Podcast Transcript for 'North Korea Goes Ballistic'

Missiles are displayed during a military parade to mark 100 years since the birth of the country's founder Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012. (Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)

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Ri Chun-hee: [Speaking Korean]

Eric Fish: That’s North Korea’s famously exuberant state television anchor Ri Chun-hee announcing the country’s successful nuclear detonation in September.

It was the largest explosion to date of five successful tests North Korea has run, and the report claimed the warhead was small and light enough to be mounted on a ballistic missile. The fear is that North Korea is quickly nearing its ultimate goal: an arsenal of nuclear missiles capable of hitting targets around the world…including the United States

Sung-hwan Kim: They are approaching final stage of completing the miniaturization and standardization of warheads, which means now they can easily load warheads into missiles.

Eric Fish: That’s Sung-hwan Kim, former South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He was speaking at an Asia Society event in New York. 

Sung-hwan Kim: That's why we are worried about that, and furthermore they express their will to use these weapons.

Eric Fish: North Korea has a history of exaggerating its military capabilities, but many experts think the danger today is real.

Chris Hill: I think we are in a different era, I think we're seeing a qualitative change in the crisis.

Eric Fish: That’s Chris Hill, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea who also headed the U.S. delegation in the Six Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. He was also speaking at the Asia Society event.

Chris Hill: You know in the past the North Koreans would fire off a missile or even have a nuclear test but you always had the impression of someone, some kid banging the spoon on the high chair and looking for recognition, looking for some kind of acknowledgment. It often happened when there were big events going on in the world and the North Koreans simply wanted attention. I think we're well beyond that at this point.

Eric Fish: Hill said that the speed and manner with which North Korea is developing its weapons systems signal that it’s not just out to make a statement or gain a bargaining chip.

Chris Hill: I don't see any of that with Kim Jong-un. I see a testing program that has no symbolism to it. So I think we're looking at a country that is really interested in developing a deliverable nuclear weapon.

Eric Fish: So how is the country known as the "Hermit Kingdom" managing to produce such sophisticated weapons? And is there anything that can be done about it?

John Park: As the international community has applied more and more sanctions on North Korea, North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities have gotten better.

Yun Sun: I think it’s quite obvious that the essential problem is between the U.S. and China.

Chung-in Moon: We see kind of game of chicken — no way out because there's no place for dialogue and negotiation.

Chris Hill: I think time is running out but I dispute the notion that we have to accept North Korea as a nuclear state.

Eric Fish: Today we’ll dive into the evolution of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missiles programs, and what its neighbors — and the world — can do about this growing threat. I’m Eric Fish and this is the Asia Society Podcast.


John Park: There is a fundamental puzzle right now, what we call the sanctions paradox.

Eric Fish: That’s John Park, an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and researcher at MIT with a focus on North Korean sanctions. He was speaking at Asia Society in Hong Kong.

John Park: As the international community, as the United States, as other countries have applied more and more sanctions on North Korea, North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities have gotten better. Now that is an inconvenient fact if you're a policymaker in Washington because frankly financial sanctions and other targeted sanctions are the only foreign policy tool that you have left.

Eric Fish: For years, the standard response by the United Nations and the United States to North Korean weapons testing has been more sanctions. These include punitive economic sanctions, but more importantly, sanctions aimed at stopping North Korea from ever getting the materials and technology to produce weapons. But Park said this has largely been a failure. He cited North Korean missile debris that was recovered at sea by the South Korean navy after a failed test in 2012.

John Park: What was a shock was that the technological, the technical components were sourced back to Germany, to the U.K., to the United States, Japan, China, so the question how did North Korea get these sophisticated items that frankly the international community through sanctions and other suppliers groups and other export regimes were supposed to block?

Eric Fish: Park thinks he knows the answer. He pointed to a Chinese delegation to North Korea in 2009 headed by then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, which included several other senior officials.

John Park: This is the highest-level delegation China has sent abroad and the fact that they went to North Korea in 2009 was largely interpreted with this — communist allies getting back together. Now if you look at the propaganda, certainly it has those connotations. But what was missed is the agreements that were signed. They were under the very innocuous sounding headings of economic development, tourism, and education. The significance is that in China, the message from the senior party leadership to all of their business interests was that it's legal to do business with North Korean entities. So they essentially opened up their market to the North Koreans.

Eric Fish: Since that visit, trade volume between North Korea and China has nearly tripled.

John Park: What we're seeing here is the train leaving the station. The amount of trade that has happened is hard to dial back and to the point where the reliance of the North Koreans on the Chinese has increased even more. 

Eric Fish: Boosted trade with China has coincided with more opportunities to procure weapons materials. Park described how North Korean state trading company managers go through Chinese middlemen to acquire dual-use technology from Chinese and other foreign private companies.

John Park: North Korea's been procuring for a while, so that's not the shocker. What's the shocker is how they're getting better. Before, the way they did procurement, North Korean state trading company manager would go on the equivalent of a business trip, procure the item, come back to North Korea. But what we're seeing now is essentially expats. If you think of the 1 percent elites in North Korea, the way they live abroad, they look a lot like expats and they act like expats. Their children go to local international schools and so forth.

Eric Fish: He noted that in some ways, tougher sanctions have been counterproductive, and even made procuring materials for North Korea more attractive to Chinese businesses since they’ve been able to leverage the greater risk for higher payment.

John Park: First and foremost, the increasing application of sanctions as it relates to denial strategies have led to the strengthening of North Korean capabilities. Now that's counterintuitive but what we're able to piece together is almost an organism that is evolving as you trigger in terms of more sanctions. And even if you get it right, the North Korean regime is very good at figuring out new ways to do things because it’s a function of survival as opposed to luxury.

Eric Fish: You might expect China to crack down harder on North Korea. The nuclear threat has already pushed South Korea to install the American Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system, or THAAD. That system could also knock down Chinese missiles and undermine its nuclear deterrent. And the North Korean threat is also providing traction for Japanese leaders arguing for a greater military buildup — something China dreads. At the same time, though, China has strategic incentives to maintain the political status quo in North Korea and keep trade booming, even if that comes with nuclear proliferation. One worry is the possibility of refugees flooding over the border into China if the North Korean government collapses. Another is the possibility of a reunified Korea allied with the United States.

Yun Sun: If there is going to be a collapse of North Korea and unification of the Korean peninsula, China's most immediate reaction is well there will be U.S. troops on our border.

Eric Fish: That’s Yun Sun, a senior associate at the Stimson Center who focuses on U.S.-China relations and China’s security policies, also speaking at Asia Society in New York.

Yun Sun: So without providing China an endgame that China can aspire to, China's not going to cooperate with us on North Korea. They acknowledge that North Korea's nuclear development is a problem, but it's not the top problem for China because that privilege is reserved for the United States.

Chris Hill: One of the things that worry me about China is there seems to be a kind of lack of consensus within China about what to do about North Korea.

Eric Fish: That’s Ambassador Chris Hill again.

Chris Hill: I mean you talk to the business community in Shanghai — they don't even want to hear the name North Korea, throw them under the bus, get rid of them, hold your ears, you don't want to deal with them. But you hear security service people in Beijing with a somewhat different view. And I think China needs to understand this is a top quality issue that they need to deal with and we need to understand that, yes we want China to improve its human rights, yes we want China to improve its protection of intellectual property, we want them to do a million things frankly, and don't forget the South China Sea, but you know, preventing that little neighbor of theirs from going nuclear should be number one in my view.

Eric Fish: In recent years, North Korea has appeared less and less concerned with keeping China happy as it has repeatedly defied warnings to denuclearize. Its latest nuclear test reportedly wasn’t announced to Beijing beforehand. And in September, North Korea even launched ballistic missiles tests as China was hosting world leaders at the G20 Summit in Hangzhou. China’s diminishing patience with these actions has shown. Chinese President Xi Jinping has met with South Korea’s president numerous times but has yet to meet with North Korea’s leader or invite him to visit China. That invitation was offered repeatedly to his father and grandfather. Some high-level leaders in China’s government and military have even signaled privately that the idea of letting North Korea collapse is becoming more palatable. One retired Chinese general went so far as to publish a commentary in a national newspaper asserting that China would not rescue North Korea in the event of war or collapse. But for now, China continues to prop up of the North Korean economy.

Chris Hill: You know in the U.S. press we always say, well China is worried about North Korean refugees. Probably, but they're also worried about a lot of things if North Korea were to go down. They would worry that it might be perceived as U.S. victory, a Chinese defeat. They worry it would somehow look like China has bet on the wrong horse, that is North Korea, this would open an intellectual debate in China. 

Eric Fish: Sung-hwan Kim says that this tacit acceptance of a nuclear North Korea may be more dangerous than many in China realize.

Sung-hwan Kim: When I see my Chinese friends, I’m always telling them, you think North Koreans will not use their arms and arsenals toward China, that's not the case. They can easily change their gunpoint. Inside their minds the one who can threaten their regime survival is not the U.S., it's China.

Yun Sun: There is that possibility that it could use its nuclear weapons in China and then naturally the Chinese will have the concern, if we put more pressure on North Korea, we really push Pyongyang into a corner. Then that will generate even more momentum for North Korea to use their weapons in China. So what is the incentive for China to do that?

Eric Fish: In 2004, a high level North Korean official close to Kim Jong-Il defected to the South. In a later memoir, he claimed that the country Kim hated most wasn’t the United States or South Korea, but China. This, he said, was because China’s economic reforms, globalization, and embrace of South Korean business represented a betrayal. And more importantly, it represented an alternative to Kim’s absolute power that North Koreans could find appealing. This resentment was allegedly solidified after Chinese leaders took Kim on a series of inspection tours to successful economic zones in China with the hint that he too could adopt a reform and opening up policy for North Korea. If true, this is clearly something neither he nor his son and successor have shown any interest in. Chris Hill mentioned one suggestion that’s been floated to ease Chinese leaders’ fears of collapse and a reunified peninsula controlled by the South. It would entail the U.S. making a deal with China, that if such a scenario occurred, it would keep its military below the 38th parallel — the current border between the two Koreas — or just remove its troops from the peninsula altogether.

Chris Hill: First of all I think it's important to understand that the U.S. will not and cannot sit with the Chinese and say, we'll never put U.S. troops north of the 38th parallel. ROK, Republic of Korea, sovereign country, we don't want to be put in a position of sort of negotiating over the heads quite literally of the ROK. What the ROK wants to do with U.S. troops, will they want us to remain? If they do, what kind of troops? Where will they be? That's a decision that the U.S. and ROK need to make in the context of our alliance. I am sure that if the Chinese have some views on that, the ROK would be and we would be interested in talking to the Chinese, but if I were the ROK, my slogan would be nothing about us without us.

Yun Sun: Well here's China's response. Let’s say hypothetically China is asked this question if you have some grievances, you have demands, you need to speak it out. Chinese reaction, because I ask Chinese officials this exact question and their reaction is, well we don't want to change the status quo. You want to change the status quo. South Korea wants unification, so you need to propose something that's acceptable to us. We're not going to come up with the prize or a bargaining position for you to negotiate with.

Eric Fish: Failure to get this sort of negotiation going may be part of why China's leadership continues to prop up North Korea’s economy, and thus, its political system, through trade. As John Park explains, this seems to be the least bad option for China at present.

John Park: North Korea by economic analysis in the late 1990s consensus was that this is a failed state. But what we're looking at now is this notion of a revival that really began in the early 2000s. The Chinese have been rebuilding the Worker's Party of Korea with the hope that it has an institutional partner as the years go by. As North Korea rises in terms of its recent security risk and some of the other aspects of difficulties, there's a certain sense of confidence among the Chinese leadership that they have more tools to apply to this problem. Now, it is still a headache, there is a lot of animosity, a lot of distrust, but from a risk management perspective, there's a sense that they can handle it to a certain extent. But what they can't handle is a North Korean regime that is gone — a power vacuum and the uncertainty of what would come after that.

Eric Fish: And there is a lot of uncertainty. Chung-in Moon is South Korea’s former ambassador for International Security Affairs. He says that regardless of what China does, there’s no clear path leading toward regime collapse or any sort of desirable post-collapse transition thereafter.

Chung-in Moon: Our problem with North Korea comes from our underestimation of North Korean capability. Kim Jong-un's political entrepreneurship, North Korea's military capability. We thought that if we impose sanctions on North Korea, North Korea would stop developing nuclear weapons and missiles, but despite our sanctions they have gone into much better position. That's a real problem. We all expected North Korea would collapse very soon, but a lot of North Korean experts, particularly in South Korea, argue that North Korea will not collapse. Even if Kim Jong-un’s regime collapses, then the military can move in or part military collective leadership can move in. Therefore there won't be any collapse of a sovereign state called the DPRK. That's a real problem. In other words, we don’t know. North Korea is like a black box. There has been some kinds of intelligence failure on North Korea and also we have been doing so much wishful thinking on North Korea that North Korea would collapse soon. That has really changed our terms of negotiation with North Korea, which made the situation worse and worse. Therefore my position is this: let us face reality.

Eric Fish: Moon added that a solution might be some mix of pressure and dialogue with North Korea, with the pressure aimed at getting North Korea back to the negotiating table rather than forcing collapse. Chris Hill agreed that regime change isn't realistic

Chris Hill: I think the durability of state structure in North Korea may be much greater than we know and I don’t think we know enough about North Korea. I have never been one to call for regime change. It would not be a bad day if we woke up and found they had regime change, I mean I have no problem with it except I don't think a strategy should be based on hope.

Eric Fish: But at the end of the day, it’s possible that even if North Korea comes back to the table, no amount of dialogue will persuade it to denuclearize voluntarily. The country has been interested in acquiring nuclear weapons since the Korean War — an interest that heightened as socialism began to collapse around the world in 1989, leaving North Korea with a dearth of allies. But in 2002, a very clear and present threat emerged.

George W. Bush: North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction while starving its citizens.

Eric Fish: That’s then-U.S. President George W. Bush speaking at his 2002 State of the Union address four months after the September 11th terrorist attacks. In his speech, he grouped North Korea with Iran and Iraq under what would become a highly controversial label.

George W. Bush: States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an Axis of Evil arming to threaten the peace of the world by seeking weapons of mass destruction.

Eric Fish: The following year, the United States invaded Iraq and toppled the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, suggesting that the so-called Axis of Evil wasn’t just rhetoric. It gave North Korea perhaps its most compelling reason yet to develop a nuclear deterrent. But Chris Hill and Sun Yun say the North Korean lust for nukes goes beyond simple insecurity.

Chris Hill: The problem is North Korea is not prepared to do away with their nuclear weapons and they say this is part of their national identity to have nuclear weapons. And that's where we just part company, we can't agree with that.

Yun Sun: I agree that's the fallacy of the Chinese argument to begin with. They argue that North Korea wants to develop nuclear weapons because they feel insecure, but in fact, there are plenty of other domestic political reasons to do that.

Chris Hill: You know people used to say Hitler was insecure and that’s why he attacked half the world. I mean everybody has psychological trauma, but that cannot be the basis on which we have an agreement.

Eric Fish: Even though armed conflict in the Korean War ended in 1953, the war never really ended for the North. It’s kept its populace in a state of constant war readiness, stressing that the threat of American and South Korean aggression is ever present. This distraction helps justify the constraints and sacrifices forced upon the North Korean people and offers a scapegoat for problems they encounter. It also justifies the “military first” policy that directs massive resources toward the army, which also secures its loyalty to Kim Jong-un and ensures his ability to suppress any domestic challenges to his authority. So the constant state of war has become central to North Korean identity, and the idea that nuclear weapons are needed further legitimizes the gravity of the threat. Nuclear weapons also project an aura of strength on Kim Jong-un and suggest that he’s made North Korea a serious player on the world stage. Some have pointed to Iran as a possible model for dealing with North Korea. Last year, the country that was once part of the so-called Axis of Evil struck a deal with the United States and U.N. Security Council to end its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. We talked about this in a previous podcast called “Iran’s Political Midlife Crisis.” But Chung-in Moon notes that this model probably wouldn’t work with North Korea.

Chung-in Moon: There's a qualitative difference between North Korea and Iran. Iran does not have a nuclear bomb, North Korea has a nuclear bomb. That’s a fundamental difference. Iran is still a pluralistic society, no matter how limited. North Korea is a really totalitarian regime. It’s a fundamental difference but the lesson we can learn from Iranian case is American leadership commitment. If John Kerry can spend 10 to 15 days in Geneva dealing with Iranians, it can make a big difference. American leadership commitment is the most important lesson we can learn from the Iranian experience.

Eric Fish: Chris Hill believes such diplomacy is probably better off directed toward China than North Korea.

Chris Hill: I think we have to have a much more consequential discussion about whether there are technical things that could be done to slow down the development of this program. The key here is building some trust and building some patterns of cooperation with China. It is not enough to say China needs to solve this, they created this little monster, they need to take care of it. That's not going to get us very far. And by the way, that's bad enough but when you hear the Chinese say we need to solve it by canceling our exercises with South Korea or whatever, that's not going to solve it either.

Eric Fish: One new approach the United States has tried is secondary sanctions targeting individual entities that do illicit business with North Korea. In September, the U.S. sanctioned a Chinese firm, Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Co., for allegedly helping North Korea launder money for its nuclear program. The Justice Department even issued criminal indictments against several officials at the company, including its CEO. China responded by saying that it was willing to cooperate in such cases, but it was angered by how the U.S. went about it. Here’s a Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman, via Arirang News.

MOFA Official: I want to stress that we oppose any country enacting so-called long-armed jurisdiction using its own domestic laws against a Chinese entity or individual. We have already communicated this position to the U.S. side.

Eric Fish: The U.S. approach was welcomed by many analysts, and by South Korea. John Park agreed that going after individual entities is a good start, but he says be sure to listen to China’s concerns.

John Park: I think you can frame it as sanitizing trade. The Chinese effort to sanitize their trade with North Korea. It's very nuanced. It's not cutting off the trade, but sanitizing that small percentage that is illicit. Rather than advocating the Chinese develop a whole new bureaucracy, a whole new effort to go after this, they already have a very vibrant anti-corruption campaign. What we know of the Chinese partners in these partnerships with North Korean state trading company managers is that they're usually tied with local party officials who in some instances are corrupt. If you can redirect some of this existing bureaucracy to this initiative of disrupting upstream the North Korean state trading company-private Chinese company relationship, that disruption we argue would have a disproportionately large impact in terms of North Korea’s procurement capabilities.

Eric Fish: He said that China could also make high-profile examples of those found to be dealing illicitly with North Korea. It could also take a harder line on diplomats found to be abusing their position. Vietnam set a precedent like this earlier this year when it expelled a North Korean diplomat found to be engaged in the arms trade.

John Park: That's a very important precedent. If you're able to do that more, it's a very small number of operators in terms of North Korean state company managers, this ability to upstream disrupt these procurement activities I think can be tested in more detail. The thing that binds this all together is this puzzle: How are North Korean managers able to live many years abroad? In many instances what we're finding is that they’re dual-hatted as diplomats. They present diplomatic credentials and they use embassies and consulates for a lot of their commercial activities as well.

Eric Fish: But as Chris Hill and Yun Sun again point out, virtually every idea or policy is contingent on political consensus among parties within China that often have very different interests on a range of issues, of which North Korea is just one of many.

Chris Hill: I think it's a lack of will but also a lack of consensus and I think China needs to show internal leadership on this issue. And I guess if you're in the Chinese leadership and you look at all your problems, maybe North Korea's not number one, but I think the Chinese leadership needs to understand that when we look at China and its inability to develop consensus, we see kind of weakness, which is not helpful. I've always taken the view that our concern is a weak China rather than a strong China.

Yun Sun: With China's frustration it has been much more significant than before, but whether that frustration outweighs to the strategic detriment about the utility of North Korea, that's a very different question.

Eric Fish: That’s all for today. If you want to hear more episodes you can go to asiasociety.org/podcast or subscribe on iTunes. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter @AsiaSociety. Our music is by Thiri Maung Maung and his ensemble Shwe Man Thabin Zapway. They were performing live at Asia Society New York as part of a season of Myanmar. I’m Eric Fish and we’ll see you next time on the Asia Society podcast.

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