David Kang on North Korean Crisis

David C. Kang is Professor of International Relations and Business at the University of Southern California, with appointments in both the School of International Relations and the Marshall School of Business. He is director of both the USC Korean Studies Institute and the USC Center for International Studies. Kang’s latest book is American Grand Strategy and East Asian Security in the 21st Century (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming autumn 2017).

He has authored four other books, and has published scholarly articles in journals such as International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, and International Security. A regular consultant for U.S. government agencies and the military, Kang has also written opinion pieces in the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and appears regularly in media such as CNN, BBC, and NPR. He received an A.B. with honors from Stanford University and his Ph.D. from Berkeley.

On August 18, 2017, he spoke with Jenifer Hanki CMC ‘20.

Photograph and biography courtesy of Mr. Kang on behalf of the University of Southern California.

President Moon Jae-In has been in office for three months. Has he made important changes in Korea’s policy toward the U.S.?

Moon actually came in trying to emphasize or reassure Americans that he wasn’t going to be too radically leftist.  He was far less skeptical of America than most people thought he would be.  Americans tend to like more conservative leaders in foreign countries.  That being said, given the way that the Trump Administration has acted towards North Korea, Moon Jae-In has had to put some more distance between himself and the American policy. Moon was forced recently to come out clearly that South Korea had a veto over the U.S. use of force.  This is actually quite stunning that an ally would have to try to reign in U.S. policy to that extent and that explicitly.  But fundamentally, I don’t think that he disagrees with mainstream American foreign policy.

Since the new South Korean administration has campaigned on a more moderate approach to Pyongyang, has President Moon extended any olive branches to Kim Jong Un? In the last few months, Kim Jong Un has intensified his missile tests and provocations, should South Korea now adopt a harder line toward North Korea?

The only thing that North Korea has done since Moon’s inauguration is testing more missiles than it ever has before. So you can call them “provocations” but they haven’t fired at anyone, they haven’t started a war yet. It’s not clear how much more North Korea has become more provocative than before and how much more Americans are overreacting to it.  It’s really easy to get carried away with what the media is doing, particularly western media.  On top of that, I’ve heard from outside sources that the Japanese media and Abe have been hopping onto the western media bandwagon.   If you read South Korean newspapers, Kim Jong Un is not even on the front page of the news.  It’s “business as usual.”  So there is something very interesting there to look at within the Japanese media, but more so the American media and how we’ve been overreacting.  It’s certainly because we are more worried about concerns like Trump.  South Koreans don’t even expect war.  North Korea is not on a war footing.  They haven’t mobilized its military; their people are not being told to prepare for war.  It’s really the U.S. media that has just gone berserk in the last six months.  For Japan, it’s most likely because its Shinzo Abe using this as a convenient opportunity to rearm Japan, and they don’t trust Trump, either.  I’m just not sure that there are that many new provocations.  More than that, Moon has made a number of cases of overtures towards North Korea. He has continually said that he is open for dialogue and would welcome a join North-South Korean team at the Olympics.  His Minister of Unification has talked about reopening the join economic zone called “Kaesong” under the right conditions.  They are willing to consider it despite the fact that the UN has placed sanctions and warned South Korea against reopening trade.  So there are a number of small things put on the table by Moon. He has definitely set a different tone.

What should be the next step for the U.S. after Moon-Jae In’s harsh rebuke against Trump’s recent threats towards a unilateral military attack on North Korea?  Supposing that the U.S. does attack without consulting with Seoul, how would that affect the relations between the U.S. and South Korea inevitable?  How would the U.S. respond to a more reconciliatory approach by Seoul toward Pyongyang?  

Answering the first part of this question, it is really more about U.S. politics, which is honestly quite unpredictable nobody knows what’s going on in the Trump Administration.  It is completely unprecedented what is going on.  What you have is a couple conventional foreign policy people, Tillerson, Mattis in particular, who make mainstream policy statements such as “we have no intention for regime change; deterrence works.”  Often, they contradict themselves when they say that war is unimaginable but a nuclear war is unlikely because it would be unthinkable if we were to let North Korea gain access to nuclear weapons. We are even ignoring our commander-in-chief because he has no foreign policy experience and  says whatever comes to his head.  So we really don’t know.  For all the bluster, for all the flamboyance that we hear on the American side is that the fundamental foreign policy towards North Korea is really the same which is: deter North Korea and let them know that we will fight back.  So if South Korea took a more engagement approach, would the US go along? In some ways, there might be some opening for that because there is always a willingness to talk to North Korea. The Obama Administration talked to the North Koreans, so did the Bush Administration. There were always channels that were open.  It’s usually North Korea that doesn’t want to talk.  But if South Korea can move the ball where we can’t, then I think most people in the foreign policy establishment would be in favor of at least exploring that.  That being said, we now do have many legal sanctions against North Korea so there is really little likelihood of the U.S. engaging anytime soon in trade or something of those sorts.  Really, aside from all the negative coverage from the media, the overall long-term trend has been positive.  For all the talk about North Korea, North Korea looks overall very stable. It does not look like it’s going to collapse very soon.  It’s unfortunately not something that’s going to go away. 

In response to recent North Korean missile threats, the U.S. has stepped up its military deterrence posture.  How is the American response received in South Korea?  Are South Koreans as alarmed as Americans about the threat from North Korea?

People often ask “Why aren’t South Koreans more worried about North Korea? Don’t they understand!”  But I would like to put it the other way. More than even Japanese, who don’t live with North Koreans every day.  If you are Korean and you are above the age of 64, you have lived everyday with the specter of war over your head since 1953.  If there is any war in the Korean Peninsula, Japan might get hit but really not the way that South Korea will.  So if you are 64 or younger, you have had the specter of war all your life.  At the same time, you also have far more knowledge of the reality of North Korea, and I admit, Koreans don’t help themselves in being understood.  I have a joke, it’s only partially a joke but every lecture someone always asks me, “Is Kim Jong Un crazy?”  My answer is always the same: all Koreans are crazy.  Every single one.  The point is that there is internal logic to Korean culture, as there is internal logic to Japanese or American culture. If you don’t know, it seems weird, but if you do know it makes more sense.  South Koreans literally live much closer to North Korea.  They also know how well deterrence works.  What’s very clear is that deterrence works.  There is no solution but utter destruction for North Korea.  If North Korea attacks the United States, they know that they will be taken out immediately.  They also know that if the U.S. were to initiate an attack with a surgical strike, that once they engage in a larger retaliation, that the end is the same.  The other day I saw a newspaper front page with a fake picture of San Francisco, a big map and a thermo-nuclear bomb going off and then a question posed, “If a nuclear bomb went off, how many people would die?”   This is total fear-mongering.  So from the South Korean perspective, it’s easy to see why they are not so fearful of North Korea. 

The Pentagon has recently announced its plans to conduct a major joint exercise in South Korea next week, a move that may raise tensions in the peninsula.  Is this a necessary exercise for South Korea?  Will the costs of this plan outweigh its benefits for South Korea?

They do these military exercises every year. From a military operations standpoint, both South Korean and the United States think that these are very important. Because if you are going to have two militaries work together, you need to practice.  How do they get 360,000 troops working together?  They practice amphibious landing, moving from one place to another while preparing their tanks, guns and artillery.  The amount of planning would be insane.  So the military really loves to practice this stuff. But really how important is this training?  From obviously a military perspective you can never really have enough training  alhough when the U.S. performs these practice operations, the North Koreans go berserk.  One reason the North Koreans hate this is because they are expecting a second war with the United States.  For decades we would do this and we often would say that it’s just a practice.  So every single year when the U.S. conducts this drill, the North Korean military goes on absolute high alert.  They hate these exercises.  We have cancelled them in the past and we can cancel  them in the future.  This is really just a political decision on both sides whether to start making nice or not.  I have heard that the U.S. is going to tone down the deployment a little bit from last year, which I think will be beneficial.  There are some subtle signaling on both sides.

Korea’s relations with China have deteriorated because of THAAD. Has President Moon done anything to repair the damaged Seoul-Beijing ties?

My sense is, not yet.  They put a pause on that.  Moon put a pause on the deployment on the THAAD.  China continues to make rhetorical claims.  Chinese tourism to South Korea is down, so people think that China is punishing South Korea subtlety.  There are very mixed signals.  China may make a lot of rhetorical complaints, but trade is actually up by nine percent.  Are they really trying to punish South Korea for this reason?  I don’t think I’m convinced yet. There are a lot of things going on in China that may be causing the decline in tourism to South Korea.  They are hardly trying to punish South Korea economically.  It’s really easy to be pessimistic.  The media has created fear among the American people and it’s a lot harder to be more of an optimist due to immediate claims of being naive.

The Trump Administration has stated that it will focus on the growth in bilateral trade deficit and has even criticized the KORUS FTA. Though the Administration has declared that it will aim to renegotiate KORUS, it has not yet specified what it would seek to amend.  Are South Koreans worried about such protectionist rhetoric? Will Trump’s protectionist rhetoric undermine the cooperation between Seoul and Washington on dealing with the North Korean threat?

Yes, probably. The U.S. and Korea are actually going to meet this week to renegotiate the trade pact. It’s not clear whether they will do this outside of KORUS which is what South Korea wants but won’t affect all parts of KORUS. The Trump Administration is moving forward with this stuff.  They haven’t really thought of a massive overhaul of American trade policy; even with China they haven’t really sparked a trade war.  Though they are definitely moving in that direction. How far they go on this really depend on a lot of other things.  The White House is in chaos.  We have no strategy. I think that they are so preoccupied with North Korea and will not focus away.




Jenifer Hanki CMC '20Student Journalist
Featured Image by High Contrast CNN.com
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