Daniel Russel on US-DPRK relations

Daniel Russel is Vice President for International Security and Diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI). Previously he served as a Diplomat in Residence and Senior Fellow with ASPI for a one year term. A career member of the Senior Foreign Service at the U.S. Department of State, he most recently served as the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Prior to his appointment as Assistant Secretary on July 12, 2013, Mr. Russel served at the White House as Special Assistant to the President and National Security Council (NSC) Senior Director for Asian Affairs. During his tenure there, he helped formulate President Obama’s strategic rebalance to the Asia Pacific region, including efforts to strengthen alliances, deepen U.S. engagement with multilateral organizations, and expand cooperation with emerging powers in the region.

Malea Martin CMC '19 interviewed Daniel Russel on Nov. 21, 2018.

In a meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un Sunday, Pompeo said that North Korea has agreed to allow inspectors into a key nuclear site that the North said had been destroyed.  This appears to be a relatively minor concession.  Why did the Trump administration treat it as a substantive step sufficient to warrant the resumption of presidential level engagement?  Did the North Koreans promise additional denuclearization steps?

You have raised three questions. One is whether this offer is credible and meaningful; the second is why the Trump Administration is buying it; and the third is whether North Korea agreed to do more? The Trump administration is putting a positive gloss on the situation in North Korea for political reasons. Steve Bannon infamously advised the President that his strategy going into the midterm elections should be to go  to war with China and at peace with North Korea. The administration has a vested interest in spinning out the story that they have done what Obama couldn't do, or what Bush couldn’t do. They want to make it seem that this is a different approach and that it is going to succeed. There may be a bit of Nobel Peace Prize hunger mixed into it. They certainly appear determined to string this out, to make it feel like it’s going somewhere. I also think that there is a serious lack of North Korea experience and know-how in the Trump Administration. In terms of what the North Koreans themselves are offering, it is improbable that there were any bankable, solid commitments. The North Koreans do believe that they can deploy a series of nominal gestures, and use them, at a minimum, to claim the moral high ground, but more likely to create bargaining leverage. This is not an unfamiliar or inexplicable tactic for North Korea. The fact that the Trump Administration is apparently buying it is not evidence that they are stupid. It is evidence that they consider these actions to be politically convenient.


The widely shared consensus among observers is that Trump was played by Kim Jong Un at the summit in Singapore last June. Are there signs that the Trump Administration has learned a lesson and is now acting more cautiously and realistically in dealing with North Korea?

Trump was played by Kim Jong Un. That was just one inning in a much longer game. It is a game that stands a fair chance of seeing North Korea win. To give an example, Pakistan was a country that nobody wanted to see going nuclear, but nobody could really stop it. Once Pakistan incontrovertibly acquired nuclear weapons, the world didn’t like it, but the world accepted and dealt with it. It’s the Pakistan that we have, not the Pakistan that we would have liked to have. That is very much Kim Jong Un’s ambition. The path that he is leading Donald Trump down very likely leads to that. Step by step, Trump is demonstrating that his real priority is peace and quiet: month after month without provocation via nuclear or missile tests. Trump demonstrated in Singapore that he was willing to pay retail for that peace and quiet. He unilaterally abandoned the scheduled defensive bilateral US-ROK Defense Exercises. Not only did he jettison those without consultation with South Korea, Japan or the Pentagon, but he set a time bomb on himself. If there isn’t a resolution of the nuclear issue by March, when the next set of bilateral military exercises begin, Trump really has no choice but to cancel those as well. Or else, he will appear to be the provocateur; appearing to be the one who has taken a step that upset the process. It was badly played. The fact that nobody--not even Pompeo--was in the room with Trump and Kim speaks volumes to how ill-advised that adventure was. You could certainly say that there are people in the administration who have learned from that, including Pompeo. Bolton has been constitutionally and adamantly opposed to any kind of compromise long before he was brought into the National Security Advisor role. But, none of that matters. Trump is a do-it-yourself leader who believes that he, and only he, can make a deal with the leader of North Korea.


In a recent press conference, President Trump gave highly optimistic reviews of his meeting with Kim Jong-un, even saying the two “fell in love.” How will such rhetoric influence North Korea’s thinking when facing American negotiators in the next round?

I really hesitate to put myself in Kim Jong Un’s head, especially in interpreting the tweets and statements by Trump. Even Americans find them baffling. But I will say two things. One is that the North Koreans, and Kim Jong Un in particular, are not romantics.  They are hard-nosed pragmatists. At one level, they don’t really care what rhetorical flourishes are coming out of the White House, or Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. They care about what actions the U.S. is taking. They also care about whether their own strategy is working: they are coaxing America down the path of tacitly accepting North Korea’s continued possession of nuclear weapons while paying top-dollar for some symbolic gestures. A second and very important consequence of this rhetoric is that North Korea has absolutely no incentive to deal with anyone other than Donald Trump. Why would they meet with a tough-minded, no-nonsense, former-CIA Director tough guy like Mike Pompeo, and offer a concession to him? After all, they’ve seen that, for example in the case of the U.S.-China relationship on trade, when the Chinese made a deal with Wilbur Ross, Trump repudiated it. When the Chinese made a deal with Steve Mnuchin, Trump repudiated it. And when Rex Tillerson announced that he wanted to enter into negotiations with North Korea, Trump immediately tweeted “don’t waste your time, Rex” in order to undermine him. Why would North Korea deal with a subordinate who is tougher and has less authority to commit? They can deal directly with the president in this case, because he doesn’t know the basic history or facts about the Korean peninsula. They can scam him; they can manipulate him. And, when you make a deal with Donald Trump, even if it’s counter to American interests, it sticks. He is the decision-maker.


What will be needed for the next summit between the U.S. and North Korea to bring major negotiation progress?

Negotiations are a necessary condition for progress, but negotiations do not inevitably lead to progress. Setting that aside, my hypothesis is that North Korea does not want to embark in real, no-nonsense negotiations to reduce or eventually eliminate its nuclear weapons. They don’t want to actually negotiate denuclearization. It would take considerable leverage to get North Korea into real negotiations that are about denuclearization, rather than about a peace treaty or ending sanctions. Our experience has been that the only real leverage with North Korea-- other than the threat of nuclear obliteration, which is not easy to make credible-- has been the large-scale, sectoral economic sanctions. The reason that we were able to impose sectoral sanctions, such as blocking coal sales and oil imports, was because the Chinese decided to cooperate more fully with us. Yet, whatever reasons there were for China to cooperate with us, these reasons no longer exist. The Chinese are not implementing international sanctions with any particular vigor and are allowing a very significant degree of seepage. I am unable to easily see a scenario in which the Chinese would go back to the degree of collaboration with the United States that we saw a year ago. I don’t believe that there is an easily available set of actions to compel North Korea to begin serious negotiations on the nuclear issue.


Why is Pyongyang demanding a “peace treaty” besides the easing of sanctions? Should the U.S. concede on this issue?

It’s not entirely the case that North Korea is “demanding” the peace treaty, and this needs to be critically examined. The story is more complicated than that, and to a certain extent, it is South Korea that calls for a peace treaty as the next step. It may be just an opportunistic exploitation of something that originated in the South and has created the ability for the North Koreans to put the onus on the Americans. In my experience, when I worked at the White House and at the State Department, the North Koreans and the Chinese were interested in changing the subject because denuclearization was just too hard. They liked the idea of taking the focus off of North Korea’s nuclear program and instead putting it on the U.S. forces in Korea. There was only a partial overlap in interests between China and North Korea, but the overlap was not trivial. It does not hurt China if U.S. forces abandon the Korean Peninsula; they certainly have never been happy with the American military presence. For the North Koreans, the issue really was that, in order to get significant benefits from the West, they had to embark upon some form of negotiations. So, they opted to embark upon negotiations over a different topic that put the Americans in the hot seat. This topic reinforces the argument that the root cause of the nuclear initiative is America’s “hostile policy.” If the Americans agree to declare peace, let alone negotiate a peace treaty, then the American rationale for a military presence or alliance has been dramatically weakened. If peace is declared, the purpose of U.S. soldiers is undermined. Whether or not the North Koreans actually think they could bump the U.S. forces off of the Korean peninsula is an open question. But a conversation about enriched uranium, on the other hand, is a conversation they don’t want to have. Starting with a peace treaty is just a way to evade dealing directly with the nuclear issue, and I am not in favor of that. That said, there’s nothing wrong with the pursuit of a peace arrangement. Although the armistice is perfectly functional, it is nothing more than a truce. The agreement struck in 2005 in the Six-Party Talks is just about the only reasonable set of answers that’s available to us. That agreement established denuclearization as the primary goal, but posited there should be multiple processes. The agreement was that as progress occurs on the nuclear issue, there can also be an engagement on an economic track, a diplomatic normalization track, an energy track and on a peace arrangement track. The notion that the peace arrangement could come first is nonsensical. How can we reach peace with North Korea in flagrant violation of international law?


The South Korean President Moon Jae-in is playing a very active role in trying to jump-start the U.S.-DPRK negotiations.  What is driving President Moon?

The biggest driver is summed up in three little words: fire and fury. The good news is that President Trump succeeded in scaring Korea, but the bad news is that he scared the wrong Korea. He scared South Korea, not North Korea. Moon knew perfectly well that even a pinprick preemptive strike by Trump-- as Trump did in Syria while dining with Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago-- would invoke retaliation on South Korea, probably in the form of an artillery barrage or chemical weapons attack against Seoul. This is something that Moon was determined to avoid. The enthusiasm that’s been characteristic of Moon’s intervention in the U.S.-North Korean dynamic is very much a function of his desire to avoid an American attack. On top of that is his progressive agenda.  There’s also a desire for  an economic solution, or at least an economic strategy. Moon, unlike his predecessors, is not talking about a confederation or reunification, but rather about building pipelines, rail lines and transportation from South Korea, through North Korea, into China, into Russia, and into the Eurasian landmass. Moon sees that South Korea is in effect an island. He wants to build a bridge through North Korea. He doesn’t need to reach political reconciliation, and he doesn’t need reunification by absorption. He has a much more economic strategy.


How will the rapid deterioration in U.S.-China relations affect the delicate diplomatic game being played out between the U.S. and DPRK?

It is fatal to the prospects of compelling North Korea to make decisions about denuclearization that North Korea clearly doesn’t want to make. It’s not that China doesn’t want North Korea to denuclearize, it does. But China puts a premium on avoiding war and avoiding a chaotic meltdown in the DPRK on its own border. The Chinese appear no longer to believe that the Trump Administration can act as a reliable partner. Therefore, it’s necessary for them to push for a slow-motion and endless process. They will honor the letter of the UN Security Council sanctions, because they don’t want to be embarrassed and criticized. They will maintain a certain degree of pressure on North Korea because that’s how the Chinese are. They will keep Kim Jong Un on a lifeline, and make sure that no matter what the U.S. does, North Korea is not really threatened. At the same time, they will side with North Korea regularly, and will argue that it is the U.S. who should make concessions and who should meet North Korea half-way. It is no longer the belief that the U.S. is sufficiently trustworthy. China was left high and dry by Trump when he abruptly decided to shake hands with Kim Jong un, and they know that sort of surprise could happen again. Additionally, what began as a trade dispute has now turned into a full-on strategic rivalry and adversarial assault on China. This has increased the belief in China that the Americans are not looking to solve these economic problems, but rather to use these problems to checkmate China and undermine its development and interests, and to line up countries to oppose China. In that environment, it’s doubly improbable that the Chinese would be willing to take a chance on collaboration with the United States, although they’ll talk a good game.


Malea Martin CMC '19Student Journalist

Dan Scavino Jr. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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