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Victor Cha on an emerging threat to the East: U.S. relations with the DPRK

Photograph of Victor ChaProfessor Victor D. Cha is the director of Asian Studies at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He also is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and served as Director for Asian Affairs at the White House's National Security Council from 2004 to 2007. Cha was America's Deputy Head of Delegation for the Six-Party Talks in Beijing and has written five books focused on North Korea and American-Asian relations, one of which was selected by Foreign Affairs as a best book of 2012 on the Asia-Pacific region. On December 1, 2016, he spoke with Bryn Miller CMC '19.

This is a particularly tense period of U.S.-DPRK relations following America’s sanctions on Pyongyang this summer for human rights violations and condemnation of nuclear tests in January and last month. In what ways will the latest nuclear test further escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula?

Yesterday, the U.N. Security Council passed a new resolution that strengthens the sanctions on North Korea in response to the September nuclear test. This is a spiral – the reaction just goes higher and higher up on the international stage. It’s likely that there will be some sort of North Korean response to the Security Council resolution. In the broader picture, there is country that is driving to develop a nuclear weapons capability that can reach the United States with a ballistic missile; that is destabilizing. It creates incentives for preemption on the part of the United States and a “use or lose” approach on the part of North Korea. Moreover, it leads to coercive bargaining incentives from North Korea if it feels it can deter the United States by holding cities hostage with nuclear inter-continental ballistic missiles. On a number of different fronts, the most recent nuclear tests make things less stable.

What are the primary motives for the North Korean regime in accelerating its nuclear and missile programs? What notable progress has North Korea made recently in these programs? 

The primary objective of regimes like this is regime survival. For some reason, Kim Jong-un’s government thinks survival is best ensured by having nuclear weapons capability. It’s really that simple. North Korea has essentially devoted all its national resources to this purpose, while trampling on the rights of its citizens. Nuclear weapons won’t make North Korea feel more secure, because in the end, the regime is insecure by its nature. Totalitarian regimes never feel secure, whether there is an external security threat or not. They seek out nuclear weapons in a search for security, but in the end it is the kind of regime itself that makes the leadership feel so insecure. 

What are the options available to the U.S. and its allies to respond to Pyongyang’s latest provocations? 

There are continuing sanctions by the U.N. and individual nations. There is missile defense cooperation between the U.S and Japan and the U.S and South Korea and there is a need for trilateral cooperation as well. The three countries also share intelligence, a process facilitated by a new agreement between Korea and Japan to share more information. In addition, all three are pressuring China to use its considerable leverage to get North Korea to stop producing nuclear weapons and to return to the negotiating table. 

THAAD launching

Can you talk about the controversy over the THAAD missile defense system on the peninsula?

The THAAD system is designed to protect U.S. troops stationed in Korea and Japan from North Korea’s ballistic missiles. There isn’t an area defense system on the Korean peninsula to stop North Korean ballistic missiles, so THAAD makes a lot of sense. The system has created a lot of difficulties with China, however, because China doesn’t like the United States and Korea significantly changing their military posture on the peninsula. That said, this is a national security decision by the United States and South Korea prompted by North Korea’s nuclear missile behavior. If China wants this to stop, it will have to stop North Korea from presenting a threat. At his moment, I expect it to be deployed.

What are the implications of America’s decision to implement sanctions on Pyongyang this summer due to human rights violations?

It was a very significant step, because this is the worst, longest-sustained human rights abuse in the modern era. Those sanctions were an acknowledgement that we cannot separate North Korea’s abuse of its own citizens from its nuclear threats. Many of the things that it does in terms of human rights abuses translate into revenues that are plowed back into development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. In that sense, security and human rights are really indivisible. The recent round of sanctions is essentially saying that.

In light of North Korea’s continuing progress in acquiring a full-fledged nuclear arsenal, should Washington reconsider its policy of “strategic patience”? 

The consensus is that strategic patience hasn’t worked. Its purpose was to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table under the pressure of sanctions, but North Korea hasn’t come back. Pyongyang is not interested in denuclearizing. In that sense, strategic patience has not succeeded. It will be incumbent upon the Trump administration to come up with a more effective policy. 

North Korea, among other states, has criticized the U.S. for condemning its nuclear program while actively modernizing its own program. How does the United States and its allies counter this criticism?

There are not a lot of states that have nuclear weapons in the international system. Only five are recognized, and all of them are members of the non-proliferation treaty regime. In the case of North Korea, it has developed nuclear weapons outside the non-proliferation treaty regime and outside of International Atomic Energy Association inspections. The notion that there should be relative equality and that everyone should have equal access to nuclear weapons is an argument that might work in a political theory class, but not in the real world. The United States, Britain, France and Russia have nuclear weapons, but they are eminently responsible and appreciate the dangers associated with harboring these weapons. A country like North Korea that treats its citizens incredibly poorly cannot be trusted to have respectful relations with any of its neighbors or the international system. The relativism argument just doesn’t work here.

After the failure of the Six-Party talks in 2013, how can the United States work with Beijing and other regional partners to contain the DPRK’s nuclear program?

The allies need to focus on missile defense, and it is incumbent upon China to take more responsibility to get North Korea to fulfill the commitments it made in the 2005 Six-Party joint statement. That is the only document in which North Korea has stated clearly that it will abandon all nuclear weapons and existing programs. China hosted those meetings, so it is its responsibility to bring North Korea back to that agreement.

How would Pyongyang test Donald Trump’s administration in the coming four years?

It is very likely that it will do another nuclear test as the Trump administration comes into office to try to establish a position of strength. The North Koreans will probably offer to have peace treaty talks, which some people might see a a softening of the North Korean position. However, it’s not really a softening. Their end goal is to have a peace treaty with the United States as a nuclear weapons state -- without giving up their weapons – which is not the agreement that was made in the September 2005 Six-Party statement. North Korea could try to advance along two tracks: provoke the U.S. but also try to offer an olive branch. 

Due to the statements Trump made during his campaign about China, do you think his efforts to counter North Korea with China’s assistance could be successful? 

In international relations, countries have to compartmentalize different aspects of their relationships. There will be aspects of the Trump administration’s relationship with China that will be quite complicated, particularly on the economic side; at the same time this North Korea issue is something that they both agree on. Beijing and Washington might not agree on currency manipulation, but both agree that there should not be nuclear weapons in North Korea. It will be up to both leaders to compartmentalize the issues where they disagree and cooperate where they must, like on the Korean peninsula.

Where would you place North Korea’s threat to America among the other threats Washington faces today?

This will become one of the top issues, if not the top issue, facing America. We know about other crises that were priorities in previous administrations. That’s not to say that they’re unimportant. In North Korea, however, we could see a step change in the caliber of the threat if it tests a missile capable of reaching the United States. That would fundamentally change the security picture for the United States in a way that should make this the top priority. 

Bryn Miller