TKL Interview with Chuck Downs on the Alliance, Diplomacy, Nukes, and Why Kim Jong Il Tested Those Missiles

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Chuck Downs is an author, independent consultant, and former Pentagon official who frequently appears on television news programs to discuss North Korea policy. He has held a number of important positions in government during his career, including Deputy Director for Regional Affairs and Congressional Relations in the Pentagon’s East Asia office and Assistant Director of the Office of Foreign Military Rights Affairs, where he was deeply involved in the planning and negotiation of key overseas basing agreements with foreign governments. He later served as Senior Defense and Foreign Policy Advisor to the House Policy Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. He retired from government service in 2000.

Since his retirement, Mr. Downs has served as a Senior Fellow at the National Institute for Public Policy, where he chaired the North Korea Working Group, as a fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies, and the former Associate Director of the Asian Studies Program at the American Enterprise Institute. He currently serves on the board of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and the North Korean Freedom Coalition. He co-wrote Crisis in the Taiwan Strait with Former U.S. Ambassador to Korea and China, James Lilley. He is best known as the author of Over the Line: North Korea’s Negotiating Strategy, which has also been published in Korean and Japanese. This quotation should give you a general idea of how Mr. Downs views his subject:

“North Korea does not enter into negotiations because it seeks agreements. Its objective is to gain concessions and benefits merely as a result of consenting to talk.” He believes not only that the deliberate policies of the Pyongyang government have claimed more than 500,000 lives each year since 1995 [the article was published in 2000], but that in many ways the regime is better off today than it has been at almost any time in the past. “It has obtained political recognition, security assurances and significant economic assistance -even from its former enemies. Through its negotiating strategy, the North Korean leadership has avoided political and economic collapse time and again during the past five decades.” [….] “Contrary to the hopes of the administration, North Korea has used these years to develop a more threatening military posture, not less.”

Our thanks to Mr. Downs for agreeing to this interview. He has also agreed to answer readers’ questions in the comments below. As always, I reserve the right to moderate comments.


Q: There have been some rumors among Korea bloggers that in October, after the next talks on the future of the alliance, that an accelerated downsizing or even a full U.S. withdrawal from Korea could be announced. Have you heard those rumors? Do you think there’s anything to them?

A: I wouldn’t call them rumors. For a long time, there have been discussions between both countries on troop deployments. South Korea has resisted a fast timetable of reductions, but Secretary Rumsfeld wants these things to happen on a faster timetable. That’s what he has always said. I think Rumsfeld and his people still want to proceed on that accelerated path. So this is not a new push by Rumsfeld. Perhaps the reductions have recently become even more desirable from the point of view of the Pentagon.

It’s clear that the SK government wants to give lip service to the alliance, but its point of view is at odds with the basic rationale for the alliance. You can’t have an alliance when one side tries to portray the other as an oppressive presence. When this develops, as it did in the Philippines, there is no alternative but to accelerate the reduction in the American presence. The government in South Korea is now limiting us in ways that reduce our capabilities and change our obligations in a legal sense. In such situations, the U.S. tends to respond extremely quickly. When the host government isn’t stridently calling for us to stay and address a common threat, it’s hard for us to justify continuing the troop presence. No one ever thought we’d leave the Philippines, either, but our presence is always based on how the host country views our forces. If the host country starts doing things like changing the basic command structure, it’s a fundamental shift in the way the alliance works. You will hear the U.S. side say that it will move quickly to do what the host government wants. You can’t do something good for the host government that the host doesn’t recognize as a good thing. We are not the Soviets and this isn’t the Warsaw Pact. We are not a colonial power. If the host country doesn’t want us there, we won’t stay.

Now, I don’t think this means a pull-out from Korea completely, but if we hear the South Korean government say that we are there to work for our own interests, but not theirs, then we can be out in a number of months.

When you are in a foreign country, that country is in charge. We never stay in a foreign country against that country’s will — ever. The Korean pro-U.S. right thinks we should be pushing against the Roh government, for arrangements that favor the U.S. That’s all fine, but it doesn’t work that way. We do what the government in place wants done. It’s the task of the Pro-Americans in South Korea to get their government to promote a strong alliance and arrangements that favor one. We won’t do something against their government’s objectives.

Q: How do you think the North Korean missile tests affected the Administration’s view of the North Korean regime?

A: I think they made the administration realize that ““ some of this was surprising ““ how far South Korea’s view had diverged from our view of how to deal with the North Korean threat.

The other thing that happened was it proved how cooperative the Chinese can be in undertaking stringent measures against North Korea when they’re persuaded that it’s in their interests to do so. In spite of some troubling rhetoric from China, they voted for a strong condemnation of North Korea’s program in the the U.N. resolution, and they took strong action to limit North Korean access to the Bank of China. The South Korean view was that pressure and the resolution were not helpful.

The third interesting development from the missile tests was the strong expression of anti-Japanese sentiment by the South Korean government. The U.S. government worked out a clever way to encourage Japan to carry the diplomatic burden at the UN. Although North Korea threatens South Korea more directly, Japan voiced the strongest protest against North Korea. This protected South Korea from having to lead the charge against North Korea. Japan was willing to do that in the interest of protecting itself. Normally, in the past, South Korea would have been in the position of leading the charge. At the time, we welcomed having Japan take the leading role, because we knew that South Korea wanted, on some level, to have relatively cordial relations with North Korea. We tend to assume that in reality, South Korea recognizes the threat from North Korea, and wanted Japan to play a leading role in formulating a strong international response. But the Roh Moo Hyun government turned on Japan, instead of criticizing North Korea. That was a completely unfortunate turn of events.

Q: Do you think the Sunshine Policy is dead?

A: Roh Moo Hyun and his followers are going to continue trying to carry out the Sunshine Policy every chance they have. But I think the South Korean public is beginning to be very tired of funding a country that still wants to annihilate or absorb South Korea. Its followers are still in power and still running the executive branch in South Korea, so the Sunshine Policy is not dead
yet. But it has less popular support, and eventually, I think it will die because of a lack of popular support.

Q: We’ve heard various reports that China has cut off fuel to the North, or reduced aid or trade. How much do you believe those reports?

A: I don’t have any independent way of confirming that. Sometimes, people talk about things that happened ages ago as if they were happening today. In March of 2003, we know that China shut off North Korea’s supply of fuel, supposedly for technical reasons. I don’t know if that has happened again. But a very effective measure taken by China was to deny North Korea access to the Bank of China.

Q: Do you think China’s view of the North Korean regime has changed since the missile tests?

A: The missile tests per se didn’t change their views, but they strengthened the arguments of people who take a more pragmatist view. Various Chinese officials have already staked out their positions on North Korea. You have an older group, sentimentalists, who tend to see “fraternal” North Korea from the perspective of the Korean War and China’s support for North Korea then. Then you have younger technocrats, pragmatists, who realize that what North Korea is doing is dangerous to China’s own interests.

The missile tests strengthened people on the pragmatist side. Chinese attempts to moderate North Korea’s positions, which failed miserably, hardened Chinese Chinese views about North Korea’s actions.

Q: We’ve discussed all of these effects from the missile tests in July. So what would motivate Kim Jong Il to do something that’s damaged his interests so much?

A: He probably thinks it has not damaged his interests. Part of the answer may involve domestic North Korean matters we don’t know anything about. It may have been necessary for Kim Jong Il to provide his military with a type of exercise — something to challenge their loyalty, to keep them busy. He knows that his military cultivates contacts with Chinese military officers. Kim Jong Il was asking his military to do something in open defiance of Chinese interests. They failed on the Taepodong test, and that was an embarrassment. The SCUD and No-Dong launches, on the other hand, were a demonstration of how effectively those missile forces work. They were an impressive show of handling of mid-range missiles from mobile launchers in different parts of country. The entire emphasis was on loyalty of the military to Kim Jong Il. I suspect that this may be followed by executions of some whose loyalty was in doubt. It may also be followed by more tests.

Q: We’re all speculating about whether Kim Jong Il will test a nuclear weapon. Would you care to venture your own guess?

A: It seems as though a nuclear test would be the capstone of a strategy of ratcheting up pressure against the United States. The setback was that the Taepodong was a major failure. Kim Jong Il might hold off to prove that he has good long-range Taepodong capabilities first. Another thing you have to consider, in the context of that embarrassing failure, is what would it be like to suffer the embarrassment of a bad nuclear test? Kim Jong-il has to be considerably concerned about the failure that may result from his bravado.

In terms of traditional strategy, I expect North Korea to go through what appear to be preparations for a nuclear test. I’d expect them to go through the motions of preparing to conduct a nuclear test without actually doing it, perhaps for as long as two years. If he goes through with it within the next few weeks, that might be an indicator that he has something worse in mind down the road. The traditional way for North Korea to serve its interests is to threaten to test without actually testing, so it creates an atmosphere of concern and fear and leverage about the potential test. There can be a lot of back-and-forth discussion about whether they have a right to conduct a test, how they want to join the nuclear powers like India and Pakistan, and about their need for deterrent forces. We’ll also hear their rationalization that this is justified by a fairly small U.S. and ROK military exercise called Ulchi Focus Lens [see Richardson’s link here — Joshua]. They can get lots of play out of the threat of a nuclear test. They can make this go on for many months, maybe a year.

Q: Recently, the South Korean Foreign Minister met with his Chinese counterpart, and the two jointly called on North Korea not to test a nuclear weapon. Would you agree that the South Korean and Chinese positions on North Korea are considerably closer than those of South Korea and the United States?

A: It’s possible, and the South Koreans may see it that way, but I’m not sure the Chinese see it that way. It’s easy to call on North Korea not to test a nuclear weapon. I wouldn’t apply a great deal of significance to that, certainly not as much as South Korean officials do.

Q: To what extent is it really accurate to call South Korea an ally today?

A: Although the current trend seems to be moving very quickly toward a diminishment of the alliance, it has been such a strong alliance over the years that there’s still a significant amount left to it, even despite the approach Roh Moo-Hyun has taken. Roh is certainly aware of other benefits of the alliance, other than deterrence of North Korea, such as regional and global security, and South Korean participation in the Middle East, which is very important. Aspects of that could continue even without the threat from North Korea, even if one party in the alliance thought there was no North Korean threat. Something will be left of this alliance even if the North Korean factor is taken out of the equation.

Q: How much chance do you think there is of us agreeing to CVID with North Korea before this Administration ends?

A: Very close to zero.

Q: Does the Bush Administration, through diplomacy or otherwise, still have time to accomplish anything?

A: Something is accomplished by merely trying to pursue an objective in this kind of international policy. I’m not sure that I’d consider an agreement with North Korea a good accomplishment. A better accomplishment would be cutting all of North Korea’s means of support from outside governments and its banking operations. There is a lot that can be accomplished, even though I think an agreement with North Korea is unlikely.

Q: Do you think there are elements in the Administration so desperate for a deal that they would take one that fails to attain our objectives?

A: Whatever those elements may be, they’re not in the White House. I don’t think this White House would conclude a bad deal with North Korea.

Q: From where I sit, Kim Jong Il is just continuing to build bombs and refuse to negotiate in good faith. One possible explanation for this is that we lack the power to deter him: South Korea won’t go along with us, our Army is fighting two ground wars, and China ““ at least as I see it ““ won’t cut off his supplies. Realistically, what military options at our disposal can deter Kim Jong Il from dragging things out forever?

A: I think we are deterring him now from many things. He’d be in Seoul now, with a government much more like his, if we were not already deterring him. We are already succeeding at deterrence. It’s worth remembering that. I wouldn’t give up on the possibility that we will continue to deter with much of the same force we’ve been using for last 60 years. The Bush Administration has constrained his options more on illicit activities and banking–that’s an achievement.

It’s true that we’re deterred from taking certain military actions, but I’m not sure we’d want to take the kind of military action we’ve been kept from taking. After all, we didn’t attack North Korea when South Korean governments wanted a more hostile policy toward North Korea. It’s true that South Korea now tends to stay our hand, but I’m not sure we’d want to pursue hostile action anyway. Iraq also restrains our options, but from doing something we’d prefer not to do anyway.

Q: What, then, should we be doing to influence events in North Korea? I speak here not just of the regime itself and its decisions.

A: We should be trying to influence the regime and its decisions, trying to embarrass the regime with the truth every time we get a change. We should be trying to learn as much as we can about connections between the North Korean military and the Chinese military. We should encourage China to build contacts on a personal or local level to try to influence better behavior by the government in Pyongyang. Success lies in influencing China through the U.S.-China relationship, toward loosening its bonds with the North Korean regime.

Q: To what extend should we be trying to reach out to the North Korean people?

A: I think they listen to our radio broadcasts. Through word of mouth, they probably know more than we suspect. We forget that, throughout history, huge mass movements have happened in countries without loudspeakers or telephones. It’s possible to have mass movements form based on what people hear from their neighbors. We could see a situation develop in North Korea where the people begin to move toward the border, and begin to challenge the military. At that point, the military would have to decide whether it wanted to maintain its loyalty to the people of North Korea, or to Kim Jong Il. This is the scenario that Kim Jong Il finds the most frightening.


A few notes on how this interview was conducted. I interviewed Mr. Downs telephonically, typed notes of the conversation, and later reworked those notes into grammatical sentences that were as faithful as possible to Mr. Downs’s own words. I then forwarded that text to Mr. Downs for his approval and adoption, at which time he had the opportunity to edit his responses for accuracy. Newspapers don’t ordinarily do this, but having had the experience of being misquoted by newspapers, and given the reluctance of most people to allow themselves to be recorded, this is the format both the interviewees and I tend to prefer. In this case, Mr. Downs’s edits did not significantly change the meanings of his responses and were primarily edits for clarity and flow.


  1. Mr Downs, Thank you for your thoughtful responses. I’m wondering if you could speak a little bit about cooperation between North Korean and Iran. For example, I read that Iranian officials were present at North Korea’s missile testings. (See this, for example.) Do you give any credence to those reports? Also, if they’re cooperating on missile launchings, is it reasonable to assume they are cooperating on enriching uranium as well? Than you.


  2. I’ve always considered Mr. Downs’ book ‘Over the Line: North Korea’s Negotiating Strategy’ mandatory reading on the part of anyone who would be responsible for dealing with the Pyonyang regime. The former Secretary of State Ms. Madeleine Albright probably left her copy at home when she left on her trip to Pyonyang in 2000. It’s almost laughable to hear her now saying that they almost had an agreement worked out with the North Koreans about the missiles. … somewhat akin to listening to Marlon Brando’s (‘On the Waterfront’) character’s incessant whining about how ‘I couldda been a contender’.
    Quite depressing, actually.


  3. Joshua, great interview, very informative. My question is where do policy makers and politicians in Washington get their primary information about the situation in Korea from?


  4. Fascinating intervirew. One Question for Mr Downs:
    What do you think the Japanese response to a NK nuclear test would be? Do you think it could make them consider building their own nuclear weapons?


  5. “When you are in a foreign country, that country is in charge. We never stay in a foreign country against that country’s will — ever. The Korean pro-U.S. right thinks we should be pushing against the Roh government, for arrangements that favor the U.S. That’s all fine, but it doesn’t work that way. We do what the government in place wants done.”

    There is also a view on the blogs and the commenters that things will change once the GNP takes power in Korea with the next presidential election in South Korea since it seems clear the GNP would have to self-destruct in order not to beat Uri. The idea among some is also that with a GNP in power, the US will pretty much reverse course on withdrawing significant portions or all of USFK and things will go pretty much back to normal in the US-SK alliance.

    I, however, from the position of my armchair, disagree. I don’t think a changing of administrations in Korea is going to change the direction the US is currently heading on.

    But, I wonder what the chances are a change in US administrations in 2008 will be able to reverse the direction? or would any potential Democrat winner feel a strong enough need to want to?

    I also wonder about “Its followers are still in power and still running the executive branch in South Korea, so the Sunshine Policy is not dead
    yet. But it has less popular support, and eventually, I think it will die because of a lack of popular support.”

    I was teaching adults in Korea when the 1997-1998 economic melt-down occured. From that experience and what I’ve heard since, I don’t think Roh passing from the scene will really end the Sunshine.

    South Korean society as a whole fears a collapse of NK even more than it fears losing USFK or the NK military threat if the US leaves. The rhetoric might change when Uri and Roh lose the Blue House, and the flow of money and material might descrease, but I think the GNP and the whole of Korean society will still do whatever they believe they need to in order to keep the North from collapsing.

    “Q: To what extend should we be trying to reach out to the North Korean people?

    A: I think they listen to our radio broadcasts.”

    There have been a couple of threads on this site and currently one at Marmot’s Hole about getting information into North Korea.

    I hope the US government is doing much more than radio transmission even if it can’t openly admit to doing more.

    I would be flooding NK with the best and latest mini-sized data collection and transfer devices possible.

    The last time this topic was mentioned on this site, I went and found a news item about some big named developers in the US working on a windup, durable computer that does not need electicity, is small, built to take a beating, and cheap, but still does everything you want a computer to do. I would have hundreds of these flowing into NK.

    There have been so many advances in technology that would facilitate the spread of information about the world inside NK.

    The printing press revolutionized the spread of movements and thought in many socieites over the centuries.

    Now, you don’t need ink, and you can pass along SO MUCH more than a written text.

    In the recent documentaries and news from the North Korean refugees, we know smuggled South Korean soap operas and tv shows and VCRs have had an impact within the North Korean people. There are so many other tools smaller than VCRs and that can carry so many forms of communication, and so many devices that can be hid that can copy this information to transfer from one group to the next, and it seems there are North Koreans who are willing to risk their lives to take such data sources back into the North, it seems like a very fruitful avenue to give a high priority.

    And I would not worry at all about Kim Jong Il parading out confiscated palm pilots or windup computers or dvd/cd burners at the UN as signs of how the evil Americans are trying to bring about “regime change”.

    I am sure there are some influencial people in the media and in friendly government who would want to balk at the US government or some organization trying to “undermine another nation’s government” but when the information smuggled involves Korean soap opers or translated copies of Life Magazine or French films – basic level cultural products taken for granted most everywhere else — it would be hard support Kim’s position. In fact, if NK were to protest the inflow of such items , it should expose just how far out of wack he and his father has led the North Korean people in their isolation.


  6. Thank you so much Joshua. Reading this interview reminded of an almost Brian Lamb-like approach to interviews – straight to the point to focus on the interviewees contributions to scholarship.

    Thank you also Mr. Downs. It’s nice to see resident experts like yourself take time out to share your thoughts with us here in the blog world.

    I have one question for Mr. Downs. How do you think the “sentimentalist vs. pragmatist” balance is evolving in China with regards to the NK problem and how do you think it would be affected by a ratchetting up of economic restrictions. Joshua has at times alluded to the possibility of using economic tools from RICO or the USA PATRIOT Act, Section 311 to really tighten the screws on NK illicit activity. How would China respond to pressure of that sort if it affected Chinese business elements? Thank you.


  7. Prediction:

    Now that the US has successfully tested an interceptor within a short time of NK having a failed ICBM launch — expect another ICBM test within 8 months.

    I give it an even 50/50 chance of happening.


  8. Again, Mr. Downs, thank you so much for your time. I have the obligatory ‘big-picture’ question that I’ve been dying to ask to someone as knowledgeable as yourself… Where do you see the US-NK-SK-PRC (and even TW) relationship headed in the long term?


  9. Hey, Josh,
    I was trying to find that terrible picture of the North Korean woman washed up in the mud of the Tumen River when I found this old interview. I guess people ‘t have been asking me questions on your blog and I’m too iggurent of new technology that I didn’t realize what I should be doing to answer them. Maybe I need to ask Cindy McCain, since her husband and I are about the same generation and apparently the same level of tech savvy.
    As you know, I’ve been asked by the Board of the US Committee for Human Rights to take over as Executive Director, and wanted you to know that we send two significant (I think) letters to Ban Ki Moon and Chris Hill after their recent claims that they consider North Korena human rights abuses unacceptable and wnat tio do something about it. We thought we might tell them what we thought they should do about it.
    Since I don’t have any idea how I could attach those letters to this comment, I’ll send them to your regular email, and hope you can put them on the blogsite if you think that’s worthwhile. Best, Chuck