[Herald Interview] Korean Peninsula at crossroads in 2018
Scholars discuss security challenges looming ahead as North Korea nears its goal of becoming a full-fledged nuclear power.
Published : Jan 1, 2018 - 18:39
Updated : Jan 1, 2018 - 20:10

Around this time last year, speculation was rampant that 2017 would be the most tumultuous year in decades amid growing uncertainties over the decadeslong nuclear standoff between North Korea and the United States.

Most of the predictions appear to have been fulfilled. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, who declared that his country is “in a final stage” of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile, successfully test-fired three ICBM-grade missiles capable of reaching the US mainland.

In response, his US counterpart Donald Trump floated the idea of pre-emptive strikes on North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites. Having stated the North’s ICBM launches “won’t happen,” Trump warned that the US could “totally destroy” Pyongyang if necessary.

Such developments are likely to present unprecedented challenges to South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration, which took office in May under the slogan of bringing peace and stability to the Korean Peninsula.

Marking the beginning of the transitional period, The Korea Herald interviewed six prominent security scholars who offered their insights into how things will play out in 2018 and what strategy South Korea should pursue. Following are the excerpts from the interviews -- Ed 

KH: What do you predict for North Korea next year? 

Shin Bum-cheol, a professor at Korea National Diplomatic Academy: I don’t think North Korea is likely to return to talks for now, as its basic strategy next year would be to build maximum nuclear strength and use it for negotiations. In order to maximize their leverage for talks, they would devote much of their efforts to acquiring full-fledged nuclear capability.

For that purpose, I think North Korea would be likely to conduct another test of the Hwasong-15 ballistic missile to ensure it has reliable re-entry technology, a crucial component of a fully capable intercontinental ballistic missile.

Ultimately, it is all up to whether North Korea would accept the South Korean government’s proposal of delaying its joint military exercise with the US during the PyeongChang Olympics on the condition that Pyongyang stops provocations. If they accept the deal, we can expect some kind of breakthrough.

Go Myung-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies: I think North Korea would engage in a “peace offensive” strategy as there is not much to gain from maintaining its provocative cycle. It involves too many risks with little return. If they continue provocations or ratchet them up, the US would react strongly. The risk is getting higher for North Korea.

I believe the Moon Jae-in administration appeared to offer North Korea an exit from the provocation cycle by inviting them to the PyeongChang Olympics and expressing the willingness to suspend the joint military exercise during the event. If they refuse to accept the offer, the tension would rise again.

David Straub, a former US diplomat and Sejong-LS fellow at Sejong Institute: I believe that they are extremely determined to use nuclear blackmail against the US to meet all their needs. … We can’t predict what’s going to happen in the next few months or even the next year or two, but we can expect them, overtime, to continue missile and nuclear tests.

None of us outside the leaders of North Korea know what they are going to do. … They could do something very provocative or might engage in a peace offensive for a while. But there currently is no reason to believe they’re going to change their basic approach.

Van Jackson, a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington: I expect North Korea will be quiet during the Olympics, but will continue with occasional missile tests, as well as a nuclear test. The frequency of these tests will decrease, however, and they will likely celebrate their status of having a viable nuclear deterrent. 

Once North Korea feels secure in its nuclear posture, I expect North Korea will escalate its information warfare and political influence operations in South Korea in order to coerce South Korea into unification on terms favorable to the North.

KH: If North Korea resumes provocations, what kinds of provocations are most likely? Do you think North Korea will conduct a nuclear test over the Pacific? 

Shin: North Korea would fire its missile at a lofted range again to make sure it has overcome technical challenges to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power. If they fire the missile at a normal range, there is no way for them to track the missile. They would fire the missile at a lofted range first, and then try it again at a normal range.

As far as the nuclear test is concerned, I believe North Korea has already obtained powerful nuclear bombs and thus there is no military need for another test. But from a political perspective, there is a need for North Korea to carry out the test.

If North Korea fits a nuclear weapon onto its warhead and detonates it in the air above the Pacific, it would bring a military response from the US. So it is very unlikely for them to pursue this. They might think about an underwater nuclear test using ships, but an international naval inspection would prevent it. 

Go: The problem with a nuclear test over the Pacific and an ICBM launch at a normal range is that it would instead increase the likelihood of an armed conflict with the US. Further provocations would induce the US to consider stronger actions, such as preventive strikes.

A nuclear test over the Pacific could lead North Korea to become an enemy of the international community, particularly among the European states. That is why India and Pakistan conducted only underground nuclear tests.

Straub: I think the world will be in shock (if North Korea conducted a nuclear test over the Pacific). President Trump already said if necessary he will use military force, I can imagine he might feel he has to take dramatic action. So I pray North Koreans are not foolish enough to risk that.

Jackson: In the near term, North Korea has incentives to avoid violent provocations. However, I expect an increase in information warfare and influence operations (akin to Russia and China) in an attempt to influence the domestic political environment in South Korea. I also expect an atmospheric nuclear test eventually.

KH: Do you think North Korea will participate in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics?

Shin: The chances that North Korea will join the Games is high, but the chances that it would lead to a meaningful dialogue is low. I think the US and South Korea have coordinated well when it comes to making such proposals to the North.

Go: I think North Korea is likely to join the Olympics as an exit strategy from the persistent standoff caused by relentless provocations. If they chose not to join the Games, they would be most likely to resume provocations. 

Hwang Jae-ho, a dean of international studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies: If North Korea joins the Games, it is encouraging news for the sporting event and likely to lower cross-border tensions. But I don’t think it would bring many changes to the current security climate even if they chose not to join the event.

North Korea`s leader Kim Jong-un. Yonhap

KH: What US strategy against North Korea do you foresee? What’s your view regarding US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s remark about talks with North Korea “without conditions”?

Straub: It is possible that Tillerson is willing to say that we are willing to sit down with North Korea for informal talks to see what their position is and to convey ours that is different from formal negotiations. For me, Trump might be ok with Tillerson continuing to do that.

I think Trump’s position on formal negotiations is that we will not have formal negotiations with North Korea unless denuclearization is on the table. It is quite similar to what the Obama administration did with “strategic patience.”

This is not a good cop and bad cop (played by Trump and Tillerson). There is a big difference when taking about North Korea between communications, talks, and formal negotiations. Tillerson was not careful or did not seem to be careful in distinguishing the difference among things.

Shin: I think Tillerson’s remark had been coordinated with President Trump beforehand. As far as the engagement strategy is concerned, there appears to be no unified approach and Tillerson appears to have been authorized to pursue that strategy.

If North Korea does not conduct provocations for a certain period of time, both countries can seek the possibilities for talks. That is the message that Tillerson wanted to deliver and the Trump administration appears to endorse those efforts.

Jackson: This year will either bring a war or some kind of recognition that we must live with a North Korean nuclear capability indefinitely. It doesn’t mean we need to grant de jure recognition of its nuclear status, but we will accommodate ourselves to that reality.  

Accommodation will begin once we sit down for talks. If the Trump administration doesn’t make that accommodation and refuses to engage diplomatically, North Korea’s nuclear and missile progress will force the Trump administration to attack (after the Olympics).

KH: Secretary Tillerson recently revealed that the Trump administration had discussed contingency in North Korea with its Chinese counterpart and assured that their troops would retreat to the South after securing the North’s nuclear weapons. How do you see that remark? 

Straub: I’m almost certain that the US is trying to at least make sure that the Chinese understood what we regarded as our likely policy on the Korean Peninsula in response to certain scenarios. … It seems pretty clear that Chinese leaders and experts are becoming more concerned about the real possibility of unexpected developments.

In the past, the Chinese were reluctant to even to listen to Americans talking about the conditions. Now I think the Chinese are quite happy to listen to what the Americans have to say and probably take careful notes. ... But I am still skeptical they have volunteered much to the US.

Shin: Of course, we don’t know how much they talked about it, but it seems to me that Tillerson could have had reached a strategic understanding with China that US would acknowledge China’s influence over the North Korean territory after the contingency.

The Trump administration is beginning to recognize the need for cooperation with China and is trying to avoid a military clash with it. The likelihood of the US risking a clash with China to help South Korea’s reunification efforts is getting low.

The bottom line is whether our government was aware of such a discussion. If they did recognize it in advance, then it’s OK. If not, the government should address the issue and make sure that such discussions won’t undermine our national interests.

Go: The remark shows that the US’ top priority lies in securing nuclear weapons in North Korea and achieving the goal of denuclearization, not supporting South Korea’s efforts to reunify with North Korea. The US won’t have any interest in occupying the North Korean territory, as long as North Korea’s nuclear weapons are secured.  

Chung Jae-hung, a research fellow of security strategy studies at Sejong Institute: China’s basic position is that there should be no second Korean War and China will prevent it using all means necessary. That has underpinned China’s fundamental policy toward the Korean Peninsula.

But China’s reaction to the contingency would be dependent upon who initiated the war. The Global Times (a daily Chinese newspaper) has said that China will not intervene militarily if the US conducts only surgical strikes on nuclear facilities. In other words, it means that China would not sit on the sidelines in the event of an all-out war. 

When Trump visited Beijing to meet with Xi Jinping in April, I heard from Chinese scholars that Xi devoted much of the talks to convincing Trump why military options on North Korea are not a viable option. 

KH: In the event of an emergency, what do you think would happen in North Korea?

Shin: If the Kim Jong-un regime collapsed and anarchy prevailed in North Korea, South Korea and the US would conduct operations to stabilize the region. A debate would likely emerge over whether to put the North Korean territory under the control of multiple countries, including China.

This is why South Korea’s stabilizing operation will be crucial to determine South Korea’s say in post-war North Korea. If they are welcomed by the North Korean residents, they could build a reunified government. South Korea must consult with the US and grasp their intention beforehand.

Go: The most likely scenario is that the postwar North Korea would be under the control of UN peace-keeping forces. The US would recognize China’s influence, but China might not be that interested in North Korea either, as it would be difficult to control the 25 million people suffering from delusion and paranoia.

The contingency in North Korea would take the form of internal power struggle and the conflict won’t last long because North Korea is a highly centralized country. It would be something like a coup. Whoever controls Pyongyang would win the war.

The new regime might use one of Kim’s family members as a titular head of state and seek economic assistance in return for agreeing to undergo inspection of its nuclear facilities. Either way, the new regime would be unlikely to abandon its nuclear weapons.

Straub: We don’t know what the situation would be like. … The US has to consider what the situation is going to be after we secured the nukes because we could have a disastrous situation in North Korea. We could have a humanitarian disaster, a civil war, even the Chinese and the Russians occupying part of the peninsula.

US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi jinping. Yonhap

KH: What do you think about China’s proposal of “freeze-for-freeze” deal? Do you think it will gain traction?

Hwang: I think the “freeze-for-freeze” deal is the most likely course of action that South Korea and the US would end up taking and its success will be up to the US eventually.

The most important thing is to ensure that South Korea and the US have common interests. True, the freeze-for-freeze deal is not a perfect solution and has many problems, but I don’t think the US and Japan have offered better alternatives.

Chung: China has been insisting that the freeze-for-freeze deal is the only solution to solving North Korea’s nuclear issue. The deal will be followed by multilateral security talks, such as six-party talks, and formal establishment of a multilateral security system.

From the Chinese perspectives, there are three solutions to North Korea’s nuclear issue: sanctions, military options and negotiations. They think sanctions would never work and preventive strikes would lead to a catastrophic war.

Jackson: There are two problems. One is that freeze-for-freeze creates moral equivalency between the legal actions of the alliance and the illegal actions of North Korea. Second, China shouldn’t get credit for promoting the freeze-for-freeze idea.

Freeze-for-freeze won’t happen as long as the US doesn’t trust North Korea, and even if it did, such a deal wouldn’t achieve the current goal that the US and South Korea have--comprehensive, verifiable denuclearization.

I happen to think that denuclearization is impossible and an absurd goal these days, but as long as denuclearization is the goal of the policy, freeze-for-freeze will never work. As other officials have pointed out, military exercises are legal; nuclear and missile activity is illegal.

KH: Do you think China will cut off oil supplies to North Korea?

Hwang: I don’t think so. First, there is an issue with timing. North Korea would take a hard hit from the UN sanctions adopted last year and the impact of the measures would likely take effect this year. I think it’s time for us to wait and see.

It also has problems from a humanitarian perspective because it means cutting off oil during the winter. It would have been much better if we had discussed the measure during the fall or spring -- when North Korea’s residents need less energy.

Chung: There are two risks with China cutting off oil to North Korea: First, the measure would invite North Korea to become more reckless and stage more serious provocations. Second, the Kim Jong-un regime could collapse due to the oil embargo.

Either scenario are beyond the risk that China can tolerate. Again, the Chinese government doesn’t want to seek changes to the status quo. Even if North Korea carried out another nuclear test, China is unlikely to cut off oil supplies,

KH: What strategies should the Moon Jae-in administration take toward North Korea?

Go: The government needs to figure out whom they want to talk with first. The Moon Jae-in administration is trying to see North Korea as a partner for dialogue, but the question is whether North Korea is a reliable partner. I doubt that is the case.

Therefore, our course of action needs to be a deterrence campaign aimed at complete denuclearization of North Korea. It should be a long-term campaign -- similar to cold-war deterrence and containment -- until North Korea collapses.

Shin: If North Korea is a reliable partner, we can use progress on inter-Korean relations to resolve North Korea’s nuclear issue. Given the North’s track record, however, it is hard to trust the North. And they would most likely complicate the talks by demanding that they be recognized as a legitimate nuclear state.

Therefore, we should rely more on conventional approaches based on our military alliance with the US. Of course, improving ties with North Korea is necessary because it would reduce tension -- at least during the talks.

KH: South Korea appears to be trying to find a balance between its alliance with the US and economic partnership with China. What do you think the Moon Jae-in administration should do to address such a delicate situation?

Go: Our priority should be to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions through trilateral cooperation among South Korea, the US and Japan. Instead of seeking short-term political gains, we have to pursue a long-term pressure campaign against North Korea.

Shin: The Moon administration should pay attention to the messages they might deliver when they pursue “balanced diplomacy.” The easiest way to do this is to enhance bilateral ties with the US and convince them about our future policies.

Straub: Trump’s talk of military options has prompted Moon to put such a great stress on peace. Even though Moon is quite careful about not directly criticizing Trump, it is quite obvious to anybody who is watching the situation seriously, including China, Russia and North Korea. That is not a good situation.

Chung:  The Moon administration might be hoping to straddle the US and China, but it can’t because of structural constraints. I think the government should understand it is time to make a judgment call. The Moon administration could find itself in a more difficult position if they do it in a sloppy manner.

Hwang: My advice is that the Moon administration shouldn’t push itself too much when it comes to practicing foreign policy. The government has to keep an ambiguous stance on sensitive issues between the US and China.

By Yeo Jun-suk and Jung Min-kyung ( (

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