Van Jackson on Dealing With a Nuclear North Korea

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Van Jackson on Dealing With a Nuclear North Korea

“There would be no diplomatic outreach without Kim Jong Un crossing the nuclear threshold.”

Van Jackson on Dealing With a Nuclear North Korea
Credit: Flickr/ Stefan Krasowski

While the issue of managing a nuclear North Korea has been with the international community for a while, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have raised the stakes over the past few years, with an initial crisis that sparked fears of nuclear war followed by unprecedented diplomacy, with continued uncertainty over its future direction.

The Diplomat’s senior editor, Prashanth Parameswaran, recently spoke to Van Jackson, senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington and a former defense official under the Obama administration, about managing a nuclear North Korea. The conversation occurred following the release of Jackson’s new book, On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War.

The book begins with a useful exploration of how North Korean strategic thinking about coercion in general and its nuclear weapons in particular. You make the case that the North Korean “theory of victory” is based on the twin beliefs of the imperative of the offense and adversarial reputations that date back to the Cold War. Do you see a lot of continuity with North Korean behavior today, and what might be some changes, if any, that we could see in this in the coming years amid the internal and external changes Pyongyang experiences?

Any policy we decide toward North Korea should be based on how we expect it to respond — this was a fatal flaw in the surprisingly well-executed maximum pressure campaign the Trump administration pursued in 2017. The idea that pressure on North Korea would lead to capitulation was based on an assumption about North Korean behavior that simply doesn’t bear out in its history. The Trump administration could have designed an effective, stable policy toward North Korea around one basic fact: historically North Korea responds to pressure with pressure. I use the “theory of victory” chapter to explain why that’s the case; where this strategic impulse for retaliatory pressure comes from. It basically builds on a major insight from my first book, which argued that reputations (judgments made about an enemy based on its past words and deeds) figured heavily in North Korean (and even U.S.) thinking about adversaries. Even more than changing the quixotic goal of denuclearization, the one thing that the U.S. needs to acknowledge and change is this basic assumption.

You also make a useful distinction between the non-nuclear dangers North Korea has presented for decades and the dangers that are specific to its more recent introduction of its nuclear weapons. The nuclear dangers have consequences not only for how North Korea thinks and acts, but also in terms of how its adversaries respond and the risks of miscalculation for all sides. How would you frame those nuclear-specific dangers, and how do you see that evolving over time? 

The presence of nukes dramatically elevates the stakes of everything… for the United States. The stakes for North Korea have been continuously existential, and still are. But for the United States, the stakes have evolved from Korea being a local security problem to being a global and homeland security problem — because of nukes and intercontinental ballistic missiles. And it may not sound like such a big deal, increasing the stakes. But think about walking on a balance beam one foot above the ground versus the same balance beam 1,000 feet above the ground. The task of walking on the beam is the same, but suddenly your psychology is different; you frame and weigh everything differently, and in a disastrous way when you raise the height of the beam. Elevating the stakes is a game-changer. So now there are all kinds of objectivity-warping risks, plus new options for strike and new accidents that would exist if there weren’t nukes. Those dangers will always exist as long as North Korea has nukes, but they’re only acute as long as the North remains an adversary of the United States. China’s a good point of comparison. Nixon’s “opening” of China muted the nuclear dangers it posed to the United States and made it a kind of background issue in the relationship, but the threat never fully went away.

When analyzing the factors leading up to the U.S.-North Korea nuclear crisis in 2017, you take a step back from the two personalities that dominate the conversation – U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – and focus instead on longer-term factors at play and what both leaders inherited. How would you characterize how that inheritance shaped the calculations of both sides even before we had the emergence of these leaders?

Trump and Kim were both boxed into a situation prone to crisis. Trump put his unique rhetorical flavor on everything — which, as I talk about in the book, introduced a lot of needless extra risk of war. But the crisis itself was a function of the underlying strategic conflict of interest: rightly or wrongly, the United States sees North Korean nukes as a threat, and North Korea sees its nukes as the only guarantor of its security. That conflict of interest is what drove the crisis, and it still exists. We’re seeing now the real limits of agency as Trump has spent the last six months trying to change the narrative about North Korea so that the U.S. no longer sees it as a nuclear threat, yet sanctions are stuck in place and official Washington is 180-degrees off from Trump’s position when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang.

For Kim, he carried out his father’s and grandfather’s vision of a nuclear North Korea; his agency mattered only in how (and how quickly) he got it done. But he inherited a nuclear industry, two successful (ish) nuclear tests, a moribund economy, and a fraught geopolitical situation in which the United States was putting the squeeze on North Korea during the Obama administration. Of course you’re going to double down on nukes. And thus you have a strategic conflict of interest, reinforced by extreme path-dependency in the decisions of both sides. All the diplomacy of 2018 really was a show – theater — precisely because 1) it doesn’t/won’t change this underlying conflict of interest that fueled the crisis, and 2) a renewed crisis has simply been deferred to a later date.

You make the argument that while maximum pressure may have helped actually spark the crisis, it was actually the North Korean achievement of crossing the nuclear threshold on its side that arguably ended it because it made the option of preventive war much more unlikely. But there is also reference to the role of other actors, be it those counseling against more aggressive options on the U.S. side or the South Korean government’s track with North Korea as well. How would you characterize the relative importance of these factors? 

Unpacking the causal hierarchy for how/why the crisis ended is tough because factors were interconnected. But I make a pretty strong case that there were five necessary conditions for crisis termination, roughly in the following order of importance:

  1. Kim achieved a plausible retaliatory strike capability that could reach Washington (which he successfully tested on November 28, 2017). This allowed him to pivot to diplomacy from a position of strength. There would be no diplomatic outreach without Kim crossing the nuclear threshold.
  2. Kim’s willingness to prioritize economic development and sanctions relief after — and only after — securing a reliable nuclear deterrent.
  3. A progressive administration in South Korea. Kim’s outreach to South Korea in his famous 2018 New Year’s speech is what catalyzed all the diplomacy of 2018, and that only happened because there was a cooperative, progressive government in Seoul.
  4. South Korea was hosting the winter Olympics in 2018. Without the PyeongChang Olympics, there was no specific object or event around which to coordinate diplomatic outreach. South Korea had tried to jumpstart diplomacy with North Korea throughout the crisis but to no avail. The Olympics gave the two Koreas a concrete thing to focus their diplomatic talks on.
  5. Trump’s capriciousness played a role in allowing the crisis to end. Effectively, Trump got outmaneuvered when other presidents probably would not have, but in this case that’s okay because getting outmaneuvered meant ending the crisis and reducing the immediate (not long-term) risks of war.

I often tell people we were lucky we avoided war in 2017 and early 2018 because anytime you rely on this many necessary conditions to have a crisis end, you really are lucky. Odds are quite long that this many things can work favorably. Change any one of these factors and the crisis doesn’t end.

Despite the resolution of the crisis, 2018 has seen a lot of hype but little movement toward actual denuclearization, even as we have seen developments such as the Trump-Kim summit and some movement on inter-Korean relations. But there are still a few more years where we expect to see both Trump and Kim in office and the U.S.-North Korea situation continuing to play out. How do you expect what both sides have learned from each other in the crisis to affect how they continue to make calculations about how to deal with each other into 2019 and beyond? 

The diplomacy of 2018 has, predictably, gone nowhere, but it has led to one change on the North Korean side: Kim is now pursuing a wedge strategy not just to split the U.S. and South Korea (that was already the case), but to split Trump from the rest of the U.S. By appealing to Trump on a personal level, Kim is able to play for time. He’s already decided to wait out the Trump administration — I’m 100 percent certain nothing meaningful will happen to realize North Korean denuclearization under Trump because Kim can’t afford to make himself strategically vulnerable when he knows the Trump administration itself is both a historical anomaly and a ticking time bomb. If North Korea is ever willing to make serious concessions on its nuclear program, it will be after the Trump administration. That’s something that the Trump administration refuses to see, and even most of Washington doesn’t yet realize.

It’s often mentioned that the most likely scenario in the longer term is the de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, with a shift of focus to a path that resembles arms control rather than denuclearization. Leaving aside the political difficulties of a U.S. shift to such an approach, how do you see this actually playing out, and what are the opportunities and risks inherent in such a process and the various scenarios that could arise from it given the fact that, as you’ve pointed out, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are only part of the threat it poses? 

North Korea is already de facto recognized as a nuclear state. It’ll never become formally recognized in the sense of joining the NPT as a nuclear state or anything, but informally it’s engaging in diplomacy with basically the entire world as a state that can nuke basically everybody. That’s de facto recognition. The problem is that U.S. policy refuses to accommodate that reality, even as individual diplomats will privately acknowledge reality. People think you have to hold rhetorically to the full denuclearization line because if you don’t the world will fall apart, but that’s exactly backward. We’re going to end up in another crisis guaranteed if we don’t stop talking about denuclearization. We can talk about nukes, arms control, and everything in between, but North Korea will retain nukes at all times. Period.

I think we have to start contemplating a post-Trump North Korea policy, recognizing that Kim is clearly stalling for time and North Korea doesn’t take Trump’s diplomats seriously. A new administration is important because it provides an opportunity to test North Korean intentions anew — not on denuclearization but serious arms control and nuclear rollback. That can’t happen with Trump in office because it’s too easy for Kim to bottleneck negotiations in the pageantry of Trump summits.