Social Sciences

Brinkmanship and North Korea

Reed analyst explains the carnival of contradictions haunting US policy on the Korean peninsula.

By Geoff Koch | October 6, 2017

A nuclear power led by an unpredictable ruler with a chip on his shoulder. Not an ideal negotiating partner—but that may be as true of President Donald Trump as it is of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. “Never before have two leaders in command of nuclear arsenals more closely evoked a professional wrestling match,” wrote The New Yorker, an assessment that underestimates the weirdness of the moment, where parody and armageddon appear to be merging.

Beyond the Tweets and increasingly Strangelovian narrative is a conflict that stretches to the 1953 armistice at Panmunjon and has stumped world leaders ever since. Brad Glosserman ’82 has been thinking and writing about North Korea for the last 26 years, first at the Japan Times and later at the thinktank Pacific Forum CSIS, where until recently he was executive director. We asked him what’s different about the North Korean dynamic today, what’s fundamentally unchanged no matter the hourly headline, and where to find insight. (Hint: it’s not on Twitter.)

Fire and fury. Rocket Man. Totally destroy. Etc. Does this kind of rhetoric have any precedent?

There is no precedent for a U.S. president using the language that Mr. Trump has used. Though if you close one eye and squint and turn the paper sideways, you'll find equivalences. President Obama certainly referred to the fact that we could do exceptional damage to that country, that we were not deterred or otherwise scared by North Korean military capability. Which remains an accurate assessment, by the way. Trump has also said repeatedly that he’s ready to talk and negotiate.

What does North Korea want? Has that changed?

Not really. There’s great continuity here through three generations of North Korean leadership. The regime wants respect and status, and guarantees, or as close as they can get, that they will be left alone and not be subject to attack, undermining or subversion by foreign powers. That’s why they are so eager to be recognized by the United States as a nuclear-capable state. Short of that, they want to be recognized as a U.S. peer in the international system, which ain’t gonna happen.

Why not?

We cannot do that without fatally undermining the confidence of the South Koreans and the Japanese in our alliances and in our diplomatic skills. And this would likely encourage North Korean nuclear ambitions over time—and maybe other countries’ as well.

What’s different since you started at Pacific Forum?

North Korea’s technical capabilities for one, both in terms of nuclear devices and missiles, also cyberwarfare. The second issue would be the degree to which Kim Jong-Un is considered to be less predictable than his father and grandfather. It is true that several decades ago we looked at Kim Jong-Il as being as unpredictable, irresponsible, and reckless as his son appears to be now. The difference is that Kim Jong-Il was subject to the authority of his father and under a 20- or 30-year tutelage, which Kim Jong-Un is not. So you have to wonder — ‘What are the brakes and constraints on his behavior? Who if anyone can influence him?’

We know Kim Jong-Un is friends with Dennis Rodman, who also appeared on “Celebrity Apprentice” and even gave him a copy of “The Art of the Deal” when he visited Pyongyang in June. Does Rodman actually have some sort of role in all of this?

I can't imagine it. Although in the world that we live in, who the hell knows? We have two wholly unpredictable and strange leaders in the White House and Pyongyang’s palaces, and the one common denominator between the two of them is Dennis Rodman. Go figure, man.

There is endless media coverage of North Korea. What do you recommend for reading material on this? Besides your articles.

The “Inspector O” series of spy novels by James Church. That’s a pseudonym for a former Western intelligence officer who worked for decades on Asia including North Korea. The novels are based on true incidents and they offer one of the best, most penetrating and readable insights into North Korean character, and the country and its institutions. They're wonderful books. If you're interested in this stuff and you like spy novels, read 'em.

You’ve met repeatedly with North Korean government officials at Pacific Forum meetings. What’s that like?

Those meetings most inform my thinking. The North Koreans are dogmatic in some ways but they are also surprisingly informed in others. They hew to a policy line, and they believe in their country and their government. And they believe they're right when they say theirs is a country severely oppressed by foreign powers, especially the United States. The North Korean government has maintained ideological and institutional cohesion for decades and despite being desperately poor, has directed resources toward the realization of broad nuclear ambitions first laid out in the 1980s. We cannot afford to sell these people short. That's perhaps one of the most important takeaways.

How does this all end?

At the Pacific Forum we host regular trilateral meetings with Americans, Japanese, and South Koreans. There are always senior people around the table from the military, government and academia, some of the best experts around on North Korea and the region. Frequently we start these meetings by asking: ‘Okay, how many of you think that 30 years from now North Korea is still going to be around?’ No hands will go up. ‘What about five years from now?’ Most hands will go up. It's like the Soviet Union. You just can't see this government continuing for over a generation but nobody's going to bet on when they will collapse.

Lots can happen in 30 years. How worried are you? You just moved to Japan, which North Korea has said “should be sunken into the sea.”

Well, I have less faith in decision-making, U.S. and North Korean, than I did 15 years ago. The fact is, though, I still moved to Tokyo, so I'm not scared. I don't wake up at night wondering if that sound I hear is a missile. But we can't afford to believe that this will work itself out without effort to advance our interests and the objectives that we seek. That's where I'd put it.

Brad Glosserman ’82 majored in political science at Reed and wrote his thesis on Eurocommunism with Prof. Kal Dudharker. He is senior advisor for Pacific Forum CSIS, where he served as executive director for 16 years. He's also a visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University. Read more of his analysis and reports at www.csis.org.

Tags: Alumni, International