Press Briefing: Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang
January 23, 2018
H. ANDREW SCHWARTZ: Good morning, everybody, and welcome to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. I’m Andrew Schwartz, head of communications here at CSIS. Thank you all for being here. And we will have a transcript after this is over, which we’ll put out today. If you can speak into the microphone during the Q&A period, that’ll help for the transcript.
And with that, I’d like to introduce my colleague, Mike Green, who’s the head of all of our Asia programs here at CSIS and loves the Olympics.
MICHAEL J. GREEN: So thanks very much.
Good morning. I’m going to make some opening historical framing remarks about the geopolitics of the Olympic Games and the geopolitics at play in Pyeongchang and then segue to Sue Mi Terry, our senior fellow on the Korea chair, who was one of the top analysts on North Korea in the CIA and professor of Korean studies, who’s going to say something more about the North-South dynamics, internal North Korean intentions.
And then Seth Jones will wrap things up with a look at the broader threat profile, terrorism, cyber and so forth, going into the Olympics. Seth is also the sports junkie on the panel, so any questions about predictions on gold medals will go to Seth.
SETH G. JONES: No fencing questions.
MR. GREEN: Yeah, I – we were joking earlier. I was captain of the fencing team in college, which, you know, that and a quarter will get you cup of coffee. But Seth played hockey in college. So any Olympic sports questions, he’s going to field for us.
Apparently, Sue’s dad was an Olympian.
SUE MI TERRY: Speed skating.
MR. GREEN: Speed skating. For Korea or for – yeah. So these are your sports experts – and, of course, Mr. Schwartz. Geopolitics history, nerdy questions, or any questions about fencing, I’ll handle.
So the Olympics, of course, are very political. Historically they have been. It’s supposed to be a time, dating back to the ancient Greeks, when warfare and politics end. But the Olympics have never been immune to changes in world politics. The 1916 Olympics were canceled because of World War I. The 1920 Olympics were limited because the losers in World War I – Germany, Austria and so forth – were not allowed to participate.
People remember the 1936 Olympics in Berlin because of Jesse Owens. But the reality is, at the time, most commentators thought it was a huge propaganda win for Adolf Hitler and Riefenstahl, the cinematographer who designed all of the Nazi drama, including the torch ceremony, which was a Nazi thing, which we now, of course, do regularly as part of the Olympic spirit, ironically; 1940 in Japan canceled. And the list goes on.
The most dangerous geopolitical Olympic Games in Asia were the 1988 Seoul Olympics; significant in the current context because, in 1987, North Korea tried to ruin Seoul’s coming-out party by planting a bomb on a Korean Airliner flight and blowing it up, and they killed everyone on board.
That’s important context, because, as Korea prepares to host the Pyeongchang Olympics, they want North Korea in a box where they’re not going to do dangerous and provocative things, well beyond that kind of terrorist attack, to include potentially nuclear saber-rattling, cyberattacks and so forth. So that’s the context within which the Korean government is quite keen to have North Korea participate.
The reality, when you look back – well, first of all, most of the geopolitics around the Olympics are the Summer Olympics, which have much larger international delegations and generally gather – garner more international attention. But there are a couple of things you can conclude from the geopolitical wave that have hit Olympics over the last hundred years.
First, the Olympics cannot really solve the fractures in international politics. The Olympic – International Olympic Committee was not able to arrange for the Olympics in World War I, of course; was not able to over geopolitics to get Japan and Germany in the games in 1948. They were still enemies in the enemies clause of the United Nations charter, even though the war was over. So the Olympic Committee very rarely – in fact, never – overcomes geopolitical divisions.
Secondly, when there is some kind of reconciliation, it’s almost always form following function or symbolism following the reality of geopolitics. So there have been cases, but it’s almost always as the result of the geopolitical issues being solved before the Olympics.
And third, when you look specifically at the history of North Korean participation in the Olympics and North-South reconciliation, it doesn’t last. North Korea will march in the Olympics. They’ll participate in some events. They’ll have a joint North-South hockey team, to the enormous frustration and disappointment of the South Korean hockey players and to a lot of controversy in South Korea.
This will be the fourth time North Korea has joined the games with South Korea. They’ve competed in games before, but this will be the fourth time they’ve marched with the South. The four previous times were under progressive governments – 2000 under Kim Dae-jung, the first time; and then 2004 and 2006 under Roh Moo-Hyun. So this is a feature of progressive politics in South Korea. It reflects the left’s hope for reconciliation; the drama of singing Aegukga, the song of one Korea; and the assumption of many on the left in Korea, that the division of the peninsula is really not the fault of North Korea, it’s really the fault of external powers, including the United States. And it’s a very contested and divisive set of assumptions. And you’ve probably seen in the media the more conservative parts of South Korean society who’ve been protesting the National Assembly, which is controlled by the conservatives objecting.
So what will happen as a result of the North marching and participating in the Games? Well, the good news is – and the reason the Trump administration supported this and postponed military exercises at the request of President Moon Jae-In – is that if North Korea’s in the box, in the tent participating, they’re much less likely to do the kind of dangerous things they did before the Seoul Olympics to try to steal the thunder away from the South Koreans.
Beyond that, for me – and Sue will say more – it seems unlikely that this will represent a turning point in North Korea’s very dangerous pursuit of a nuclear weapons arsenal and ballistic missile arsenal aimed at targeting the United States, driving a wedge between the U.S. and its allies, and blackmailing Korea, Japan, the U.S. to get more concessions as North Korea threatens to transfer its capability, uses its nuclear weapons as cover to engage in more dangerous provocations. That path towards North Korea’s more dangerous development and use of nuclear weapons capability for other purposes, I don’t think it changes.
The Chinese would very much like, the Russians would very much like and some progressives in South Korea would very much like for this to become a permanent freeze-for-freeze: The U.S. freezes military exercises, North Korea freezes its testing. I think there are a couple of important guardrails, then I’ll turn it over to Sue, a couple of important brakes on the government in Seoul’s ability to try to give concessions and change the dynamic, and in a way pressure the U.S. to change its policy.
First, the administration here is strongly supposed and Japan also is strongly opposed and conservatives in Korea are strongly opposed to a freeze-for-freeze, which would force the U.S. and ROK to stop annual exercises, which are necessary for deterrence, in exchange for North Korea freezing probably temporarily testing – testing which, by the way, is a complete violation of several U.N. Security Council resolutions. So it’s completely imbalanced. It favors Chinese preferences for alliances to get weaker in Asia. It’s a loser. And the South Korean government knows that and has told the North that the exercises are regular annual exercises, not something up for negotiation. But there are degrees of the exercises – whether or not, for example, strategic assets – bombers and nuclear-related American platforms are involved in the exercises. But on the whole, I think the fact these are annual exercises, that the administration is going to insist on resuming them and that the imbalance of a freeze-for-freeze is well known – all of those will be one set of guardrails.
The second is that the U.N. Security Council resolutions and sanctions are so strict now that there’s not a lot of maneuver room for South Korea to provide economic aid. Sue and I learned from the Korean government – and this is not a secret – that the Foreign Ministry is in the North-South talks, and they’re there primarily to make sure that the Unification Ministry doesn’t give away anything that’s – would be a violation of Security Council sanctions, which are law under South Korean law.
The third guardrail or brake is going to be that the South Korean public is not fully behind this and doesn’t really trust North Korea on the whole, although they’re very happy to not have trouble during the Olympics, just broad consensus about that.
And then, finally, North Korea itself, historically, go through cycles, sort of dialogue and friendship and then blows out of that and tests again. So for all those reasons it’s a good thing, and the administration’s right to support North-South dialogue. And as much as it’s difficult to stomach North Korean propaganda, it’s probably better for the world that North Korea’s in the Olympics, but it’s unlikely to be a gamechanger in terms of the problem and will probably be back to a severe situation again in the spring or summer.
MS. TERRY: Well, there’s not much I disagree with that.
So just quick update, we had a pre-Olympic North Korean delegation. They were just in Seoul. That delegation was headed by the Moranbong Band, the North Korean version of the Spice Girls. And Hyon Song Wol, the lead dancer or singer, who’s rumored to be Kim Jong-un’s former mistress/current mistress – I’m thinking if she was mistress, she had to be still current, otherwise why does she have this role – was just wildly received in South Korea. I mean, she had, like, celebrity status, the media frenzy over this trip.
It’s interesting. Just to talk about Kim Jong-un’s perspective a little bit, it absolutely makes sense for Kim Jong-un to have – to make this overture to South Korea and send a delegation of athletes who are just 22, and 230 cheerleaders, North Korea’s best and most – apparently handpicked, most beautiful 230 North Korean women, the cheerleading delegation, and the Taekwondo guys and the orchestra and all this – it makes sense for Kim Jong-un because, again, there’s no political or financial cost for North Korea. South Korean government is 100 percent funding this, so why not? It’s time – in fact, Kim Jong-un should have reached out to South Korea, or at least accepted one of the Moon Jae-In’s offers earlier than this.
So with this, North Korea get to have a complete image makeover in a world stage, with – again with even the soft power, right? That’s why they’re sending the dancers, the band, and the cheerleaders and so on, to normalizes themselves. It’s a good opportunity to have an image makeover. It’s an opportunity to create fissure between Seoul and Washington – why not chummy up to the Moon administration – and to see what North Korea can get out of South Korea. We know historically that the Kim family is not in a habit of giving away things for nothing. They never do anything for free. So in addition to being completely funded by the South Korean government to attend the Olympics, you know, they will probably look for some concessions.
And so the concern really was what will North Korea ask. They’re probably looking for sanctions relief down the road. We know the sanctions are beginning to bite, so they’re looking for sanctions relief. They’re probably looking for indefinite postponement of joint military exercises. And I was actually concerned that they might even ask for Seoul to reopen the Kaesong industrial complex.
But as Mike just discussed, talked about, I think the Moon Jae-In administration, I believe them on this – even though it’s a progressive government who really fundamentally wants to engage with North Korea, I think it’s very difficult for the Moon government to do something like reopen Kaesong industrial complex, because it’s violation of U.N. sanctions. But beyond that, I think they’ve also learned their lesson over the years, and they know by giving that kind of concession they’re going to have a problem with Washington and it’s not – it’s not necessarily going to solve this nuclear crisis.
And domestically – and Mike alluded to this – the public does not support that kind of concession. So 50 percent – while 70-some percent of the Koreans welcome North Korea’s participation in the Olympics, the recent polling show that 50 percent, maybe 51 percent, disagree on even the Koreas walking in with a joint flag, and some 70 percent disagree on the joint hockey team. There’s actually a backlash on that. And 52 percent also says no to financially supporting the North Korean regime. So the public has widely welcomed this thaw in inter-Korea relations; they’re not saying this is – this is such a great thing.
And in fact, you know, now – it’s not only the conservatives that are pushing back, but it’s younger generation who is like, what is North Korea, why are they hijacking this Olympics? Now they are, you know, saying, you know, is this Pyeongchang Olympics or is this Pyongyang Olympic? We work so hard and they get to just march in with their cheerleaders and everything else and take the spotlight. And the poor hockey team, I mean, why should the female hockey team – and I think the coach is very upset about this. And rightfully so. They worked very hard, and why do they have to like now include these North Koreans? So there’s some pushback. So I think it will be very hard for the Moon Jae-In government to sort of really go beyond in making a lot of concessions.
Now, because of the postponement of joint military exercises until the Pyeongchang Olympics is over and the Paralympics is over, that really takes us to March 18th time period. And I do think that North Korea will probably behave until that point. The question is what’s going to happen when we resume joint military exercises. And I do think this is one thing I’m a little bit concerned that the South Korean government might ask for, because South Korean government is not – they don’t want to miss this opportunity. They want to make sure that this opening with North Korea over the Olympics lead to something and lead to perhaps U.S.-North Korea dialogue. So they’re going to try very hard. And if they cannot give concessions on the sanctions front, they have to give something, because North Korea will demand it. So I’m a little bit concerned that the Moon government might actually push for the postponement of joint military exercises.
But according to Secretary Mattis, I think we were on record saying that we are going to resume, so if there is actual difference of opinion on that with – between Seoul and Washington I don’t know how we – what we’re going to do. But if we do region military exercises, what is North Korea going to do?
There’s two schools of thought on this because, after the third intercontinental ballistic missile test in November, Kim Jong-un came out with a statement saying, oh, we’re kind of – we completed the program. You’ve seen that statement. And in the New Year’s address, he also talked about we completed this – we are – we are now done. We completed nuclear program.
So there are some people that’s hoping that maybe Kim Jong-un now, because sanctions are biting, they understand that potentially this bloody nose military option is really something that’s being considered by the U.S. government, maybe Kim Jong-un had – he will just sort of stop here. And, particularly if we postpone, they’re going to stop. I happen to not agree with that assessment, but that’s a thought that’s out there. I can understand the rationale for that.
Just my personal perspective is that Kim Jong-un really needs international acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, and internationally we are all saying they are not there yet. They are – they have a couple more technical hurdles they have to cross, such as successful reentry vehicle – testing successful reentry vehicle.
So I think – so my concern is and my prediction is that, after regional military exercises resume, I think we are going to be back in that – sort of the situation that we were in last year and back into some sort of a crisis mode. And how big of a crisis that it will get to – I think that really depends on North Korea’s actions. And obviously provocations range from short-range, medium-range, intercontinental ballistic missile tests to some at the end of the provocative spectrum, which is, you know, the atmospheric nuclear tests, which I don’t rule out.
Kim Jong-un also said they will test, right? North Korea has also said and they have also had the habit of following through with that, too. So I think the tensions will resume about in April, May. I think this year, in 2018, will be a sort of very important year in the sense I think we’re going to see some sort of resolution on the North Korean crisis, even if we decided to sort of not react to North Korea’s – or just continue with sanctions. That is some sort of resolution to the North – because the decision-making point is coming sooner rather than later.
MR. JONES: Thank you. I will let the regional experts talk more about the politics.
Before talking about the threat more broadly to the Olympics, I did want to weigh in on the hockey picture because, as a former inglorious hockey player, trying to pull a team together for the coaching staff at this point in the game – it’s a team sport – will be a dramatic undertaking.
But let me just ask this question about what is the threat to the Olympics. I mean, I think, as Mike started us off, you know, this is a – this is a series of events with major global media coverage. It’s clearly political and geostrategic in addition to just being a sporting event.
Four thoughts along these lines as I looked at both this current Olympics and then past historical Olympics, and we tried to do some work for you by pulling data together – both patterns in – on the Korean Peninsula, but also patterns of attacks at the Olympics and other games. I think the first point that really strikes me as I looked at the history of the Olympics – and you can include other sporting events – is that there really is no strong correlation between the likelihood of attacks from terrorists or other sub-state groups and the Olympics. And that works in both directions. They are not either more or less likely to occur, and that may be because of at least two factors: one is the security measures put in place at the Olympics are significant. I think anybody who looked closely at the security measures the British put in place in London, as well as the Russians at the Sochi Olympics were massive – the signals and human intelligence networks put in place, infrastructure, barriers – deterred attacks during the Olympics.
We saw in Volgograd, before the Sochi Olympics, that there were attacks in the vicinity, but actually at the Olympics we’ve seen a couple of historical cases like Munich in 1972, or people in this country will remember the 1996 Atlanta bombings by Eric Rudolph, so a few outliers, but in general, no strong correlation – I mean, and that’s also because, as we look at terrorist activity, they just generally tend to pull off attacks when they can, not timed to specific events or even to specific dates more broadly, and I think the data are more – highlights that strongly. So the first point, again, is low probability at Olympics historically for at least two major reasons.
Second, if we look at the history of terrorism in South Korea, there has been virtually nothing in the last several decades, certainly compared to major states – I mean, kidnapping and some attacks targeting Koreans overseas in places like Afghanistan or Yemen. Most of the what you might call attacks – we pulled this even from the START terrorism database at the University of Maryland – are largely domestic, student-type demonstrations; nothing that comes to the level of what we’ve seen recently in Europe or in the United States, or even in Russia preceding the Sochi Olympics. So the second is, you know, there’s also not a major history here of terrorism on the peninsula.
Third, as I mentioned earlier, we have had some examples – and this means the probability is not zero – of groups outside of the region attempting to use it as a platform for getting their message across. One of the interesting things about the 1972 Munich Olympics is that the PLO, which staged the operation, had no major cell structures in Germany itself – West Germany itself where the attacks took place – were not its major platform. It was using the Olympics as a – the media coverage that went in place when they took hostage the Israeli athletes and then killed several of them in the attempted reaction to that.
We’ve seen some attacks at World Cups in stadiums, including in November of 2015 in Paris – if you remember the soccer attacks that the ISIS attacks targeted – so some sporting events, but again, I think pretty low probability.
And the fourth point – just to conclude – is, you know, there are, to be clear, some active groups in the region I think that are worth keeping an eye on. There has been – in my conversations recently with folks from the regions – Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, even from Korea – there’s been a concern of some foreign fighter returnees from Syria and Iraq. There is – there is some ISIS activity in the region; we’ve seen a few attacks. In the region more broadly there is Ansar al-Khilafah Philippines, for example. So there are some foreign – including jihadist – cell structures operating in the region. You also have some pretty robust historical organizations – Jemaah Islamiyah, Abu Sayyaf group operating out of countries like the Philippines, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement that China has been so concerned about tied to Xinjiang Province.
But again, I think it would be very difficult to get into Korea, to stage an attack, particularly with the intelligence resources that have traditionally been put in place at the Olympics and that are undoubtedly being put in place at this Olympics. So, again, low probability – not zero – but low probability based on a range of the data, both on the Korean Peninsula and I think at the Olympics, that we pulled together.
So I’ll hand this back over here.
MR. SCHWARTZ: You want to open it up for questions? Let’s open it up to questions, and if you could identify yourself that would be great.
Q: Do I just press this thing, or?
MR. SCHWARTZ: Yeah, just press the button and it’ll come on.
Q: Yeah, good morning.
MR. SCHWARTZ: And then when you’re done speaking, you press and it will go off.
Q: All right. Bill Douglas, McClatchy Newspapers.
I have, I think, three questions which I will try to take care of in staccato order. First of all, for Sue, can you provide the polling data on the popularity-unpopularity of unification? I’d like to see that because I’ve written a couple of stories about the women’s hockey team.
For Seth, how does the security around these games compare to Putin’s “ring of steel” in 2014?
Also, for Mark, since you are a hockey player, as am I, can you elaborate a bit more on how difficult it is to sort of throw a team together at the last minute? I mean, they’re unifying this team basically by adding 12 North Koreans, three of whom can only play at a time in any given game, but sort of the difficulty in that, also within the framework of this geopolitical structure we have and what pressures that puts on the coach, who is Canadian-American. And that is it.
MS. TERRY: I would say the point that I had, that I just don’t have the exact numbers. But I will tell you that there is a generation gap when it comes to the view of unification. Older generation are more for unification. Makes sense, because they have more memory of what it is, even just the history of Korea. I think the younger generation, there is definitely less sense of that. They were born after democratization. I mean, they were born in, like, ’90s.
They haven’t gone through division, the Korean War, democratization movement, authoritarian rule – nothing. They were just born in Kangnam and living a pretty good life. So why would they want unification. And this is why, actually, you were seeing some backlash from the younger generation to even Moon’s, like, why do we have to walk under, you know, united flag? Why can’t we wear the South Korean flag? So there’s even more nationalistic sentiment coming from the younger generation, and against unification.
Also, just overall, the view of unification is—I think the popularity, or the pro-unification feeling is going down. Even though older generation are still supportive of that, I know that it’s coming down. But I’ll get you exact numbers.
MR. JONES: On the security, I mean, as far as I’m aware, it’s been significant right now. The Koreans have reached out to a number of intelligence agencies that they already have a partnership with. They’ve got a fusion center set up to look at threats, both in the country but also potential threats coming from outside. I think one difference before the Sochi Olympics—particularly after the bombings—individuals that were involved in perpetrating the Volgograd attacks disappeared within Russia, off the face of the Earth.
So I don’t think we’re going to see that kind of activity on the Korean Peninsula. That’s probably because the threat perception in the caucuses was much more—and the threat reality was much more significant, I think, than what we’re seeing. So I would honestly suspect that if you were to look at what the Russians put into the Sochi Olympics and what’s going on now, the amount of resources that the Russians put in was probably more significant because the threat was much nearer at that point.
Just one comment on the hockey team, you know, this will be interesting for me to watch as a former player, in part because both in forward and defensive lines you need a history and pattern of playing together. And that is not going to be the case here. Ideally, you want to take players who have played on the same team, that essentially know where other players are going. Trying to stick a team together at the last minute, who’ve had no recent history of playing together, is going to make it very difficult, both for the forward lines, three players apiece, and then the defensive pairings in the back. So we’ll see. (Laughs.)
MS. TERRY: And at any given moment, you need three North Korean hockey players, right? That’s the agreement.
MR. JONES: Yes, that’s correct. Yes, this is—this is the—this is sporting by numbers.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Question.
Q: Thank you. Katie Hwa (ph) with NTD TV.
Just hope you can maybe give a little bit summary about what’s the goal of North Korea to join this Olympic game and what they can achieve, and what they can not achieve. Just a very brief summary, if that’s OK. Thank you.
MS. TERRY: So, again, I think it’s three things. It’s a good opportunity for them to have an image makeover, make themselves look normal. And this is why they’re sending such huge delegation of handpicked best of the best, and so on. So I think it’s a good – why not? It gets to have an image makeover. Secondly, if – I think the Kim Jong-un administration has concluded that it’s going to be difficult to talk to the Trump administration. So this is a good – normally, they do this strategy anyway, try to divide and conquer, put a wedge between the alliance. So if you can create fissure between Seoul and Washington in terms of how to deal with North Korea, that’s good for the Kim Jong-un regime.
And third, I think it’s an insurance policy towards later when they have – there’s been another provocation and, heaven forbid, we’ve decided to actually act militarily, it’s an insurance policy against that because now, again, you’re showing yourself in the world stage and getting sympathy, looking normal, looking like a normal country. So I think there is multiple motivations here. I do think sanctions are biting and they are looking for sanctions relief down the road.
MR. GREEN: Add to that, from the North Korean’s perspective, from the Chinese perspective and others, the most important actor is the U.S. But the center of gravity, the place where they want to maximize the pressure is South Korea because since before the Korean War, the North Koreans have known that South Korea society is divided. It’s less divided today, but it’s still quite divided over these questions. If you can drive a wedge there and prevent the South Korean government from getting a national consensus behind sanctions, that’s to their advantage. And then, as Sue said, drive a wedge between the U.S. and the ROK. If you can do that, they you get the Koreans to pressure the U.S. And then, of course, you want to drive a wedge between the U.S. and China. And you can do that by creating this dynamic where South Korea and China are pushing the U.S. to keep the dialogue going, to not resume the military exercises.
So it’s an opportunity for North Korea. It probably won’t work but, frankly, Washington is making it more likely to work. I’d still say it probably won’t, but Washington is making it more likely to work, because if the – if the wedge you’re trying to drive is between the U.S. and Korea, from a North Korean perspective, then you would be quite happy that the Trump administration is attacking the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, KORUS. You’d be quite happy that the administration has – parts of the administration have been talking about a bloody nose or preventive military strikes. And that’s an opportunity to get the South Koreans desperate for some kind of dialogue and to drive the South Koreans closer to China to soften the U.S. position.
So, frankly, the administration’s position on trade, which is fundamentally political and geopolitical with Korea, the KORUS free trade agreement – I was in the Bush administration when we decided to negotiate that. It was about economic interest, but it was also fundamentally about demonstrating a long-term U.S. commitment to Korea. And if you attack that, you’re attacking this faith in Seoul that the U.S. is committed to the alliance in the long run. And the administration is right to keep all military options on the table. We’re going to need a full toolkit, because the North Koreans are going to be provoking and testing us as they develop nuclear weapons capability.
But it’s very clear the administration is not unified on this question of whether or not there should be a – not preemptive, but preventive military strike, to try to shock the North Koreans out of their current trajectory. It’s clear the administration is not unified on this. It’s very clear the U.S. and South Korea are not unified on it. Even Japan, which has been superficially expressing support, is clearly nervous about where this goes. So the North Korean wedge strategy is an old one. But the administration’s stance is making it more tempting. I don’t think it will work, but it’s not helping that the U.S. is throwing doubt on different aspects of U.S.-Korea alliance relations right now.
Q: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Nirmal Ghosh from the Straits Times.
You’ve had these – and we know what’s happened diplomatically. You know, President Trump has put out his tweets and all that. But at the same time you’ve had Secretary of State Tillerson talking about necessity of a period of calm. And you’ve had this tantalizing mentions of possible even potential talks between the president and Kim Jong-un, even though they’re kind of indirect and oblique. I’d just like an assessment from you on how – there’s a perception that the U.S. has gone out pretty far on a limb with North Korea this time. How palatable is it for U.S. public opinion and Congress, et cetera, to come back down a bit, withdraw a bit, and actually, you know, respond to this period of calm and going to talks of some description with North Korea? That kind of scenario, is it at all feasible?
MR. GREEN: So the word “talks” – (laughs) – is potentially so broad that it’s really important I this debate to define what we’re talking about. The North Korean objective – and this has been clear – very clear since 2001, 2002, when I was in the Bush administration – their objective for dialogue is unchanged. It was not – you know, we tested dialogue in the six-party talks. The Obama administration tested dialogue with the so-called leap-frog – leap-day deal. They all went nowhere. The persistent objective for the North Koreans is pretty clear. And they told us this in 2001 and ’(0)2. The North Koreans want to have a dialogue with the United States as a fellow nuclear weapons state. Their constitution in 2012 was changed to make that irreversible. They are a, quote-unquote, “nuclear-weapon state.” And they want to have a dialogue with the U.S. that is akin to U.S.-Soviet arms control. And they’ve told people like Frank Jannuzi and Keith Luse from the Congress that. They told the White House that through different channels, going back 17 years ago. We’ve still tested six-party talks, but it’s pretty obvious that that is what they’re after.
So is there a political base of support for that in the United States? No. So people who talk about dialogue and talk are sort of hoping for some vague change in North Korean behavior that’s not going to happen unless there’s a, you know, completely different context; maybe a different leader in North Korea or, you know, a decade of sanctions – the new sanctions, which are quite serious, really having an effect.
But that dialogue, the idea we’re going to change North Korea’s trajectory or intentions, don’t buy it. Don’t buy it. I think very few, maybe no, Republican or Democratic officials who’ve worked on North Korea believe that anymore.
So then there’s other purposes for dialogue. Is the dialogue to lower the temperature? Well, yeah, it can have that effect. But again, people who are veterans in both Republican and Democratic administrations of dialogue with North Korea know there’s a cycle to this. They will get concessions. They will lower the pressure. They will divide the U.S. and China and South Korea. And then they’ll go back to testing.
And the pattern has been, every time we do that, you know, we start to mix – to use a different sports metaphor, we start back 30 or 40 yards and have to catch up to where we were. And I think most of the world, even the current South Korean government, knows that. So that kind of dialogue, lowering tension, yes, but it’s risky, especially if you do something like a freeze-for-freeze agreement or something the North Koreans will use to try to push you into this arms-control dialogue.
The third mode for dialogue, which I personally support, is more for the purposes of intelligence collection and setting up channels for managing crisis escalation, and eyes wide open; no expectation it will lead to a, quote-unquote, “diplomatic breakthrough” or a change in North Korean behavior. But we don’t know that much. Sue can tell you; she had this account. She used to brief me when I was in the White House. We don’t – it’s a hard target. We don’t know that much. So a lot of what we knew when I was in government was from talking to the Korean Koreans.
So the problem is the American body politic, South Korean media, we’re just not capable of framing dialogue in that rather modest but important way. Everyone has this kind of on-off switch. We’re either going to war or we’re going to dialogue and prevent war. And the North Koreans play that.
If we could think about dialogue in a much more modest way, as I said, understanding a little bit more about North Korean dynamics, you’re setting up channels that you can use to signal and manage crisis escalation to send clear signals at a time when I don’t think the North Koreans know who speaks for the administration, for example, on our red lines and so forth, and maybe setting a pattern that, down the road, might lead to more progress.
If we think of it in more modest terms as a tool in our toolkit, and a much less important tool than sanctions, deterrence, then there’s a role for it. But our dialogue, our debate, and the Korean debate, we haven’t been able to do that. We just infuse the dialogue with so much drama and expectation. So that’s how I answer the question on dialogue. There is a role, but we need to think about what exactly it really is.
MS. TERRY: Just to add one line, I think what you’re hearing from the proponents of dialogue and engagement, it’s no longer about denuclearization, because I think even the biggest progressive engagers, they all understand that dialogue over denuclearization is not really realistic anymore for North Korea.
So people who are proposing that are saying because denuclearization is no longer a realistic goal, why not we go for freeze or arms-control discussion? Let’s give that up. It’s really unrealistic goal. I just don’t think the administration is there yet. They have not decided to pursue that course. So I don’t think really engagement is really possible at this point on that.
Q: Hi. Nick Watkins, Tokyo Broadcasting System.
Just two questions. First, can you comment a little bit about your assessment on the North Korea meetings in Vancouver last week, especially in light of the Olympics? And second, Vice President Pence is attending the Olympics, and stopping by Tokyo and Seoul beforehand. Can you talk a little bit about the significance of that? Thanks.
MS. TERRY: Are you talking about the Vancouver dynamics in the sense of what Tillerson said or –
Q: Sure. What you heard, at least.
MS. TERRY: Well, what I heard was that Tillerson came out a little bit more strongly or hawkish. Kind of the feedback that I received from that was, you know, Tillerson walked back from the previous line, you know, when he said at that time to consul that we were willing to meet with the North Koreans without a precondition. Remember that answer when he gave that, you know, we could talk about a square table or a circle table, we can even talk about the weather, but let’s meet. And there was pushback almost immediately by the Trump administration, I think. Even the State Department’s own spokesperson said, no, that’s not true.
So I think, finally, there’s a little bit more in line – I think Tillerson’s comment is more in line with where the administration is. I think previous comment made by Secretary Tillerson was completely uncoordinated. And I do think right now there is a division between the NSC and the State Department. I don’t think there’s a clear interagency coordination, but I think that was an effort to sort of be more in line with the NSC thinking.
Do you want to talk about Pence going to Japan, and –
MR. GREEN: Sure.
You know, Sue’s point about the divisions in the administration – Sue worked in the Obama – I guess you worked at the end of the Bush, too, NSC.
MS. TERRY: Yeah.
MR. GREEN: I worked in the Bush NSC. They’re always – there are always divisions in the administration on North Korea. It’s such a hard problem. It’s inevitable. You know, some people will come to it emphasizing diplomacy. Others will emphasize deterrence or counterproliferation. So that’s not surprising.
But it does seem to be especially pronounced in this administration. And part of it is the policymaking process. It appears that whoever talks to President Trump last has the biggest influence. So while normally these kind of differences would be arbitrated and fought out in a National Security Council process, the ability of people to go in to President Trump and get what they want has broken that. And that’s why you see these very different signals. And I think that’s a problem for us that the administration is going to have to fix.
The Vancouver meeting was called by Canada, and it was called to bring together the so-called sending states, the countries that sent forces in the Korean war based on the Security Council mandate of June 1950. A lot of them are U.S. allies, like Australia, Britain, Canada.
The U.S. military in the Korean war was something like more than 10 times all the other countries put together, aside from the South Koreans. So it’s not a lot of troops, but the Canadians had a battalion. The Australians had a battalion. The British had a brigade. And presumably, if the armistice is broken and there’s war on the Korean Peninsula, they are expected – and they have officers in the U.N. command in Korea – they’re expected to send troops and ships and planes. So they have a – these countries have a stake in whether or not there’s war on the peninsula.
So when Canada called this meeting, I do not have the sense the administration said could you please call a meeting on what we’re going to do about North Korea? I think this was Britain, Canada, Australia and others worried about where this debate about a preventive war or a bloody nose was going and trying to demonstrate to their publics and to the world that they had some influence and control over this, and to try to get – frankly, I think, empower the State Department to get a little bit more reasonable dialogue and consensus and put the brakes on movement towards preventive war, which, under international law, John Bellinger, my former colleague in the Bush White House, Tony Arend from Georgetown and others have testified that under international law, if the North Koreans violate the armistice, then we can use force. Or if there’s preemption necessary to stop North Korea from attacking, we can use force. But there’s no real basis for preventive war. And I think the sending states were trying to also make that argument. So they were putting a bit of brakes on the administration, in my view, welcomed by some in the administration.
At the same time, you know, China and the Soviet Union are not sending states. So they were able to have a dialogue about putting more pressure on North Korea. At first I was skeptical. I actually think it was helpful, because I think if we’re going to debate using force, we have to consider what our other options are. And if diplomacy is not going to work, there is a third option, which is a much more rigorous containment strategy with greater intelligence, counterproliferation, deterrence. And I think that’s what the sending states were pushing towards.
Pence – it’s good he’s going to the games. He’s going to stop in Japan. He’s going to go to Korea. Vice President Pence, in my view, has not focused on foreign policy or national security that much. People thought he might, but he hasn’t. He has a good relationship with Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro. They have a regular dialogue. And I think this will be an important input to the administration’s deliberations because the administration has been clear they’re not going to use force unless forced to, during the Olympics, but then what comes next? Well, that’s a dialogue that has to happen at a senior level. And though there won’t be formal meetings that are advertised as such, I suspect that Vice President Pence is going to have very intense discussions with Abe, Aso in Japan, Foreign Minister Kono and with President Moon and Foreign Minister Kang and others in Korea. So they won’t advertise it that way, but it’s going to be pretty important.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Questions?
Q: Heya (ph) Lee with Yonhap News Agency.
As you know, the Moon Jae-in administration really wants to use these inter-Korean talks and the Olympics as a ‒ as an opportunity to enable talks between the U.S. and North Korea. So do you think Seoul actually has a role to play? Like, can it actually do something to enable U.S.-North Korea talks? Or is this something that’s going to be completely up to the U.S. and North Korea? And if Seoul does have a role to play, what specifically can it do to facilitate these U.S.-North Korea talks?
MS. TERRY: I think Seoul has a role to play. I mean, right now it just shows that, I mean, there’s a thaw in inter-Korean relations. And so it is playing a role. And I do think the Moon Jae-in administration is going to work extremely hard to make sure that they somehow take this opportunity to somewhere where at least Washington and North Korea could meet.
But the problem is ‒ and, you know, the North Koreans have told me personally, and I ‒ you know, they’ve said over and over that their main counterpart is the United States. And they actually said it in front of South Korea, they said, you know, you guys are the puppet regime. And this is already last summer, and North Koreans have told me this, so that’s, I think, a main problem.
So I do think that Seoul can play a role. It’s just that North Korea has to cease provocations. If the Moon Jae-in administration ‒ if we, as I mentioned earlier, if we continue with the joint exercises, and I think this is why the Moon administration might try to ask that we postpone the joint military exercises, I think that’s a real possibility, but assuming that we resume, it’s really up to North Korea. And I’m not sure how Moon can ‒ President Moon can not make concessions to North Korea and still bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. So I think this is ‒ this puts the Moon administration in a very difficult spot.
I think, unfortunately, right now, I think, since President Moon came in, he’s been taking a centrist position. And, you know, there were some concerns that he, you know, because he said he was going to reopen Kaesong Industrial Complex when he was a candidate, because he said, you know, he was very concerned about THAAD but he did deploy THAAD. He did take a centrist position. But I think North Korea is going to put President Moon in a very difficult position fairly soon down the road trying to make Seoul choose what to do about it.
And so without making any other concessions, I don’t know how he’s going to succeed necessarily in bringing the U.S. and North Koreans together.
MR. GREEN: So as Sue pointed out earlier and as I also emphasized, the North Koreans don’t do anything for free and they are used to getting big payments from South Korea for dialogue, in some cases egregious payments, $500 million from the Kim Dae-jung government through Asan construction just for a summit. So they’re used to getting cash payments, quote/unquote, “humanitarian assistance.” The Kaesong Industrial Project, the Mount Kumgang tourism project, these were supposedly market-oriented lessons for the North Koreans. But basically, for North Korea, from the North Korean perspective, it was just cash because the market-oriented mechanism was just transfer cash. The salaries, the wages, everything just went to the regime.
They can’t do that now because of the Security Council sanctions and South Korean public opinion. So the other thing that the South Koreans deliver, usually progressive governments, is the United States. And there’s going to be huge pressure ‒ to emphasize the points you made ‒ huge pressure on Moon from the North to deliver the United States. And people in this current government tried to do that before when they were in power. They tried to get the U.S. to change exercise schedules, to change extended nuclear deterrence strategy and policy, to do things that they could give to the North to say, look, we got the Americans for you, because the North tends to treat South Korea as a puppet state and is especially ‒ especially ‒ rude to progressive governments because they know they want dialogue more. And so this dynamic is not healthy in one sense, but on the other hand, the guardrails, the brakes on the Moon government are pretty serious.
And the other thing I think, lest we seem like curmudgeony, you know, anti-dialogue speakers, the reality is the U.S. should strongly support North-South dialogue for humanitarian reasons, because the divided families are, you know, octogenarians ‒ I don’t know how to say nine, in their 90s ‒ (laughter) ‒ three years of Latin wasted ‒ so they’re basically, you know, the North Koreans are tugging on the heartstrings of the South and saying you want to reunify grandma and grandpa with their brothers and cousins and sisters in the North, pay up. And frankly, the United States should not get in the way of that. We wouldn’t want ‒ we wouldn’t want someone to get in the way if it were our grandparents and granduncles. So for humanitarian reasons and also for political reasons, we have a policy, since the Truman administration, of supporting unification under South Korea. And we should never get in the way of that unless it directly affects U.S. security interests.
So, you know, President Trump deserves some credit for supporting President Moon’s efforts for a North-South dialogue. And that’s our dilemma on the U.S. side, because when the North Koreans do start demanding that the South deliver the United States, you know, change, get the Americans to put off exercises, get the Americans to change even nuclear deterrence policy. At one point during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, the South Koreans offered me. They said to the North Koreans we can get this guy from the NSC to go to North Korea. I had no permission from Condoleezza Rice or President Bush to do that, but they offered it anyway. The North Koreans were very tempted because what they wanted was to use the South Koreans to try to get the U.S. Never happened.
And one thing I realized was ‒ when I discovered this, when my South Korean counterpart told me they had offered me up ‒ the Roh Moo-hyun government, the Blue House, offered, was unable to get North-South dialogue going, so they said, well, we’ll bring this American from the White House as a sweetener to try to get North-South dialogue going. It was revealing how contemptuous the North was actually of South Korean efforts at dialogue and how they tried to use it to get either economic concessions or the United States, which I think a lot of South Korean officials know and are careful about because that, of course, delegitimizes South Korea as an equal dialogue partner. So very complicated dynamics, a lot of guardrails, a lot of brakes, but a lot of pressure and it will really be important to watch.
We won’t know the dynamics until after the Olympics, I suspect, and that’s when we’ll learn more.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Thank you all for coming today. We’ll have a transcript of this shortly and we’ll email it to you. Thanks for being here, and we’ll talk to you soon.