying to say is that we shouldnít think that somehow China is going to solve this problem for us. That doesnít mean we should just ignore them. We should be pushing them. We should be constantly pushing them. Basically what weíre trying to do is weíre in competition with the North Koreans to get the Chinese on our side. I donít know if either one of us are going to win, but in pushing the Chinese and also by reaching out and offering diplomatic initiatives, we might help nudge them in our direction. I entertain no illusion that they will one day wake up and say "we support the United States. This is ridiculous. We canít deal with the North Koreans anymore." Theyíre not going to do that.

Moderator: Peter?

[0:42:13] Peter Huessey: Thanks, Joel, for I think laying out questions that should be asked. I think the North Korean leaders areÖ I canít say what I think in public, but I donít think theyíre crazy, because they have objectives and as General Dunn, my former boss, has often said, they have objectives and they pursue them ruthlessly as you said. Is it a failed state? Well if your view is you should try to take care of your people and feed them and have the opportunity, then yeah I understand what your point there is. Itís not going to collapse tomorrow. Weíre not going to wake up and see them disappeared. China could help solve the problem if they wanted to, but they donít want to. So I agree that they wonít solve the problem. My question is Iím not quite sure if theyíre power is limited to what they think it is. Itís an interesting question and not easily thought of one way or another. Diplomacy: can North Korea be induced in one way or another, and that comes to my two points. One is a question to you. What are in fact North Koreaís strategic objectives? We hear a lot about, Senator Levin used to say this a lot, all theyíre interested in is regime survival. He said that about North Korea. He said that about the Sandinistas. He said that about Iran. And they want to deter us was the common phrase. This really gets me. No, no, no. When North Korea says they want to deter the United States, it means donít come to the aid of South Korea when we invade. Because as soon as you leave the peninsula and break your relationship as Doug Bandow wants you to do, weíll choose the time of invading and reunify by force. And theyíve said that. And deterrence is kind of turned on its head. Itís deterrence to stop us from preserving the freedom and peace of South Korea as if thatís somehow an illegitimate objective. But Iím willing to ask you what their strategic objectives are because maybe you donít think itís reunification by force. Maybe itís just the South Korean government collapses and they invite the North Korean clowns to come in and say "Okay, you set the whole thing up." Because I think youíve asked a very good question. I have a chart in my office. Korea is family to me. My Korean father was murdered by SOBs in North Korea, as well as the entire South Korean cabinet in Burma. Iím not quite sure what strategic objective they had expect for terrorism, but he was my Korean professor and my family host whom I lived with. And they murdered him. And I have a chart that has every North Korean attack, terrorism against the South since the end of the Korean War. Iíve listed them. Now on the other page, I have a list of the time the United States has used military force against North Korea in retaliation, whether the Pueblo, whether the Axe murders, or shooting the wife of the President of the country in church, President Parkís mother. And they have nothing on that side. And I hear all the time from Doug Bandow and I hear from others, the United States is a threat to North Korea. What threat? We want to go to the North Koreans? What are we going to invade tomorrow? Where are all the amphibious facilities of the marines and so forth? Are we going to invade through the DMZ? Weíre going to go through a fish barrel filled with land mines, where the North Koreans have, what, 17,000 whatever artillery tubes aimed right at the DMZ? 17 miles from Seoul? Weíre going to invade the country? Remember [unintelligible] Rock, who was head of the Center for Defense Information told me that the only reason American forces are in South Korea was to prevent the South Koreans from invading the North. And you know the Center for Defense Information. And this was a common refrain post-Vietnam during the 1970s when President Carter went to General Vessey, who was not Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he was head of the forces in Korea. He said if you support my withdrawal of forces from South Korea, Iíll make you Chief of Staff of the Army. And General Vessey said, "Youíve got to be kidding me. I value peace in Korea more than I do getting a fourth star." And when Ronald Reagan heard that was what Vessey said to the President of the United States, he said, "I want that guy as my Chairman of my Joint Chiefs of Staff because I want a General to be able to tell me no. That what Iím proposing is crazy." So Iím really intrigued by Ė I think I know what the North Koreanís strategic objectives are, but I may be wrong. Maybe they donít want to reunify the peninsula by force. Maybe they just want America to leave them alone and be nice, and then theyíll get rid of their nukes because theyíre about as much threatened by the United StatesÖ the analogy, the metaphor Iím trying to find somethingÖ. Itís like a mountain lion being threatened by a teacup Chihuahua. I say that because I have a teacup Chihuahua Iím taking care of, itís my daughterís. But itís crazy. The North is only being denied the ability to use its military force to attack South Korea. However, since 1953, we have not responded to a single North Korean terrorist attack or military provocation or killing of Americans or South Koreans or Japanese with the use of military force. Never. We maybe interdicted a ship in Yemen and then we let it go, but in terms, Iím trying to grasp this idea of I understand what the North says, but how is it that it is our fault of the Korean problem on that peninsula because weíre a threat to North Korea. Because if we get in the head of the North Koreans and adopt that on the negotiating table, as the North Koreans say all the time at every negotiation they claim to have made a concession, that is a you make a concession. Thatís the way they operate on us. The question is we then do make concessions and what do we get? We donít get anything in return.

Joel Wit: Okay well, just starting with the last point and then Iíll get to your other points. Thatís not the case in any negotiation Iíve been in. And quite frankly, the idea that people in the State Department are wimps in striped suits who make all these concessions is just not true. So weíll have to disagree on that one.

Peter Huessey: I never said we made concessions. Iím saying thatís what the North Koreans demand.

Joel Wit: They may demand but thatís what anyone demands in a negotiation. Thatís what a negotiation is. We demand concessions. They demand concessions. Hopefully we end up at a place where weíre both happy. It doesnít always happen. On your other pointsÖ

Peter Huessey: What is their objective that they want to strategicallyÖ

Joel Wit: Iím going there. So I take your point that from an American perspective, itís sometimes hard to understand why they would view us as a threat. I think they view us as a threat first because of history, the Korean war. Second, because they know that thereís an enormous disparity in terms of military, economic, and any other measurement of power between us and our allies and them. And so I think the combination of those two factors, whether we agree with it or not, theyíre not faking it. They do view us as a threat. Having said that, I donít agree with others who think that if we would only be nice to them, they would be nice to us. Thatís not true. Iím sure the North Koreans have other objectives, and I canít predict. But if tomorrow, just like in the case of regime collapse, US forces disappeared off the Korean peninsula, what would be the result? I donít know. The North Koreans, they may decide to go south. I just donít know. So Iím not saying that they have all these great intentions and if only we were nice, they would be nice back. They probably donít have great intentions and I think most of us understand that. Maybe not Doug Bandow, please donít put me with Doug Bandow, because I think that certainly from our perspective, if we engage in the kind of policy Iím talking about, the number one priority is that we maintain our alliance relationships. And someone will say, well gee the North Koreans, if you get into this peace treaty negotiation with them, the first thing theyíre going to demand is that all troops leave the peninsula. US troops leave the peninsula because thatís part of the nuclear threat to them. The North Koreans understand that if they make that demand, we walk out. Iíve had this discussion with them. They understand that. And so itís a very Ė itís a game ender. The negotiation is over. So the issue is whether itís possible to have this kind of discussion in a way that continues to maintain our alliance relationships as we move forward. Totally agree. We have to maintain those.

Joseph Bosco: It seems to me, Joel, you just made Peterís point. He said that North Korea sees us as a threat because we will defend South Korea against their aggression and then you said, no they have a reason for seeing us as a threat. Look at the Korean war. Thatís what happened. They invaded South Korea and we came to South Koreaís defense. So what the problem with North Korea is that they are an aggressive nation. Itís in the nature of their regime and thereís nothing we can do to assuage their concerns, to a lesser extent, you could say this about China as well, and Russia.

Joel Wit: Well you know thatísÖ I can see your point of view on that. But essentially what youíre saying is we might as well forget about dealing with this issue because the otherÖ Well Iím sorry but the other things weíre talking about like sanctions and military measures arenít going to solve the issue. Youíre not going to do it. I can predict that. I predicted that eight years ago when the Obama administration took a similar approach, with sanctions and whatever else it was doing. Itís not going to solve the problem.

Peter Huessey: I agree with you that we should defend South Korea. And youíre in favor of that. So youíre light years different than Doug Bandow.

Joel Wit: Thanks. [Laughs]

Moderator: Okay. Larry?

Larry Nikzch: Let me throw out a couple of other ideas about North Korean motives and get Joelís reaction. And then I want to ask Joel a specific question about his proposal for going into a negotiation of a peace agreement or peace treaty with North Korea. There have been periods when I do believe the North Koreans were worried about a possible US military move against them. I think during the 1993/94 period that Joel has referenced, when there was talk of bombing Yongbyon, I think there may well have been some real worry in Pyongyang. There certainly were signs of this kind of worry in Pyongyang too after the United States invaded Iraq. And there was talk that North Korea was next. You may remember Kim Jong Il dropped out of sight for several months right after the invasion of Iraq. So I think there have been periods. But I donít think this is constant, where the North Koreans constantly fear a US military pre-emptive strike or attack against them. What I think they fear more and view their nuclear weapons program as a guarantee against, is the fear of South Korea. The fear of political and economic influence getting into their state and their society from South Korea. And the nuclear program serves to solidify their concept of the closed state, a state which can maintain and even strengthen these barriers against this kind of influence from South Korea, and perhaps from the broader outside as well. The nuclear program solidifies the military state. What Kim Jong Il described as the military first policy of North Korea. At a time when North Koreaís conventional military capabilities were in a steep decline in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the nuclear program buttressed the military, buttressed the militaryís role in North Korea, and thus helped to solidify that kind of closed military state that North Korea is today. Part of the fear of South Korea, I think on North Koreaís part, is also how they respond to it, is their attitude that responding to it necessitates continually threatening, intimidating, and demeaning and diminishing South Korea. And their nuclear capabilities in their view give them a greater capacity to do that. And warheads on the Nodongs is the latest example of that. And itís no accident that this is their first real accomplishment in terms of a nuclear delivery system that can threaten South Korea with a massive nuclear attack. And then finally, as Ms. Heinrichs, in January the treasury department imposed sanctions against a high ranking Iranian military official. And the state departmentís justification for the sanctions against this guy included that he facilitated the dispatch in 2012 of Iranian nuclear experts to North Korea to assist North Korea in its program to develop long range missiles. Now the treasury department finally has admitted what the Obama administration has not wanted to talk about, as Ms. Heinrichs pointed out, this deep North Korean Ė Iranian collaboration, both in developing missiles and in developing nuclear warheads. And when the Iranians do send their technicians. When they do send their observers to the nuclear tests, and we know they have been at I think every one of their tests so far, they pay handsomely. And there are reports about them paying hundreds of millions of dollars to the North Koreans. So the nuclear program is a financial bonanza for the Kim Jong Un/Kim Jong Il regime. And thatís another motive behind this program. Now thereís a lot that Joel talked about that I agree with. His myths. The only thing I would add on Myth 5, diplomacy cannot work with North KoreaÖ And here Iím going to go after the State Department that our negotiators often blunder and make strategic and tactical errors in negotiations. Two handshake verbal agreements with North Koreans in October 2008 and February 2012? Do you think theyíre going to keep a handshake verbal agreement? These two guys, Chris Hill, and the other guy, I canít remember his name, they should get naivetť awards, frankly. The Bush administration made numerous concessions to the North Koreans, partly because of Chris Hillís advice, partly because of Condoleezza Rice. And it all turned against them in the end, coming out of that October 2012 blundered handshake agreement, which the North denied ever having made with Chris Hill. That was the humorous thing, frankly, the cynical humorous thing about it. But the five points are valid. The five points are very valid. I also think his points about making North Korea a greater priority, being willing to take some domestic political risk, which I think the Obama administration clearly has not wanted to do, and rethinking the goal of denuclearization, I think are quite valid. So my question about the peace agreement proposal that Joelís putting forward. Number one, are you advocating that we agree to a bilateral peace negotiation with North Korea? Secondly, how would we satisfy what would be a major dissatisfaction about that with South Korea if in fact thatís what youíre proposing. And could you go into a little bit more detail about how we would negotiate on the issue of US troops in a peace treaty negotiation with the North?

Moderator: Thank you Larry.

Joel Wit: These are all valid questions. And Iím going to amend my earlier remarks to you. I totally agree with Larry on the Leap Day Deal. I mean, thatís another myth. We have this myth here that the North Koreans, they walked away from that deal and they screwed things up. Well in fact, a handshake isnít worth anything, and thatís all we really had. I mean, if you were, most of you havenít worked in the State Department for 15 or 20 years, but youíd see that if an agreement is reached and each capital issues a different communique, which doesnít even have the same language, and thereís no single piece of paper that everyone signed off on, thereís something wrong. And thatís exactly what happened with that deal. It was negotiated very badly, youíre absolutely right. On the other questions you asked Larry, in terms of whatever this negotiation is for a peace declaration or a peace regime, it shouldnít be bilateral. It canít be the just the United States and North Korea. It certainly has to have South Korea and China may have to participate in parts of it as well. This is a very valid question you ask about major dissatisfaction in South Korea. Iím not sure how you would deal with that if it happened. And Iím certain it would happen actually, even though I think today in South Korea, youíre hearing many more voices talking about dissatisfaction with the current situation. And itís on all sides, conservative and the more moderate and the more liberal. Theyíre all unhappy with how things are going now. Whether you could harness that and say okay this is what we have to do, itís almost certain that thereíll still be dissatisfaction and indeed thereís always dissatisfaction. Thereíll always be dissatisfaction with whatever approach we take, whatever approach the United States takes. So I think I canít answer, Iím not answering your question directly. But I think itís an important issue. How do you deal with your ally if you enter into this discussion?

Larry Nikzch: South Koreaís participation is important though.

Joel Wit: Thatís very important. They canít be sitting outside the door waiting for you to come out and tell them whatís going on. Thatís absolutely a non-starter. Iím sorry I forgot your last question.

Larry Nikzch: Well any further thoughts you had about how exactly we would approach negotiating about US troopsÖ

Joel Wit: Oh, US Troops. Yeah, once again, thatís a good question. If you were engaged in a phased process, leading to a peace regime, that might also lead to denuclearization. If we want to look at the pot of gold over the rainbow, how would you do it in a phased process? Thatís important. And I donít have the answer for that either. The only answer that I have is that the alliance in one form or another has to continue. US troops have to stay on the peninsula until and including at the end. That sounds strange. Why would the North Koreans agree to that? Well if you played this out, what youíre essentially trying to do, and itís not easy, Iím not saying itís going to be simple, youíre engineering a different political environment on the peninsula where youíre moving away from tension to maybe less tense to even something like a sunshine like North/South relationship. In that context, I donít think the North Koreans would have problems with US troops remaining on the peninsula. That may sound naÔve, but in fact, in the past, depending on political relationships, theyíve said that officially. I wish I could think of the phasing and what we would do with ground forces and air forces. I havenít thought about that. So I think itís a valid question.

Moderator: Thanks, Joel. Peter, do you have any last comments?

Man 1: Peter [His name]. I didnít have a question but Iím a little confused. Your topic is freezing North Koreaís nuclear arsenal. But it looks like your answer is that it is not possible. But I understood that in recent events since January nuclear test and February missile test and so on, I thought US has finally woken up to deal with North Korean problem instead of going back and forth between pressure and negotiation and wasting time in that case. I thought we were in the right approach and suddenly you are telling me that we cannot accomplish anything. And as I have heard, Iím a little concerned about what you are saying.

Joel Wit: I didnít say either of those things. The first thing is that the US hasnít woken up. Thatís the first thing. To put it in a very simple, straightforward way, youíre not going to see a freeze under the Obama administration. Itís just not going to happenÖ No Iím saying first that itís not going to happen under the Obama administration. Secondly, if you thinkÖ I would tend to agree that a freeze is certainly a useful first step in dealing with the North Koreans. If you think that, then we have to get real about it. Itís not going to be easy to secure. The only way youíre going to secure it is by dealing with core security concerns on both sides, including theirs. Youíre not going to be able to give them 100,000 tons of food aid and theyíre going to freeze everything. Not going to happen. So itís worthwhile, but I think we have to be realistic about what it will take to secure that goal.

Moderator: Larry?

Man 2: Yes, that was fascinating what you had to say, thank you. Before I ask my question, if I could just clarify one thing. I thought I heard you say something, but I wasnít quite clear about it. I thought you said youíve been to North Korea a number of times. So I have a two- part question. The first part is how is that possible that you were able to go to North Korea and see what youíre seeing. Yeah we hear through the news all sorts of stories and warnings, so the fact that youíve been there itís confusing to me. The second part is Iíve definitely heard you say that youíve had discussion or talks with North Koreans in Europe. And my question there is if you could just bring this down to a personal level for a moment, because for the past 4 hours, weíve been discussing this at a governmental and policy level. So Iím just curious how do you start a conversation.

Joel Wit: Donít discuss politics. Thatís how you start a conversation. [Laughs]

Man 2: Well I mean over the past 4 hours, the word threat has been stated in this hundreds of times so Iím just curious what is it like for you personally to talk to North Koreans and then finally how does that mesh with everything thatís been talked about today?

Joel Wit: Okay. Those are very good questions. Iíve missed what has come before me, so Iím not sure I can answer the last one. Although Iíve been through many Washington discussions where itís very clear that people wouldnít know a North Korean if they tripped over one. Iím not saying thatís here, but I understand why youíre asking that. Howís it possible to go there? Well I was a US government official from 1993 until 2002 and during that time period, I went there many times because we had the agreed framework in place and we were working with North Koreans to implement the agreement. So I visited nuclear facilities, secret nuclear facilities, where the military wouldnít even let their foreign ministry in. They let an American in. We had Americans stationed in the Yongbyon nuclear facility, helping store spent fuel rods that had physical material for nuclear weapons in them. We had a lot of other activities inside North Korea that I was supposedly overseeing. Since I left government, Iíve been there three times, the latest in 2011 before Kim Jong Il died. In addition, weíve had discussions with North Koreans in various places around the world, most recent one in Europe. These are North Korean government officials, including the one who was just made Foreign Minister. So contrary to what the State Department keeps telling us, the participants in these meetings, they keep telling us these North Koreans donít count for anything, he counted for something obviously. Heís Foreign Minister. Heís also an alternate [unintelligible] So in terms of the personal level, itís a good question, because youíre trying to imagine what itís like doing business with a North Korean. The ones I know are sophisticated, speak English, understand the world, certainly understand the United States very well. This is not shocking. Some of the most sophisticated people in the Soviet Union were KGB people who knew the world. This will sound strange, but Iíve known some of these people for twenty years so we have a certain relationship. Weíve done business before. We know each other well. In that context, itís not so hard to have the kinds of conversations Iím talking about. There are things you donít discuss, which is of course their political system, their authoritarian regime. You can discuss human rights. Youíre not going to get anywhere, but you can discuss it. So itís not that complicated as long as youíre focused on substance. Then you can actually learn things and they learn things from us too. And you can think about different possible solutions. I donít know how it meshes with what went on today, I missed most of it. So sorry. Iím sorry, does that answer your question? You know itís not unlike people meeting the Soviets during the Cold War. I mean same thing, authoritarian regime. Whatís it like talking to these people? Lots of American scientists met with Soviets and established relationships and had discussions. Yeah Iím not surprised youíre shockedÖ I mean I donít want to sound naÔve or anything. But in order to court with the North Koreans, you have to understand them and of course you always keep in mind your own national interests as youíre doing that just as they keep in mind their national interest.

Man 3: Were we supposed to adjourn at 4:30 or 5, do I have time? [Laugh] You mentioned the Leap Day Agreement. The architect of that is Glen Davis. Now actually, I completely subscribe to your five myths about magical thinking etc. But todayís featured speaker Admiral Harry Harris, he made the observation that North Korea remains Americaís greatest security threat. Now that doesnít seem to jive with your first recommendation. The US government makes the foreign policy to pay more attention to North Korea. Iím sure he has different views about that. I think the fundamental issue is if the strategy objective of North Korea is indeed not just regime survival, but reunification, weíre really in bad shape here, donít you think?

Joel Wit: I donít disagree withÖ I didnít hear what the Admiral said but I could probably predict what he said. I donít disagree with the fact that they are a serious threat. Whether theyíre the greatest threat to the United States, I donít know. I think Russia is equal if not more. Thatís why of course we need to do all the other things I was talking about, the military steps to reassure our allies, to strengthen our alliances, the sanctions. When the North Koreans do something they shouldnít do, we should impose sanctions. All Iím saying is that if you have a strategy, those two things are necessary but not sufficient. And so what part of our strategy should be diplomacy too, to figure out if there are ways to lessen the threat coming diplomacy with these other measures. Of course in the United States nowadays, diplomacy is not seen as a useful thing to do, but my experience is that it can be productive under the right circumstances.

Moderator: Now without any further ado, please give Joel a big round of applause and the meeting is adjourned.




* Transcribed by David Lee, ICAS Intern

This page last updated August 23, 2016 jdb