Tensions are on the rise between the United States, its ally South Korea, and North Korea. The two sides never formally signed a peace treaty at the end of the Korean War in July 1953. Instead, they have been locked in a stalemate defined by periodic military clashes, many of which have been deadly. Over the past fifteen years, the international community and the two previous American administrations have focused on the development of North Korea’s nuclear program and a worsening humanitarian situation inside the country.
Over one week in April, North Korea held a large national parade in honor of the country’s founder Kim Il Sung, tried and failed to successfully test a ballistic missile, and made a series of statements threatening the United States with nuclear war. Officials in the U.S. administration have verbally responded to North Korean actions and rhetoric, and Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Korea, visiting the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the North and South.
In light of the intensified tenor of the situation on the Korean peninsula, faculty and students in the School of Foreign Service have weighed in on the foreign policy debate and provided analysis.
Professor Victor Cha, Director of Asian Studies, D.S. Song Chair in the Department of Government and School of Foreign Service and former Director for Asian Affairs on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, sees two main options that the U.S. can use to “impose significant costs” on North Korea, according to an article in The Atlantic:
“The United States ‘could use military power … or the Chinese can put real economic pressure on’ North Korea.”
Cha spoke about the drawbacks to military action in a story published by ABC News.
“A military strike is a dangerous option, given that North Korean artillery stands only seconds away from Seoul, where 10 million people live and 100,000 American expats and 27,500 U.S. troops,” Cha said.
A recent episode of Slate’s “Trumpcast” features Cha as a special guest. He explains how there are essentially no good options when it comes to North Korea, particularly due to its close proximity to major population centers. This creates a “built-in deterrent” against U.S. attacks.
“I think every President going back to George H. W. Bush, when they’ve done a policy review of North Korea have looked at the military options,” he said. “And I think the fact that none of them have chosen that option in the past really speaks to what a difficult military scenario this is when you compare it to other places we use force.”
In an article in The Villages Suntimes, Ambassador Robert Gallucci, Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy who was chief U.S. negotiator during the North Korean nuclear crisis of 1994, noted that the U.S. would have to spend months preparing its allies before taking any “kinetic action.”
Cha appeared on MSNBC discussing the likelihood of finding a diplomatic solution. The key factor for bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table, he explained, would be economic pressure from China, which represents more than 85% of North Korea’s external trade.
“China, in this sense, they are part of the solution, in terms of trying to get the diplomacy going again,” Cha said. “But if they don’t do it, I think President Trump feels like then they’re part of the problem.” Watch the full segment here.
Professor Matthew Kroenig provided his analysis of the North Korea situation on CBS News. In order to put economic pressure on North Korea, he discussed the potential effectiveness of the U.S. making secondary sanction threats against China, a strategy that proved effective with Iran.
“The idea would be to try to force Chinese firms and the Chinese government to essentially choose: do you want to do business with the United States, the largest, most diverse economy on earth, or do you want to do business with a failing state on your border?” Kroenig said. “With the hope that they’ll choose business with us, and that will cut off trade with North Korea, and put some economic pressure on North Korea that may be helpful for negotiations.”
Cha discussed the strategy of unpredictability within the Trump Administration for an article in The Japan Times.
“There is both greater unpredictability and decisiveness from President Trump,” Cha said. “[The Obama administration’s] strategic patience signaled indecision and predictability – not a good combination in Trump’s eyes.”
Colin Kahl, Associate Professor of Security Studies, who served as National Security Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy Assistant to the President during the Obama Administration, wrote a thread of tweets on the subject of North Korea.
My thoughts on North Korea and the high-stakes poker Trump is playing. https://t.co/ZD7nJF50lx
— Colin Kahl (@ColinKahl) April 18, 2017
“On the surface, more muscular U.S. military rhetoric may seem like a smart move to shift the calculus in Pyongyang and Beijing,” Kahl wrote. “But there are big risks.” He described how the Kim regime views nuclear weapons as key to its survival, so they are unlikely to give them up by choice. Additionally, the Trump foreign policy team seems to have foreclosed many of the diplomatic avenues to avert this crisis, according to Kahl.
In another Atlantic article, Cha spoke about the Trump administration’s reactions to North Korea. “Trump wants to at least signal more muscularity, less predictability, and at the same time decisiveness,” he said. “They want to signal that they will not dilly-dally. So they’re walking this fine line.” Read the full article here.
Nuclear Weapons Development
Cha also discussed in The Atlantic how recent developments have impacted Japan in particular. “For them, the fact that it’s a nuclear threat probably hits home more than literally every other country in the world,” Cha said. “And Japan is unusual in the sense that it’s a legitimate world power that has chosen—precisely because of its history—never to pursue nuclear weapons.”
Cha told ABC News how North Korea’s nuclear tests themselves pose a threat, and could potentially lead to U.S. involvement.
“A failed missile test that hit[s] Japan could spark calls for retaliation,” he said.
Contextualizing North Korea’s recent attempted missile launch, Cha appeared on NBC-5 to speak about how the regime often conducts such tests as a sign of strength.
“North Korea, in the past, has used these major national holidays to celebrate the strength of the regime and to reinforce the national narrative of their independence,” Cha explained. Watch the segment here.
Kim Jong-un’s Regime
Jonathan Corrado (MASIA’17), a second-year graduate student in the Asian Studies program, wrote an op-ed in The Diplomat exploring whether marketization in North Korea would threaten Kim Jong-un’s hold on power or provide the regime with another tool to oppress the people.
“Over the past 20 years, the regime has moved toward a bureaucracy that acknowledges market principles in decision making, resulting in complex and dynamic relationships between officials and market actors,” Corrado wrote. “Understanding these links is essential to comprehending how the government has maintained control while also permitting limited marketization.”
The Challenges Ahead
In an op-ed for Korea JoongAng Daily, Cha wrote about the significance of the upcoming election in South Korea, along with the incredibly difficult foreign climate the next Korean president will be inheriting.
“Korea is in a dangerously marginalized strategic position at the moment,” Cha wrote. “It will be incumbent upon the next president to act deftly, swiftly and decisively in shoring up Korea’s position and not do things that will further marginalize it.” Read the full op-ed here.