Tensions between North Korea and the United States seem to be reaching new heights. I sat down with foreign policy professor, Dr. Bill Boettcher, to get an informed opinion on the issue.
What is your general analysis of what is happening right now between North Korea and the United States?
I’d look at this in two different ways. There’s discussion that this is a crisis and that this is unprecedented and not normal, but this happens around this time every year. The last time they tested a nuclear weapon was in September of 2016. Generally, there is this cycle in which the belligerence of North Korea escalates relative to the exercises that the United States and the Republic of South Korea are engaged in. We do things, they get mad at us, they escalate and time their nuclear tests to coincide with these events, and we reach this peak of anxiety usually in mid to late September. Then, things calm down. What’s different about it this time is they’ve tested what looks to be a larger nuclear device at the same time they’re testing intercontinental ballistic missiles, which means, theoretically, that they could have not only a nuclear warhead but a means of delivering it to the United States. I think the other thing is the Trump administration is willing to use bellicose rhetoric. They’re willing to go toe to toe with the North Koreans and talk about cease of fire, and do it in tweets even, where previous administrations would try to tone things down. I think what’s interesting is if you look at folks like the Secretary of Defense Mattis, or McMaster, the National Security Advisor, or Rex Tillerson of the State Department, they all kind of agree there’s not really a good military solution in North Korea. They’ll keep the current solutions on the table but invading North Korea to go after nuclear weapons is not an easy task and would be very dangerous for other states in the region.
Do you think North Korea will have nuclear capabilities soon to reach the U.S. mainland?
I think that’s a difficult question. The New York Times had a really great article about all the things North Korea would need to have working to be able to hit the United States. It’s not just a miniaturized warhead that sits atop an ICBM. It’s a warhead that could make it through re-entry into the atmosphere, which in itself is a difficult thing. It’s a warhead that theoretically could evade American missile defense systems. I think what I’ll say is it’s possible—but it’s unlikely. It would take a lot of things to come together for the US, particularly the lower 48, to be under that kind of threat from North Korea.
How much should the United States and its allies factor in Russia and China when considering their actions against North Korea?
I think Russia and China factor in hugely. In terms of our calculus, there’s a belief that the Chinese have a great deal of influence over the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). There’s a belief that Russia has influence as well. It’s possible that we overstate the influence China and Russia have. We think they have a lot of influence, but we don’t know that.
The UN is meeting to discuss sanctions against North Korea. What is your opinion regarding this, and do you think that this is the only course of action or will sanctions only escalate tensions to a breaking point?
On one level, we’ve had a lot of sanctions on North Korea. Last year when they had their test, the UN came up with tougher sanctions and Pyongyang continued in its weapons program. Especially if there is Russian and Chinese cooperation in the sanctions, they may be able to be tougher. But usually sanctions—unless they are really effectively done—won’t really affect Kim Jong Un and the people around him. When you think of how long North Korea and the US have been going back and forth on this, it’s close to 35-36 years now. It’s unlikely a minor change in sanctions will change anything
Why do you think Kim Jong Un is so upset with the sanctions if they won’t affect him as much as we may think?
I think it fits with the rhetoric. They use a lot of negative rhetoric and that’s mostly for domestic and global consumption more so than it is a serious indication of their intention to strike the United States.
Do you think there is anything that could get North Korea to give up their nuclear program?
I think there’s a potential but the US would have to make a lot of concessions that we’d be reluctant to make. There might be a situation where North Korea would freeze its nuclear program in exchange for the removal of American troops from South Korea, but that’s huge. North Korea would be in a better position in terms of the correlation of forces on the peninsula, there’d be potentially less of an American commitment to come to the defense of our ally if there weren’t American troops already on the ground there. I do think there’s plenty of negotiable solutions out there, it’s just finding one that the North Koreans and the American can agree on.
What do you think our best course of action is right now?
I wouldn’t call it the best course of action, but the ‘least bad’ course of action is probably to continue the status quo. Additional sanctions, more pressure on China and Russia to undermine the regime in Pyongyang. I think at some point we’re going to have to have some multilateral negotiations about North Korea. I don’t think Donald Trump should sit down with North Korea and negotiate, but if we could have something like the Iran Negotiations or others where we could bring a bunch of states together, I think we could make some progress.