Kevin Rudd: The future of U.S.-China relations under the next administration: Is there a solution to the North Korean nuclear question?

The Hon. Kevin Rudd

Former Prime Minister of Australia

President, Asia Society Policy Institute

Speech to the Oxford China Centre
Deutsche Bank Distinguished Lecture Series

October 11, 2017, 6:00PM


Ladies and gentlemen,

Distinguished guests,

It’s good to be back at Oxford.

It’s good to be back at the Oxford China Center.

And it’s a pleasure to be back to deliver the Oxford China Center lecture.

The University of Oxford’s China Center is a world-class facility for the study of China.

When I was Prime Minister of Australia, I helped to found the Australian Center on China in the World, as part of a centenary gift to Canberra, the nation’s capital.

Institutions such as these are not marginal but critical for our understanding of the new phenomenon we might call global China.

The rise of China, and the future relationship between China and the world, and in particular with the United States, are among the great mega-challenges of our age.

The U.S., China, and Constructive Realism

Last year, I released a report, after a year’s work at the Belfer center at the Harvard Kennedy School, on the future of U.S.-China relations under Xi Jinping.

I entitled the report: U.S.-China 21: The Future of U.S.-China Relations under Xi Jinping.

I sought to deal with the question of the absence of an agreed strategic narrative between China and the United States for the future.

They have unofficial narratives against each other.

But no shared strategic narrative to govern their relationship, and their common engagement in the world for the future.

Allow me to draw on parts of that report here at some length.

Both Chinese and American foreign and security policy practitioners pride themselves on their hard-nosed realism.

In the case of the Chinese, inspiration is drawn from the writings of “Sun Tze” (孙子) and other authors of the so-called “Seven Military Classics” (wujing qishu, 武经七书).

For Americans, it is a cocktail of Von Clausewitz, E. H. Carr, and Hans Morgenthau.

There is no great Chinese philosophical school, perhaps with the exception of the Mohists, to draw upon that is remotely the equivalent of either the idealists or the liberal internationalists in Western international relations theory.

For these reasons, for any strategic framework to be regarded as credible in either Chinese or American eyes, despite their radically different historical experience, a “realist” recognition of the fundamentally different, and in some cases actively conflicting, national interests is essential.

The list of such contested areas in U.S.-China relations is long, but, in my argument, not insurmountable over time.

A healthy exercise to be conducted between Beijing and Washington would be to clarify the contents of such a list, in order to first agree on exactly what they disagree on.

This list is therefore purely indicative:

  • Taiwan, including future American arms sales;
  • Conflicting claims between China and Japan in the East China Sea;
  • Conflicting claims between China and other claimant states in the South China Sea;
  • The retention of U.S. alliances in Asia;
  • China’s military modernization and mutual surveillance of each other’s capabilities;
  • Acceptance of the legitimacy of the Chinese political system as a matter for the Chinese people to resolve; and
  • The management of bilateral, Non-Governmental Organization-based (NGO) and UN multilateral disagreements on human rights and basic freedoms, including internet regulation.

These disagreements should not be seen as “no-go” areas in the relationship.

Rather, they should be acknowledged clearly as major difficulties, but they should not be allowed to derail the entire relationship.

Even dire circumstances, such as a major crisis, would warrant direct communication between the two Presidents, to explain to one another why it is necessary to imperil the entire relationship.

These chokepoints in U.S.-China relations, as difficult as they are, can be managed through a common strategic framework and with common political will.

However, I argue that these deep “realist” elements of the relationship should be matched by “constructive” engagement between the U.S. and China in difficult areas of their bilateral, regional and global relationship where true progress is possible.

Otherwise, there is a danger that unalloyed strategic “realism” will suffocate the relationship altogether.

Or worse. Given the generally bleak assumptions about each other’s ultimate strategic intentions, there is the perennial risk of “hyper-realism” becoming a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, resulting in crisis, conflict or even war.

That’s why, in the report, I argued for an approach of constructive realism—accepting the realist constraints on the relationship, agreeing on management mechanisms for the inevitable tensions that arise from such constraints, as well as advancing areas of constructive engagement that can incrementally build strategic trust over time.

Bilaterally, this could include:

  • The conclusion of the U.S.-China bilateral investment treaty. This is because of the long-term transformative effect of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in each other’s economies, and because of the direct interest in the future growth of each other’s economies that this creates. This is in contrast to trade, which has a more transient effect on the institutional underpinnings of an economic relationship;
  • Agreement on a joint strategy and joint intelligence task force to deal with terrorism in the region from Afghanistan to Xinjiang. This should be without any American equivocation concerning absolute condemnation of terrorist acts against Chinese civilians by Xinjiang separatists and/or violent jihadists. This recognizes that terrorist attacks against any civilian targets are universally unacceptable. The development and agreement of a bilateral cyber protocol that elaborates rules of the road for civilian and non-civilian use.
  • The elaboration of a full set of military transparency measures and protocols for the management of unplanned military incidents, building on those agreed to in November 2014; and
  • Agreement on a process for Chinese and American progress on the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), noting that Russia is already a ratification state, and that China’s position is that it would ratify if the U.S. Congress approves ratification.

I also argued for a strategy of constructive realism in the region.

A cocktail of fragile regional relations, fractious great power relations, and a growing arms bazaar makes Asia an increasingly dangerous neighborhood.

Combined military budgets in Asia in 2014 for the first time exceeded those in Europe.

The following is an indicative list only of where strategic trust could be built over time in the wider region:

  • The development of a joint strategy on the denuclearization and peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula:
  • This would necessarily involve security guarantees to the North under whatever unified regime might replace it, and would also necessitate negotiations on the future of any continued U.S. military presence on the Peninsula in the event of denuclearization and reunification;
  • This could only ever be achieved on the basis of a grand strategic bargain driven by leaders.
  • Failure to deliver an end to the North Korean nuclear weapons program will result in the expansion of American and allied Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) programs to deal with future threats from North Korean missiles;
  • A joint initiative to harmonize in time the TPP, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and FTAAP so that the region does not grow into different trading blocs that reinforce, rather than reduce, existing geopolitical tensions and/or alignments;
  • The development of a concept paper on the long-term evolution of an Asia-Pacific Community (APC, yatai gongtongti 亚太共同体) in order to encourage habits of regional cooperation around a concept of common security, as detailed below; and

It is within this framework of constructive realism that I propose to examine in further detail what could, should and might happen on the core strategic question of the North Korean nuclear program.

North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Programs

Much global attention is focused today on Ukraine, Syria and cyber security.

And so it should be.

Today, however, I wish to focus on something that’s not in the global headlines—namely how the future of U.S.-China relations will bear on the North Korean nuclear question.
My reason is simple.

During the next U.S. administration, North Korea will be the principal national security priority of the United States.

And so it should be.

North Korea is not just a regional security challenge in Northeast Asia or the Asia-Pacific region.
It is a challenge to global peace and security.

This is because of five factors.

First, the rapid advance in North Korean nuclear weapons technology and ballistic missile systems.

Second, these systems will have a global, not just a regional reach.

Third, the declaratory policy of the North Korean regime is that they threaten to use these weapons against the ROK, Japan and the U.S.

Fourth, it there were a war on the peninsula, including one involving nuclear weapons, the impact on global security and the global economy would be of a scale of magnitude exceeding all postwar crises—in terms of physical destructive potential, loss of life, economic disruption and the outflow of refugees.

And fifth, there is, at present, no diplomatic mechanism engaging the DPRK regime on this matter.

These are five ingredients for a potentially global disaster exceeding all post-war crises.

As most of you know, this is a question the international community has wrestled with, unsuccessfully, for over two decades.

In fact, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has become more dire over the past several years, and especially so since Kim Jong-Un, a relatively young, inexperienced and unknown leader, took the reins of power.

In contrast to the successful diplomacy that led to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the “Six-Party Talks” between the DPRK, the ROK, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States have now been stalled for almost a decade.

Over the last decade, the North Korean regime has not only continued to advance its nuclear program, it has accelerated its pace of development, testing and preparations for deployment.

While multilateral diplomacy and international sanctions will certainly be an element of any plan, I would argue the key variable needed to deal with the DPRK is a new level of strategic engagement between United States and China on a problem which has the capacity radically to impact their core national interests.

As the world’s two largest economic and military powers (leaving aside the nuclear capabilities of the Russian Federation), U.S. and Chinese cooperation is essential to solving this problem.

The question is: how?

Current State of the North Korean nuclear program

First, let’s reflect for a few minutes on the essential nature of the problem—namely the characteristics of the emerging North Korean nuclear program.

The DPRK has now conducted 5 nuclear tests: in 2006, 2009, 2013, and two in 2016: one in January and the most recent on September 9.

While there is much that we do not know about the status of the DPRK’s nuclear program, it is clear that its capabilities are becoming stronger and more sophisticated.

This past month’s test appears to have been their biggest one to date, with an estimated yield of 10-30 kilotonnes.

To put that in perspective, the city of Hiroshima was leveled with a 15 kilotonne bomb.

While we know their program is advancing, there are still several important question marks about the actual status of the DPRK’s nuclear program.

First, there is an open question on how much fissile material the DPRK now possesses, and how much that is increasing by each year.

The most recent estimate from Dr. Siegfried Hecker, a leading expert on the DPRK’s nuclear program, is that North Korea already has a stockpile of between 32-54kg of plutonium and is able to enrich uranium at a rate that could produce up to 6 additional weapons per year.

In total, he assesses that by the end of 2016, North Korea will have sufficient fissile material for 20 nuclear weapons.

A recent RAND report provided an even more worrisome estimate, placing the current size of North Korea’s arsenal between 13-21 weapons and assessing that by 2020, this number could jump to a total of 50-100 weapons.

Second, the DPRK claims that its January 2016 test was a hydrogen bomb.

International experts cast doubt on this assessment at the time, but now believe that it could have indeed tested at least elements of a hydrogen bomb.

The significance of this achievement is that it would suggest the North Koreans are mastering nuclear fusion technology, which would potentially provide them with the capacity to detonate a far more powerful device than a simple fission device.

To explain, nuclear fission devices, or “atomic bombs” are what most of us associate with nuclear weapons – an atom is split, thereby releasing a large quantity of energy.

This is the type of relatively “simple” atomic weapon first developed by U.S. scientists during World War II.

By contrast, nuclear fusion devices, known as hydrogen bombs or thermonuclear bombs, produce energy by fusing atoms together, thereby causing an exponentially larger release of energy.

For example, while the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima yielded an explosion equivalent to 15 kilotonnes of TNT, the United States’ first test of a hydrogen bomb in 1952 yielded an explosion of approximately 10 megatons.

To put this into stark perspective, a smaller, 10-kiloton bomb detonated over Seoul would kill almost 80,000 people and likely injure over a quarter of a million additional people.

But a high-yield weapon, with a 1 megaton yield, would produce something along the lines of over 1.5 million dead and almost 5 million injuries.

A third important unknown is the DPRK’s source material – are they using plutonium or uranium for the devices they are testing?

A successful test, using enriched uranium, would indicate a significant leap forward in the DPRK’s program.

Whereas plutonium stocks are finite, uranium enrichment would allow the DPRK to build an infinite stockpile of nuclear materials.

Additional uranium enrichment is much easier to carry out in secret, making it simpler to hide the status of their program from the international community.

Recent commercial satellite imagery confirms that since 2013, North Korea has undertaken a significant refurbishment of the Pyongsan Uranium Enrichment Plant.

And in September 2015, the Director of DPRK Atomic Energy Institute confirmed that all of the Yongbyon facilities, including the nuclear enrichment plant and reactor had been restarted in 2013.

A fourth question concerns the status of DPRK delivery systems.

To have a successful program, North Korea must be able to not only produce and successfully detonate a nuclear bomb, they must have the capability to deliver it – via missile technology – to its intended target.

We do know that the DPRK has a vast arsenal of over 1,000 missiles.

The majority of these are short and medium-range weapons that are of the most concern to North Korea’s neighbors in Seoul and Tokyo.

Their range is up to 3000 kilometres.

But what is now worrying many in the international community is that North Korea appears to be actively seeking the capability to produce an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could strike the continental United States, or the European continent.

Furthermore, the pace of North Korea’s missile testing has once again accelerated of late.

There have been concerns for many years that North Korea might be seeking an ICBM, but the first real confirmation of this arrived in 2012, when North Korea displayed what is known as the KN-08 (Hwasong-13) in its annual military parade.

The U.S. Department of Defense assesses that if successfully designed and developed, these missiles could strike the continental United States.

Then in March 2016, the Pentagon confirmed that the DPRK had developed a new road-mobile ICBM, called the KN-14, a longer-range variant of the KN-08.

As one US official stated, “it’s a KN-08 on steroids”

Fifth, North Korea has also been working to develop a submarine-launched capability, as we may have seen in tests in both November 2015 and September 2016.

And its repeated testing of new road-mobile and submarine-launched variants make clear that the DPRK wants to develop capabilities that are harder to detect.

Finally, progress in miniaturization.

Although the DPRK claimed after its most recent nuclear test on September 9 that it now possesses the ability to successfully mount a warhead onto a missile, the validity of this claim remains an open question in the expert community.

At various points in time over the past few years, individuals within the U.S. government have suggested the DPRK possesses the ability to successfully miniaturize a nuclear weapon.

Most notably, the Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, General Curtis Scaparotti, stated in 2014 that he assessed the DPRK had “the capability to have miniaturized a device at this point, and they have the technology to potentially actually deliver what they say they have… I don’t think as a commander we can afford the luxury of believing perhaps they haven’t gotten there.”

Admiral Bill Gortney, Commander of U.S. Northern Command and NORAD, reaffirmed this assessment in 2015, noting in testimony to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that “Our assessment is that they have the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the homeland”.

However, the official U.S. position remains more circumspect, with the Pentagon refusing to confirm Gortney’s assessment and emphasizing that North Korea has not yet demonstrated the capability to miniaturize a weapon

Therefore, we do not have firm evidence that North Korea has successfully miniaturized a nuclear weapon, but we also lack hard evidence to prove they do not.

Prudence would suggest we should err on the side of assuming the worst.

There can be no doubt that this is their strategic intention.

Based on the information above, U.S. military commanders clearly believe North Korea is extremely close, if they have not already succeeded, to miniaturizing nuclear weapons.

In summary, we face therefore a North Korea with growing fissile material stocks at least capable of producing ten nuclear bombs.

There is, therefore, a growing consensus:

  • That North Korea is developing atomic and hydrogen bomb capabilities, which would immeasurably enhance their destructive potential.
  • That it is drawing on both plutonium and enriched uranium for its nuclear program, giving the DPRK a limitless stock of nuclear material.
  • That it possesses a missile program which includes ICBMs and possibly SLBMs, and mobile launchers are to harden their assets against attack.
  • And that their miniaturization is either successful or on target.

International Reactions

Over the past two decades, the international community has repeatedly come together to condemn, and attempt to halt, the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs.

And they have repeatedly failed.

To recap, following North Korea’s missile test in July 2006, the Security Council required, in UNSCR1695, all UN member-states to prevent imports from, or exports to, North Korea of materials that could be used in its nuclear program.

Nonetheless, North Korea proceeded to explode a nuclear device later that same year.

The Security Council responded, in UNSCR1718 of October 2006, by restricting the sale or transfer of materials which could aid the DPRK’s nuclear program, and acted to freeze overseas businesses connected to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Member-states were empowered to inspect, “as necessary”, cargo moving in and out of North Korea to implement the Security Council’s new resolution.

Then, North Korea carried out an underground nuclear test in 2009.

Under UNSCR 1874 or June 2009, the Security Council then tightened and extended international scrutiny of cargo in and out of the DPRK, and prohibited financial assistance and loans which could assist the latter’s nuclear program, with the exception of humanitarian needs.

However, North Korea then carried out another missile test in December 2012, which the UN Security Council condemned in UNSCR 2087 of January 2013.

The DPRK then carried out its third nuclear test in February 2013.

The UNSC responded with UNSCR 2094 by unanimously imposing a fourth set of sanctions on the regime, restricting cash transfers, luxury goods, and ordering assets freezes and travel bans on individuals and firms linked to the regime.

North Korea then carried out its fourth nuclear test in January 2016.

In its strongest stance to date, the UNSC, in Resolution 2270, banned the export of coal, iron and iron ore to North Korea, as well as aviation fuel, rare earths, which may all assist the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile program.

Furthermore, existing financial and asset freezes were also significantly tightened.

In February 2016, the DPRK launched another missile, and on April 25, 2016, issued claims that it had launched, for the first time, a ballistic missile from a submarine.

Then, on September 5, 2016, the DPRK carried out additional missile tests, followed by its fifth nuclear test on September 9, 2016.

The United Nations Security Council convened an emergency meeting following this latest test and pledged “further significant measures” in response.

The specific response is still being formulated, but the United States and other members of the P5 are pushing for a new resolution and further sanctions.

Which brings us to the present.

National Positions on the North Korea Nuclear Program

So, what’s the DPRK’s position on its nuclear program?

On this, they have been direct.

On 8 January 2016, a statement by the official KCNA news agency said:

“History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasured sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression.”

It then stated:

“The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programs of their own accord.”

In other words, the North Korean program is seen as a sine qua non for regime survival.

Therefore, any diplomatic effort aimed at halting the North Korean program, let alone destroying its current stock of material, has to deal fundamentally with the North Korean basic demand for regime survival.

We should assume that North Korean – like any actor in international affairs – is fundamentally concerned with its survival.

Within this prism, the DPRK puts forward three core demands.

First, the DPRK routinely demands the signing of a peace treaty with the United States, formally ending the state of war that has continued to exist since 1953.

Second, experts with some access to Pyongyang suggest that some type of external security guarantees, provided by states with a deep interest in strategic stability on the Korean peninsula, would be necessary to assure the North Korean regime of its long-term survival and, eventually, normalization, as a post-nuclear sovereign state.

Third, reunification with the South remains its formal, long-term objective, albeit under the aegis of an Austro-Hungarian style confederacy, uniting two nations and social systems under one state, with the goal of eventual, long-term integration.

A formal North Korean peace proposal, widely ignored in the West, proposes a ‘Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo’.

So, what is the ROK’s formal position?

South Korea has made clear that its near-term concern is the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and that its concerns about the security of the ROK are growing under Kim Jong-Un.

President Park stated after the DPRK’s most recent nuclear test that it could not be “business as usual” in terms of talks and sanctions that have little effect.

She noted: “The patience on our side and that of the international community has already reached its limit.”

In response to the DRPK’s actions, the ROK has taken new steps to bolster its defenses, in a sign that it no longer views that the status quo as acceptable.

This includes taking steps to repair its relationship with Japan and enhance trilateral U.S.-ROK-Japan coordination.

As well as agreeing to the deployment of an anti-ballistic missile theatre defence system, or THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) to the ROK.

Japan, for its part, condemned the DPRK’s latest tests at the UNGA meetings on September 21, stating that the DPRK’s latest missile and nuclear tests had “change(d) the landscape completely”.

Abe further noted that “the threat has now reached a dimension altogether different from what has transpired until now. We must therefore respond to this in a manner entirely distinct from our responses thus far.”

These sentiments echo those expressed by the U.S. leadership.

Following the DPRK’s most recent nuclear test on September 9, President Obama reaffirmed the U.S. position:

“The United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state” and noted the United States would work with its partners to take “additional significant steps” to bring a resolution to the North Korean problem.

Meanwhile, there are growing conversations behind closed doors among U.S. experts and former administration officials that the current policy approach – “strategic patience” – has not paid off.

As one said recently:

“Strategic patience as a policy is a clear failure, virtually everyone I ask outside of government believes strategic patience is only worsening conditions on the peninsula. An alternative is needed.”

Russia also has a deep interest in the long-term security of the Korean peninsula.

It has supported all UNSC resolutions to date, including sanctions regimes.

But it has expressed reluctance to pursue additional sanctions and deep concerns about the implications of THAAD on the Korean peninsula.

Instead, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has expressed a preference for a return to the six-party talks, noting that he believes it is “too early to bury the six-party talks”, which should be resumed as soon as possible.

We have also seen signs of increasing concern in Beijing about the acceleration of the DPRK’s nuclear program.

Following the September test, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui urged North Korea “not to take any more actions that could exacerbate tensions, and return as soon as possible to the correct direction of denuclearization.”

Like Russia, China also calls for a return to the Six-Party talks. On 9 March 2016, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a press conference that “Resolution 2270 not just contains sanctions; it also reiterates support for the Six-Party Talks and asks the parties to refrain from taking any actions that might aggravate tensions.” And he stressed that “Maintaining stability is the pressing priority, and only negotiation can lead to a fundamental solution.”

During his meetings with President Obama on the margins of the UN General Assembly meetings last month, Premier Li Keqiang noted that China supports efforts of the UN Security Council to take further steps to respond to the DPRK’s latest nuclear test.

However, he also urged all parties to avoid actions that could escalate tensions, noting in particular China’s continued objection to the U.S. deployment of THAAD in support of the ROK.

National Positions on THAAD

Indeed, one of the most significant, and divisive, outcomes of the recent acceleration of DPRK nuclear and missile tests has been the agreement by the ROK and the U.S. to deploy THAAD to the Korean peninsula.

From the perspective of the U.S, and their allies in the ROK and Japan, this system is necessary to defend against a growing missile threat that could leave millions of citizens potentially exposed to DPRK missiles with very little warning time.

As Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter noted in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in April: “It’s a necessary thing. It’s between us and South Korea, it is about protecting our own forces on the Korean peninsula and about protecting South Korea. It has nothing to do with the Chinese,” Carter said. “We need to defend our own people, we need to defend our own allies.”

Japan has also extended diplomatic support for the THAAD deployment in South Korea.

China’s concern is that placement of a THAAD battery on the Korean peninsula is also potentially targeted at Chinese strategic nuclear capabilities as much as it is at DPRK capabilities, and that expanded U.S. regional missile defense capability will deplete China’s “second strike” capabilities, therefore undermining its own nuclear deterrent against the U.S.

President Xi underlined his opposition to the THAAD deployment when meeting with the ROK’s President Park during the G20 in September.

While meeting with Park, Xi stressed that mishandling the issue is not conducive to strategic stability in the region, and could intensify disputes.

In the first meeting between high-level officials from the governments of China and South Korea since South Korea and the US announced that they would be deploying THAAD, Wang Yi publicly called for the ROK to “correct” their decision.

In other words, this is not a normal statement of diplomatic opposition.

It is a formal call for a change in ROK policy.

The Chinese Ambassador to South Korea, Qiu Guohong, laid out the Chinese perspective bluntly, warning that the THAAD deployment “would break the strategic balance in the region and create a vicious cycle of Cold War-style confrontations and an arms race, which could escalate tensions.”

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, expressed similar views.

“The THAAD system has far exceeded the need for defense in the Korean peninsula and will undermine the security interests of Russia and China, shatter the regional strategic balance and trigger an arms race.”

These are strong statements.

The THAAD deployment has also become a contentious issue within South Korean domestic politics.

Domestic political opinion over THAAD is evenly split in South Korea.

In one survey, 41.9 percent of respondents answered that the deployment would “aid the national interest by raising military deterrence against North Korea and strengthening the U.S.-South Korea alliance,” while 45.8 percent believed that it would “hinder the national interest by reducing military effectiveness and aggravating conflict with China and Russia.”

Vocal domestic protests against THAAD have broken out in parts of South Korea.

The domestic debate has become so polarized that President Park has labelled THAAD opponents “pro-North Korean”.

However, the DPRK’s continued missile tests and latest nuclear test appear to have cemented the ROK leadership’s decision and, if anything, accelerated the likely timeline for its deployment to the peninsula.

Is There a Way Forward?

All of this leads us to the perennial question: What is to be done?

Is there anything the U.S. and China can do to stop the DPRK weapons program, and eliminate its existing arsenal?

The prospects are not good, given that the DPRK is pursuing a strategic policy setting first laid down in 1993 when the DPRK, fearing the impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union on its own national defence and the political future of its regime, sought through A. Q. Khan to obtain a fully-fledged independent nuclear capability.

Furthermore, the facts on the ground, or the interpretation thereof, are not universally agreed between Moscow, Washington and Beijing.

First, as noted above, the technical question of assessments of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and the projected timeline of its future development in coming months and years is fundamentally important.

You’ll hear different answers to the same factual questions across capitals.

As I said recently in a speech in Moscow, a shared, factual basis for a common strategy on how to manage security and stability on the Korean peninsula is plainly lacking.

If so, a joint assessment of the technical facts may potentially be useful.

A more profound strategic disagreement concerns the more complex question of how much risk is tolerable.

There is no objective answer to this question, since it concerns varying red lines, national interests and strategic cultures.

Where some states perceive a grave if not mortal threat in a nuclear-armed North Korea, others are less concerned.

Or if they are concerned, the emphasis is on the risk of regime collapse, refugee outflow, and nuclear proliferation to non-state actors.

In addition, there is the concern that a nuclear power in Pyongyang could increase pressure on Asian neighboring states to develop a nuclear breakout capability—e.g. in either Korea or Japan as they sought to secure their future.

There is also the complex question of the strategic implications of Korean unification, particularly as seen from Beijing and Moscow, since a unified Korea could result in a U.S. ally on their geographical doorstep, and possibly with U.S. troops still deployed on its soil.

This adds to the mesh of entangled issues and interests.

But a core question for all parties is to ask the deep questions: If you were Korean and Japanese now, what would you do to protect your national security, in the face of North Korean nuclear capabilities and the nature of DPRK declaratory policy on the actual use of nuclear weapons.

For the future, I would suggest we face five possible scenarios:

Scenario 1: Maintain the status quo

This means doing nothing to change course, using the same policy settings of sanctions in efforts to bring the DPRK back to the negotiating table.

But also, it means allowing the DPRK to continue to proceed apace with its nuclear testing, while hoping and, more accurately, praying it does not succeed in developing a viable warhead.

It means, in short, staying on train tracks to hell—since North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and the U.S., South Korea and Japan have no intention of letting it succeed.

I think we would all agree this approach is outright folly. We all know Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting a different result.

Scenario 2: Further sanctions

This is perhaps the most likely scenario, but there also appears to be a growing consensus that it is the least likely to be effective, based on the past two decades.

Whoever wins the U.S. presidential election this year may well be tempted to increase sanctions, to increase the pressure on the regime, based on the same theoretical formula we have been relying on for decades: economic sanctions + diplomatic isolation + a return to the Six-Party Talks.

We know, objectively, that this has just not happened.

And so we can reasonably presume that, under the same conditions, let alone worse conditions, the same policy will not change the situation.

We know this script.

We know where it leads to.

Which is nowhere.

What we don’t know is how much longer we can keep recycling it before a dramatic catalyst changes facts on the ground.

Scenario 3: Back to the six party talks

There is certainly a hope in some quarters that diplomacy could resume through the six-party talks.

The real issue here is the preconditions that all parties, especially the DPRK and the United States, feel would be needed before coming to the table, and whether there can be an agreement on those preconditions that would satisfy all parties.

Various parties’ preconditions have changed and evolved, been diluted and bolstered at various points.

In 2011, the U.S. announced the precondition that the DPRK should cease nuclear and missile tests for negotiations to resume.

China has supported an unconditional return to the Six-Party Talks.

Japan and Russia have been open on this question.

North Korea will only return to talks if there are no preconditions.

But the U.S. has refused to return to the negotiating table without a concrete signal of good faith emanating from North Korea.

Over time, however, the strength of U.S. insistence on preconditions has waxed and waned.

But in the short term, a resumption of the Six-Party Talks is highly unlikely, short of a major initiative from the North.

Scenario 4: Full bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and DPRK

The United States has expressed a willingness to consider this option, but has stated quite bluntly that they do not feel they have a willing partner in the DPRK.

Between July 2011 and February 2012, the Obama administration participated in three rounds of direct negotiations with North Korea.

These talks, the last of which were held in Beijing, culminated in the hopeful but short-lived 29 February “Leap Day Agreement”.

Optimism was palpable in the North Korean embassy in Beijing, where American negotiators were offered Starbucks coffee on arrival during the last days of negotiation.

The State Department announced, on 29 February 2012, that North Korea had “agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities.”

In exchange, the United States was willing to deliver 240,000 metric tons of “nutritional assistance with the prospect of additional assistance based on continued need,” assuming North Korea complied.

The agreement was short-lived.

Direct talks were suspended following North Korean missile tests in December 2012, and the subsequent nuclear test in early 2013.

A legacy of reneged agreements by the North, and residual mistrust, make any repeat of the Leap Day Agreement extremely unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Secretary Clinton has direct experience of these negotiations with the DPRK during this period.

She knows full well the pitfalls of negotiating agreements with the DPRK.

And how easily breakthroughs can blow-up into diplomatic failures, and domestic political liabilities, of being accused of “being soft on North Korea”.

It is safe to assume that a U.S. president Hillary Clinton would not pursue such a policy of direct negotiation on the road to bilateral normalization.

As noted above, the DPRK has pushed for bilateral normalization with the United States, including the demands for a Peace Treaty.

And the U.S. has rejected such talks in the absence of meaningful progress on denuclearization.

This scenario, then—short of an unpredictable policy reversal on one or both sides—is unlikely in the short term.

Scenario 5: War

It’s important to think clearly about the dangers of another war on the Korean peninsula, and its enormous costs, to concentrate the mind on what is at stake here.

Many analysts have openly, sometimes recklessly, thrown about military scenarios on this.

This is generally unhelpful.

In May 2016, for example, the U.S.-based geopolitical consultancy, STRATFOR, proposed a scenario of U.S. airstrikes on North Korea in a controversial report.

“In a surprise attack scenario,” it reads, “the primary tools for the task would be stealth aircraft and standoff cruise missiles launched from ships and submarines.”

“Given enough time, the United States could assemble upward of 10 B-2 bombers for a deep-strike mission into North Korea.”

Using airfields in Japan and South Korea and operating under a highly restrictive operational security environment, the U.S. Air Force could probably deploy 24 F-22 aircraft for the mission…”

“With a force of 10 Massive Ordnance Penetrators and 80 900-kilogram GBU-31 JDAMs,” the report claims, “the U.S. B-2 bombers alone are more than enough to dismantle or at least severely damage North Korea’s known nuclear production infrastructure, as well as associated nuclear weapons storage sites.”

In terms of the day after, and North Korea’s response, the STRATFOR report predicts the following:

a) The “partial destruction” of Seoul by conventional North Korean artillery. “If every one of Pyongyang’s 300-mm multiple rocket launcher systems were directed against Seoul, their range would be sufficient to rain fire across the city and beyond. A single volley could deliver more than 350 metric tons of explosives across the South Korean capital, roughly the same amount of ordnance dropped by 11 B-52 bombers.”

b) More than 1,000 ballistic missiles that could strike South Korea.

c) “Ballistic missiles could strike U.S. military positions beyond the Korean Peninsula, specifically in Japan. Whatever the targets, Pyongyang’s existing ballistic missile stockpile could easily deliver approximately 1 kiloton (1,000 metric tons) of high explosives, as well as other nonconventional munitions —chemical, biological or even nuclear.”

d)Because of the inaccuracy of North Korean missile target systems, the above payload would likely strike civilian areas around U.S. bases in the region.

e) Last but not least, the DPRK could respond with 1 to 5 nuclear weapons lobbed at Seoul itself. Even if this is a low-probability risk, on technological grounds, it weighs heavily on U.S. and allied contingency-planning.

Let’s just think about this for one more minute.

What the report doesn’t expound on is the following:

a) The human cost in Seoul.

b) The human cost to the inhabitants of North Korea themselves, living within the direct blast radius of “nuclear weapons storage sites”. We’re talking, here, about setting off potential nuclear explosions within the DPRK, likely taking thousands of innocent lives.

c) Such a “surgical” strike could very easily degenerate into a ground war of attrition, as the regime fought for its very survival, including a sustained North Korean insurgency for years to come, should the war lead—as it seamlessly could—to a regime change scenario. Articles in The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis and elsewhere detail such military scenarios.

d) The unknown immediate political and military reactions of neighbouring countries, including Russia and China.

e) The long-term implications on U.S. security, as well as that of its South Korean and Japanese allies, and the effects of such a strike on the regional security situation in Asia generally; the impact on the U.S.’ global standing, particularly as this would occur in the absence of UNSC authorization, and in the context of the long aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq on the grounds of eliminating WMD.

Is there a role for Track II diplomacy?

Any negotiated, diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile issues are in the hands of national governments, most particularly parties to the Six-Party Talks, including the DPRK regime itself.

They, and specifically their leaders and policy elites, carry a heavy burden of responsibility for the future of the Korean peninsula, and of broader peace and stability in Asia.

Because this is ultimately about more than North Korea, about more than Northeast Asian security.

This is about the future of the security order in Asia and, by implication, the future of the global order.

Multilateral institutions, especially the United Nations, have a role to play.

So far, they have not.

The Korean War occurred under the auspices of UNSC resolution 84 of 1950.

The UN therefore remains relevant to this day.

But thus far, there is no UN special mission.

There needs to be.

At a regional level, the ASEAN Regional Forum, too, may have a modest role to play, as the only regional security forum with the DPRK as a member.

While this forum has not achieved any breakthroughs, it has provided a mechanism for exchanges of views in periods of bilateral diplomatic rupture.

Does this leave any role for track two initiatives by non-governmental actors?

There is possibly some role.

And a number of such processes are underway today.

Despite the setbacks.

The value of such initiatives lie in bridge building with a range of new players in the DPRK regime.

There’s a lack of knowledge as to who many of these personnel are.

Of what dynamics are driving the regime.

Of whether there is any interest within the regime in any off ramp from the current railway tracks leading to hell.

Of whether there is zero real interest at all.

Of what base-line interests would need to be met.

In other words, can second track diplomacy work to test the conditions under which first track diplomacy be possible, or not?

This was the formula followed by the Oslo peace accords.

It’s also the approach adopted over many years in Aceh.

And most recently with the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

On balance, given the stakes, I’m deeply skeptical about any real prospects of success for any such an approach with the DPRK.

Many have failed in the past in such efforts.

This may well be the case in the future.

But in Churchill’s great aphorism, it is always better to “jaw jaw than to war war.”

Future Action

To conclude, I’m concerned about us drifting slowly towards crisis, conflict and even all-out war.

Crazier things have happened in international relations.

De minima, I’m concerned about the emerging “black box” in terms of our deep lack of understanding about the nature, culture and key personalities within the North Korean regime.

The precise formula of any possible solution to the North Korean nuclear question evidently depends on the parties themselves, on their definition of their own interests, and on the compromises to these interests in negotiations.

I am not in the business of telling governments what their national interests should be, nor what positions they should advance, or which agreements they should settle for.

The specifics of a final agreement are a matter for the states concerned.

Short of prescribing an imaginary negotiated solution—which would be a fool’s errand—there are, however, some intermediate steps which may help.

One possible approach involves what is called a strategy of “graduated reciprocity in tension reduction.”

This strategy of GRIT, to use its acronym, was first conceived and employed during the Cold War.

It consists of each party making a series of unilateral gestures of good will, beginning with a small, symbolic gesture to decrease tensions unilaterally.

If the other party reciprocates with a similar move, the cycle can continue in incrementally larger and larger steps until, finally, a crisis is deescalated to the point where meaningful negotiations can resume.

But where to begin?

And with whom?

Experts on this strategy suggest that the more powerful party should make the first gesture of good will, because they are likely to feel less existentially threatened than the other.

Given the combined military, political and economic weight of the United States and its two allies, Japan and South Korea, relative to North Korea, it may make sense for Washington to send the first signal, however small, and wait for a North Korean reciprocal gesture.

There may be no reciprocated measure by the DPRK at all.

In fact, that is my deep suspicion.

Or the DPRK may simply, as they have done with the international community for decades, simply string people along, buying strategic time to complete their nuclear program.

But if such actions were contemplated by the U.S., it would not involve public diplomatic activity.

It would involve operational decisions in the absence of public diplomatic and political commentary.

Such an approach could be advised to the Chinese and the Russians.

They in turn could communicate it through their own channels to the DPRK.

And if it was then met with cold, stony silence, and an absence of substantial reciprocal actions from the North, it has the advantage of demonstrating to Moscow and Beijing that a peaceful strategy has been tried.

Once again, this is all about creating the conditions necessary for negotiations.

It is not about the content or outcome of negotiations themselves.

China, in particular, may be well placed to signal—even if it cannot ensure—that the North Korean government subscribes to the logic of this strategy of gradual tension reduction.

Even if China cannot be an impartial arbiter, for obvious historical and strategic reasons, it can at least serve to dampen North Korean fears, and encourage confidence in a resumption of negotiations.

China has a lot to gain from a peaceful and negotiated solution to the Korean nuclear issue.

Besides preserving geopolitical stability on its doorstep, and preventing a collapse and a possible humanitarian crisis, China (and Russia) would like to see the logic underpinning South Korea’s deployment of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile systems annulled.

If the conditions for substantive negotiations did occur, and again I am skeptical, then it would be important for China to deploy new leverage on Pyongyang, particularly in terms of its economic and energy relationships.

And on the final content of negotiations, the hard issues are then on the table to resolve:

  • Diplomatic recognition
  • A Peace Treaty
  • A long-term compact for Korean national unity
  • External security guarantees for the regime
  • Foreign investment in North Korea
  • Humanitarian supplies
  • And most critically, cancellation of the North Korean nuclear weapons program, and the abolition of its vast arsenal

Again, I am sceptical, but I see no other possible approaches:

  • First, using second track diplomacy to build bridges with the new personnel in the regime.
  • Second, experimentation with a strategy of strategic symmetry, similar to the approach of Graduated Reciprocity in Tension Reduction.
  • Third, policy planners in Beijing and elsewhere adopting an approach of working together on the nature of a final agreement, including the core elements demonstrated above.

The alternative to such an approach is increasingly clear, and governed by a core strategic logic:

  • That the DPRK will not stop in acquiring a nuclear weapons capability to threaten the U.S., Japan, and South Korea as the only means it sees to guarantee the regime’s survival.
  • The U.S., Japan and Korea will not accept the DPRK as a responsible nuclear power under any circumstances, given the history of the regime’s strategic behavior and its belligerent declaratory policy on nuclear weapons use.
  • South Korea and perhaps Japan will deploy THAAD as a “rational” response to a North Korean real nuclear threat, as the only alternative to immediately acquiring their own nuclear weapons capabilities as independent national deterrents, were they to lose confidence in the strategic guarantees of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
  • THAAD will result in an enhancement of China’s strategic nuclear rocket forces (Erpao) to ensure the survivability of its nuclear deterrent in the case of any first strike; in turn setting off chain reactions in other nuclear capitals as a tactical nuclear problem on the Korean peninsula becomes strategic.
  • The likelihood that no U.S. president will tolerate, in the absence of military action, the development of a North Korean ICBM capability with miniaturized warhead that could threaten the continental United States.

My core argument is that, based on these strategic realities, if the DPRK is prepared to negotiate away its nuclear capability, everything else the regime is interested is on the table.

If not, we are on the way to crisis, conflict and war.

Because then we are simply staring at the inevitable policy response to a measurable technical timetable vis-à-vis the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile thresholds.

The future of U.S.-China relations hangs on this.