[Interview] Can candlelight energy spark new era of inter-Korean relations?

Posted on : 2017-04-11 16:34 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Professor discusses facing next government in Seoul, including relations with North Korea, the US and China
John Delury
John Delury

John Delury is an Associate Professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul and an expert on North Korean affairs. He conducted a two-round interview with a Hankyoreh reporter, consisting of a meeting at his office in Seoul on Mar. 23, then follow-up discussion by email on Mar. 27. He discussed possible North Korea policy approaches of the next South Korean administration, as well as the Trump administration in the US.

Hankyoreh (Hani): Could you give us your general review of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent trip to northeast Asia?

John Delury (Delury): Obviously North Korea was the central question on the trip. We should be careful because sometimes North Korea hides other parts of the agenda. We always talk about North Korea as this hard problem, but it’s also very useful, for example when the US wants to encourage South Korea and Japan to get along, the best way to do that is to talk about North Korea.

And similarly it’s more complicated in US-China relations. But again the list of issues in US-China relations is incredibly complex. And Tillerson’s whole trip may seem focused on North Korea, when actually trade is a bigger issue in the US-China relationship. But maybe that’s too complicated, or they are not still ready to talk about that yet, so they just talk about North Korea.

So it’s kind of a footnote, I think we should be a little careful to assume that the trip was just all about North Korea, but publicly it was. And we did get the secretary talking quite a bit about North Korea. He didn‘t clarify the strategy or the policy, however.

He sounded pretty hard lined in Tokyo and Seoul and then he softened out quite a bit in Beijing. He talked about ‘all options on the table’; I think the military option was exaggerated in some of the coverage because it’s exciting and it gets attention.

But when I looked carefully at the transcript and the context, I did not see a signal of ‘we’re going to do pre-emptive strikes’. And there has been a fair amount of reporting, including administration officials saying the pre-emptive strike has been more or less taken off the table in this policy review.

It doesn’t mean the risk is not there. But in terms of the review, in terms of the strategy and the plan, there is no sign that it’s heading towards preemptive strike. And actually I think if you look carefully at the trip, you see that.

There is a kind of bit of a distortion that he was threatening war. I don’t think he was doing that.

Instead I think, my takeaway looking at his trip and the other reporting it looks like Trump is heading down the same dead end as the Obama administration.

And despite saying “strategic patience has ended”, essentially this is continuance of strategic patience. Strategic patience was never in the Obama administration’s eyes a policy of doing nothing. It was a policy of using, relying on pressure, and on sanctions, and that means relying on China to push Pyongyang to the point where it unilaterally says “OK, you’re right, this is a bad idea. We want to give up our nuclear weapons, how can we do it? Help us do it.”

And that’s basically where Trump’s review seems to be heading.

Learning the history takes a long time

Hani: A few days ago on CNN you criticized Tillerson about how he mentioned in all three countries that ‘America has provided 1.3 billion dollars to North Korea, and North Korea has detonated nuclear weapons and missiles in return’. Why do you think this was uncalled for?

Delury: First of all I would say this happens in a Korean context too, where you see these superficial critics of the Sunshine Policy to say “liberals gave them five or ten billion dollars, and then they used that to build their nuclear weapons”. And it’s a way to slap a big number on a highly complex problem with a lot of variation over time. And then it gives something to cling to without understanding the history.

Frankly I have no hard feelings against Rex Tillerson. I don’t know the guy, he seems actually pretty moderate. But I’m pretty sure that he does not know the history of North Korea policy.

It actually takes years to understand that history and you can’t read it in a book even if you had the time to read the book, you have to meet the people.

Hani: Do you think the North Korean nuclear and missile threats could come to an end by just pressing the North to the maximum level and imposing tougher sanctions?

Delury: No, I certainly don’t. Sanctions and pressure approach does not achieve progress with North Korea. I would say that later Lee Myung-bak period is the best example of that where the focus was almost entirely on that. That approach just does not work.

Thinking that it’s a matter of making North Korea hurt enough, shows a fundamental misunderstanding of a key attribute of the DPRK state and society which has an extraordinary capacity to absorb pain. They have maybe suffered more than anyone since 1945. They’re like a boxer, they’ll never beat you but you can never knock them down. No matter how hard you hit them, they get back up.

Hani: The people who believe sanctions are a magic wand attribute the failure of sanctions to China’s role. How do you assess that claim?

Delury: I think the origins of that and what sustains it is because Americans really don’t want to deal with North Korea. They don’t want to own the issue. There’s no appetite, there’s no payoff, there’s no political incentive to really deal with North Korea. There’s no lobby, there’s no money, there’s no votes, there’s no symbolism. If you’re an American politician there’s not much in it for you.

And so that I think is a big part of why constantly Americans look to china to solve the problem. It’s not only about the impression that China would be the key to the pressure. It’s that they just want China to take this over.

America has some sort of military alliance with 60 countries. China, despite being now a quite big power, has only one defense treaty ally and that is North Korea. So, from an American perspective it‘s like “why don’t you guys take care of this, it’s your only ally”.

You can turn down that against the Americans to help explain why it doesn’t work to say ‘Ok America, solve the human rights problem in Saudi Arabia, get Israel to give up their nuclear arsenal. They are all under your umbrella.’

Great powers can’t actually control little powers in many cases.

Are all options really on the table?

Hani: The Trump administration is saying that “all options are on the table”, but the signs indicate that they are not going to go on with the military option.

Delury: I think the people included in the policy review across the government and in the NSC are sober people who can do the math and see that A: you can’t really get rid of North Korea’s stuff, so it’s not preemptive. And B: North Korea is going to retaliate. And then what? We hit them back? Are we going to invade North Korea?

We shouldn’t even talk about a preemptive strike. Again there is no such thing as preemptive strike. I think a more useful distinction for this issue is a pre meditated attack verses a crime of passion or a war of passion.

And it’s the latter that we should be worried about. I don’t think the review is going to call for a pre meditated attack but as we know, things can happen very suddenly here, unexpected things.

There can be a clash between the two Koreas, especially between now and into the next president’s term. I would say that it’s an especially dangerous period of time cecause North Korea has a high threshold for risk taking.

Hani: Do you think the chance of preemptive strike has gone up with Trump, compared to the Obama administration?

Delury: Yes. It started before Trump, too. There was a shift in the way expert people talk about so called preemptive strike. All these euphemisms creeping in to the discussion moving from fringe to mainstream, not central but moving toward the mainstream.

And that predated Trump, people were starting to say “maybe there’ll be no option but to do a strike”.

That was in the air and that’s dangerous because it’s people outside of Trump normalizing the idea saying, “Well maybe we’ll just have to do that”. Now there’s been a lot of push back against it too, it’s not the mainstream, it’s not the consensus view but it came into the discussion.

Hani: Could there be talks between US and North Korea?

Delury: I did have greater hopes that Trump would pursue negotiation. Trump has said some promising things, smarter things on North Korea than Hillary Clinton. Trump’s first comment on the campaign trip basically on North Korea was “why don’t I talk to the guy, I should talk to him”. And there have been other little signals along the way.

I have not completely abandoned hope and still at this stage, the best negotiation would be happening in total secrecy. But from everything we can see, it doesn‘t look very promising.

And there has been a recent turn where cabinet officials starting to talk “You can’t do that, you just wouldn’t do that” and that is running down the dead end faster.

When you say as the UN ambassador Nicky Hailey said Kim Jong-un is irrational, and there so there is no point talking. If that is her personal sentiment that’s fine. But if she is speaking in behalf of the Trump administration and the president thinks that way, then we’re in big trouble.

Could a nuclear freeze get dialogue going?

Hani: You said a nuclear freeze could be a starter for talks. But it’s not an option that the conservatives in Washington and Seoul are considering. Why?

Delury: I don’t think I agree with that premise. One very recent example I would point to is Richard Haass, He’s the head of Council of Foreign Relations. He is quite conservative. In a recent column he said very bluntly that a freeze would be prudent.

I think that the notion of a freeze is a lot of it is they start with a view of North Korea that it is fundamentally duplicitous that you can never trust North Korea ever nor make any deal with the North Koreans.

I don’t think the freeze argument is dead on arrival or Pollyannaish. It’s a tough sell, though.

Hani: Do you think XI and Trump might strike some kind of deal about the North Korean issue in their upcoming summit?

Delury: I’m skeptical that they’re going to make any progress. North Korea is not a US-China issue. It has implications for the US-China relationship and the US-China dynamic affects the issue. But progress on the nuclear issue will come when the United States goes directly to Pyongyang to deal with it.

And progress more broadly I think will come through improvements in inter-Korean relations. I think Seoul and Washington need to be in the lead and stop looking at China. Then China can support that. There’s a lot of things China can do in a supporting role, but not in a leadership role.

New S. Korean government’s approach to inter-Korean relations

Hani: What would you suggest to the new Korean administration to make a difference in the North Korean issue?

Delury: If the liberals win, they have worked on this issue and that‘s good. But there’s probably a danger there too. I think it’s critical for South Korean liberals to do more than go back to 2007 and pick up where they left off, because things have changed.

The one I start with is you’re dealing with Kim Jong-un not Kim Jong-il. So you’ve got to rebuild the whole strategy. And Kim Jong-un is quite different from his father in style and in substance.

I think that the next leader here has an opportunity to have a much better working relationship with Kim.

I think Kim Jong-un wants that. He has introduced basic reforms he has not tried to kill the market economy. He basically accepts it. And I think if he can be given that modicum of security with the help of the next South Korean leader he can really move to the second half of byongjin.

South Korea obviously is coming out of an incredible moment in history. The South Korean people threw out their democratically elected government peacefully and legally, so that’s a very empowering thing. They can also harness that energy into a new era of inter-Korean relations.

Hani: What would you suggest to the Trump administration on the North Korean nuclear issue?

Delury: I can see where they‘re going, and it’s not going to work. I could say the one biggest thing is the only military option is war. So unless you want full scale war on the Korean peninsula, don‘t even pretend about preemptive strikes and surgical strikes and that kind of thing.

And if you want war you need to get the approval of the South Korean government and people as well, because they’re the ones who are going to pay the price.

I think it is important for American people to understand that North Korea is not looking for war. If war happens it‘s going to be because the United States makes it happen. South Koreans don’t want war.

North Korea is developing its capabilities, that’s true. But North Korea is not about to launch an attack on Seattle once it has the capability. I think it’s important we don‘t just hammer away so that a crime of passion doesn’t occur .

The second part is I think they’re going to be pressuring for a while and they’re going to run in to the same frustrations as the Obama administration. Even if they can succeed in squeezing North Korea harder, what‘s the outcome going to be? North Korea will just advance its capability that much more.

So my advice would be to them to at least be ready to acknowledge it’s failed when it fails. And try to get this over with quickly. Work constructively with the next government in Seoul on a truly new approach. The new approach is going to be negotiation, lowering tensions not showing strength, so leave yourself the space to do it.

How does S. Korea manage being stuck between China and the US?

Hani: What would you like to advise the next South Korean administration in terms of foreign relations, especially as South Korea is kind of stuck in between the US and China?

Delury: A smart strategy will probably require making decisions based on the merits in each case, rather than “taking sides” one way or the other. By taking principled stands, firmly grounded in South Korea’s national interest, both the American and Chinese sides will probably come to accept Seoul’s position, even if one or the other is not happy about it.

Hani: How should South Korea respond to China’s retaliation caused by the deployment of THAAD?

Delury: The ideal solution to the THAAD conundrum would be to address the root problem. If the new president here can help to catalyze a security deal with Pyongyang, including, for example, a freeze on missile program development, then the US and ROK could take a second look at the necessity for the battery’s deployment. There may be other “work arounds” to be found, as the Chinese have suggested, such as substituting a less “threatening” radar system to accompany the missile interceptors. There is no easy, obvious solution to THAAD, since President Xi Jinping has become personally invested in opposing deployment, while Americans will likely see it as a litmus test of loyalty to the Alliance. THAAD will be high on the list of foreign policy challenges facing South Korea’s new president on day one.

By Kim Ji-eun, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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