Sanctions have not worked very well in the past. People, including Sen. John McCain, say that China should cut off its food aid, but that would just be passed down to the little kids and elderly people who will just starve to death. The one sanction the U.S. thinks really worked, and I’m sort of skeptical about it, is [Banco Delta Asia] in Macao that allegedly had $25 million of Kim Jong-il’s personal money. I don’t think things work that way. I think it might have been one of his sons living there. Anyway, North Korea seemed to squawk more at that sanction more than other sanctions, so the U.S. thought that the sanctions were actually biting. But that’s chump change in North Korea, which has a $40-billion gross national product. It’s frustrating to the U.S. because they haven’t found a sanction that’s caused the North Koreans to buckle. They haven’t found any with these new sanctions, and I don’t think they will. Sanctions generally don’t work, and that’s something that [Secretary of Defense] Chuck Hagel used to say as a senator. I hope as defense secretary he does something about that.
How significant is North Korea’s move to suspend work at the Kaesong industrial complex, which it shares with South Korea?
North Korea suspended Kaesong for a few days at a time three different times in 2009. I expect the current suspension will go longer, probably through the big soiree for Kim Il-sung's birthday on April 15th, but I can't believe they will keep it closed for much longer than that because it is such a cash cow for them.
Any serious problems anticipated for the April 15 birthday of late founding leader Kim Il-sung?
They’re too busy contemplating their own navel to do that during these celebrations. I don’t expect the tension to ease until after the U.S.–South Korea war games end at the end of April. But I think the North Koreans have probably gotten much more than they’ve expected out of their antics. They’ve been at the top of the news for the past two weeks, which was probably their goal in the first place. The other thing is they’re building up to the 60th anniversary of the armistice. They are anxious to call attention to their cause and what’s happening on the Korean Peninsula, but they go about it in all the wrong ways.
What is the danger of taking their threats lightly?
We don’t know nearly enough about North Korea’s nuclear program because we have next to no human intelligence in North Korea by which to judge their intentions. We monitor them in every possible way: satellites, infrared photography, U-2 planes are still used—the planes travel along south of the [Korean Demilitarized Zone] with side-looking cameras. At that level, the [National Security Agency] probably can know when a tank starts up at a military base on a cold morning. But there have never been any serious, high-level defections from North Korea, even during the war. The Kim family and their close allies are very good at holding onto power by any means necessary.
It’s very hard for people who don’t know the language and haven’t been to North Korea to understand the nature of the regime, let alone their intentions or their disposition to nuclear war. They’re armed to the teeth. There have been plans for preemption and counter-preemption going back probably to before the Korean War. That’s the logic we’ve been embedded in for 70 years—we contain the North and we restrain the South, and we don’t feel they can be alone with each other without starting another war. One thing that’s been hard for me to understand is the horrible visceral hatred between these two regimes, but ultimately it goes back to a conflict between those who collaborated with the Japanese occupation—1910 to 1945—in the South and those who resisted the Japanese in the North. It was a very brutal colonialism, and if you worked with the Japanese, the North Koreans will hate you and hate your children.
Where does the solution lie? Does the world simply wait for tensions to ease?
I don’t know how I can separate my thoughts from my hopes. I think that there’s still a good chance to engage North Korea and moderate its behavior and normalize its relationship with the U.S. if we’re willing to cap their nuclear program rather than to demand that they give up every last weapon. We can ask for no more production of nuclear weapons and fissile material, but whatever you have you can keep. Because we can’t find them anyway, we never could be sure if they haven’t secreted away a couple of atomic weapons somewhere in their underground. We would also need to give them a very solid security guarantee, which Bill Clinton did in October 2000 when he signed a statement saying our two countries will not have hostile intent toward one another. Pres. George W. Bush just ripped that up as soon as he came into office, as though it never was concluded, and then included them in the Axis of Evil.
Of particular interest to Scientific American’s audience, the U.S. has used nuclear threats and nuclear blackmail against North Korea going back more than 60 years and had hundreds of nuclear weapons in South Korea from 1958 to 1991. The U.S. sends nuclear-capable submarines and aircraft carriers and B-2 bombers up to the shores and has done so just in recent months and days. There is something, to me, that’s vaguely nauseating about a great power like the United States brandishing these horrible weapons in front of what, after all, is a small country of 24 million people, and having done it for more than 60 years. But it never seems to sink in in CNN commentary or most other media commentary that North Korea is certainly a sinner, but it is also a country that’s been sinned against, essentially with threats to eradicate it. [Former Defense Secretary] Don Rumsfeld, in particular, was trying to get Congress to approve nuclear bunker busters for use against Iraq, but especially North Korea because it had built so much underground. But North Korea is its own worst enemy. If I were them, I’d point all of this out in straightforward prose—but they never do that, of course. They’re just as bombastic as they can possibly be.
North Korea from its own standpoint has been betrayed by the United States several times, particularly in the transition from Clinton to Bush. Of course, we think they've cheated on us many times as well. The fact that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi gave up their nukes and were then toppled is a key experience for the North—I don’t know what kind of security guarantee you give to North Korea in the aftermath of that. But I know they want good relations with the U.S. and at some point we’re going to have to accept that they are not going to give up all their atomic bombs. That’s a route to quieting things down and maybe normalization, but I can’t see Obama doing this for another year, if he ever does it. It’s just a very bad atmosphere that mainly the North Koreans have created.