Gordon Flake (bio) is two things that make his opinions interesting and valuable to me. First, he’s a fluent Korean speaker, and those of us who aren’t are always at some disadvantage to those who do when we are gathering the facts we process into our views. Second — and Gordon may not agree with this characterization — his views strike me as classically liberal. His views are probably more independent and less jaundiced by partisan bias or ambitions than any of Washington’s leading Korea thinkers.
An early advocate of engagement and humanitarian aid for the North, Mr. Flake evolved toward a more conditional, reciprocal view of giving benefits as North Korea’s cheating and bad faith became more apparent. This same evolution explains his bearish views of the U.S.-ROK alliance, while he simultaneously criticizes the Bush Administration for “talking a good game.” And as approachable and accomodating he was in arranging and conducting this interview, he didn’t hesitate to question my assertions, either. Ultimately, Mr. Flake makes some fairly gloomy projections about the directions in which the United States, North Korea, and the region are headed. Thanks again to Mr. Flake — who tells me he’s a regular reader– for giving us his views.
When you testified before the House International Relations Committee on September 27th, you followed Ambassador Hill and Undersecretary Lawless. The subtitle of the hearing was “An Alliance at Risk?,” yet they spoke as though everything is just peachy. Now, having heard your testimony on the next panel, I take it you disagree. Do you think the Administration grasps the current state of affairs with the U.S.-Korean alliance?
Yes, I do, but I think they’re constrained by current objectives and positions. I’m not saying they’re being disingenuous when they point out the very real tactical cooperation between various agencies, such as between the Blue House and the White House, between the Pentagon and the Ministry of National Defense, or between the State Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. My comments are meant more to say that while there are a great many positive developments in the maintenance of the alliance, they’re not addressing the broader political implications or the overall trend lines, which are very negative.
Do you refer to public opinion?
I refer to public opinion, the deterioration of support among the political classes; the emergence of — I suppose this is a misnomer — anti-Korean sentiment in America; and a sense of betrayal, frustration, and heightened lack of trust with respect to our South Korean ally, particularly in the post-9/11 environment.
As I mentioned in my testimony, my broader concerns are with the very real divergences on what have historically been the foundations of our alliance — common perceptions of the North Korean threat and the U.S. role. There are also rapidly diverging views of Japan and the importance of its trilateral cooperation with the U.S. and South Korea.
Where do you see the U.S.-Korea alliance headed a few years from now?
I used rather stark terms in my testimony — including “divorce” — but I really wasn’t talking about the death of the alliance as a whole. I speak more of wartime operational control and the Combined Forces Command.
No matter how you look at it, the termination of the Combined Forces Campaign is tantamount to divorce. It’s really the only joint command of its kind on Earth, and now, it will no longer be.
To extend the analogy of an amicable divorce, we are doing this while expressing our continued commitment and friendship, and saying that we remain committed to the kids, or in this case the defense of the Republic of Korea. But the special relationship will no longer be. On a certain level, that’s a sad thing. Despite the very real protestations of continued commitment — which would be, in the event of a North Korean invasion, very real — overall, these moves indicate a weakening, or in different terms, a downgrading of the U.S. commitment.
In 3-5 years, I suspect that we’ll see a much reduced troop presence. I can easily see a situation in which there would be no U.S. ground troops on the Korean peninsula, at all, and our contribution would consist of air and naval forces.
That would represent a difference in the symbolism, the political statement of our presence. It would be a fundamental change in what had heretofore been a very special alliance in the region.
On a personal level, I’m a strong supporter of the alliance. In light of the impact that a decline of the U.S.-ROK alliance would have on the U.S.-Japan alliance and upon Chinese and regional perceptions of the U.S. commitment to the region, this process is fraught with risk.
The latest Korean poll numbers say that anywhere from 30 to 43 percent of Koreans blame the United States for North Korea’s missile tests. Numbers like that suggest that we’re not even operating in a common reality. You’re a fluent Korean speaker. So do you think numbers like this are an accurate reflection of how Korean society views the United States?
(pause) They are … on one level, very deceptive. There is a subtext to those numbers that is widely understood in korea, but which is not understood when people read them in the United States. For years, poll numbers have shown that a large number of South Koreans believe that the U.S. represents a great risk to South Korea. They don’t fear the U.S. directly, they [some South Koreans] think a hard line in the United States is more likely to provoke a crisis. What they fear is U.S. policy. You have to view these recent poll numbers in the same light. Do South Koreans really believe that this is a U.S. conspiracy? There is only a much smaller number in that very radical category, but for months, if not years, South Koreans have castigated us for not dealing bilaterally with North Korea. Their view is that U.S. intransigence backed North Korea into a corner, and that this could have been avoided if the U.S. had been more flexible.
While I agree that the U.S. could have been more flexible, I think this crisis could only have been postponed, but not avoided altogether.
South Koreans are not so much anti-U.S. in the sense that they think the U.S. is the bad guy. This is more based on an understanding — or misunderstanding — of U.S. policy. It also highlights again the underlying problem in the alliance, which is the diverging threat perception of North Korea. There is a vast, and perhaps growing, difference on how to approach North Korea.
What, if anything, can be done about that?
Strangely enough, I place a heavy responsibility for a lot of those numbers on the South Korean government. It is really the fundamental responsibility of the host government of South Korea to sell the alliance and its core aspects to its own citizenry. In a very ironic way, you could make the case that the Roh admin has done more to do this than any of its predecessors. But Roh’s efforts — though in some senses, historic — are insufficient to the task ahead.
Look at alliance in the Cold War context. Then, South Korea just had to accept the U.S. presence. It never had to make the case to the South Korean public that they needed U.S. forces or the alliance. Then, if there were differences on the SOFA, on incidents with our soldiers, or basing, the South Korean government never had to take the heat. The United States was always willing to take the heat. South Korea could keep its head down and let the U.S. take the heat instead. There’s been a fundamental shift in that dynamic. In a post-9/11 environment, not only is the level of U.S. commitment reduced, our sensitivity to criticism is heightened. We expect more from our allies. We expect them to stand up for our positions and alliances.
When you talk of selling the alliance to the South Korean body politic, you can talk about things the U.S. Embassy in Seoul or Washington can do, but those are pretty remote. The fundamental problem is the responsibility of the South Korean government itself to defend the alliance to its own citizens. The failure to do so accounts for a lot of the anti-Americanism.
If you look at defense White Papers, there isn’t a fundamental difference between the U.S. and the ROK on North Korea. The real difference is that Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun made a conscious decision to avoid any criticism of North Korea or put any focus on the North Korean threat. While the views of our militaries are consistent, the failure of the government to publicly focus on the [North Korean] threat made the U.S. seem to be part of the problem or threat. By South Korea’s silence, we were cast in the role of bad guy or aggressor. That’s partially why you see poll numbers like this — because of the South Korean government’s failure to call a spade a spade.
How do you think that U.S. policy toward the Koreas would change if the Democrats take over Congress?
You know, I don’t think there would be a fundamental shift. There has been an extremely shallow debate in public circles about the question of engaging North Korea, mostly about the question of bilateral as opposed to multilateral talks. You can imagine a situation in which a Democratic Congress could bring more pressure for bilateral talks. But when you really get down to it, there’s very little room for divergence. I don’t think there’s any way to solve this bilaterally.
Anyone would quickly recognize that despite the failure of the Bush Administration to convincingly articulate why it won’t engage in bilateral talks, we can’t solve this bilaterally, because we don’t have carrots and we don’t have sticks.
This is especially the case after North Korea’s nuclear test. The size of the carrot or stick we would need now is much greater. I can’t imagine any congress appropriating anything for carrots for North Korea now.
This is not just about the issue of rewarding bad behavior. There’s been a real deterioration of the political environment in Washington about North Korea, and we started from a very low base: “Axis of Evil.” I attribute this to the emergence of three issues — human rights, kidnappings, and illegal activities — all of them nontraditional issues, but they’ve fundamentally altered the view of North Korea. Regardless of party, it’s hard to advocate on behalf of North Korea today, or to advocate the acceptance of anything less than Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Disarmament. For anyone to say they could free up significant carrots or reward North Korea would be extraordinarily difficult. The very real hesitance of the Bush Admin to use our real stick, war, isn’t a partisan issue either, when there is a real concern that conflict would be antithetical to our interests.
Some of the harsher views, such as those advocating preemptive strikes on North Korea’s long range missiles, cross party lines, as you can see from the views of people like William Perry, Ashton Carter, or Walter Mondale. So, I don’t know what the North Koreans are expecting. If their anticipation is that a Democratic Congress or a Democratic Administration is likely to be significantly softer in its approach, particularly after a nuclear test, they are likely to be sorely disssapointed.
One of the axioms of international politics in Washington is that only Nixon can go to China. Nixon had the anti-Communist credentials that Kennedy or Johnson didn’t have. The modern equivalent of this is that only Bush can ignore North Korea. Over the last 5 years, he’s talked a tough game — “evil,” “pygmy,” “loathe,” and so on. But in terms of action, he’s done almost nothing. Every North Korean crossing of “red lines” met with yawns and promises to solve the problem through diplomacy or the six-party talks. I’m not sure a Democratic president or Congress would have as much leeway not to respond to such provocations.
Let’s switch that question around a bit. Assume that the Grand Nationals take over in South Korea in 2007. How much would that really do to improve the relationship between the United States and South Korea?
One can always hope, but I don’t see any evidence that the Grand National Party really understands the fundamental dynamics at play in the U.S.-ROK alliance more than the ruling party does. Yes, they say the right things and approach North Korea with more balance, but that doesn’t mean they grasp how things have changed.
There has been a fundamental shift in Asia, in that in a post-Cold War world — where our interests are not driven by desire to confront the Soviet Union, a post-9/11 world in which our priorities and passions are more heavily invested in the Middle East — you can make case that our investment in Asia has declined. Thus, only the countries that have close alliances with the United States are those that have made a decision that an alliance with the United States is in their interests, and have courted us accordingly. The countries that have done this are Japan, Australia, and Singapore.
The GNP is talking about reversing the ruling party’s views on wartime control, which is good, but would have been better five years ago. I’m not sure if there is anyone in the Pentagon today who supports things as they were. The GNP has only gone so far as to articulate its support for a status quo that the U.S. no longer supports. Korea should think more long-term about whether an alliance with the United States in its interests, and if so, then it should decide to actively court the United States based on those interests. That’s not a process the GNP has really gone through. But it’s necessary, if you look at the trend lines.
By saying this, I don’t mean to absolve the U.S. of all responsibility. For example, we should recognize that the U.S.-ROK alliance and the U.S.-Japan alliances are symbiotic and affect the region as a whole. I’m not putting the whole onus on the GNP, but I think they have really failed thus far to grasp the long-term trend.
As much as many Koreans mocked President Koizumi for his Elvis act with President Bush at Graceland and using the “King’s” words to say, “I Love you, I need you, I want you” they should understand that this played extremely well in the United States.
Even with the GNP, North Korea will still be a divisive issue with us, though not as much as with ruling party. In contrast to an era when Koreans were long-term strategic thinkers, at this point, the specter of war looms so great that for both Uri and GNP, the number one priority is the avoidance of war. When that becomes your number one priority, you’re locked into spending your energy on achieving those short-term gains.
Several of the members — including Representatives Lantos, Leach, and Ackerman — voiced their strong opposition to re-imposing sanctions on September 27th. That was after North Korea’s missile test, but before its nuclear test. I note that those sanctions were lifted to reward North Korea for its missile test moratorium in the first place. Do you suppose that there would be as much congressional opposition to sanctions now, especially in light of the new U.N. resolution?
No, I don’t. Part of this was a question of timing. There were two sets of sanctions. The first was in January 1995, following the Agreed Framework, and was largely symbolic. The second was in June 2000, as a reward for the missile moratorium, which was also largely symbolic. The concerns, which were well voiced by members and staff, were that two months after the missile tests, and after Japan and Australia had already imposed sanctions, if the U.S. were to impose sanctions, it would draw attention back to the U.S. action and cast the U.S. as a provocateur. In the current situation [after the nuclear test], it would make perfect sense to re-implement the sanctions and add further financial strictures in a relatively short time frame. Such action would also have made perfect sense on July 6 or shortly thereafter, but it was gummed up in interagency process.
I say this in light of my belief that the Administration’s current reliance on a multilateral approach makes sense. It recognizes our own lack of leverage and uses the leverage of other nations in the region to bring pressure to bear. The strategy remains keeping attention away from us, shifting it to the multilateral response, rather than making it a Washington-led response. I think that’s an appropriate reaction.
Your own views on engaging North Korea have evolved in recent years. Can you describe this evolution, and what facts and arguments influenced the evolution of your views?
I considered myself an early proponent of the Sunshine Policy as originally articulated — that the more contact, investment, trade, tourism, and religion, the more it would effect change in North Korea. This was based on my belief in a highly normative process that was intended to change North Korea.
Ironically, I think this was undermined by South Korea, to bring short-term benefits to a long-term policy. South Korea, in an attempt to secure North Korean acquiescence — which was not strictly necessary — made a calculated attempt to deemphasize anything negative about North Korea.
Despite the concerns and moral hazards of dealing with North Korea, I still remained supportive of engagement, particularly through markets. That view was predicated on a security foundation, however. Just as if Nixon didn’t go to China, you couldn’t have had China’s reform, without the Agreed Framework, you wouldn’t have had that engagement within a security framework.
I was supportive of the Agreement Framework until October 2002, until the revelations about HEU [North Korea’s highly enriched uranium program] made it politically untenable. Again, theoretically, I remain a strong proponent of engagement.
Unfortunately, the Geneva Agreed Framework is gone, and I see no prospect of its reconstruction. Until we can reconstruct a security foundation, I see no prospect for solving the crisis through engagement.
Now, after the nuclear test, I see no scenario in which engagement alone is sufficient to the task at hand. Engagement alone cannot convince North Korea to make a strategic decision to abandon its nuclear weapons. Now more than ever, it will take simultaneous, concerted, joint, multinational pressure brought to bear on North Korea to convince them that possession of nuclear weapons is not in their national interests.
At same time, there must be light at the end of the tunnel — a way out. But my hopes are a faint shadow of what they were in 1994. I still think we need to go through with [attempts to negotiate a solution], if for no other reason than our alliances, but it’s a process in which I hold scant hope.
I had long presumed that Kim Jong Il was coldly rational, but after seeing him engage in a series of clearly counterproductive actions, I’m not so sure. Do you think that Kim Jong Il is rational?
It’s not simply a question of rational versus irrational. It’s really a more mundane question of information flows and resources. A strong number of analysts have built up a notion of Kim Jong Il as a grand strategist, smarter than everyone by half, and outplaying everyone.
Increasingly, I have a hard time buying into that theory. Look at what it’s brought him: a decade of economic contraction that brought North Korea near the collapse of government function. How can you presume that a stove-piped, resource deprived, isolated country makes better decisions than the rest of us the world?
As they say, “garbage in, garbage out.” Poor information coming in means bad decision-making. There’s an argument for saying that North Korea has made a series of strategic blunders. Some say this is really a calibrated series of calculating moves. He’s crossed red line after red line, being saved only by the fact that the Administration is ignoring North Korea because its passions lie elsewhere.
[U.N. Resolution] 1695, the nuclear test itself, and the missile tests were not great strategic moves by North Korea. I have a great concern — and it’s very great now — that North Korea is increasing provocations and could lead to a real risk of a North Korean miscalculation.
With respect to South Korean perceptions that the U.S. is the greatest threat, this is where I couldn’t disagree more. The real risk is that of a North Korean miscalculation, in which they get themselves into a situation in which there is no peaceful way out, or launch a provocative response that will take us to the brink of conflict.
I am deeply concerned about North Korea’s decision making, and the attendant risk of conflict.
What, in your view, is the least bad of the bad options available to us at this point?
I wish I were smart enough to advocate a way out of this mess. I know enough to quite easily reject less rigorous suggestions or proposals, but not to craft proposals of my own.
As dangerous as it may be, our ability to solve this problem rests entirely on our ability to maintain multilateral pressure [on North Korea] and at the same time, give them a way out.
If we can’t bring full Chinese, South Korean, Russian and Japanese pressure to bear on North Korea, they won’t make the strategic decision to abandon nuclear weapons. At the same time, they will never be admitted to the nuclear club in the sense of being “accepted” rather then “tolerated” as a nuclear power.
The only scenario for peaceful resolution is if we can speak with such unanimity and force, that North Korea will have to recognize that only if it abandons nuclear weapons, can it secure its survival of its regime.
That would also have to involve some type of inducements by other parties to the six-party talks.
Truth be told, I am concerned that North Korea’s nuclear program is so closely intertwined with the nature of and very existence of Kim Jong Il’s regime, that it’s difficult to even conceptualize a clear, satisfactory resolution of this issue, absent (choosing his words carefully) a fundamental change in at least the nature of the North Korean regime.
All indications are that the food situation in North Korea is about to get much worse. International aid is down. The crops were washed away (more). The government is making matters worse by trying to restore central planning. The World Food Program’s effort is a shadow of what it was a year ago, and there are signs of donor fatigue, even in South Korea and China. The regime has never been more isolated. And on top of new reports that the Tyumen River is choked with the bullet-riddled bodies of refugees, the Chinese are improving their border fences, which means that even escape will be more difficult. You have written about international aid to North Korea, and I want to ask several questions about this.
First, what is your view of giving food aid to North Korea?
I (pause) remain committed to the broad outline of the Reagan Doctrine that “a hungry child knows no politics.” But to an extent, food aid is fungible, and to a degree, supports the regime. Our focus should be on international standards for monitoring, reporting, and targeting. The bulk of what the World Food Program did was probably innocuous [with regard to propping up the regime.] By targeting populations at the low end of the totem pole anyway, it probably had less effect on the regime. Yet on a human level, they were doing some good.
There is an important debate on whether humanitarian aid prolongs suffering in a larger sense. The only time that argument would be persuasive to me is if you could convince me that we are so close to regime collapse that a very small nudge on the regime could bring collapse on a very short term and help more people than it would hurt.
At the same time, you raise a somewhat moot point. Having kicked out the World Food Program, the North Koreans make it a much easier case. In this case, absent a willingness to adhere to international standards, I don’t think we ought to go to any extreme measures to adhere to North Korea’s standards.
I find the closing of the Chinese border very distressing. Unfortunately, I’m also aware of the complexity of this issue, given the ability of China to close that border. I’ve always been deeply ambivalent regarding the activities of some people in the refugee field, because their short-term focus on publicity, might create more long-term negative affects on the people of North Korea.
Any action we take here must be in the context of a clear understanding of conditions in North Korea. If you think that things are on brink of collapse, in North Korea, as the litany in your question suggests [ouch!], I don’t think there is evidence to support that.
I take it you dispute the factual premises in my last question.
I don’t see the evidence [that famine conditions could soon reemerge]. I still hear just completely contradictory accounts. We have nothing approaching an academically rigorous analysis to say for certain.
Many academics have made a career of predicting the collapse of the North Korean regime. I have yet to see any evidence of imminent collapse. I’m not denying it, I just don’t know. I don’t know the extent of South Korean transfers to the regime, or, more importantly, of Chinese transfers. I do not have a reliable way to weight differing and vastly contradictory reports to say with confidence whether reports are leading to famine. I have certainly warned others of the possibility, and I have grave concerns that we could very quickly find ourselves in a famine situation, but my own warnings are always grounded in a lack of confidence in the facts.
I understand that, like me, you’ve wasted countless hours of your finite life on Google-Earthing North Korea. In that case, would you care to share any finds with us? Did you place-mark them? Any overall impressions?
In this regard, I have to confess that I’m very much a consumer, not a producer, just as I am a fan of blogs, of which I’m a consumer. I’ve been greatly amused by placemarks of others [OFK: by Mr. Flake’s tone, I think he was diplomatically trying not to say something that I’ll state more directly: some of the calls seem pretty baseless and silly.]
My placemarks are of actually of some of my childhood haunts in Arizona. I haven’t gone so far as to make placemarks in North Korea.
Thank you very much for your time. Would you like to add any final comments?
I am deeply concerned that we have entered into a new phase of the North Korea crisis, and this new phase is not fully recognized. Numerous voices in the media are saying that we will just have to live with a nuclear North Korea, that sanctions resolutions are toothless, and that there’s nothing we can do. On the face of it, the U.S. approach is the least affected, because we had presupposed a nuclear North Korea, as opposed to China and South Korea.
Yet the U.S. approach has fundamentally shifted. Before the test, our priorities were elsewhere, though we talked a pretty good game. We were deeply pessimistic about prospects for solving this problem. The political dynamics for solving the problem — the regime’s pariah nature, human rights, kidnapping — our policy was really about crisis avoidance. We were kicking the can down the road. The objective was to prevent a nuclear test, a crisis. So we did not proactively put the ball in North Korea’s court. We did not force a crisis. We did nothing provocative.
Now, with the testing of nuclear weapons, this phase is one in which the U.S. objective is much larger — to roll back an existing nuclear program — something not done before [OFK: South Africa? Kazakhstan? Admittedly, those were very different regimes]. This requires crisis utilization, not avoidance. Let me elaborate on “crisis utilization.” In order to avoid a situation in which the crisis drops off and North Korea effectively wins, we have to keep the heat on this issue. Our ability to keep the heat on the North Koreans depends on our ability to keep the heat on South Korea and China.
Thus, the United States is on a clear escalatory path.
This is not to say that we’re about to launch military strikes. But those who think [Resolution] 1718 represents the totality of the U.S. response are mistaken. This is the first in a series of escalatory responses. Thus, everyone’s best case scenario is one in which North Korea agrees to the September 19th statement in exchange for all the goodies.
I remain extremely doubtful about this possibility. That highlights the risks inherent in this issue, so stay tuned.