CD150 Pivot to North Korea

CD150: Pivot to North Korea

Congress is back from vacation and instead of focusing their investigative power on Syria in the wake of President Trump’s first bombing of the Syrian government, Congress focused on North Korea. In this episode, get the background information you will need to understand the daily developments related to North Korea and hear highlights from two Senate Armed Services Committee hearings and a U.N. Security Council meeting during which our plans for North Korea were laid on the table.


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Hearing: Policy and Strategy in the Asia-Pacific, United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, April 25, 2017.

Timestamps & Transcripts

  • 18:52 Senator John McCain: America’s interests in the Asia-Pacific region are deep and enduring. That’s why, for the past 70 years, we’ve worked with our allies and partners to uphold a rules-based order based on principles of free peoples and free markets, open seas, and open skies, the rule of law, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. These ideas have produced unprecedented peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific. But now challenges to this rules-based order are mounting as a threat, not just the nations of the Asia-Pacific region but the United States as well. The most immediate challenge is the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Kim Jong-un’s regime has thrown its full weight behind its quest for nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, and, unfortunately, the regime is making real progress. A North Korean missile with a nuclear payload capable of striking an American city is no longer a distant hypothetical but an imminent danger, one that poses a real and rising risk of conflict.
  • 31:20 Dr. Aaron Friedberg: The goal of Beijing’s strategy has become increasingly clear in the last few years is to create a regional Eurasian order that’s very different from the one we’d been trying to build since the end of the Cold War.
  • 32:03 Dr. Aaron Friedberg: When the Cold War ended, the United States set out to expand the geographic scope of the Western liberal economic and institutional order by integrating the pieces of the former Soviet Union and the former Soviet empire and by accelerating the integration of China—the process that had begun a few years before. As regards China, the United States pursued a two-prong strategy: on one hand, seeking to engage China across all domains, economic in particular but diplomatic in others; and at the same time, working with our allies and partners and maintaining our own forces in the region to preserve a balance of power that was favorable to our interests and the security of our allies. And the goals of that policy were to preserve stability, to deter the possibility of aggression, while waiting for engagement to work its magic. The U.S. hoped, in effect, to tame and ultimately to transform China, to encourage its leaders to see their interests as lying in preservation of that order, and to set in motion processes that would lead, eventually, to the economic and political liberalization of that country.
  • 37:53 Dr. Aaron Friedberg: Economically, they’ve been using the growing gravitational pull of their economy to draw others towards them and also to become increasingly open in using economic threats and punishments to try to shape the behavior of others in the region, including U.S. allies; as Dr. Cha mentioned, Korea; and also the Philippines.
  • 42:27 Dr. Aaron Friedberg: And while there’s obviously a limit to what we can and should say in public, we are at a point, I think, where we need to be able to explain to our allies, our possible adversaries, and ourselves how we would fight and win a war in Asia, should that ever become necessary.
  • 45:50 Kelly Magsamen: First, we need to increase the pressure on North Korea as a necessary predicate to any other option. China is central to that, but we can’t rely only on Chinese pressure. We also need to be realistic. Kim Jong-un is not going to unilaterally disarm because of international pressure. Pressure alone is not going to solve the problem. Second, military options should remain on the table, but they are extremely high risk and should be a last resort. We should not kid ourselves here: a conflict on the peninsula would be unlike anything we have seen in decades. North Korea is not a Syria, it’s not an Iraq; the consequences could be extremely high.
  • 55:51 Dr. Ashley J. Tellis: I think it would be very helpful for the administration to support your initiative, Senator McCain, with respect to the Asia-Pacific Stability Initiative. In fact, urgent funding at levels that approximate those are for the European Reassurance Initiative.
  • 56:32 Dr. Ashley J. Tellis: In the near term, this will require shifting additional combat power to the theater, remedying shortfalls in critical munitions, expanding logistics’ capabilities, increasing joint exercises and training, and improving force resiliency by enabling a more dispersed deployment posture. But the longer term is just as crucial, and the demands of the longer term cannot be avoided indefinitely. Here, I believe, bipartisan support will be necessary for developing and rapidly integrating various revolutionary technologies into the joint force—technologies that will emphasize stealth, long-range, and unmanned capabilities as well as doubling down on our advantages in undersea warfare.
  • 1:05:47 Dr. Aaron Friedberg: China’s been playing a game with us, for at least 15 years, on this issue. When we get especially concerned about what the North Koreans are doing, and we go to the Chinese and ask them for their help, what they’ve done in the past is to apply limited increments of pressure—they did it in 2003 to get the North Koreans to agree to sit down, what became six-party talks—but at the same time, almost simultaneously, as Victor suggests, they’re enabling the North Korean regime to continue by allowing continued economic exchange across their border. The Chinese have also allowed, or the Chinese authorities have at least looked aside as Chinese-based companies have exported to North Korea components that were essential to the development of their ballistic missiles, and probably other parts of their special-weapons programs. I’m not at all optimistic that the Chinese are going to play a different game with us now than they did in the past. One thing I would add, though: aside from military pressure, which for reasons that you suggest, Senator McCain, is I think of questionable plausibility, there are ways in which we could increase economic pressure on the North Korean regime, particularly by imposing further economic sanctions and especially financial sanctions. We did that in the Bush administration. I think it was actually something that caused a good deal of pain. We backed away from it for various reasons. I think it was a mistake to have done that. One of the reasons, my understanding, that we haven’t been willing to push on this harder is that it probably would involve sanctioning entities that are based in China, and I think we’ve been reluctant to do that because of our concerns about upsetting the relationship with China. I think if we’re going to be serious about this, we probably are going to have to go down that road.
  • 1:08:37 Kelly Magsamen: Now is the time to try to make China understand that the status quo is worse for them than all other scenarios, and to do that, I think we need to hold their interests at risk, and what I mean by that is somewhat of what Dr. Friedberg said, which is we need to really think hard about secondary sanctions on Chinese banks. I actually think we should go out and do it now. I don’t think we should actually wait. I don’t think that holding it in advance is actually going to induce Chinese cooperation. So now is the time to demonstrate to China that we’re serious in that regard.
  • 1:15:45 Dr. Aaron Friedberg: There is in the long run—I hesitate to use this term because it’s fallen into disfavor for good and bad reasons—but the ultimate solution to this problem is regime change unless and until there’s a change in the character of the North Korean regime and certainly the identity of the current leadership. There’s absolutely no prospect that I can see that this problem will get better.
  • 1:26:05 Dr. Ashley J. Tellis: We cannot do anything else without exhausting the alternatives offered by diplomacy because dealing with North Korea, at the end of the day, will require a coalition effort, and we have to satisfy the expectations of our coalition partners that we’ve made every effort in the interim to deal with the challenge. And so we have to think of it in terms of a multi-step game. As Dr. Cha highlighted, the immediate objective should be to get the North Korean regime back to the negotiating table. The ultimate objective must be to hope that there will be evolutionary change in the regime.
  • 2:07:45 Dr. Aaron Friedberg: If you ask what would be the sort of outer limit of what China could do— Unknown Speaker: Mm-hmm. Friedberg: —assuming that it was willing to do almost anything, it could bring North Korean economy to its knees, which it’s pretty close to that already; it could cut off the flows of funds that go across the border into North Korea, partly from the so-called illicit activities that the North Koreans engage in; it could interdict components that flow into North Korea through China that support the special-weapons programs; it could do a lot.
Hearing: United States Pacific Command and United States Forces Korea, United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, April 27, 2017.
  • Witness
    • Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., USN: Commander, United States Pacific Command

Timestamps & Transcripts

  • 16:44 John McCain: America’s interests in the Asia-Pacific region are deep and enduring. That’s why, for the past 70 years, we’ve worked with our allies and partners to uphold a rules-based order based on the principles of free peoples and free markets, open seas, and open skies, and the rule of law, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. These ideas have produced unprecedented peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific. But now challenges to this rules-based order are mounting, and they threaten not just the nations of the Asia-Pacific region but the United States as well. The most immediate threat is the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Kim Jong-un’s regime has thrown its full weight behind its quest for nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, and, unfortunately, the regime is making real progress. A North Korean missile with a nuclear payload capable of striking an American city is no longer a distant hypothetical but an imminent danger, one that poses a real and rising risk of conflict.
  • 19:47 John McCain: As its behavior toward South Korea indicates over the last several years, China has acted less and less like a responsible stakeholder of the rules-based order in the region and more like a bully. It has economically coerced its neighbors, increased its provocations in the East China Sea, and militarized the South China Sea. Meanwhile, with a rebalance policy too heavy on rhetoric and too light on action, years of senseless defense cuts and now the disastrous decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, U.S. policy has failed to adapt to the scale and velocity of China’s challenge to the rules-based order.
  • 21:44 John McCain: At our hearing earlier this week, our panel of expert witnesses agreed there was a strong merit for an “Asia-Pacific Stability Initiative.” This Initiative could enhance U.S. military power through targeted funding to realign our force posture in a region, improve operationally relevant infrastructure, fund additional exercises, pre-position equipment, and build capacity with our allies and partners. Admiral Harris, I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this kind of an initiative.
  • 24:26 Senator Jack Reed: While North Korea poses an immediate national security threat, we must not lose sight of the potential long-term threat that China poses to the rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific region. Whether it be economic coercion of its small and more vulnerable neighbors or undermining the freedom of navigation that we all depend upon, China has not demonstrated a willingness to rise as a responsible global leader. Therefore, I believe it is critical that we empower and engage countries in Southeast Asia and South Asia to protect their own waterways and provide them with economical alternatives to maintain regional stability, preserve U.S. standing in Asia, and allow the economic growth and stability that has characterized the region for the last 50 years to continue.
  • 35:41 John McCain: What does THAAD do for us? Admiral Harris: THAAD enables us and our South Korean allies to defend South Korea, or a big portion of South Korea, against the threat from North Korea. It is aimed at North Korea, the systems, and it poses no threat to China. McCain: But isn’t it incredibly difficult to counter the 4,000 artillery pieces that the North Koreans have on the DMZ, which could attack a city of 26 million people? Harris: It is, sir, and THAAD is not designed to counter those kinds of basic weapons. McCain: And what is designed to do that? Anything? Harris: We do not have those kinds of weapons that can counter those rockets once they’re launched. McCain: And they can launch—they have the capability of a launch of those rockets. Harris: At this very moment, they have that capability, Senator.
  • 1:02:00 Senator Roger Wicker: There are these 4,000 short-range missiles, and your testimony is that there is essentially no defense from the south for those— Admiral Harris: Right. Wicker: —short-range missiles. Is that correct? Harris: And those aren’t missiles. Those are mostly artillery. Wicker: Artillery. Okay. Artillery. Harris: And so— Wicker: And there’s no defense? Harris: Right. I mean, you’re trying to shoot down an artillery round, right. Wicker: Okay. And then, the chairman asked you, and I don’t think I understood the answer, what does THAAD get us? Harris: THAAD allows us an intercept capability to shoot down, at the high-altitude level, ballistic missiles that go from North Korea to South Korea.
  • 1:57:37 Admiral Harris: What we said was, the Carl Vinson was leaving Singpore, truncating its exercise, cancelling is port visit, and heading to Northeast Asia. Unknown Speaker: But— Harris: And that’s where it is today. It’s within striking power, striking range of North Korea if the president were to call on it.
  • 2:16:17 Senator Lindsay Graham: It should be the policy of the United States to never allow North Korea to develop an ICBM with a warhead that could hit America. Admiral Harris: I believe that’s correct. Graham: Okay. Do you believe that the only way they’ll change that policy, their desire, is if they believe that the regime could be taken down by us if they continue to develop an ICBM? Without credible military threat in the mind of the North Koreans they’re going to plow ahead? Harris: I believe that generally, but I believe that China might be able to exert its influence. Graham: Do you believe China could change North Korea’s behavior, absent a belief by North Korea, that we would use military force to stop their ICBM program? Harris: I do not. Graham: Okay. Do you believe that China would act stronger and more bold if they believe credible military force was on the table to stop North Korea? Harris: I do. Graham: So, it seems to me that the policy of the United States, given the admiral’s advice and you are really good at what you do, that we should all agree that it’s not good for America for North Korea to have an ICBM with a warhead attached, and it’s really not good for China, is it? Harris: I believe it is not good for China. Graham: Well, why don’t they believe that? Harris: Because they have their own calculus, their own decision process. Graham: Do you think they’re beginning to reshape their calculus in light of our reaction to North Korea? Harris: I hope so, but it’s early days. Graham: Okay. In terms of China’s leverage on North Korea, you said it was substantial. Harris: Their leverage is potentially substantial. Graham: Substantial. The best way to avoid a military conflict with North Korea over their missile program is for China to wake up North Korea to the reality of what threat that presents to North Korea and China. Is that fair to say? Harris: That is fair to say. Graham: Is it also fair to say that we do not have any intentions of invading North Korea at all? I mean, that’s not on our—nobody’s told you, “Get ready to invade North Korea.” Harris: That is not fair to say, sir. I believe the president has said that all options are on the table. Graham: Yeah, but, I mean, we’re not going to just go in and take North Korea down for the heck of it. Harris: Sir, I don’t want to get into what we could or could not do. Graham: Okay. Well, North Korea thinks we’re going to invade in any moment. Do you think that’s part of our national security strategy is, without provocation to attack North Korea? Harris: I think North Korea has provided provocation already in terms of— Graham: But without provocation, it’s not our policy to attack North Korea. Harris: They have provoked us already, sir. Graham: Yeah, I said but if they stopped it, they don’t have anything to worry about. Harris: Then we will have to look at it. You know, that’s a decision— Graham: That’s all I’m saying. Harris: That’s a decision that the president would make.
UN Security Council Meeting: Secretary Tillerson Chairs UN Security Council Meeting on Denuclearization of North Korea, April 28, 2017.

Timestamps & Transcripts

  • 2:00 Antonio Guterres (UN Secretary General): The Security Council first adopted the resolution on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK, nuclear issue in 1993 when it urged the DPRK not to withdraw from the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Twenty-four years later and despite extensive efforts, the challenge has defied resolution. In response to the DPRK’s accelerated nuclear and ballistic missile activities, the Security Council has adopted two sanctions resolutions and met 11 times in emergency consultations since January 2016. During this period, the DPRK conducted two nuclear tests, more than 30 launches using ballistic missile technology, and various other activities relating to the nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Its launches using ballistic-missile technology, have included tests of short, medium, intermediate range and submarine-launched ballistic missiles as well as the placement of a satellite in orbit. These tests and launches are clear violations of Security Council resolutions, and the absence of coordination and notifications in advance of these launches, other than the space launch of 7 February 2016, are also contrary to internationally accepted regulations and standards adopted by the International Maritime Organization and International Civil Aviation Organization.
  • 11:30 Secretary Rex Tillerson: We have said this before, and it bears repeating: the policy of strategic patience is over. Additional patience will only mean acceptance of a nuclear North Korea. The more we bide our time, the sooner we will run out of it.
  • 12:27 Secretary Rex Tillerson: Our goal is not regime change nor do we desire to threaten the North Korean people or destabilize the Asia-Pacific region. Over the years we have withdrawn our own nuclear weapons from South Korea and offered aid to North Korea as proof of our intent to de-escalate the situation and normalize relations. Since 1995 the United States has provided over $1.3 billion in aid to North Korea, and we look forward to resuming our contributions once the DPRK begins to dismantle its nuclear weapons and missile technology programs.
  • 13:35 Secretary Rex Tillerson: I propose all nations take these three actions, beginning today: first, we call on UN member states to fully implement the commitments they have made regarding North Korea. This includes all measures required in resolutions 2321 and 2270. Those nations which have not fully enforced these resolutions fully discredit this body. Second, we call on countries to suspend or downgrade diplomatic relations with North Korea. North Korea exploits its diplomatic privileges to fund its illicit nuclear and missile technology programs, and constraining its diplomatic activity will cut off a flow of needed resources. In light of North Korea’s recent actions, normal relations with the DPRK are simply not acceptable. Third, we must increase North Korea’s financial isolation. We must levy new sanctions on DPRK entities and individuals supporting its weapons and missile programs, and tighten those that are already in place. The United States, also, would much prefer countries and people in question to own up to their lapses and correct their behavior themselves, but we will not hesitate to sanction third-country entities and individuals supporting the DPRK’s illegal activities. We must bring maximum economic pressure by severing trade relationships that directly fund the DPRK’s nuclear missile program. I call on the international community to suspend the flow of North Korean guest workers and to impose bans on North Korean imports, especially coal. We must all do our share, but China, accounting for 90 percent of North Korean trade, China alone has economic leverage over Pyongyang that is unique, and its role is, therefore, particularly important. The U.S. and China have held very productive exchanges on this issue, and we look forward to further actions that build on what China has already done. Lastly, as we have said before, all options for responding to future provocation must remain on the table. Diplomatic and financial levers of power will be backed up by a willingness to counteract North Korean aggression, with military action if necessary.
  • 36:02 Wang Yi (China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs): Mr. President, China is not the focal point of the problem on the peninsula. I think the key to solving the nuclear issue on the peninsula does not lie in the hands of the Chinese.
  • 37:05 Wang Yi: The dual-track approach aims to promote parallel progress in the denuclearization of the peninsula and the establishment of a peace mechanism on the peninsula in a synchronized and reciprocal manner, ultimately achieving both goals together. The suspension-for-suspension proposal, which calls for the suspension of nuclear and missile activities by the DPRK and the suspension of large-scale military exercises by the U.S. and the ROK, seeks to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table, thus initiating the first step of the dual-track approach.
  • 40:25 Wang Yi: Given the grave situation on the peninsula, China strongly urges all parties to remain calm and exercise restraint and avoid provocative rhetoric or actions that will lead to miscalculation. What I want to stress is that there is and should be no double standard on this issue. While we demand the DPRK to observe the Council’s resolutions and stop advancing its nuclear and missile development, we also demand the U.S., the ROK, and other parties to refrain from conducting or even expanding military exercises and deployment against the DPRK.
  • 41:06 Wang Yi: All parties should comprehensively appreciate and fully implement DPRK related Security Council’s resolutions, in addition to introducing sanctions on the DPRK, the resolutions adopted do date also ask for resumption of the six-party talks, avoidance of acceleration of tensions, not to mention [unclear], in other words, imposing sanctions [unclear] talks about the [unclear] Council resolutions. We may not choose one over the other. We’ll only implement what we see fit.
  • 42:30 Wang Yi: Before I conclude, I want to reiterate China’s firm opposition against a U.S. deployment of THAAD anti-missile system in the ROK. It’s a move that seriously undermines the strategic security of China and other countries in the region and damages the trust and the cooperation amongst the parties on the peninsula issue. It is detrimental to achieving denuclearization and maintaining long-term stability on the peninsula. China was again urges [unclear] parties to immediately stop the deployment process.
  • 2:03:05 Secretary Rex Tillerson: We will not negotiate our way back to the negotiating table with North Korea. We will not reward their violations of past resolutions. We will not reward their bad behavior with talks. We will only engage in talks with North Korea when they exhibit a good-faith commitment to abiding by the Security Council resolutions and their past promises to end their nuclear programs.

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