North Korea's Nuclear Threats: 5 Minutes with US National Security Expert Carla Robbins

Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former deputy editorial page editor of The New York Times Carla Robbins recently sat down with the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs to talk about the current North Korean crisis situation. GJIA: The situation has always been shaky in the Korean peninsula. With all these new dynamics at play including a somewhat new regime in North Korea and now a new president, Park Geun-hye, in South Korea, what’s your take on these recent developments with North Korea? Is North Korea a real threat to South Korea, the U.S., and the international community or is this most likely a means through which to legitimize the new “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-Un leadership?

CR: There is utterly no way of knowing and that’s what makes the situation so hard to handle diplomatically and potentially militarily as well. All we know about the new leader in North Korea is he’s young. There were high hopes he would behave in a more rational, welcoming to the world way, or at least be more interested in bringing North Korea into the world since he went to school in Switzerland. But he is certainly repeating what we have seen particularly from his father, and in many ways, more shrilly recently than it has been. So with that said, we really don’t know what’s going on. There are many different potential explanations.

One is that he is indeed trying to solidify his power within his own ruling elite or he may be playing more generally to the population. At the same time, he appears to be in charge. At one point there was a question about whether there was going to be a sort of regency of the military overseeing him. Certainly if you look at some of the photographs of him, which look like a new sort of socialist realism from the 1950s, with him standing there and pointing at a map with Austin Texas on, it all looks incredibly staged, which would suggest that this is all for internal consumption. At the same time, North Korea has a long history of having tantrums and getting rewarded for it. Recently, they have been ignored somewhat. President Obama came in and the administration was willing to negotiate and cut some deals with them. The two parties appeared to have a deal, the Americans thought so at least, and then the North Koreans immediately broke it by testing missiles. Their claim was that it was not a military missile and therefore they had not broken anything in the agreement.

After that, the White House basically decided that they were going to let the North Koreans stew in their own juices—the term they used was strategic patience. In the past, they have been rewarded after acting out and maybe that’s what’s going on now. They’re trying to reposition themselves. The final thing is the North Koreans are very into ‘theater’ – ‘the theater of absurd’ – and you do have all these events leading up to today—the 101st anniversary of Kim il-Sung's birth—the current Kim's grandfather. So perhaps this is more stage management. All of these could be explanations that work alongside one another at the same time. We don’t really know what’s going on in there. I’m not sure the Chinese even know what’s going on in there. But it does make this far more complicated because we don’t know what the driving force really is.

GJIA: You mentioned rewards and how in the past North Korea has acted out for rewards. Can you explain what type of rewards North Korea might be looking to gain out of their current behavior?

CR: You have to ask this question in two ways. There’s a bigger question and that is, is there anything that the outside world could offer North Korea to get them to give up their nuclear program. At this point, I am skeptical about that, in part because they have to know they are far more vulnerable militarily. They are very weak in that sense even if they have a large army. Let’s face it, they don’t have a lot of money and people there don’t have a lot of food. So this bigger question about whether there is anything we can give them to buy them off and persuade them to not follow this current route, is something we still don’t have an answer to.

More immediately, one has to assume the reward they’re looking for is a tension and an invitation back to the table. That and the things they wanted in the past, such as food and fuel and a lifting of sanctions.

GJIA: Clearly, the new pressure by North Korea is creating a lot of tension in the region as a whole, not just South Korea. China seems to be getting increasingly agitated as well by the unpredictable behavior of the North Korean regime. Recently Chinese President Xi remarked at a Forum on the Chinese island of Hainan that “no should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into a chaos for selfish gain.” What’s your take on the President’s remark?

CR: I think it was still a very careful statement and we’re not sure if it was directed at North Korea or the United States. Either way, it was definitely a much harder statement than China has ever provided. It’s also following on the last round of sanctions from the Security Council which was crafted in language by both the Americans and the Chinese. So that’s another sign that people were very hopeful, although nothing significant came out of that.

GJIA: As sort of the regional superpower and only ally really of North Korea, what is China’s role in all this, what kind of leverage does China have over North Korea, and do you think China should be doing more to help defuse the situation?

CR: The leverage China has in this situation is that they are a major source of fuel and trade to the northeast field in North Korea. North Koreans need food, trade, luxury goods, etc. Even with Security Council Resolutions that the Chinese have not vetoed, they haven’t been very good at enforcing the resolutions from their end. Despite their concrete leverage, there’s very little sign China has been willing to use it. There are reports at times that they may hold up delivery services for a few days, but otherwise they have been very careful about the degree to which they enforce the sanctions. The Chinese up until now have been far more concerned about the collapse of North Korea and the impact that will have on the border they share with North Korea. Issues include refugees crossing the border and also how such a collapse would mean some form of unification with South Korean leadership. This would then bring American allies and potentially American forces far closer to China’s borders. So they have preferred what they consider to be ‘stability.’

I think what they’re finding now is that sticking with this leadership in North Korea, particularly as it cranks up the rhetoric, and with the potential for miscalculation so high, the ‘stability’ that they assumed is at threat, maybe it does not even exist. So what the Chinese want is to try to calm things down to go back to the status quo. That doesn't mean they think the situation is permanently unstable and that they have to get rid of the North Koreans either.

The danger here is once again the high potential for miscalculation and that’s quite often the case in wars. One party might know what they say and mean but they don’t necessarily know what the other party involved hears. One could have a scenario in which a soldier goes crazy and starts shooting people or a missile test goes off course—these things wouldn’t be intentional beginnings of a war, they would be caused by misreading.

Even with our primary fear, which is a conventional confrontation with Seoul, the situation is really disconcerting for Seoul. It is right there, with artillery pointed at it and built closer and closer to the border, so once again the potential for miscalculation is very high and you can get into a spiral with neither side wanting an invitation into war but it happening nonetheless. Also, the additional fact that the North Koreans have nuclear material and potentially have nuclear weapons—we don’t know have far they've weaponized—is troubling. Once you get into the position of having a conventional standoff, their comparative military weakness would make it more tempting for them to use the only thing they see as leveling the playfield and that is using their nuclear capabilities. So my fear is not intentional war but miscalculation. There is definitely potential for an unintentional escalation.

GJIA: Japan has also demonstrated its concern by readying defenses for possible North Korean missile tests.

CR: Yes, they’ve already had missiles going over them. This is another thing the Chinese need to be thinking more strategically about. I gather the US has been delivering this message that as long as this goes on and the rhetoric of North Korea gets fiercer, the potential for something to go wrong increases. You’re even hearing rumblings from the South Koreans about a nuclear fuel program—maybe not nuclear weapons right now, but that’s the next step. The Japanese are also building up their military and their rivalry with China is part of that of course. But the Chinese should look around and see the status quo they want is not stable internationally and take that into consideration. It’s all very disturbing.

People talk about containment on a nuclear weapons level and it’s one of the questions with the nuclear situation with Iran. I’ve never really known whether nuclear dominoes is really a threat, but if you were South Korean and living under this constant threat from the North, you would probably want to seriously evaluate it too.

You also mentioned before the new President of South Korea in the potential for escalation and that’s something to definitely consider as well. You have a new leader in the North and the South. In the past, the South Koreans have turned the other cheek when the North Koreans sank one of their navy ships in 1946. They also looked the other way when the North Koreans shelled Yeonpyang Island in 2010. This new leader has made clear she is not going to turn the other cheek and you can understand why politically she would say that. The South Korean people are fed up and probably feel like this is just enabling the North Korea’s bad behavior, so once again the danger in a very small space is visible and makes for a nervous situation.

GJIA: A few days ago, North Korea recalled 51,000 North Korean workers and suspended operations at a factory complex it had jointly run with South Korea, which is considered one of last remaining projects of cooperation between the two states. What is your opinion about North Korea basically severing its last real economic tie with South Korea?

CR: I think this is one more thing to consider right now. The missile situation is obviously much more worrying. However, I took the Kaesong factory suspension as more chilling with respct to Kim Jong-Un’s intentions because that decision forgoes about $90 million dollars in hard currency and North Korea doesn’t have much in hard currency to begin with. So why he would be willing to sacrifice that if this this all just talk is definitely a concern. On the other hand, it’s only been a few days and some people who are more optimistic about North Korea’s recent behavior believe this is all just leading up to a crescendo for the anniversary of his grandfather. Some even believe that this will end when the U.S. and South Korean army exercises end later in the month. Kim John-Un can claim victory and say look how our new nuclear power has driven the Americans back home. In a few weeks everything may calm down, we just don’t know.

GJIA: How would you evaluate the U.S. or rather the Obama administration’s response to North Korea’s war threats so far?

CR: I understand their frustration and their decision to let North Koreans stew after the North Koreans immediately broke their end of the deal. But I’m not sure how much the administration thought about the next step. It’s not much of a surprise that the North Koreans are playing everything up right now because they don’t like to be ignored. Maybe the administration had a lot on their plate. There’s no easy answer.

This government and the previous government in North Korea take the deals offered to them and then they break off from them. With this case study specifically, it’s interesting because the administration was initially dismissive of the rhetoric coming out from North Korea and then they had this very strong demonstration of might by sending the nuclear capable B-2 stealth bombers for a joint exercise with South Korean forces. This cost $1.2 million for what was a 76 hour round trip flight. There was a clear messaging of warning. However that only seemed to make the North Koreans even more ratcheted up, so then the U.S. began to try to calm the rhetoric down again. Then, a few days ago, we saw Defense Secretary Hagel cranking the rhetoric up again, so once again the messaging issue is very challenging.

Of course the messaging isn’t just to the North Koreans, but to the South Koreans as well. There’s a sense of intentional reassurance on our part to prevent any overreaction from the South Koreans. I mean in this potential for escalation one would hope the South Koreans, who we have a military agreement with, would consult with us before taking any real military action. But once again, they are a sovereign state.

Diplomacy is always multiple messaging and I would say I wish the Obama administration spent more time thinking about North Korea prior to these recent developments. At the same time I do have sympathy because I’m not sure how they could prepare for this exactly. I mean they’re definitely thinking seriously about it now and trying to go through China as well, which is probably their best hope right now too. With the Secretary of State visiting China this week, we’ll see if we can convince the Chinese to use their leverage over North Korea. Let’s just hope there’s no miscalculation between now and then.

GJIA: There’s a lot of talk and fear concerning the start of a Cyber-war with reports of North Korean as a likely suspect behind recent cyber-attacks on several computer networks in South Korean banks. How concerned should South Korea and the U.S. be about the possibility of a Cyber-war?

CR: I’ve spent a lot of time studying arms controls and this definitely raises a lot of questions with respect to that. By comparison to the possibility of a nuclear war, this is probably not the biggest concern at the moment. At the same time, I would not be so dismissive of the potential damage that can be done through such a means. I don’t know what North Korea’s capability is with this, but I think the thing to keep in mind is that the U.S. is a hugely vulnerable country because we are so dependent on cyber in the first place. So, we have to think about our future and the implications of cyber threats. I’m not saying North Korea is going to be the one behind this kind of national security threat. However, for the future, we definitely have to think about such situations in which one day we walk up to an ATM machine and suddenly there is no money to get access to, or a situation where no one has access to the internet because of cyberattacks.

There’s a real vulnerability there as time goes by and we become ever and ever more dependent on these things. Now the U.S. is talking about the need to develop its own cyber defenses. There’s more money in the budget for it, but what we haven’t had is a frank conversation about cyber offense and what we do now that we know that the U.S. participated or potentially took the lead in the cyber-attacks against Iran in what came to be known as the Stuxnet attack. Now this attack did apparently slow down Iran’s nuclear progress. Going back to the first question with North Korea, if you could slow them down and put off the day to kinetically go after them, this could be a very tempting tool. Of course with Stuxnet, the public found out, so these are in many ways comparable, in my mind at least, to biological and chemical weapons. They’re very hard to control. Certainly we need to think about defense, but we also have to seriously think about cyber offense and whether there is a need for rules here, or potentially even a ban. If we use cyber-attacks on anyone, we have no moral suasion to stop other people from using it.

Cyber is a new realm and we really need to have a serious discussion and review about how it fits into arms control regimes, not solely for moral reasons, but also because we are hugely vulnerable ourselves.

Carla Robbins is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and the former deputy editorial page editor of The New York Times. She is currently an Adjunct Senior Fellow in the National Security and Defense Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Dr. Robbins was interviewed by online editor Shreya Sarkar.