Ted Carpenter, Senior Fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, sat down with the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs to discuss North Korea's most recent military provocations, nuclear ambitions, and the implications of the Kim Jong-un regime for the Asia-Pacific region.
GJIA: Have recent provocations under Kim Jong-un—such as increased ballistic missile tests and the threat to test an additional nuclear weapon—continued North Korea’s history of aggressive posturing towards the United States, or is this a new security dynamic?
TC: Most likely, [these actions] are just a continuation of a kind of posturing that alternates threatening gestures with more conciliatory steps. But Kim Jong-un is a bit of an unknown quantity. We certainly are not as familiar with him and his leadership style as we were with his father’s and grandfather’s, so there is always the danger of a ‘wildcard effect’ where he may, in fact, be more aggressive. The fact that he had his uncle executed is not an encouraging sign. Jang Song-thaek had been in and out of leadership roles for several decades, but never permanently removed until now. This is a bit of a new dynamic. I think Kim Jong-un recognizes North Korea’s limitations and has a sense of the country’s vital interests, so I don’t expect him to do anything totally reckless. But he may be a bit more unpredictable than his predecessors, and the United States has to acknowledge that possibility.
GJIA: What does the purge of Jang Song-thaek and his supporters indicate about the overall stability of the regime? What are the potential ramifications of this internal power-struggle for the United States, South Korea, and the Korean peninsula?
TC: First, it indicates that the political system [within the Kim regime] may be more unstable than we anticipated. This drastic action on Kim Jong-un’s part certainly indicates that he is asserting his independent and paramount role in the leadership. Previously, there was a sense in the West that the only reason he came to power was because his father played such a dominant role, and that his time as head of government might be limited simply because there were more senior individuals deemed more capable by Western experts that would gradually displace him, make him a figurehead, or perhaps exclude him entirely. The execution of his uncle, I think, was Kim’s message to more senior individuals inside North Korean leadership that that was not going to happen—that he is in charge, and that the consequences for anyone thinking about disputing that will be more drastic than in previous regimes. Kim has asserted his leadership. Whether he will be able to maintain that remains to be seen. There are certainly questions about whether the North Korean military leadership especially is willing to blindly follow him, or whether there might be an attempt to remove him at some point. But for now, he has established himself as a very serious, dominant leader.
GJIA: Given North Korea’s nuclear tests last year and recent preparations for further tests, have nonproliferation efforts with North Korea failed? Can the United States salvage its attempts at nonproliferation in the region?
GJIA: How should the United States prepare for that possibility?
TC: By developing, as much as possible, a normal relationship with the Kim regime. It doesn’t do the United States any good to have a non-relationship with a country like North Korea, especially if it becomes a nuclear-weapon state. If it reaches that point, I would want to have as many ties, lines of influence, and channels of communication as possible with the government in Pyongyang. The worst scenario would be to have no formal relationship with a country with a Pakistan-size nuclear arsenal, and an informal relationship of unrelenting hostility. That doesn’t do anyone any good.
GJIA: What do you see as the role of China in either facilitating the relationship between the United States and Pyongyang or taking independent action to try to change North Korean behavior?
TC: U.S. policymakers tend to overrate Beijing’s influence with Pyongyang, and direct contacts have told me that the Chinese are extremely frustrated right now. Yes, China has more influence with North Korea than any other country, but its influence is nevertheless limited. After all, North Korea has conducted at least two nuclear weapons tests following explicit urgings by Beijing not to do so. That suggests the limitations of China’s influence over North Korea, which I suspect may be even less with the new Kim government than it was with previous regimes. Unlike his father and grandfather, however, Kim Jong-un does seem at least somewhat interested in economic reform, perhaps along the Chinese model, which is a mildly encouraging sign. But unless China takes drastic action—such as cutting off food and energy aid to North Korea—its influence will remain limited. It’s doubtful that China would be willing to take such drastic action. This is true even of younger Chinese leaders, who are impatient with North Korea and, frankly, consider it an embarrassment to China. Still, they don’t want to take drastic action that could lead to a cascade effect and the unraveling of the North Korean state. They feel that would be extremely dangerous and would not benefit China’s interests. If the United States wants China to change its policies, it will have to offer Beijing a lot in exchange to take that risk—and the U.S. government shows no willingness to do that at all. The first step would be to guarantee that, if a united Korea were to emerge, it would not be allied with the United States. [Agreeing to a] Korean peninsula without U.S. bases would be a drastic change in U.S. policy, and I see no indication that officials are even considering that option. Such an act might appeal to Beijing, but the United States would have to be willing to alter its course rather dramatically to bring that scenario into play.
GJIA: What are the prerequisites to the United States engaging North Korea in a productive way?
TC: The first stage would be extending diplomatic recognition and exchanging ambassadors, reducing—if not fully lifting—economic sanctions, concluding a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War, and a variety of other steps along those lines to reduce the tense environment on the Korean Peninsula. The removal of troops and bases from South Korea would be a second-stage step. How receptive Pyongyang would be to these overtures is very hard to predict. The United States would have to take those kinds of steps, however, if it wants any hope of establishing a normal relationship with Pyongyang and gradually bringing it into the international community—with the probable effect that North Korea would greatly modify or moderate its behavior. Instead, the United States seems to be adopting a harder-line policy. Even though its efforts along those lines haven’t worked for well over six decades, the expectation seems to be that somehow they will in the future. I strongly believe this policy is bankrupt.
GJIA: What has South Korea’s strategy been for dealing with the current regime in North Korea, and how has its current approach differed from past strategies?
TC: Seoul is attempting to develop at least a reasonably accommodating policy toward Pyongyang, but South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her inner circle are very sensitive to allegations that the country is making the same mistakes previous administrations have made by offering benefits to Pyongyang and getting next to nothing in return. She and her associates are personally very sensitive about that. Still, they don’t want to see an increase in tensions on the Korean Peninsula. They are hoping for the best, watching and waiting carefully to see what actions the North Korean government will take. At this point, South Korea’s is a cautious but not confrontational policy.
GJIA: Have recent developments in North Korea impacted alliances within the region, such as between South Korea and Japan?
TC: North Korean hostility has been a mild catalyst for a closer security relationship between Seoul and Tokyo. The biggest catalyst, however, has been China’s territorial claims. Japan is now much more receptive [to an alliance with South Korea], but the South Korean government is still wary of Japan. Relations get set back a bit further every time [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe makes the pilgrimage to the Yasukuni Shrine, [which commemorates Japan’s wartime dead]. This is also infuriating to President Obama. He and his foreign policy team have been exerting maximum diplomatic influence to get Seoul and Tokyo to work closer together on security issues, partly because of North Korea but more importantly, from a U.S. standpoint, to try to create a semi-united front against China. The United States, too, is limited; there’s not a lot it can do. Abe is appealing to his domestic constituency and a growing nationalist sentiment, especially within the governing party in Japan that believes the Yasukuni visits are appropriate. As in the United States, domestic politics tend to trump foreign policy considerations; that’s what we’re seeing in Japan. While that’s going on, however, cooperation between South Korea and Japan will be both wary and limited.
Dr. Ted Galen Carpenter is Senior Fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, where he has served as director of foreign policy studies from 1986 to 1995 and as vice president for defense and foreign policy studies from 1995 to 2011.
Carpenter was interviewed by Zachary Burdette and Elaine Li on 30 April 2014 in Washington, D.C.