My deepest thanks to Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute for agreeing to a telephone interview. Eberstadt is one of Washington’s most highly regarded Korea experts. The interview ended up lasting a full hour. Nothing has been edited out, although I missed a word here and there because I’m not a stenographer. Still, this is pretty close to a verbatim transcript; Nick Eberstadt is one of those rare individuals who speaks in complete sentences.
All comments in brackets and hyperlinks are my own. My questions focused on what may well be the terminal phase of the six-party talks, clarifying questions Eberstadt raised in his latest piece for The American Enterprise, and discussing the question that everyone’s assiduously avoided thus far: just exactly what are we to do if the talks demonstrably fail?
I let Mr. Eberstadt see some of the questions in advance (those not truncated by yahoo e-mail), and allowed him to see the completed transcript before publication. This was to afford him the chance to clarify any misquotes or errors, or to add clarifications. On the other hand, I did my best to ask tough questions. Questions are in normal typeface. Mr. Eberstadt’s responses are in blue italics.
[First question] I have a wager going that North Korea will not even show up for the talks scheduled for August 29th, give or take a day. Care to join the pool? There’s a $20 house minimum.
I always lose at bets, so I’ll decline. But the DPRK has a good reason to return if it chooses to do so. Its posture has already opened, still further, the wound in the ROK-US alliance. The ROK Foreign Minister declared last week that his government in principle had no problem with a peaceful nuclear program in North Korea. I suppose that program would proceed in tandem with [North Korea’s] peaceful chemical weapons program, and its peaceful biological weapons program. If I were a North Korean diplomat, I’d come back to the table just to see the U.S. and ROK diplomats eat each other alive over that difference. I can’t predict if the North Koreans will return, but if they do, they will have fun watching us squirm.
Say I lose. We all know you have a stock ticker in your office that tells you what the Administration is thinking. So just how patient is this Administration willing to be?
[Laughs] I would have guessed that the Administration’s patience would have limits. Here’s my reasoning: a lot of the Administration’s patience since January, during the second Bush term, has revolved around trying to get the [American] North Korea diplomatic team all in place. The obvious missing piece through most of 2005 was the appointment of a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. That appointment would be indispensable for any recommendation of sanctions to the U.N. Security Council. With the recess appointment of John Bolton, the entire U.S. roster is now in place.
With latest talks, I would have thought that the Administration is not only probing the North Koreans’ intentions, but laying the groundwork for alternatives–demonstrating that further talks would be fruitless, and pulling together allies and interlocutors for a further pressure campaign. But [implicitly denying the presence of the stock ticker] that would just be my guess.
You’ve suggested that we should declare the talks a failure now. But given the importance of making this someone else’s fault in the eyes of as many people as possible, what’s the harm in waiting another week or two, since this has become a charade anyway?
I’m not privy to the U.S. government’s playbook on dealing with the North Korean nuclear crisis. If the U.S. government’s playbook runs along lines you’ve just laid out, that seems entirely unobjectionable. The important point is that U.S. diplomats and policy-makers be under no illusions that failure can be turned to triumph by describing black as white such a sufficient number of times.
In your June piece for The American Enterprise, you urged the administration to define failure for the talks and be prepared to declare failure when we get there. So this is going to be a multi-parter. . . . First, help us with your definition of failure.
I would define failure as a refusal by the DPRK government to agree to the objective of complete denuclearization, and/or refusal to engage in forthcoming and cooperative disclosure on the entire past history of the DPRK nuclear effort.
Ambassador Chris Hill has talked about North Korea having to make a fundamental decision about giving up its nuclear programs. Does that, or anything else, suggest that the Administration finally gets it?
I don’t know Ambassador Hill well, I’ve only met him. People talk highly of his skills and acumen. That’s promising language. It’s necessary but not sufficient to show that people in U.S. government get the problem, but it doesn’t reveal his innermost thoughts about the U.S. government’s game plan.
How does Chung Dong-Young’s latest affect the odds of any success at the talks?
It does affect the success. It affects the North Korean chance for success. He’s helped those out quite considerably. Almost every time he’s opened his mouth, he’s strengthened the North Korean position [pauses to think]. I can’t think of one exception off-hand.
How has the State Department’s outlook changed since Secretary Rice replaced Secretary Powell?
This is a little bit of Kremlinology–looking at an organization from afar. My distant observer’s perception is that an untrusted team has been replaced by a trusted team, from the White House perspective. The Powell team was kept on a two-foot leash, mainly because of a lack of White House confidence, I would guess. We now have a transmission belt of Bush loyalists on North Korea policy. Secretary Rice, John Bolton, Robert Zoellick, and Ambassador Hill are all people who enjoy the trust of the White House, and the President personally. I surmise that a second-term Bush Administration diplomatic team will have more lee-way on making initiatives in [of?] consequence.
Did The Korea Times ever clarify its misstatements about your position on the alliance to your satisfaction?
[Laughs] Oh, you read that, did you? Well, they published my letter, which was very gracious, and also I got a very gracious and sincere apology from the author. It was an honest mistake. I think that the author simply confused my position with that of one of the other authors from the June TAE issue.
You oppose a complete USFK withdrawal, but then, just what level of alliance do you think North Korea serves long-term US interests? What mix, for example, of air, naval, and ground assets should we be aiming for?
That’s a very important, deep, and complicated question. I am in principle in favor of a long-term U.S.-ROK alliance, because I’m convinced it can serve interests of both nations and those of peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia. That said, both sides must be in favor of the underlying principles and objectives of the alliance. It is possible to imagine circumstances under which the alliance would no longer be viable. I think Northeast Asia would be a much more dangerous place if we get to that juncture. I hope we don’t get there, but the momentum right now is not favorable.
That said, I’m not a military specialist, and I should emphasize that I’m a newspaper reader when it comes to military operations and requirements. My general impression is that we have an immediate task of deterring a North Korea threat. Over the long term, we have the challenge of maintaining peace in Northeast Asia. At the very least, that will require U.S. air and naval power in the region.
Chris Nelson [author of the now-infamous Nelson Report] said that in addition to being funny and well-liked, you’re “rigid, didactic, and unwilling to admit that [your] frequent predictions about very specific actions or motives of Kim Jong-il turn out to be totally wrong.” Several questions based on this. First, has anyone spotted Chris Nelson recently? Second, what does didactic mean? Care to touch anything else in there?
[A slightly longer-than-expected pause before the awkward laughter I was anticipating] I don’t believe I’ve ever actually met Chris Nelson. Didactic, by the way, means pedantic [OFK: well, that was no help, but click here and here.] and schoolmasterish [ohhhhh]. As for the rest of what he says, it’s certainly true that North Korea has not collapsed. I would have been one of the people laying odds on North Korea not being here today. There are reasons North Korea has managed to survive that I could not have even fantasized about ten years ago, such as the international rescue program that happened under Sunshine. I’d also note that I was one of the few people in the U.S. who argued that Roh Moo Hyun was electable, and that Sunshine was driving at the heart of the U.S.-ROK alliance. I haven’t heard many people disputing those arguments lately.
I want to move to the “what next” question, in the event the six-nation talks fail. In your latest piece, you said, “Washington should impose real-time penalties on Pyongyang. Can you elaborate on what you mean here?
What we have to begin to do is penalize North Korea economically. The United States can increase North Korea’s economic penalties more or less unilaterially thru the Proliferation Security Initiative–working, of course, with those nations that have joined the PSI, and leading that coalition. We should be doing that anyhow. That’s just police work.
We should also insist on a more humanitarian food aid program, which is to say a more intrusive and accountable food program, versus the one the World Food Program and others are kicking in for now. The current program feeds the North Korea government better than it feeds North Korea people. We should change that immediately.
One other issue here is the need to confer more effectively with our European allies on international aid flows to the DPRK. Europe professes great concern for human rights in principle. North Korea is the worst human rights disaster on earth.
The most important and difficult areas in aid flow are with South Korea and China. The U.S. needs to be much more effective in making its case to the South Korean public that aiding the North Korean state means endangering the South Korean state. The South Korean government is almost unconditionally supporting North Korea through its aid programs. That unconditional aid does not reflect the actual state of public opinion in South Korea; in fact, the South Korean public is deeply divided on the question of unconditional aid to the North. Making the case against unconditional aid to the North in various venues would be very helpful changing South Korean policies in this regard.
China is another source of unconditional aid to the North. As long as Seoul is completely off the reservation on supporting North Korea through aid, China has much less reason to make hard choices on North Korea. The road to a stricter Chinese aid policy leads through Seoul. If we can convince South Korea to have a more rational, less emotional and ideological policy about aid to North Korea, we are more likely to succeed with China as well.
Did you see the story in this morning’s Chosun Ilbo on the survey of Korean youth?
What’s your reaction to that?
Depending on how you phrase a question, you can get really imbalanced responses in one direction or other, particularly in South Korean polls. I think this is one of those cases, where the results have been exaggerated by the way the question was posed. That said, the point that many people in South Korea now look at the U.S. as a security problem and North Korea as a partner cannot be denied, and that’s a big problem for the alliance.
In your last piece in TAE, you said that “[t]he country [North Korea] is highly vulnerable to economic pressure . . . . Others would argue that a country as poor as North Korea is actually less vulnerable to economic pressure.
I think that is empirically incorrect. I think it was last fall, I published an article called “The Persistence of North Korea. What I tried to show in that study is that North Korea’s unidentified foreign sources of funding had increased very substantially since 1998, since the Sunshine era commenced. In the mid-1990s, the DPRK was in famine, the regime was describing its situation as an “arduous march. That period ended precisely when this upswing in foreign funding commenced. North Korean economy is a bizarre, distorted, jack-assed contraption. I agree that if you study history, coercive economic diplomacy seldom achieves its objectives. But North Korea is so economically vulnerable that North Korea is an unusually promising candidate for economic pressure.
Why would China help us in the U.N.?
We can’t know until we try, but my hunch is that Chinese leadership, in the final analysis, will have to be rational about its own interests in Northeast Asia, and an aggressive nuclear North Korea is even more subversive of Beijing’s interests than a pressure campaign against the DPRK that may involve Chinese risks.
The reason I say this is that China’s exposure to North Korean brinksmanship entails the possibility of very real costs in China’s strategic situation and China’s domestic stability. If the DPRK emerges as an aggressive nuclear power, the nuclear disposition of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan cannot be presumed to remain constant. Our ambassador in Japan has made this point. An aggressive nuclear North Korea will also invite responses in missile defense in South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. None of these results is in china’s interest.
I also mention that there’s a domestic concern for China. An aggressive nuclear North Korea could cause a business crisis in Northeast Asia–I don’t think it’s difficult to imagine how–leading to a downturn in trade, investment, and economic growth in region. It would only take a matter of months for this to lead to higher urban unemployment rates in china. If I read the newspapers correctly, China’s leaders are very concerned about stability these days. Rising unemployment is not the way to improve stability and reduce social tensions. The U.S. government can encourage the Chinese leadership to think about its own interests in North Korea more clearly. If we encourage the Chinese leadership to think about its own interests in North Korea more clearly, we will find that our interests overlap is larger than we’ve thought to date.
Do you think the United States is seriously considering a blockade?
I think there are circumstances under which US would have to consider a blockade. We’re not there yet, and I hope we never get there. The idea that military action is inconceivable is wrong. It would be an awful set of circumstances that would bring us to that point, but we would have to consider it.
Balbina Hwang has estimated that Kim Jong Il controls up to $5 billion in overseas deposits. Has there been talk of freezing those assets? [Slight correction here: it would be more accurate to say that Ms. Hwang quoted estimates North Korea’s overseas deposits “as high as” $5 billion in this August 2003 piece. Ms. Hwang does not actually claim this estimate as her own own–my apologies.].
I don’t know if that estimate is correct or not. Of course, it would be a smart and a good thing to search for and identify overseas DPRK assets. I wonder, though, whether DPRK assets are as large as some analysts have guessed. North Korea was in such a delicate economic situation in mid-90s that it would seem puzzling for the regime not to have used some of those “rainy-day” funds to relieve possible tensions that arose from that situation.
In The End of North Korea, [published in 2000] you made the point that North Korean trade with the U.S. would not likely expand much, for reasons that are internal to North Korean policy. The mirror image of this is that re-imposing sanctions would not do much, either. And of course, but for the lack of MFN trade status and sanctions on dual-use components, we really don’t have many sanctions on North Korea today.
That’s right, but the real impact of our economic policy is often overlooked. It’s not the trade sanctions per se. The real financial bite from the U.S. sanctions is that the U.S. is obligated vote against North Korean membership in the International Monetary fund, which prevents it from getting access to international loans or grants. But North Korea is perfectly capable of failing as international exporter without our help.
Recently, you’ve been much more outspoken about humanitarian issues in relation to North Korea. I want to address the intersection of the humanitarian and economic issues, specifically the famine. Some NGOs have discussed the link between hunger and songbun, which is a measure of political classification and oppression. Some have raised comparisons to Stalin’s selective mass starvation in the Ukraine in the 1930s–I’ve raised them myself. Do you think that there’s evidence to support such a comparison?
Well, the evidence comes from the escapees, who’ve described the starvation in North Korea in the 1990s.
Do you think that this starvation was deliberate, at least to some extent?
There’s very little arguing that the regime made decisions about who should get food, and who should not. The suspect or disfavored strata were certainly not preferentially treated in allocation of food through the Public Distribution System. Since death toll and suffering from the famine in some measure seems regionally specific, it’s clear that the regime made some choices. I don’t think this was so much a pan opticon decree that some elements should be sentenced to death. I suspect it was more like the process that the Nazis called selektion [selecting who would live and who wouldn’t]. Another way to put it is that being in a disfavored status near Pyongyang, or being in a favored status, was better than being in a disfavored status near the Russian border.
Assume China and South Korea block our every efforts to relieve the human rights and famine problems in the North. What could America do to make a tangible difference in either situation?
As things stand now, both South Korea and China are disposed to ignore the humanitarian disaster in North Korea. That’s why need to have a diplomatic strategy for dealing with human rights. The [Chinese and South Korean policies] are not fixed or immutable positions.
The road to changing South Korea’s regrettable policy for dealing with human rights leads through Europe. The South Korean government, so heavily composed of former human rights activists, can be shamed into a more humane policy toward refugees from the DPRK. The way to shame the South Korean government is to form an international coalition to persuade people worldwide that the current situation cannot be tolerated. To do so will involve a lot of spadework with governments and NGOs in Europe, especially among the new, formerly communist, democracies. I don’t think South Korea wants to try to make the case that North Korea should be an exception to worldwide human rights principles.
Obviously, we have plenty of work to do in developing that coalition, but it’s there for the building. If such a coalition were developed, there are so many promising reasons to expect that groups and people in South Korea will support a more humanitarian policy toward North Korea refugees, and that we can expect a change from the see-no-evil Sunshine approach toward North Korea.
Just as the road to South Korea leads through Europe, the road to China leads through South Korea. Without the cover that South Korea’s current position provides, china will be exposed to more important choices. That importance rises as we approach 2008. China is not isolated from the calculus of costs and benefits [here, Eberstadt stopped for a pregnant consideration of his choice of words]. China wants the Beijing Olympics to be success, not an embarrassing failure.
You’re an advocate of assisting North Korean refugees, but some of those who opposed the North Korean Human Rights Act or confrontation with North Korea over human rights have accused the United States of hypocrisy in offering asylum to North Korean refugees. After all, not one North Korean refugee has been given asylum in the USA, and the NKHRA did not include a provision for Temporary Protected Status. Are we all a bunch of hypocrites for offering something we appear to have been unprepared to actually give?
The confusion about accepting North Korea refugees into the United States is the tiniest corner of our INS mess. I don’t think that anyone who is familiar with it thinks our INS works like a normal and healthy operation. There is an even bigger problem than what we see through this small aperture: a badly broken INS.
But those few North Koreans who arrived in the United States had already taken first refuge elsewhere, meaning that they were ineligible for asylum anyway.
The U.S. gesture of offering asylum to North Korean refugees follows a tradition of 200 years of acting on the principles later recorded in the language on the placard on the Statue of Liberty. We have to be very clear that the South Korean Constitution recognizes North Koreans as South Korean citizens if they so much as raise hands and say, “Take us home. Given how much emphasis today’s South Korea places on constitutional rights and the rule of law, we should encourage the government to take another look at Article III.
I noticed that North Korea’s negotiating posture seemed to become temporarily more flexible after Kang Chol-Hwan’s visit. That flexibility didn’t last, of course, but do you think North Korea takes the threat of US support for a political alternative to the regime seriously?
The North Korea government will take the threat of U.S. support for an alternative DPRK more seriously in proportion to the extent that the U.S. government itself takes that proposition seriously. The DPRK leadership is purportedly isolated and removed from events, but they don’t do a bad job of reading the papers. They may even surf the Internet from time to time. North Korea is capable of doing those calculations on its own.
Now for a wacky question. There is exactly one way I can think of to seriously challenge the North Korean regime’s hold on power without Chinese or South Korean cooperation: to support an anti-government resistance movement inside North Korea, supplying it clandestinely, perhaps from off the coast. In your wildest dreams, can you envision the United States providing clandestine support for an anti-Kim Jong-Il resistance movement?
It certainly shouldn’t be ruled out. My impression as a newspaper reader is that the history of covert operations in North Korea over the last half century is not one of ringing successes. That said, all options should remain on the table when dealing with a government opposed to basic principles of international peace and cooperation.
Mr. Eberstadt, thank you for being so considerate of your time.
Thank you. I enjoy your Web site very much. [End of interview]
One final point I’d add, in addition to thanking Mr. Eberstadt for kind plug for my site–he’s such a mensch that he never even mentioned his new book. So I just did.