It is a special privilege and honor to be asked to speak at this important forum, for two reasons:
As some of you know, I served here as the Chief of Intelligence for US Forces, Korea in the mid-eighties, and concurrently as the Deputy Chief of Intelligence for the Combined Forces Command. Looking back over my 34 years of military service—both in the Marine Corps and the Air Force, my assignment here was one of the most rewarding of my military career, both professionally and personally. My family and I grew quickly to love this country and its people.
I have followed developments on the peninsula ever since, in whatever intelligence position I occupied, particularly and most intensively during the six and a half years I served as the US Director of National Intelligence.
The other reason I am so pleased to be here is for the honor and privilege of sharing the stage with my colleague, friend, and mentor, Dr John Hamre. John is an icon in my book, and he continues to lead CSIS in thoughtful and impactful ways.
It is fortuitous timing that yesterday marked the 67th anniversary of the invasion of the Republic of Korea by the KPA, and the 27th of next month will mark the 64th anniversary of the Armistice, which simply stopped active combat.
Many things have changed in the region, and certainly on the peninsula, particularly the amazing growth of the Republic. It is hard to comprehend what it must’ve been like here on this day 67 years ago, and how difficult to imagine the horrific events that occurred here, and the miraculous recovery that has happened here, which is a great credit to the Korean people, and to the success of the alliance, which has sustained the peace—or at least the absence of another major war—for all those years.
At the same time, many things haven’t changed. One can still feel the palpable tension during a visit to the DMZ. I was an intelligence staff officer at Pacific Command headquarters during the tree-cutting incident in the DMZ in 1976 , and first visited the DMZ not long after that. As a book-end, I most recently visited the DMZ last year. The uneasiness—one of the last vestiges of the Cold War—still prevails. The cruel nature of the regime and the controlled society it sustains in the North remains. North Korea remains a family-owned country. When I served here, I worried a great deal about the threat posed by the north—at the time, heightened by their fielding of SA-5’s, and their acquisition of MIG-23’s, which now seem pretty tame.
Now, of course, the north’s saber-rattling is more ominous, as they press hard on the development of nuclear weapons, and the testing of missiles to deliver them, both in the region, and perhaps to the United States. Regional dynamics are in flux, and clearly the behavior of the new Administration in the US adds mystery to the equation.
A RADICAL PROPOSAL
So, what I would like to do today is to suggest an alternative way-ahead for dealing with North Korea. My view is not conventional, and, for the record, clearly does not reflect the view of the US Government. It is heavily influenced by my visit to North Korea in November of 2014, to bring out two US citizens who had been imprisoned under hard labor conditions.
I had discussions with the two senior DPRK officials who were my interlocutors—the Director of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, and the Minister of State Security.
So, here are my main take-always from that epiphany experience:
- I was amazed at the magnitude and depth of paranoia, and the overwhelming sense of siege that seems to prevail among the elite leadership in the north. Everywhere they look, as I heard repeatedly, they see enemies who threaten their very existence. They find the Republic’s military capability quite formidable, and superior to theirs, and when they then consider the US military force, it compounds the paranoia, and the amplifies their siege mentality.
- They are NOT going to give up their nuclear weapons. My first White House-issued talking point was to tell the North that they must de-nuclearize. That, I can attest from first-hand experience--is a non-starter; it isn’t going to happen. They consider their nuclear capability as their ticket to survival. They went to school on what happened to Gaddafi in Libya. He voluntarily gave up his weapons of mass destruction after negotiating with the US, and they saw how that turned out for him. They understand that if they didn’t have their nuclear weapons, no one would pay attention to them, and they would have no viable deterrent.It is about “face,” recognition, and leverage. They have none of that without their nuclear weapons.
And, by the way, neither they, nor we, know whether these weapons—particularly the long-range missiles—will actually work. But, it almost doesn’t matter, since the North has achieved what they want, which is deterrence. We have to assume they will work, even if we can’t know for sure they will.
- I would also observe that the Chinese, whom we all look to as the only country which has real leverage over North Korea, share our concerns about North Korea. They don’t like Kim Jong-un’s behavior, they don’t like the underground nuclear tests, they don’t like the missile tests, and they especially don’t like the THAAD deployment, which they like to rationalize poses a threat to them. When I was last in China in June of last year, I reminded my interlocutors that the THAAD deployment wouldn’t be necessary if it weren’t for threat posed to the ROK. I didn’t get much of a response to that assertion.
What the Chinese don’t like even more than all this, however, is the potential loss of their buffer state.Having a unified Korea under the auspices of Seoul, buttressed by the United States, is strategically unacceptable to the Chinese. We in the Obama Administration were quite surprised when the Chinese signed up to UN Security Council Resolution 2270, which potentially imposed draconian sanctions on North Korea—of course, it has a proviso that allows non-enforcement if humanitarian hardship. But, hope sprung eternal, since the Chinese—who conduct 80 to 90 per cent of the North’s trade—would squeeze the North Koreans. But, there was an escape clause in the Resolution which allows China not to impose sanctions if doing so would impose humanitarian hard-ship on the North--a loop-hole big enough to drive a truck through. So, the consequence is the Chinese enforcement has been, shall we say, uneven.
In my view, the US has no real pre-emptory military options. I understand the need for the public rhetoric about no options being off the table, but realistically, it would be reckless to attack, for example, the Yong-byon nuclear research facility, or one of the KN-08 alleged ICBM facilities.
Even more critical, though, is that if we were to mount a pre-emptive attack, the North, I am convinced, would react reflexively. Without any deliberation, they would unleash all that artillery deployed along the DMZ, and, attempt to do what they have vowed: to make Seoul a “sea of fire.” If we were to attack first, we would be putting at risk the 25 million Koreans who live in the greater Seoul area, not to mention thousands of Americans and dual US-Korea citizens. So, I don’t think threatening rhetoric like “major, major conflict” and dispatching an “armada”—someplace--is helpful. In fact, it only serves to magnify that paranoia and siege mentality that I observed when I visited Pyongyang.
Our Secretary of Defense Mattis, has to his credit, acknowledged the huge risk that any such military action against the north would entail.
A PROPOSED APPROACH
So, what might be done to change the paradigm? I would humbly suggest the following:
- I think the US—in coordination with ROK leadership, and in consultation with other regional stakeholders—should offer to establish an “Interest Section” in Pyongyang, like the one we had in Havana, Cuba for decades—as a form of diplomatic representation with a government we didn’t recognize. We would, of course, allow a similar presence in Washington. This would accomplish two objectives:one serve as a means of regular, "in-residence" communication and dialogue; and two--and perhaps most important--serve as a critical conduit for information from the outside world. To me, this is the only path to what I might call a “soft implosion” in North Korea. Moreover, I don’t think the demand of the North for a peace treaty is unreasonable. They view the ROK forces aligned along the DMZ as formidable and quite threatening, poised on a hair-trigger to invade the DPRK. Engaging in discussions leading to a peace treaty would relieve that fear of attack, and also deflate one of their major assertions they use to instill fear among their people to justifytheir grotesque commitment of resources to their military.
- What would we demand in return? I don’t really know if the North would find any of this appealing, even if we were to make such an offer. I think realistically, all we could demand in return would be to get them to agree to a verifiable stop to their underground nuclear device tests, and their missile tests. This would be, I think, a positive move to stop their development of capabilities that have not been fully tested or proven to work.
During all of the very adversarial discussions I had during my visit in Pyongyang, the one debate point where I did not get a finger in my chest sort of response was when I observed that the United States has no permanent enemies. I cited my personal experience of having served in Vietnam during the war there in 1965-1966. I did not return there for 47 years; it was a profound experience for me, when I saw how Vietnam had progressed, and how we now had diplomatic, economic, and military relations with Vietnam. In other words, Vietnam is no longer an enemy. So could it be with the DPRK. They did not rebut this point.
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
When it comes down to it, there are really no good options for changing the paradigm with North Korea. I think the US has been stuck on its narrative for a long time, somehow expecting that magically, this will elicit a change in the North’s behavior (this is one man’s definition of insanity). I know the North is stuck on their narrative. I think the bigger partner is the only one who can change.
I realize that what I’m proposing here is not very palatable to many here in the ROK, as well as in the US. I doubt our current administration would seriously consider it. But, I am even more convinced that we are not in a good place now with the increasingly dangerous saber-rattling rhetoric, which could easily spin out of control and turn into a tragic and disastrous conflagration risking untold death and destruction. I think we need to consider a different path.
Thank you for having me, and thank you for listening to someone who cares deeply about what happens here. I look forward to your questions.
The Honorable James Clapper served as the fourth U.S. Director of National Intelligence from 2010 to 2017.