Michael Jonathan Green on North Korea

Michael Jonathan Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and chair in modern and contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He served on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) from 2001 through 2005, first as director for Asian affairs, with responsibility for Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, and then as special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director for Asia, with responsibility for East Asia and South Asia. Before joining the NSC staff, he was senior fellow for East Asian security at the Council on Foreign Relations, director of the Edwin O. Reischauer Center and the Foreign Policy Institute, and an assistant professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses, and senior adviser on Asia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Dr. Green has authored numerous books and articles on East Asian security. His current research includes a book project on the history of U.S. strategy in Asia; a survey of elite views of norms, power, and regional institutions in Asia; and a monograph on Japanese strategic culture. He was interviewed by Christina Yoh on Feb. 4, 2016.

Christina Yoh: North Korea has had nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, 2013 and earlier this month. In the most recent test, North Korea claims to have successfully detonated its first hydrogen bomb. What makes the latest different, other than it was billed as a hydrogen bomb?

Michael Green: First of all, we don't know if it was a hydrogen bomb, and most technical experts are doubtful because a hydrogen bomb involves fusion, not normal fission. It's unlikely that the North Koreans have the capability. What they may have done is accelerate the chain reaction. The North Koreans are calling it a hydrogen bomb, but it technically isn't. It is possible that they've enhanced their previous explosions using hydrogen, and that is dangerous — even if it is not a hydrogen bomb — because it makes it easier to miniaturize and weaponize. If you can make the explosion and a chain reaction happen much faster, then it is easier to make a bomb out of it. This is because as soon as the bomb hits, it sets off. So this test is dangerous because it provides further evidence that the North Koreans are very serious about weaponizing and miniaturizing their bomb in order to put it on a missile.

They have said this week that they're going to do another “satellite launch” but in reality, their satellite launches are multi-staged missiles aimed at the U.S. They're working on building more consistent, more precise, longer-range missiles and ever-smaller and more reliable nuclear weapons to put on them. They are obviously still working on that, but they are closing in on that capability and that is dangerous. In combination with their missile program, this test moves them even closer to a deliverable nuclear warhead that could threaten Hawaii, Alaska, or maybe even California, not to mention the over 200 missiles that can hit Japan. The second reason this test differs from earlier ones, regardless whether it was a hydrogen bomb or not, is that the North Koreans have demonstrated that the international community is not willing to muster enough pressure to stop them. It is becoming the new normal, and that is a problem too. 

North Korea appears to have achieved one of its goals by creating tensions between the U.S. and China. So China is now opposing the more punitive sanctions while the U.S. is calling for them. During the latest trip by Secretary Kerry to Beijing, there was no result. So why do you think China has resisted punishing North Korea this time, while previously it has supported UN Security Council sanctions immediately after the tests? 

First, China punished North Korea last time in order to get them to come back to the table, and not to stop their weapons program or their missiles. North Korea, in fact, came back to the table after the 2006 test when there were sanctions. When North Korea came back to the six-party talks, China stopped implementing the sanctions. There were also talks after the 2009 test, but the problem is that in 2012 North Korea announced in its constitution that it is a nuclear weapons state. Therefore, going back to the talks to discuss denuclearization would be meaningless. So the U.S. is very reluctant to go back to talks with North Korea when North Korea's position is: "All the previous talks don't count; North Korea is a nuclear weapon state."

What the North Koreans will talk about is arms control. They will say, "We'll talk about limiting our nuclear weapons if you limit your nuclear weapons, like you did with the Soviets." Well, that is a nonstarter. The Chinese were willing previously to pressure the North Koreans to get them back to the table to negotiate, but now there is no basis for negotiation. The Chinese know that they can’t make the North Koreans to do what they want, namely to stop doing nuclear tests and missile tests.  But China does not know how to make this happen. The Chinese don't want to put so much pressure that they risk destabilizing the regime, and so they don't know what the sanctions are for anymore if they're not getting back to the table. The other problem is the Chinese are not scared of the U.S. In previous iterations, the Chinese put intense pressure on North Korea after 2006, 2009 and 2010. They did that because they could see that the Bush administration and that, to some extent, the Obama administration were willing to significantly increase the pressure on North Korea. That included not only sanctions and interdictions, but also closer defense cooperation among the U.S., Japan and Korea on missile defense. This cooperation really worried the Chinese because China does not want to see these bilateral alliances become a kind of collective security arrangement or a NATO-like organization that could eventually be used against China. Missile defense in particular would accelerate that.

The Chinese are not putting pressure at this time because they do not think we're going to do that. When the North Korean test happened, the first thing the administration did was go to China and the Security Council and say, "let's have a reinstatement of certain sanctions, and here's our draft proposal, please work on it," ignoring Japan and Korea. The Chinese think that, from the perspective of John Kerry and the White House, China gets to decide. China has the veto. The US is pleading with China to help but there is no obvious consequence to China if it does not. The Chinese didn't respond to us for two and a half weeks, and when Kerry went there, they said, "nope, not going to do it." That's humiliating. If the Chinese thought that we were going to go ahead and impose sanctions on our own with Korea, Japan and others, then they would take us a lot more seriously. But China can tell that we're not serious about putting real pressure on North Korea. China thinks that there is no point to the talks, and so putting pressure on North Korea to go to the talks, which they've always done in the past, isn't a workable option. Moreover, there's no consequence for China if they don't, in terms of relations with the U.S.

Some blame the Obama administration's policy of strategic patience for allowing North Korea to continue developing dangerous weapons. But are there other realistic alternatives to this policy?

Of course. I understand strategic patience and I understand that the Obama administration didn't want to go back to the talks since, as I said, the North Koreans were not going to denuclearize. On the other hand, doing nothing was a bad choice because the North Koreans were continuing to work on their nuclear weapons program. What the administration could have done was strengthen sanctions and cooperation with other states to interdict shipments of nuclear-related technologies, put more pressure on the North to slow down and constrain their program, and demonstrate to the Chinese that their inaction against North Korea was going to create the kind of robust, militarized, U.S.-Korean-Japan relationship that China doesn't want. The United States didn't do that. We didn't really scare the Chinese, we didn't really pressure the North Koreans. That said, what I have just described would not have actually denuclearized North Korea. North Korea is digging in.  It doesn’t want to give up nuclear weapons, and we really can't muster enough pressure to make that happen -- that's just the reality. Theoretically, we could pressure the Chinese, even threaten them with the possibility of a war, so that the Chinese are forced to cut off North Korea.  Alternatively, we could have offered North Korea bribes. But none of these is a realistic option. Within the realm of the possible, there's not much we can do in terms of pressuring North Korea to give up nuclear weapons. So sanctions and more pressure would be a second best option.  This approach does not get rid of nuclear weapons but it slows down the program, puts more pressure on the North, puts more consequences on China, and gets us closer to eventually creating a situation with the North that China would find unsustainable. So there was an alternative to strategic patience. It would have been somewhat costly, it would have taken a lot of attention, and it would have created real friction.  It also would have meant increasing the defense budget -- none of which the Obama White House wanted.  Therefore it was better to just say, "we're being tough and not talking to them." And the result is what you see.

So China's attitude toward North Korea apparently cooled after President Xi Jinping came to power, but recently, they showed signs of warmth again. Why do you think China continues to support North Korea, despite Beijing's good ties with South Korea?

I think on a personal level Xi Jinping despises Kim Jung-un, but the Chinese do not want North Korea to become unstable. They do not want refugees, war, collapse, or a unified Korea, especially one that is going to be aligned with the U.S. The Chinese know that the collapse of North Korea in the near term would result in unification under Seoul. In this scenario, the Korean government would likely want a strong alliance with the United States. So I think the Chinese calculation is to put this off, have more and more influence over Seoul, and then China will be able to make more demands and achieve independent unification, which means no U.S. alliances. Right now, under a President Park Geun Hye government or any future Korean government, we can assume that if the North collapsed and is absorbed by the South, Seoul will keep the U.S.-Korea alliance. The Chinese know that. Therefore, it is better for them to wait for Seoul to get more economically dependent on China. That is why they don't want to completely cut off or see the collapse North Korea and why to some extent they're not cornering Kim Jong-un too much. 

Going off of that, how does Beijing's passive stance on North Korea damage China-South Korea relations, considering President Park's efforts to strengthen ties with Beijing as a trading partner and neighbor. How can South Korea react if China continues to be hesitant about taking direct action against North Korea?

I think President Park Geun Hye is very pro-U.S., but like past leaders of the Republic of Korea, she wants to control her nation's destiny. She doesn't want to be, as Korea so often has been, just buffeted by the winds of history or the big powers. She wants some control over this dynamic in Northeast Asia, an opportunity to wean China from North Korea. She wants more cooperation to control North Korea, and eventually, more confidence in China to allow unification under Seoul. There is definitely a logic to Park Geun Hye's China strategy, but the problem is she has been too obsequious. China still sees South Korea as merely a tributary state.

The other problem is that size matters. The U.S. or Russia can play the China card, but Korea is a middle power. When the Chinese see Korea moving toward closer ties with China and away from Japan, the leadership in Beijing sees a Korea that is moving back to its historic place under Chinese hegemony. I've been in a lot of government and academic conferences about the future of Asia. It is really obvious in the Chinese presentations that the government thinks that the Korean peninsula is going to be under their hegemony, and Japan will be with the U.S. in a sort of maritime continental divide. So Park Geun Hye was smart to play the China card, but she overdid it and fueled Chinese expectations that Korea could be co-opted in the long term. Frankly, it also created doubts in Washington and suspicion in Tokyo.

The fact that the North Koreans are getting away with their nuclear program is embarrassing for the Blue House because it shows that there's still logic to the policy; but when the first dividend was supposed to get paid, the Chinese didn't give anything. With that said, I don't think the next government in Seoul, whether it's Moon Jae In or Ahn Chul Soo or whoever, is going to radically change the policy. I don't think the next government is going to suddenly turn away from China because of economic interests.

Senior U.S. Officials are now warning Beijing that its failure to support the sanctions against Pyongyang will lead to a more dangerous situation in that region. They specifically mentioned the increase of U.S. military deployment and stationing of anti-missile systems in South Korea. How will China react to these steps if they are eventually taken as a result?

They hate the missile defense deployment idea also known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense). The program is actually supposed to protect South Korea against North Korean missiles. In other words, Chinese missiles can't be stopped by THAAD because they are too fast and too high altitude. THAAD is really just for the North Korean threat. However, the Chinese don't like it because missile defenses require military operations to make split-second decisions. They track incoming missiles traveling five or ten times the speed of sound, and then the officers have the authority to intercept and shoot. They don't have time for a meeting of the Congress or National Assembly or a meeting of the cabinet. What this structure does is create a connection between the missile defences of Japan, Korea, the U.S. and other countries. We are all on the same network, making split-second decisions. To the Chinese, this is too much like NATO, a collective security arrangement that would work against their interests. They hate it.  They're not threatened by it militarily, but they hate the real-time, virtual integration of our command and control.

While there was talk in Washington about deploying THAAD, the U.S. defense budget was at the same time being cut by the Obama administration. So the threat was not really credible. The problem the Chinese will have in the future is if Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush becomes president. They will spend more on defense, and there's going to be more stick. So the Chinese should be worried about that. 

Will North Korea's test push Seoul and Tokyo closer together? In light of Beijing's behavior and the recent Japan-Korea agreement on the comfort women issue, it seems that this bilateral relationship has a lot of relationship to improve.

I think it will bring them closer, but in a limited way. If you read Chosun Ilbo or any other Korean paper, there's a real backlash against the agreement with Japan since Korea really compromised to get this comfort women agreement. On the other hand, the Japanese think Abe compromised.  People are unhappy with the agreement both ways. But Park and Abe are not going to break the agreement because they've invested too much in it by now. So that compromise will definitely stabilize Japan-Korea relations, and the actions of North Korea will push them even closer together. There is a limit, however, because people are unhappy, especially in Seoul, about the comfort women agreement. As a general trend, I think yes, they'll have closer ties.

President Park suggested holding five-party talks between Seoul, Washington, Beijing, Moscow and Tokyo, leaving out Pyongyang. Do you think this is a viable proposal? Will they be more or less effective than the six-party talks? What kind of resolutions can come out of them?

I was in the White House in 2001 and was asked with two other fellows to write a strategy paper for dealing with North Korea for President Bush. In that paper, we proposed the six-party talks. It was President Bush's own idea that we needed a multi-lateral structure with China and the allies, Japan and Korea. When we wrote that paper in January 2003, we said this should be five plus one. The U.S., Japan, Korea, Russia, China should negotiate first and then go to the North Koreans with the deal. This was based on the negotiation process we had with the Serbs in 1994-1996. But the Chinese refused to do that, and the State Department caved too soon. The President and the White House were not happy but decided to try it. The problem was that the Chinese insisted on making North Korea an equal party.  All six parties had to agree on the date of the meeting. The North Koreans would not agree, so we had six-party talks every year, and it took a long time.

We had one five-party meeting, which I led. At the first six-party talks in June 2003, the head of the delegation was Jim Kelly, and he said we needed each delegation to draft a joint-statement for this meeting. So I led the American delegation, and the North Koreans showed up to talk about what would be in the joint-statement. The Japanese, Americans, Koreans, Russians and Chinese were largely agreeing on what should be in it, but the North Koreans were getting largely isolated, and walked out. The next morning, the North Koreans didn't show up.  We had a two-hour meeting about North Korea and discussed what our strategy should be in the absence of their delegation. We went back again and again because we needed to show North Korea that they don't have a veto, and that we're all in this together.

The situation now is that the Russians are on the fence. They might participate; some Russian scholars I met with two days ago said that Russia should participate in the five-party talks even if North Korea doesn't. The Chinese don't want to isolate North Korea, so they won't do it. Even so, I think it's an excellent idea. We might have to start with just U.S., Japan and Korea for a while, and then invite the Chinese and Russians in. Or we might have to start with just policy planning talks, without the main negotiators. The bottom line is, we've got to do it. 

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