Q: President Donald Trump put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation that allows the United States to impose more sanctions and risks inflaming tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. How could Trump‘s policy affect China‘s and Russia‘s ties to Pyongyang? What effect will this have on North Korea?
A: The Trump administration’s policy has already had a severe impact on Russian and Chinese relations with North Korea, and this latest measure only deepens the freeze. It didn’t have to be this way, as both Russia and China sought regional economic integration with North Korea. Russia had signed a deal with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to modernize its rail system, in exchange for access to mineral resources. There was also the Rajin-Khasan Railway project, which would have benefited North and South Korea, as well as Russia and China. For its part, China had been expanding joint economic projects with North Korea, which also would have led to increased economic integration.
Imagine how different the situation would look today, had the Trump administration chosen to support Russia’s and China’s efforts. Instead, Washington’s harsh rhetoric and punitive actions prompted North Korea to fast-track its missile and nuclear weapons program. That, in turn, has provided Trump with the pretext for further ramping up tensions.
The immediate effect on North Korea of being designated a state sponsor of terrorism is somewhat limited, in that the nation is already facing draconian sanctions. However, the inclusion of Chinese companies in the sanctions can be considered a shot across China’s bow. It is a message to China that it can either cooperate with the U.S. on increasing pressure on North Korea or face economic punishment through more sanctions on Chinese firms. Trump has also announced that the terror designation is only the opening step in a series of further actions he intends to take against North Korea.
Q: From a Japanese perspective this was very welcomed. For Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the fear of being attacked by a North Korean rocket is a convenient one. The people´s minds are in favor of Abe and his attempt to change the constitution that allows Japan to engage in a war and invest in the military. What is to your understanding of the Japanese role in the conflict?
A: Because Trump and Abe are of like mind when it comes to North Korea, Abe is in effect playing the role of echo chamber for Trump, validating the latter’s thoughts and plans. No doubt, it is for this reason that Trump communicates with Abe on the subject far more often than he does with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. At a time when it is vital that Trump take into account dissenting viewpoints and consider the complexities of the situation, the relationship with Abe is instead encouraging Trump’s conviction that he has little or nothing to learn from those who may differ with him.
It has long been Washington’s goal, predating Trump, for Japan to change its constitution so that it could directly support U.S. military operations. The Trump administration is pushing hard to establish a U.S.-Japan-South Korea military alliance that would not only confront North Korea but also serve as a sort of Asia-Pacific counterpart to NATO. That coalition could act as one in any military adventures the U.S. chooses to launch in future years.
Q: This decision was made when a high-level envoy from Beijing returned from Pyongyang. Officially, the Chinese visit to the neighboring country was made in conjunction with the 19th party congress, which manifested Xi Jinping‘s second five-year term. But without publicly being said it looked according to the press as an effort from China to reestablish or reconfirm ties with Pyongyang and discuss the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula. What is your understanding of Chinese-North Korean relations? What kind of leverage does China have on North Korea today?
A: China and North Korea are not commenting on the content of those talks, so one can only speculate as to their exact nature. I would like to think that Chinese envoy Song Tao’s visit to Pyongyang aimed to improve relations and engage in discussions on the basis of mutual respect on how to find a way out of the impasse that the U.S. has imposed. But I suspect it is more likely that the visit was driven by China’s wish to avoid Washington’s wrath and that the message was for North Korea not to do anything to embolden Trump further and to consider giving into his demands.
China’s primary goals are peace on the Korean Peninsula and to maintain good economic relations with the United States, a significant trade partner. It views Washington’s reaction to North Korea’s nuclear program as a potential threat to both of those goals. Since it is not possible to influence U.S. behavior in a significant way, Chinese officials have continually attempted to dissuade North Korea from pursuing its nuclear program, and this has placed a strain on relations.
The widespread view in the U.S. that China can and does have leverage over North Korea is based on a profound misunderstanding. The most salient aspect of the DPRK’s political philosophy is pride in its independence and the determination to choose its path. No one is going to be able to dictate what it should do.
Ironically, if anything, the UN sanctions that have sharply curtailed economic ties between China and North Korea have only reduced what little influence China may have had.
Q: During the last vote on sanctions against North Korea, China and Russia used their rights for a veto. They feared that sanctions against North Korea would cause a humanitarian disaster. Does the Western world fail to interpret the real domestic situation in North Korea when they decide to use sanctions as a tool to pressure the leadership?
A: On the contrary, not only does the United States take into account the economic harm sanctions can cause, it is counting on that. The aim of sanctions is to inflict collective punishment on a nation’s entire population. The same was true of any of the sanctions campaigns the U.S. waged against other countries in the past. In effect, it is war by non-military means, and humanitarian considerations don’t factor.
China and Russia have voted in favor of all UN sanctions against North Korea that the United States has submitted, but their veto capability allowed them to negotiate a reduction in the severity of sanctions. Even so, the final versions of UN sanctions as passed have been quite extreme.
Q: The South Korean president said his goal is to reestablish diplomatic channels with Pyongyang. How can this be achieved? What has been done so far? Are those attempts undermined by the U.S.?
A: Moon Jae-in was elected in part because of his vow to improve relations with North Korea. After taking office, he has mostly backtracked on those pledges. Moon has voiced strong support for Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” on North Korea and remarked favorably on Trump’s belligerent rhetoric. He has also repeatedly said that now is not the time for dialogue with North Korea.
Moon has limited himself to proposing talks with North Korea on relatively minor matters, such as resuming meetings of divided families and reestablishing military and government hotlines. The North Koreans have rejected those proposals, accusing Moon of insincerity, due to his advocacy for increasing sanctions and building up military pressure.
I see no prospect of Moon achieving any progress on reestablishing diplomatic channels with North Korea as long as he continues to offer total support to Trump’s reckless policy. As to why Moon’s position has shifted so dramatically after taking office, one can only guess. There may have been some behind the scenes pressure from the United States, or Moon may feel that if he gives Trump everything else he asks, he may have enough influence to dissuade Trump from attacking North Korea. Certainly, on more than one occasion Moon has said that the U.S. cannot launch a war on the Korean Peninsula without South Korea’s agreement. It is notable, though, that no one in Washington is making the same claim.
Q: Trump wanted to form an alliance between Japan, Seoul, and Washington against North Korea. But this failed due to the never-ending dispute about Seoul‘s fear of more retaliation from China. The deployment of THAAD damaged South Korean-Chinese relations severely. How much does Seoul follow American orders?
A: By foisting the unwanted THAAD on South Korea, the United States did cause a significant rift between China and South Korea. Recently, however, South Korea has prioritized repairing relations with China and substantial progress has been made along those lines.
I don’t think the United States is going to relent on efforts to establish a U.S.-South Korea-Japan military alliance, as this is one of its key geopolitical goals in the Asia-Pacific. The main roadblock now is that the majority of South Koreans find such an alliance unpalatable, given the historical memory of brutal colonial domination by Imperial Japan. But what the South Korean people may want is not a consideration for U.S. officials, and I anticipate that in the end the U.S. will get its alliance. There are many ways for the U.S. to impose its will on South Korea.
Q: Is there a military solution for the US in North Korea. If not, how can diplomacy be successful on the issues of the Korean Peninsula?
A: The first thing that must be said is that any talk of a solution is regarding a problem that is entirely artificial. It is the United States that manufactured the situation by sanctioning North Korea and repeatedly carrying out war exercises in the region, in which it practiced the bombing and invasion of the DPRK. And it is the United States that demonstrated through launching a series of unprovoked attacks on essentially defenseless nations that only a nuclear deterrent can offer protection to North Korea.
Now that North Korea has made substantial progress towards achieving an effective nuclear deterrent, the United States has a simple solution to the supposed concern over nuclear missiles being fired at U.S. territory or bases: don’t attack North Korea!
U.S. officials know very well that there is no chance of North Korea launching a first strike. It would be suicidal for the DPRK to do so. The real threat to the United States is the example that North Korea is setting. If it can complete development of a nuclear deterrent, it would prevent the United States from being able to attack it. Other small nations facing U.S. hostility could take note of that example. The last thing U.S. officials want to see is for target nations being able to defend themselves.
Consequently, Washington considers it a priority to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear program. Unfortunately, the Trump’s administration’s idea of “diplomacy” is to continue applying sanctions until North Korea capitulates. Only after North Korea gives the United States what it wants – nuclear disarmament or at least substantial progress in that direction – would the Trump administration consider talks. And what would be left to talk about if the U.S. gets what it wants as a precondition? Why, more demands on North Korea, relating to other matters. Sanctions wouldn’t be lifted on the DPRK until it not only dismantles its nuclear program but also much of its conventional forces as well. It would also need to implement a host of political and economic demands. This is a long way from North Korea’s desire for diplomacy based on mutual “action for action.” The DPRK wants the normal give and take and compromise of diplomacy.
Since the Trump administration rules out diplomacy, it is unlikely to happen. Trump has narrowed down the options to war or a sanctions-induced humanitarian disaster that compels North Korea to surrender to U.S. demands without receiving anything in return.
The big question is how long Trump is willing to wait for that humanitarian disaster before he wants to resort to war. His military advisors have informed him of the enormous consequences of the military option, but how much of that matters to Trump? We don’t know, but the indications are not encouraging.
Perhaps the best that one can hope for is for the status quo to continue until the next U.S. president takes office. There is no reason to expect Trump’s successor to be any more inclined to diplomacy, but one can hope that he or she will at least be less open to the military option.
Unfortunately, by backing the United States to the hilt on North Korea, Moon Jae-in has only succeeded in training Trump to disregard him and South Korea’s interests. This is unfortunate because were South Korea to oppose Trump vigorously and prioritize improving relations with North Korea, it could be a game changer.
Gregory Elich is on the Board of Directors of the Jasenovac Research Institute and the Advisory Board of the Korea Policy Institute. He is a member of the Solidarity Committee for Democracy and Peace in Korea, a columnist for Voice of the People, and one of the co-authors of Killing Democracy: CIA and Pentagon Operations in the Post-Soviet Period, published in the Russian language. He is also a member of the Task Force to Stop THAAD in Korea and Militarism in Asia and the Pacific. His website is https://gregoryelich.org Follow him on Twitter at @GregoryElich