President Trump and his advisers have taken a more and more threatening stance toward North Korea since January, and the isolated dictatorship has responded with threats of its own. Foreign-policy experts say a breaking point could be looming. Saturday marked the 105th anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, and the regime there commemorated the holiday with displays of military force — though, thankfully, not with a nuclear test, as many experts feared. Still, there is a sense of a collision course. Several days ago, the U.S. military moved a brigade of warships to the Korean Peninsula, as a show of force. Then on Friday, the North Korean government threatened to attack major American military bases in South Korea, saying it could destroy them almost instantly.
For a broader perspective on how Trump’s approach compares to what prior U.S. administrations have done, we spoke with George Lopez, professor emeritus at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, which is based at University of Notre Dame. He has advised the United Nations and various governments on North Korea and sanctions issues since 1992. Lopez also proposes a set of directions for getting out of this conflict — directions that favor diplomacy over military force. What American leaders fail to understand, he says, is that they can’t scare North Korea by threatening war.
How is the Trump administration’s approach to North Korea so far different from what past administrations have done?
A couple things come to mind. One is that if you accept the notion of many of the pundits, that this administration’s foreign policy tends to be reactionary to the events of the moment, Mr. Trump was in the unenviable position of being the earliest U.S. president to face a direct violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions — with North Korea’s recent missile tests. He had it dumped in his lap right away.
Some recent reports say this should not be a surprise, because Obama’s people told Trump’s top foreign-policy people this was their biggest worry. Obama seems to have told Trump in their one-on-one meeting that North Korea was going to be Trump’s biggest dilemma and that he needed a regional approach to it.
Second, this is a president who, unlike prior presidents, has really surrounded himself with current or former military people, and who prides himself on saying, “The era of the gloves being on and restraining our military is over. In order to make America great again, we’re going to flex our muscles and use the resources we have, instead of keeping our hands in our pockets.” Then this week, the administration used what many would call a prohibited weapon in the Afghan theater, and it has also launched these strikes on Syria.
The timing of both those seemed pointed.
I think it was not without some delight in the White House that there was a secondary messaging effect to North Korea. These actions went in conjunction with the U.S. moving a small Navy brigade to the Korean Peninsula, and also with Trump’s meeting and phone calls with the Chinese president, to signal that our patience is running out.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear who is the Asia expert most influential in the White House’s national security staff, and the last time I checked the State Department chart, we still didn’t have a fully staffed Bureau of Asian Affairs. Have we seen, in any pronouncement where he’s talked about North Korea, anybody other than Jared Kushner, the vice-president, H.R. McMaster, or James Mattis at his side? No.
That gives many of us pause, because he’s not getting enough information about the way North Korea sees the actions he’s taken. So we’re in a kind of fog of actions in search of a strategy and a policy. I think it’s part of this administration’s style to make some big decisions as they go along, as events and opportunities and constraints present themselves. The difference here is that you’re talking about the potential for war, and I don’t sense an understanding of the gravity of that.
What do you think the administration’s philosophy is, to the extent that it has one?
It’s a belief that we’ve been weak-minded in regard to North Korea, that we’ve been continually undermined by them, and we’re at least going to show strength of will. On one hand, on the campaign trail, the president said, “I think I could sit down directly with this guy, and in ten or 15 minutes, we’ll see how far we can get.” It was “Trump as the great negotiator.” But we didn’t hear any of that after the inauguration.
Instead, what we’ve gotten follows a different theme you heard on the campaign trail: “My administration isn’t going to tie the hands of the military. We are not going to back down from any threats from places like North Korea. We’re going to solve problems with or without the Chinese.” However, this seems to sideline Japan and South Korea — our two most critical allies. We have no idea whether or not, when the Japanese prime minister visited Mar-a-Lago, North Korea came up in conversation.
You’ll notice that a tendency of this administration is to say, before every visit from a foreign dignitary — whether it’s Angela Merkel, from Germany, or Xi Jinping, from China, or Shinzo Abe, from Japan — “There’s going to be a lot of serious talking about issues.” But then we’re told after the fact, “It was a good get-to-know-you meeting.” You don’t have the detailed agenda that was discussed at the meeting, or information on what joint task forces were set up by each nation to move ahead with problems that were to be mutually explored.
Ideally, what role would our allies in the region be playing?
Well, one strategy that a group of us have advocated over the last couple weeks is to say, “Military force is so crazy to think about, the next best option is financial bankruptcy and economic strangulation.” That is, if you want to take the gloves off, take the gloves off in the trading and financial sector. Take a lesson from the tightening of the noose around Iran, and go after commodities, go after general trade sectors. You absolutely implement the top five or six recommendations of the U.N. Panel of Experts, which would hold all states in the Asian region responsible for ending corresponding banking accounts with not only North Korean banks, but with the shadow companies they’ve set up in Malaysia and China and elsewhere.
China needs to get tighter with the financial actors within its country who continue to sustain unabated channels to illicit financing for North Korea. There are a series of draconian financial measures that then get the attention of the great young dictator, and you can say, “The next move is yours. Do we talk or not?” But what this administration has done is put us in an all-or-nothing bind. Either he blinks or we blink.
If I’m an adviser to Kim Jong-un right now, and I know I could be assassinated if I seem weak and counterproductive, I’m going to say, “Look, you were right. We should do a nuclear test. But you know what? A nuclear test might invite too much response from them. Let’s shoot off one of the missiles and see if they try to shoot it down.” So, if the notion in the White House is, “By god, we go it alone, we issue the ultimatums, we tell ’em we might go it alone, we put out the strike force” — and then the test goes on, and we get louder, and we wag our finger more, we show them that in fact we don’t have a policy in mind.
How does all this look from North Korea’s point of view? And what prompted them to threaten, on Friday, that they’d launch a military strike against U.S. military posts in South Korea?
This pushes us to an area of speculation. For a year, on the U.N. Panel of Experts, I had colleagues who spent 20 hours a day trying to dissect the North Korean leader’s mind. And that’s like being a baseball player: If you hit .333, if you get one out of every three guesses right, you’re a superstar. So I can’t pretend to fully know the way they look at the world.
But the issuing of the threat against South Korea is a smart approach that says, “Well, let’s talk militarily. You could knock out our nuclear sites, but you can’t knock out the 175 major artillery batteries we have, poised to shoot at the minute we detect that we’re being attacked — and those can knock out 80 percent of Seoul. So the blood will be on your hands if you choose to initiate an attack against our nuclear sites.” In other words, “You’re not the only people who can issue ultimatums, and you’re not the only people who have military deliverables that are supposed to make us quake and fear that we must change our behavior.”
So, is issuing the threat just a way of reminding us that they have these capabilities?
Yes. Absolutely. And in particular, reminding the South Koreans and everyone else in the neighborhood.
This regime has had an ideology, through three generations, that the war of liberation of South Korea will come when the United States oversteps its boundaries. And remember, they don’t have a peace treaty with the United States. If they were interested in peace, they would be proactive in coming back to the bargaining table and finishing off the armistice agreement from 1953.
This isn’t Syria. This isn’t Afghanistan. This is the point at which, if a U.S. missile crosses into North Korean territory, all bets on everything are off. It fits their worldview, that sooner or later, they will have to fire everything they have. That’s the only way the North could potentially survive an exchange.
So, as part of their long-term vision, they think a very violent standoff is inevitable?
I wouldn’t say inevitable, but they think it’s highly likely, which is why they’ve been preparing for it for more than 40 years. When they hear talk about a U.S. strike being imminent, their trigger fingers get tighter. So I think we need a U.S. policy that doesn’t put them in a position where their trigger fingers get nervous. You have to deal with the nuclear weapons and the missiles on their own terms, and you can’t use the potential for war against them as leverage.
Because they’re not afraid of it.
Yes! They’re ready for war.
Could you explain the holiday that was marked on Saturday, the Day of the Sun? There was some speculation that North Korea would honor the day with a nuclear test.
The seriousness of the holiday can’t be exaggerated. We have no equivalent in the United States — even at, let’s say, the 200th anniversary of our independence. This is a nation with a cult of the singular leader. You could even say, from a Western point of view, “Okay, for the 100th anniversary, I’d understand a big bang. But the 105th? That’s not really a big deal, is it?” Yes. Every anniversary of the birth of the founder of the great nation — who then gave us his prodigy, his son and his grandson, who are great rulers — is the ultimate big deal. And this particular leadership, under the grandson, has not only continued to cultivate himself as the most perfect of leaders, in the image of his grandfather, but he’s upped the ante for each and every anniversary, to demonstrate what they call the shogun mentality — which is, military first, pulling the entire nation to great development on the world stage.
They’ve said they could destroy the major American military bases in the U.S. “within minutes.” Do you think that’s true?
No, there’s nothing I’ve seen that shows they have the capability. Do they have the capability to hit our Navy’s strike force? They probably do. But I’d suggest that if North Korea launches an attack on the strike force, probably two or three missiles would hit. That’s what I think their capability level is.
You said several years ago that with co-operation from China, we could choke off the supply of materials North Korea would need to enrich uranium. Where does that proposal stand now?
The error of our ways from about 2006 to 2013 is that we thought, “Let’s choke off the materials that let them build centrifuges and the like.” When what we should have been doing, and we absolutely have to do as our last-ditch effort now, is, we have to end their access to money — in all forms. We have to end the access of Korean diplomats marching off with big duffle bags, pretending they’re off to go play golf in Poland, when what they’re really doing is carrying gold bars and loads of cash, which ultimately goes to fund the various services that run the missiles. And you do need China’s help for that. Right now, China is looking the other way.
This was the victory of the Iran sanctions: There was no outlet, any longer, for illicit activities. Not in Lebanon, not in Cyprus, not in any of the traditional areas. And that net became a noose and really shut off everything. We need that on North Korea. It’s possible to attain it, but you can only attain it with a large amount of co-operation from all the banking industries involved, and with a determination of what an 18-month plan will be. Once they cry financial “Uncle!” what are you proposing for them? Starve and die? Or are you proposing, “Now maybe we should reinvigorate the diplomatic discussions that were going on in the mid-2000s?”
Ultimately we’re looking for a full peace treaty that can be signed by all parties, including the United States. Some recognition of nonaggression against North Korea can be the great Western concession, in exchange for x — whether x is a complete stabilization of their weapons programs, with no more development, or something else. I think our days of being able to bargain for, or strangle for, denuclearization is over. If you’re Kim Jong-un, you’ve looked at Saddam, you’ve looked at Syria, you’ve looked at all these other examples, and said, “These poor dumb dictators. They were attacked because they didn’t have the weapon.”
Sure. If you were in his position you’d never give that up.
Of course not. Even if the president of the United States came off a plane, landed in Pyongyang, and kissed the ground, saying, “It’s great to be here. There’s peace between our nations” — there would be nothing in their experience or ideology that would lead them to believe that tomorrow they wouldn’t be attacked.
What do you think the odds are of China actually getting onboard and helping with that kind of plan?
I think China has been onboard in lots and lots of areas. It’s looking for a little more empathy in understanding how hard it is for them to police their own economy. But I think that consistent with the anti-corruption theme that’s going on in China, they could do this. At the same time, we don’t improve their leverage or influence on Pyongyang if Pyongyang continues to believe that we prefer the military option. Then they look at the Chinese and say, “You are a weak enabler. You will allow the peninsula to go up in flames, simply because you’re not willing to stand up to the United States and tell them the military is not an option.”
Now if you look at the reporting in the official Chinese press, they’ve been saying for the last week, “We’re trying to convince Mr. Trump the military is not an option here.” But they’re not getting any help from the Trump administration.
But financial sanctions would be part of a longer-term solution, and there’s a prospect right now of very imminent violence. What’s the best way out of this immediate situation?
The best way out is to tell the folks in command of the brigade of ships, “Keep your powder dry no matter what happens, unless you’re directly attacked.” Also for the United States to be preparing multiple statements, with our allies in the region, at the U.N. Security Council, and out of Mar-a-Lago, of what we’re going to say when a missile launch has occurred, or if a new nuclear test goes on. We’ve got to make sure our president doesn’t approach the microphone and says, “That’s the last straw. I’m taking actions in the next 48 hours, and they’ll never know what I’m going to do until I do it.” You can’t have that. In other words, someone needs to lasso him, quite frankly, and make sure we have a clearly articulated dynamic.
We think we can intimidate the North Korean leadership into keeping their powder dry. What we’re doing, more than anything else, is playing into their ongoing scenario of a likely, if not inevitable, confrontation with the West.
It seems like that’s the most fundamental error: to think we can scare them off with the threat of war.
Yeah. And if things really, really go badly here, people are going to be reading the history books, 25 years from now, and saying, “How could they not have known? How could they not have known these were North Korea’s thoughts?”
If you’re going to use as your calculus of success or failure, of an unarticulated policy, who blinks first, you’re on really, really shaky ground.