March 1, 2019
Andrew Schwartz: North Korea is The Impossible State. It's a place that's stumped leaders and policymakers for more than three decades.
Soundbite: It was a very productive two days, but sometimes you have to walk.
Andrew Schwartz: It has a complex history, and it has become the United States' top national security priority.
Soundbite: Talks in private did not lead to any breakthrough. A working lunch and signing ceremony never happened.
Andrew Schwartz: Each week on this show, we'll talk with the people who know the most about North Korea. In this episode, the Vietnam summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un has just ended, and while the meeting ended with a handshake, both parties were unsuccessful in reaching any kind of agreement. Joining me to discuss the latest is Dr. Mike Green, Senior Vice President for Asia at CSIS. Dr. Michael J. Green in the house. We're here the afternoon after the summit. The summit was cut short. Mike, what happened?
Michael Green: Well, the President walked away from the table, although it's possible that Kim Jong-un walked away from the table, we don't know exactly who walked first.
Andrew Schwartz: But you think it's a good idea that President Trump walked.
Michael Green: The scenarios for this summit that a lot of us who've been involved with North Korea policy saw were bad, ugly, and really ugly. And there was a slim possibility of good, meaning an actual North Korean step that was something we could meet with equal measures on our side.
Andrew Schwartz: Some form of declaration of something-
Michael Green: A declaration or something like that. So there was a real worry, and frankly it was not just curmudgeonly former negotiators and officials from the Bush and Obama and Clinton administrations. It was within this administration. There was a real worry that the President was fixated on pulling US troops off the Korean peninsula, declaring the end of the Korean War, and claiming a historical accomplishment and the Nobel Peace Prize. And there was real worry about that in Tokyo, in the Pentagon.
Michael Green: He didn't do it. So in a way, this was a reassuring outcome because the President appears to have listened to people like Steve Biegun, his envoy, Matt Pottinger, his senior Asia expert in the White House, or Randy Schriver, depending on people who know this account well and-
Andrew Schwartz: Mike Pompeo.
Michael Green: And Mike Pompeo, although he's newer to the account of course. And his intel people. It sounds like they might've gotten through to him that he should walk away from a bad deal. That's oddly reassuring because with Mattis, no-longer secretary of defense, many people, not just in the press but in the Congress, in allied capitals are asking who is the quote-unquote "adult in the room"? And without Jim Mattis there, the President made the right decision.
Michael Green: Now, should he have been there at all in the first place? Opinion is divided. Personally, I don't think these things should be negotiated by the president of the United States. You don't put the president in that position. It conveys enormous legitimacy on Kim Jong-un, which is valuable, and you're giving it away for nothing.
Andrew Schwartz: Yeah, Kim certainly looked happy sitting there next to the President.
Michael Green: Yeah. And you undercut your negotiators because the North Koreans don't want to negotiate with knowledgeable experts at the State Department if they know that President Trump is going to maybe give them a big deal. And in fact, that's what happened in Singapore back in June.
Andrew Schwartz: Do they consider him to be unknowledgeable or less knowledgeable, and was he prepared this time?
Michael Green: I think he was better prepared, and I think that's probably why he walked away. He did not do a good job in Singapore last June. He, in front of Kim Jong-un, announced without any warning to allies that he was going to suspend military exercises, which is a Chinese and Russian idea opposed by the Japanese government quietly. And he announced that someday he'd like to leave the Korean Peninsula.
Andrew Schwartz: All right, tell-
Michael Green: And that was a huge, huge gimme to Beijing and Moscow and Pyongyang.
Andrew Schwartz: Tell us about the suspension of exercises being a China and Russia idea and how that all came to be, and give me the nexus of that.
Michael Green: So-
Andrew Schwartz: I mean, you've negotiated with the North Koreans directly back in 2000 ... Can't remember now.
Michael Green: Pyongyang in 2002, the six-party talks.
Andrew Schwartz: Correct. During the Bush administration. George W. Bush administration.
Michael Green: Right. And to be fair to this president, it's not like the Obama, Bush, Clinton, and Bush administrations solved this. I mean, the President's mistake was thinking that he had the unique capacity to solve it personally. That was just plain wrong, and he, I think, learned that. But to be fair, no one else has solved it either. In terms of the-
Andrew Schwartz: But there goes his Nobel Prize.
Michael Green: Well, there [crosstalk 00:04:22].
Andrew Schwartz: Or at least for this year.
Michael Green: And here's the problem. He is now stuck. He's stepped into a trap he set for himself, and I'll explain what I mean. The Chinese and the Russians proposed in 2017 that we could solve this problem with North Korea if the US would agree to stop doing military exercises with South Korea. These are military exercises we do all the time-
Andrew Schwartz: To stay ready.
Michael Green: To stay ready so that the US forces and the South Koreans know what they're going to do together, know each other, exercise the plan. It's important, and it's even more important now that North Korea is developing more missiles and more of a threat. So the Chinese and the Russians, not the North Koreans, the Chinese and the Russians pushed in 2017 an idea that they've pushed for decades really, which is you could calm the situation down if you stop doing military exercises with the South Koreans. Completely self-serving for Beijing and Moscow. Weaken US alliances, weaken US military readiness, and take the pressure off of themselves to sanction North Korea.
Andrew Schwartz: And for them to be ready in that region of the world as well.
Michael Green: For them to have an edge. I mean, that's part of it, too. When they proposed this in the UN in 2017, Nikki Haley publicly said, "This is insulting." Heather Nauert, the State Department spokesman said, "There's no connection between our legitimate military exercise and North Korea's violation of Security Council sanctions." Henry Kissinger testified that it would be a, in effect, diplomatic defeat.
Michael Green: The problem the President has is, when all the pieces land and things sort of settle after this Hanoi encounter, where are we? It's a freeze-for-freeze. They're not testing nuclear weapons or missiles, and we're not exercising. So what does he do now? If he resumes exercises, which is what the Pentagon, Japan, and the Korean military will want, and most to US allies, so that they're ready, and North Korea the starts testing again, he'll get blamed for provoking North Korea by a lot of the world.
Andrew Schwartz: The President will get blamed.
Michael Green: The President will get blamed. If he doesn't resume exercises, our military readiness will continue to degrade. And I worry if this goes on for more than a year, the US Army may have to start looking at whether they can afford to have one of their brigades just waiting all the time to train. They need to be trained, they need to be ready. And so it will create a kind of a magnetic pull to get off the peninsula anyway because they're not trained and ready.
Michael Green: So that's the box the President has now put himself in. Where we are, basically, is after nine months of this drama with presidential summits, where we are now is basically the Chinese and Russian proposal, which the Trump administration said was a terrible idea. I don't know how he gets out of that box. It's going to be very tricky.
Andrew Schwartz: How do the neighboring allies, Japan and South Korea, view this summit?
Michael Green: The official Japanese face on this one is, "We're will the president." Shinzo Abe has spoken to and met with Donald Trump more than any other world leader. The Japanese have decided they're all in. They're not going to fight with Donald Trump. They're not going to do what Merkel does or-
Andrew Schwartz: Golden golf club.
Michael Green: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, exactly. It's all about the handicap. And the President appears to like Abe, and there are big issues, and Japan lives in a daily-
Andrew Schwartz: President's going to Japan to-
Michael Green: He's going to Japan in May for the first state visit with a new emperor. But he's also threatening to do massive auto tariffs on Japan. And the Japanese also worry about whether he ... I mean, they're relieved, frankly, that the President didn't announce peace and say, "I'm pulling out of the Korean Peninsula," which would have left Japan incredibly vulnerable.
Michael Green: So I think privately there's no doubt that the Japanese government and the people around Abe are incredibly relieved that this happened, but publicly Abe has made a decision that he will do what it takes to keep onside with President Trump because fighting with him openly brings nothing good for Japan.
Michael Green: And the Koreans on the other hand are very divided. Korea is a very divided country on the North Korea question. The current government in the Blue House of Moon Jae-in is very left progressive. They were really hoping that there would be an end of war declaration, there would be sanctions lifting, and then they, South Korea, would be able to reopen economic projects they have in North Korea, which provide a lot of cash to Pyongyang, but the Seoul government believes that they needed to do it. So they are-
Andrew Schwartz: They were hoping for real progress.
Michael Green: In my view, they were hoping for fake progress. They were hoping for a sanctions lifting, so they could do more engagement with the North. And now they won't be able to, and the conservatives in South Korea will use this to start making a comeback. So Seoul is ... the Blue House is not happy, and they're making that kind of clear in their off-the-record statements. And many of the statements attributed to officials in the Blue House are blaming Donald Trump for ruining this, saying the North Koreans [crosstalk 00:08:47] deal.
Andrew Schwartz: Donald Trump personally.
Michael Green: And the US delegation and John Bolton and the quote-unquote "hardliners." And so the market went down in Seoul, and there was a kind of irrational exuberance that somehow peace would break out. And as I said, Seoul's divided, Korea's a divided country politically. The conservatives were where the Japanese are in effect and the Pentagon, this is all a trap. The progressives in the Blue House were really hoping for sanctions lifting, more exchanges. A lot of it's about domestic Korean politics, and the Blue House suffered a real blow. Moon Jae-in suffered real blow from this. And at a time when he can't afford it. The Korean economy is not doing well, and North Korea is sort of one of the things he's tried to point to as a political success. So it's going to hurt him. I think Abe and his people will quietly be very relieved.
Michael Green: And that's where we are. And the next big question, I think, for them is, what happens to the diplomacy and what happens to our military exercises?
Andrew Schwartz: We can all pretend like the Michael Cohen hearing wasn't going on at the same time as this was, but there's no use in pretending because anybody who was watching any news channel yesterday pretty much saw a split screen, saw Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un on one side and Michael Cohen testifying and the House of Representatives Oversight Committee on the other side.
Andrew Schwartz: I know you probably have no way of knowing this, but do you think that the Cohen hearing affected President Trump's patience or ability? I mean, there were reports that he stayed up all night to watch this. Time is upside down when it comes to here and there during this. Do you think it affected it at all, or is this just a situation where he had to walk?
Michael Green: He's in his 70s. Hanoi has a very long flight, and he doesn't go to Asia often. He certainly didn't go off when he was in business. And if he you stayed up all night and watched the Michael Cohen hearings, which he may well have done, then his judgment, his stamina would've been affected. Actually, I was going to say we'll never know, but the nice thing about the Trump administration is somebody eventually talks.
Michael Green: I'm [inaudible 00:10:51] I think this had more to do with skillful preparation by the National Security Council staff and the State Department and DOD people there because they were surprised by a lot of what Donald Trump did in Singapore, like announcing an end to our military exercises or calling them war games, which is what the North Koreans call them, or announcing that someday he wants to get our troops out of Korea. That was all a big unpleasant surprise for-
Andrew Schwartz: And I guess more to the point-
Michael Green: [crosstalk 00:11:20] government.
Andrew Schwartz: ... Kim and the North Koreans didn't exactly make it easy on the United States during this round. They weren't prepared to give up really anything.
Michael Green: Well, that ... There's a bit of a he said, she said going on. I mean, to your earlier question, I really do think whether or not Donald Trump watched the Michael Cohen hearings, he probably did, he probably was exhausted, I think the reason he walked away was because Secretary Pompeo and the rest of the national security team prepped the President and defined what they were looking for better than they did in Singapore.
Michael Green: And the North Koreans couldn't do it. The North Korean chief negotiator gave a press conference shortly before our podcast where he said that North Korea had a big offer on the table and that they were prepared to dismantle their facilities at Yongbyon-
Andrew Schwartz: Which is the big one.
Michael Green: Which is the big one. Estimates are 40 to 50% of their overall capability, to include not only the plutonium-related facilities but also uranium, which is more secretive and harder to detect because when you enrich uranium, it doesn't put up a signal you can detect in terms of either heat or things, particles you can pick up in the atmosphere the way we have been able to with plutonium.
Michael Green: And then in exchange, they wanted a partial sanctions lifting. And that's going to be a problem for the administration because, what is partial of the sanctions lifting? How do you verify this? What exactly was the deal? But that is a chunk of a deal that some people will say is reasonable.
Michael Green: Now, the North Koreans may be lying through their teeth, but the fact that their chief negotiator has put this out there will be used by Beijing and Moscow and very possibly the Blue House in Seoul to say the Americans caused the problem. So it was quite clever of the North Koreans to sow discord. I don't know what happened, but they're spinning this pretty effectively, not for an American or Japanese or European audience necessarily, but for the center of gravity that they see to blunt any American pushback. And that's Beijing, Moscow, and Seoul especially, especially the progressive Blue House.
Andrew Schwartz: What about the rest of their stuff? I mean, CSIS, in our research, we reported on our commercially-available satellite images that show that they have over 20 missile bases, that they are undeclared. Did they include any of that in their statement, or were they going to negotiate with that? I mean, there's a lot they have besides Yongbyon.
Michael Green: That's right. And Victor Cha's Beyond Parallel has really, using very precise but commercially-available satellite imagery, just shown how much the North Koreans have.
Andrew Schwartz: And we have a new video out called High Resolution. It's our new short video series, which actually shows in 90 seconds what they have through this commercially-available satellite image.
Michael Green: That's right. So what I think everybody south of Donald Trump, meaning Secretary Pompeo and all the people around him and the National Security Advisor and the Pentagon, what I think they all probably fully realized is that North Korea was never serious about giving up nuclear weapons. And it doesn't take a whole lot of research to figure that out. The North Koreans themselves made it very clear they intended to be treated as a fellow nuclear weapon state. They never put their nuclear weapons, which they have, on the table. They put on the table certain facilities and-
Andrew Schwartz: Meaning they want to be a declared nuclear weapon state, and we're just going to deal with that.
Michael Green: Yeah. This has been the goal since the mid-'90s when Kim Il-sung met with Jimmy Carter in Pyongyang, and the diplomacy really began. And the North Koreans have aimed to establish their status as a nuclear weapon state like Pakistan, or if they could get it, like China, Russia, one of the P5, permanent nuclear weapons states when the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed, who agreed in the NPT in Article VI, US, Britain, France, China, Russia, in Article VI of the NPT in 1968 to get everyone else to agree not to develop nuclear weapons. We, the US and other nuclear powers, said we will commit to eliminating nuclear weapons someday.
Michael Green: And that is what North Korea is signing up for. They will become one of those countries that will eliminate nuclear weapons when everyone else does. They never put their nuclear weapons on the table ever. What they put on the table was a piece of the program. And in exchange, they wanted sanctions lifting and de facto, if not de jure, recognition as a nuclear weapon state.
Michael Green: And I think Pompeo and everyone else around him knew that if the North Koreans went for that deal, it couldn't be sold. And I think they knew very well that was probably what was on offer, and they were looking for something that would be more credible, and it sounds like the North Koreans couldn't deliver it.
Andrew Schwartz: What would have been more credible?
Michael Green: Well, it's hard to answer that question because I've been at this game too long, and I don't think the North Koreans are credible on this. But what would've been credible would have been something that we've requested or required of them for 25 years as part of the process that they've never delivered, and that is a declaration of all their facilities. Not the stuff we can see with our CSIS satellites, which is impressive, but not that stuff or not the stuff that the US government knows about, but everything — scientists, hidden facilities, missiles, nuclear weapons.
Michael Green: That would be a, and a lot of people have said this, that would be a very clear first step towards some actual dismantlement and denuclearization. We would haggle about how you verify it, we'd haggle about inspections, but that's how you begin a real denuclearization process. It wasn't going to happen. And the North Koreans weren't going to do it because they want to keep the majority of what they have to have a significant deterrent and, as Beyond Parallel has shown, to keep working on it and keep expanding it.
Andrew Schwartz: All right, so where does this leave us all now? Because now I don't know what happens. Tell us, how do we pick up the pieces here?
Michael Green: It's going to be tricky. I think on the diplomacy side, it's a glass half-full in a way because the President of the United States telegraphed to Kim Jong-un that he was going to be the guy who negotiated this big deal, kind of like it's a new casino in New Jersey or something. And so Kim Jong-un in letters and in statements said "Fine, I don't really want to deal with Secretary Pompeo or Steve Biegun or anyone else." And I suppose in particular because they know about the issue. He wanted to get in the room with Donald Trump to a big grand bargain.
Michael Green: So the glass half-full part of this is it appears the President has gotten this, that it's not going to work. And so after some period, I think Steve Biegun will be newly empowered by the President to try to put this back together. The President should have empowered him more from the beginning. Steve's a very capable guy, very well-respected. But if you're the negotiator, and your president makes it clear that he himself wants to do the deal, it's pretty tough to get traction. So I think that's one piece. Steve Biegun, Secretary Pompeo will try to start getting back on track.
Michael Green: But the glass half-empty, the difficult part, as I mentioned, is what do we do about this freeze-for-freeze? The President unilaterally stopped our military exercises. It is going to start to hurt our readiness. They are not putting a serious deal on the table. At what point do we resume our military exercises? At what point do we start sanctioning Chinese and Russian companies that we know are violating sanctions?
Michael Green: The administration has held their fire on military exercises, on sanctions to some extent; is that still on hold? And that's a real problem because there was no deal. And the longer we keep things like military exercises on hold and sanctions, the harder it is for us to deter North Korea, the easier it is for them to cheat and develop channels to get technology and cash. So I imagine there's a big debate going on in the administration right now.
Andrew Schwartz: Are we really less capable of fighting them if we put off exercises for, say, a few more months or six more months or even another year? We're the strongest military power in the world. Our guys are going to be in great shape no matter what. Are we less capable of fighting them?
Michael Green: Yes. I mean, in open testimony, four-star generals have said we will be less capable, but that doesn't mean we wouldn't turn North Korea into a smoking hole if they attack South Korea or Japan. So deterrence is not weakened in a substantial, significant way yet.
Michael Green: It's a gradual degradation of readiness because the US troops need ... The motto of US Forces Korea is ... There are two mottoes. One is, "Katchi kapshida," which is Korean for, "We go together," with Korea. And the other is, "Fight tonight." We've got to be ready to fight tonight because the North Koreans are. Think of basketball. If you're not on the court training with your team, and then suddenly there's a game, you're going to be a little flabby, a little clunky. So it definitely hurts, but not to the point where we have to worry North Korea is going to attack because they think we can't fight. We have enormous power, as you point out.
Michael Green: In some ways, the larger problem is geopolitical because we have ended up with a Russian-Chinese proposal to freeze our exercises aimed at weakening our alliances, and it suggests a lack of willpower by the US, and eventually it is going to become so costly in terms of the readiness of our team to go on the court and win that, as I said, I worry that the Army might start saying, "Maybe we don't need troops on Korea. Maybe" ... I mean, it could have that effect to over time.
Michael Green: The commanders in the field generally say we can skip a cycle, maybe two, but if this goes on for years, it's going to have a significant readiness and geopolitical effect.
Andrew Schwartz: We definitely don't want our three-point field goal percentage to go down.
Michael Green: No.
Andrew Schwartz: All right. I'd be remiss if I didn't conclude this by asking you what to make about the Otto Warmbier stuff that President Trump said he believed Kim Jong-un that he didn't know about Otto Warmbier's death.
Michael Green: It's possible Kim Jong-un didn't know ... Well, it's impossible that Kim Jong-un was ignorant about Otto Warmbier dying. That is a huge geopolitical and security crisis for North Korea. It is possible Kim Jong-un didn't order his death. It's quite possible. But it's pretty reprehensible for the president of the United States to suggest that the leader of the most brutal regime in the world is not somehow culpable for his henchmen killing an American in custody.
Michael Green: I mean, there's no ... The buck stops with Kim Jong-un in North Korea, and he's a living god. It's a dictatorship. He may not have personally ordered it, but this regime ... Which is incredibly brutal. He murdered his own uncle. He's executed over 100 of his top generals and officials, very often with unspeakably cruel techniques. To somehow absolve him because he might not have personally ordered it is pretty reprehensible. And unfortunately, it's a pattern for the President many have pointed to when it comes to other authoritarian leaders, not as brutal as Kim Jong-un but pretty bad. Putin and others.
Michael Green: And there's another dimension to it, though, that's worrisome, which is the President said he believes Kim Jong-un's version in effect. Right? I mean, Kim Jong-un said-
Andrew Schwartz: He did.
Michael Green: That is a pattern to me that is not morally problematic but problematic in terms of national security. I mean, we know that President Trump proposed this freeze on US military exercises because Putin proposed it, and his own military advisers and his own ally said, "Please don't do it," leading up to the summit because it had been on the table already. And there are other cases like when Putin apparently, reportedly, and I think credibly reported, told Donald Trump North Korea couldn't possibly have missile capability when they tested. And so he believed that over his own intelligence.
Michael Green: So there's the moral aspect of absolving Kim Jong-un from responsibility for a brutal act in a regime that is designed to be brutal and reports to him. And then there's a really worrying security dimension that he would believe our adversaries rather than his own allies and intel and security experts.
Michael Green: Little silver lining on this episode. Maybe it's what Barack Obama might call a "teachable moment." You don't know it all. You could not get Kim Jong-un to do what other presidents through their negotiators and through diplomacy couldn't get him to do. Your intelligence chief, who reportedly is in hot water, Dan Coats, for saying on the record North Korea is not going to give up nuclear weapons. He said it was very highly unlikely, was the intel assessment. Well, maybe now he will not take that personally and listen a little more carefully. So this may be too hopeful, but it's possible that this will be a moment where the President listens a little more carefully to his own national security experts because they were right.
Andrew Schwartz: If you have a question for one of our experts about The Impossible State, email us at ImpossibleState@CSIS.org. If you want to dive deeper into the issue surrounding North Korea, checkout Beyond Parallel. That's our micro-website that's dedicated to bring better understanding of the Korean Peninsula. You can find it at BeyondParallel.CSIS.org.
Andrew Schwartz: And don't forget to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. That's so more listeners can find us. It's very helpful. We're now also streaming on Spotify, so you can find us there, too, where you find all your music. How cool is that? And don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Andrew Schwartz: This is The Impossible State.