The Summit Saga Continues: Transcript
May 30, 2018
H. ANDREW SCHWARTZ: North Korea is The Impossible State. It’s a place that’s stumped leaders and policymakers for more than three decades.
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REPORTER: North Korea’s ruling party Vice Chairman Kim Yong-chol seen in the Beijing airport there following a South Korean report –
REPORTER: A warning, too, from the U.S. this morning that getting rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons could take 15 years.
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MR. SCHWARTZ: It has a complex history, and it has become the United States’ top national security priority.
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MR. : We have an economic sanction plan that has put real pressure on North Korea.
MS. : One of the key things is that the dialogue that matters most is at the very highest level –
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MR. SCHWARTZ: Each week on this show we’ll talk with the people who know the most about North Korea: CSIS’s Victor Cha, Mike Green, and Sue Mi Terry.
In this episode of The Impossible State, we’re calling it “The Summit Saga Continues.” I spoke with Sue Mi Terry. Sue served in both the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama as one of the government’s most senior analysts on North Korea. Sue worked at the CIA, where she produced hundreds of intelligence assessments and reports for the President’s Daily Brief, and she served on the National Security Council and the National Intelligence Council. She’s now at CSIS and is one of the key people that everyone wants to hear from when it comes to North Korea.
Sue, I wanted to ask you about North Korean General Kim Yong-chol, who is heading to New York to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Kim Yong-chol is reportedly Kim Jong-un’s right-hand man. Why is he going to New York? What are they talking about now?
SUE MI TERRY: Well, Kim Yong-chol is Mike Pompeo’s sort of counterpart, right? He is also top intel chief beyond being Kim Jong-un’s advisor, top advisor. He’s actually a man who is – the man who is responsible for the Cheonan sinking in 2010 that killed –
MR. SCHWARTZ: Tell us about – what was the Cheonan sinking?
MS. TERRY: North Koreans torpedoed and sank a South Korean vessel. It ended up killing 46 sailors onboard, and this was under Kim Yong-chol’s direction.
MR. SCHWARTZ: He also bombed an island, didn’t he?
MS. TERRY: Yes. In the same year, in 2010, he shelled Yeonpyeong Island. He was also the man who is responsible for Sony hacking. So this is – this is a top intel guy. He’s also top lieutenant, Kim Jong-un’s advisor. But he also happens to be Pompeo’s counterpart because Pompeo began this discussion when he was the CIA director.
MR. SCHWARTZ: So Pompeo certainly hasn’t sunken any ships. He hasn’t hacked into any major multinational U.S. corporations. This guy, Kim Yong-chol, has served in North Korea since the very beginning, hasn’t he? He’s been – he’s served all three leaders for the past 45 years of this dynasty. Tell us about this guy. He’s the counterpart. He’s the key right now to getting these negotiations back on track. What does Secretary Pompeo need to do to meet him at least halfway to get this going again?
MS. TERRY: Right. So Kim Yong-chol, obviously, also Kim Jong-un trusts him. He’s been around for many, many, many years. He served Kim Jong-un’s father He’s been around. And he has authority to speak on Kim Jong-un’s behalf. So I think if Pompeo can get out of Kim Yong-chol what North Korea actually wants and what North Korea is prepared to give when Kim Jong-un actually sits down with President Trump, I think we will have a fairly successful meeting if we can sort of get it down on paper, or at least there is an agreement in advance of Trump-Kim Jong-un meeting.
MR. SCHWARTZ: How did this change so fast? I mean, even earlier this week, Monday, the Trump administration was talking about a potentially large package of sanctions to put against North Korea. It had three dozen targets, including Russia and Chinese entities. What happened between then and now to get – to put the sanctions on hold?
MS. TERRY: Well, first of all, North Koreans never wanted to cancel this meeting between Kim Jong-un and Trump. Their first two previous statements criticizing Pence and Bolton were their protest against all this talk of Libya model coming out of Washington. They never thought that Trump would actually cancel a meeting – the scheduled meeting with Kim Jong-un, so I’m sure North Koreans were caught off-guard by it. I’m sure North Koreans were surprised by Trump’s initial cancellation of the meeting.
Now this meeting is back on because North Koreans want this meeting and President Trump wants it. And when you look at North Korea’s last statement that came out seven hours after Trump cancelling the meeting, that was very conciliatory in tone. I have not seen a North Korean statement that that’s conciliatory, actually personally praising U.S. president, saying Donald Trump’s, you know, bold decision or Trump-style negotiation, they were looking forward to meeting Trump. So I think President Trump basically thought, OK, North Koreans are serious about meeting, having this meeting, and so the summit is back on.
MR. SCHWARTZ: So do you think President Trump did a good job with this?
MS. TERRY: Well, I don’t know if President Trump actually calculated or thought the North Koreans would come back to talks. I don’t know if they actually – the Trump administration thought that or knew that North Koreans were not intending to cancel the meeting. But I do think that initial cancellation of the meeting when Trump thought North Koreans were not serious, I think that was the right decision.
MR. SCHWARTZ: And does the United States have leverage in that we threatened to walk away from the table here?
MS. TERRY: I do think so. I think the North Koreans were surprised by Trump initially cancelling the meeting, and I think that does show that Trump is unpredictable. I think that’s a better way of dealing with North Koreans, that North Koreans shouldn’t feel so comfortable thinking that Trump so desperately wants this meeting that we will bow to – were willing to take anything, that we are only going to have this meeting if North Koreans are serious about at least putting denuclearization on the table.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Let’s talk about the U.S. negotiators. Sung Kim, who’s a longtime U.S. diplomat, is going to be leading the U.S. team. Tell us about Sung Kim.
MS. TERRY: Well, I’m very happy that Ambassador Sung Kim is part of our negotiation team. He’s a veteran negotiator. He was a six-party envoy, U.S. six-party envoy. He was North Korea envoy in the State Department. He also was ambassador in South Korea. He knows this issue, the North Korean issue, inside out. He also knows how to deal with South Koreans because he was U.S. ambassador to South Korea. So I’m glad that he’s part of this negotiation team. We need a seasoned diplomat who has expertise of both Koreas. And I’m glad that Secretary Pompeo decided to bring Ambassador Sung Kim. Right now he’s – he was an – he is an ambassador, you know, to the Philippines, and that he’s taking a break from that to deal with this North Korean issue. And I’m glad that Secretary Pompeo brought him on.
MR. SCHWARTZ: So the team’s strong. And then meanwhile, right now as we speak, in Singapore, the U.S. logistics people and the North Korean logistics people are preparing for the possible summit on June 12th or sometime after. What are they doing?
MS. TERRY: Well, they’re trying to figure out all the logistics and security concerns. Usually, when two leaders of two countries meet, it’s a big deal. Normally, every single thing is figured out in advance – what door a person walks in, how long they’re going to sit there, what they’re going to drink, what door they leave. I mean, every little detail has to be figured out. And now, of course, added complication is that this is in Singapore, a third country. It’s not in North Korea or the United States. Neither President Trump nor Kim Jong-un is hosting this. And I’m sure Kim Jong-un has a lot of security concerns, too. To leave his country for an extended period of time, I don’t know if he has ever done that except China. And now he has to leave North Korea on a publicly-known date at least for a few days. You know, that’s a lot to worry about, and I’m sure there’s a lot of concerns that we need to work out.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Do you think he’ll do it?
MS. TERRY: I think Kim Jong-un will do it. Otherwise, he would not have gotten this far or come along this far. And all the summitry and diplomacy that North Korea was engaged in for the past few months was to lay the groundwork for this moment. This is sort of the – this is the climax of all that Kim Jong-un has been doing in the last few months, so I’m sure he wants to do it.
MR. SCHWARTZ: So, if this doesn’t get derailed and it does take place on June 12th or sometime thereafter, they need to negotiate over North Korea getting rid of its nuclear facilities, its nuclear weapons. But their definition of denuclearizing may be a little bit different than our definition. Is that right?
MS. TERRY: It’s not maybe. It was very different, at least until now. Every time we talk about denuclearization of North Korea, we’re talking about unilateral dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. And every time North Korea talked about denuclearization, they meant denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula if the regime’s security is guaranteed, if the U.S. hostile policy ends. And, of course, by that the North always meant the end of U.S.-South Korea alliance relationship, pulling out of U.S. troops from South Korea, and ending U.S. extended nuclear umbrella that we have over South Korea and Japan. So, obviously, U.S. and North Korea have very – were very far apart when we were talking about denuclearization. So we’ll see if Pompeo and Kim Yong-chol and all this diplomacy right now, if we are able to narrow that gap by the time that Trump sits down with Kim Jong-un.
MR. SCHWARTZ: What’s our definition of denuclearization? I mean, initially President Trump said he wanted rapid denuclearization. Now he’s saying there might be a phased denuclearization. What does that mean? What do we want?
MS. TERRY: I think Trump is now walking away from this rapid denuclearization because, A, that’s just very unrealistic and, B, North Korea’s reacting very badly to this Libyan model – the so-called Libyan model. So I think what the U.S. will settle for is at least a big down payment up front where North Korea dismantles something, gives up something, blows up something, or ships out ICBMs – or some big down payment up front, and then go through the sort of phased approach. So there will be sort of a hybrid model, some sort of a compromise between what Washington wants and what Pyongyang wants.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Why is it so difficult to get them to denuclearize?
MS. TERRY: Because North Korea sees nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent that he has against the United States. They’ve always said that they didn’t want to be another Iraq, another Libya. And they see nuclear weapons – with nuclear weapons, no power, no country – even a superpower like United States – would dare to attack North Korea is they’re armed with the ultimate weapon.
MR. SCHWARTZ: And logistically, we’re actually talking about dozens of sites, hundreds of buildings, thousands of people, a sprawling atomic complex that began six decades ago. So logistically this can’t be easy either.
MS. TERRY: No. Logistically this is a huge undertaking. And you’ve seen this. Some scientists like Sieg Hecker came out earlier saying that this would take maybe 15 years to really get to a complete denuclearization. And that’s if North Korea even agrees to complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of their nuclear weapons program.
MR. SCHWARTZ: You’re talking about Sieg Hecker of Stanford University, who has a report out that talks about it’ll take 15 years to get rid of all of the North’s nuclear weapons. Sieg Hecker is also the only American who’s ever seen any of their facilities up close. What does he mean by 15 years? I mean, how are they going to – 15 years is a long time.
MS. TERRY: Right. Well, I think he has three phases in his report that he’s talking about. But that’s because North Korea is already a nuclear weapons program. It has up to 60 nuclear warheads. In addition to chemical weapons, biological weapons. It has sprawling complexes, hundreds of thousands of underground tunnels. I mean, this is a just massive undertaking. And, again, if – that’s if North Korea allows us to even get into North Korea and roam around the whole country to verify that they have really gotten rid of their nuclear weapons program.
MR. SCHWARTZ: When Libya gave up its nuclear program, it had nothing compared to – I mean, nowhere near this amount of material. Is that right?
MS. TERRY: No, absolutely not. And I said, you know, North Korea right now, people assess, have up to 60 nuclear warheads. It also has intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach continental United States. I think this is why North Korea feels insulted every time we bring up the Libya model because North Koreans are saying: We’re not Libya, guys. (Laughs.) We’re North Korea. We’re already a nuclear weapons power.
MR. SCHWARTZ: So that’s really interesting. A lot of people have taken the Libya model to be insulting to them because, of course, Colonel Muammar Gadhafi ended up being killed by his own people in the end-game. But it’s really something different, as you just said.
MS. TERRY: That’s exactly right. So when we, the United States, talk about Libya, I think we are trying to just remind North Korea: This is what we want in terms of timeline. We want to get to denuclearization fast. But every time the North Koreans hear the word Libya, they are not thinking about that. They are thinking about what happened eight years after Libya gave up nuclear weapons program, which is Gadhafi ended up being dead. There was a revolt and he died in a very gruesome death. And obviously this is a fate that Kim Jong-un wants to avoid.
MR. SCHWARTZ: So we’re talking about 15 years. It needs to be a bipartisan agreement because even if President Trump is reelected, this – it will take 15 years to get rid of all the weapons, this is going to go on for quite some time. It’s in the Trump administration’s interest to have a bipartisan support for this.
MS. TERRY: Absolutely. I’m not sure if exactly it will require 15 years, but what it will require is many, many years. This is a very comprehensive, complex undertaking. And we need bipartisan support. And we need all Korea watchers, all people who have experience in Korea, to come together. It’s a really all-hands-on-deck moment here.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Do you think Korea watchers are starting to get on the same page behind President Trump with regard to these negotiations? Initially some people said we’ve already given the North too much?
MS. TERRY: Yeah. I think there’s still disagreement among Korea watchers. I think there are Korea watchers who think still just sitting down with Kim Jong-un is a bad idea, just because we are giving away legitimacy, we’re giving things to Kim Jong-un when Kim Jong-un has not earned them, and when North Korea probably has no intention of giving up nuclear weapons program. So there are people who think we are already doing too much. And obviously, there are folks who think, no, this is the time to sit down. Nothing has worked with North Korea, this – so we might as well try this, which is two leaders meeting, and to see if we can actually work something out.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Well, what do you think? You’re one of the very top analysts on North Korea.
MS. TERRY: I feel that I was sort of against this initial meeting, but I came around to it because now it looks like it’s going to actually happen. So I’m now hoping that something will come out. I’m still very skeptical that it will lead to complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the nuclear weapons program. But now that the two leaders are committed to this, I hope that – you know, I just hope that Trump does not, you know, agree to a bad deal. And might as well find out.
So my position is: Let them have this meeting. Let’s find out sooner rather than later if North Korea is even remotely serious. If they’re not, at least this option is now off the table, that we can work something out through engagement, and we have to consider other options. Not preventive strike, but other options like deterrence and containment and some other options that we can think about.
MR. SCHWARTZ: What makes you optimistic that this will work? And what are some of your biggest fears?
MS. TERRY: I’m not really optimistic. But if I can hope, I do hope that Kim Jong-un, being a young leader, having – knowing that he needs to rule North Korea for next 30 to 40 years, that he would choose a different path than his father and his grandfather, that he ultimately does not want to rule a poor, pariah, backwards state. That he’s willing to fundamentally change its relationship – North Korea’s relationship with the United States. Do I have evidence of this? No. But I’m just hoping that he will prove to be a different kind of leader. But we’ll soon find out.
My worst fear is that President Trump will agree to something like a peace treaty or pulling out of U.S. troops from South Korea for a fake promise, without seeing North Korea delivering anything. So North Korea does not denuclearize, does not give up nuclear weapons program, and yet we have now either ended our commitment – alliance commitment with South Korea, or pulled out our troops from South Korea.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Do you think South Korea would be worried and tried to have their own nuclear program to develop nuclear weapons if they didn’t believe the North had completely gotten rid of its nuclear weapons?
MS. TERRY: Well, I think it does change the geostrategic landscape of East Asia. We have now China has the country that has paramount influence in the Northeast Asian region. And, you know, our alliance relationship with South Korea would be – would deteriorate, or it would be over.
MR. SCHWARTZ: And South Korea would want its own nuclear weapon, if they didn’t believe they North had gotten rid of its program.
MS. TERRY: Well, I don’t see that happening anytime soon under this government, but in the long term – once we accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons power, that regional proliferation that you’re talking about, South Korea going nuclear and eventually Japan going nuclear, is definitely a possibility and, you know, obviously of concern.
MR. SCHWARTZ: What about the proliferation of weapons from North Korea to rogue states and potential non-rogue-state actors, like ISIS?
MS. TERRY: Proliferation risk is one of the greatest concerns when we’re talking about North Korea, because North Korea has always been a serial proliferator. It has proliferated everything under the sun for money. That’s their history. They have not yet proliferated nuclear weapons, that we know of, but the risk is always there to countries like Iran and Syria. They have – North Korea always had relationship with Iran and Syria. So that risk is there. And I think – I would say it’s one of the top concerns for the United States.
MR. 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 issues surrounding North Korea, check out Beyond Parallel. That’s our micro-website that’s dedicated to bringing a better understanding of the Korean Peninsula. You can find it at BeyondParallel.CSIS.org. And don’t forget to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. That’s so more listeners can find us. It’s very helpful. And don’t forget to subscribe, wherever you get your podcasts.
MR. SCHWARTZ: This is The Impossible State.