Joel Wit on the North Korean nuclear threat

Joel S. Wit is concurrently a Senior Fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS and a Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University Weatherhead Institute for East Asian Studies. He has served as Senior Advisor to Ambassador Robert L. Galluci from 1993-1995, where he developed strategies to help resolve the crisis over North Korea’s weapons program, and as Coordinator for the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework from 1995-1999, where he was the official in charge of implementation. He was also a key participant in the establishment of the Korean Peninsular Energy Development Organization (KEDO). Prior to his efforts on the Agreed Framework, Wit was assigned to the State Department’s Office of Strategic Nuclear Policy, where he was responsible for U.S. policy on a range of issues related to nuclear arms control and weapons proliferation. In that capacity from 1988 to 1992, Wit helped negotiate strategic arms control agreements with the former Soviet Union and participated in the Nunn-Lugar program to dismantle its nuclear weapons. He was also a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institute from 1999-2001. In addition, he has published numerous articles on Northeast Asian security issues. He has also written numerous articles on North Korea and nonproliferation and is the coauthor of the book Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis (Brookings Institution Press, 2004). He received his M.I.A. from Columbia University in 1979 and his B.A. from Bucknell University in 1976. On March 2, 2017, he spoke with Michael Grouskay CMC '17.

Bio source: "WEAI - Weatherhead East Asian Institute." WEAI Weatherhead East Asian Institute. WEAI - Columbia University. Web. 15 Mar. 2017. Photograph courtesy of Mr. Wit.

There appears to be some uncertainty as to whether North Korea has the ability to conduct a nuclear attack against the U.S. mainland. Is North Korea capable of launching a nuclear attack against the United States? Does North Korea have second strike capability?

I don’t think they’re capable today. They could always stick a nuclear weapon on top of one of their older long-range space launch vehicles and hope that it reaches the United States, but I think that’s probably too much of a reach. I don’t think they can do it today, but certainly over the next few years, that capability will increase. I can’t say exactly when they’ll have that capability. If they start testing ICBMs and some of their tests are successful, and if we see signs that the road-mobile missiles are out there, then we’ll have to consider their program operational.

North Korea is currently working towards the ability to survive a preemptive strike. Right now it’s questionable, but as their inventory and nuclear stockpile expands, and more survivable systems come on-line, then they will have that ability. 
How credible is the United States’ threat of nuclear retaliation against a North Korean nuclear attack on U.S. territory? What about an attack against American allies in East Asia?

It’s obvious that we could retaliate, we could destroy North Korea with what we have. The concern is that if we couldn’t wipe out their nuclear stockpiles, they would attack South Korea and Japan. If a North Korean nuclear weapon landed on an American city, I don’t think we would have any hesitation in retaliating. 

As it pertains to our willingness to retaliate on behalf of South Korea and Japan, that has to do with the whole issue of extended deterrence. I don’t know if we’d do it or not. This is all a game, where we try to convince our allies that we would respond. I think right now, people are fairly convinced, but as North Korea’s capabilities grow, it will be more of a challenge to convince people that extended deterrence works. I’m not saying we can’t do it, but it will be a challenge. 
You’ve argued that it’s unwise to characterize the North Korean government as irrational. To what extent do North Korean leaders appreciate the doctrine of mutually assured destruction?

I think North Korean leaders understand that if they push too far, it will trigger an overwhelming response. They have a lot of history dealing with crises, especially with South Korea, and they seem very good at gauging how far to push before pulling back. If you transfer that experience to nuclear crises, I think it’s cause for some optimism, but there’s always a danger of miscalculation. If there is some sort of crisis where the North Korean government thinks that its existence is being called into question, then they’ll conclude that they have nothing to lose by unleashing whatever weapons they have.
The Trump administration just called off a back-channel dialogue with the North Korean government, supposedly due to its dissatisfaction with Kim Jong Nam’s assassination in Malaysia. In your opinion, was this the real reason behind the decision to call off the dialogue? How effective are back channel dialogues with the North Koreans?

It’s hard to say, because I’m not in the Trump Administration. It could be just that, dissatisfaction with the assassination. It could be that the administration feels it’s not ready to allow this kind of step; even though it’s not clear whether it would have involved government officials, people might take visa approval as a sign that the administration is looking to restart official dialogue. It could also be disorganization in the government where lower-level people approved the visas, but then higher-level people reversed that decision. 

If you have the right setting and the right people are involved, back-channel dialogues can be useful for gathering information that goes beyond the official North Korean media. For the North Koreans, they gather a lot of information about what real Americans think. Sometimes, it’s possible to figure out solutions, but it also depends on how governments respond. If governments aren’t interested, then the dialogues are meaningless, if they are interested, then it could have some effect. At any rate it’s very difficult to predict.
North Korea recently publicly criticized China for “dancing to the tune of the U.S.” What influence does the Chinese government have over North Korea’s nuclear policy decisions?
Everyone says that if China wanted to, they could change North Korea’s behavior, but that’s not how the real world works. China can occasionally put pressure on Pyongyang, but the North Koreans will push back. China is always constrained by its fear that too much pressure will cause insecurity in the North, and by the reality that its national security interests are served by a stable North Korea, regardless of whether it has nuclear weapons or not. There are a lot of constraints in this situation. If China doesn’t have a good relationship with the United States, then why should it do what Washington wants? 
How does the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ICBM capabilities affect the risk of the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other countries or non-state actors?

I don’t think there’s much of a threat of ICBM proliferation. In theory, the bigger the stockpile of North Korean nuclear weapons, the bigger their production base, the greater the danger that the North Koreans might want to sell their resources abroad.
In your opinion, how effective are inspections as a means of assessing North Korea’s nuclear activities? Would inspections play a meaningful part in a future disarmament agreement?

It depends on the agreement. If the agreement is limited, then the inspections will be more limited. If the agreement is more comprehensive, then the inspections will be more comprehensive. The more comprehensive the inspection regime, the harder it is to get the North Koreans to agree. We shouldn’t trust the North Koreans, but as a matter of fact we shouldn’t trust anyone when it comes to inspections. If you have the right inspection procedures, in theory, it will increase confidence in the agreement, but things don’t always work out smoothly. 

We haven’t had many nuclear agreements with the North Koreans, so it’s difficult to say whether they have a tendency to cheat or not. In the 1994 Agreed Framework, there were some areas in which they did things that they shouldn’t have done, but they also did a lot of things that they were supposed to do. On one end, they essentially gutted their plutonium program, which would have produced a lot of nuclear material. On the other hand, they were doing a lot with uranium. I think they have a tendency, like almost every country, to hedge against the failure of agreements. 

Michael Grouskay CMC '17Student Journalist
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