Issues/Opinions

Japan-U.S. Conference on Peace in Northeast Asia
Addressing the North Korean Nuclear Threat

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Yasushi Kudo, President of The Genron NPO, moderated a public forum of the Japan-U.S. Conference on Peace in Northeast Asia at the International House of Japan in Roppongi, Tokyo on Monday October 30. Guests from the United States of America and Japan joined a panel to discuss North Korea's nuclear weapon and intercontinental ballistic missile programs, to present potential solutions, and to debate possible outcomes of the current crisis.

The text below is a primarily a summary of commentary offered by the panelists during their presentations, with supplementary information taken from the discussion and question periods.

After opening remarks from Yasushi Kudo and Yuji Miyamoto, Japan's former ambassador to China, Kudo invited Douglas Paal to begin the presentation portion of the forum. Paal is Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and he provided a broad framework with which to define the issues being faced by the world today.


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"The unipolar world we had from the end of the Soviet Union to a few years ago is...gone," Paal said. "The U.S. dominance is not what it was."

Paal noted that China is challenging the status quo of U.S. dominance in the area around Japan, adding that, "How we manage that challenge may be the critical issue for the next decade or two."

Since the world today is much more disorderly than only a short time ago, Paal said that it may be beneficial to look back to the 19th century to uncover ideas on how to approach the challenge of achieving balance between competing powers. Any solution to the North Korea problem would require such a balance of power with China, Paal said, "that allows us to work with (China), but when necessary, concentrate power to oppose aggressive behavior (by China in the region)." In general, while Paal does recognize the challenge, he also sees opportunity in the current situation, partly due to the stable positions many of the leaders involved currently enjoy.

Mark Lippert, Vice President of Boeing International and former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, believes that a strong policy on North Korea necessitates a strong alliance between South Korea and the U.S. In addition, that alliance can only benefit from working well with the U.S.-Japan alliance, as such a relationship creates trilateral solidarity and puts pressure on Pyongyang. For Lippert, "the way forward is pressure aimed at getting NK back to the table." U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has also clarified U.S. policy, saying that the U.S. is putting pressure on Pyongyang to achieve just that end.

Much of the issue depends on the response from the North Korean leadership, but there are difficulties there, too.

"Kim Jong Un is not his father," Lippert said. "He is much more black and white than his father was. I think he's much more reckless in many respects, (but he) is in control of the country, and is rational."

Lippert reminded those gathered that Kim does not want to negotiate, and is rejecting treaties from every other member of the six-party talks. Lippert added that "the jury is out" on his intentions and on his understanding of the current strategic landscape, but of the viable U.S. options - containment, pressure, and strikes - "getting them back to the table" is the shortest distance to an agreement that's peaceful.

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Jenny Town is Assistant Director of the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Managing Editor and Producer of the online journal 38 North.

"We do need to rethink what we're trying to accomplish with North Korea, and how we're approaching it," Town said.

She believes that those attempting to deal with the North Korea issue must reconsider whether taking a strong position really is the right policy, and review what that policy is based in.

"We are beyond the point of trying to prevent North Korea from getting nuclear weapons and nuclear technology," she said.

Town thinks that "there are no easy solutions," but later pointed out that one way to approach a more constructive dialogue on the issues would be to understand how the North Koreans are "receiving the signals" that other countries are sending them. This is important because even if they are cut off economically, they "have options other than China." If they become too isolated, Town warned, they may be pushed towards rogue actors, non-state actors, and other unacceptable options.

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Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. Telhami provided some poll results that shine light on current U.S. public opinion regarding North Korea and regarding Japan-U.S. relations, and how those opinions have changed over time.

Telhami's data showed that the U.S. public may be divided on many issues, and usually along party lines, but it is generally united on defending its allies against threats. Overall, the U.S. public remains united on issues that are important to both the U.S. and Japan, Telhami explained, but understanding what the results mean requires an understanding of how divided they are on core issues.

While domestic issues showed large differences in opinion between Democrat and Republican respondents, Telhami noted that public opinion is fluid rather than static, and in the U.S. at least, poll results are often connected to identity politics, rather than providing a true reflection of how individual members of the public feel.

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Former Administrative Vice Minister for Defense Masanori Nishi reminded the panel that the North Korea missile issue first surfaced in the 1990s, and that North Korea has used that time to its advantage.

"Twenty-five years is enough time to develop nuclear technology and missiles," Nishi said. "And we do not have much time left before they complete their program."

Nishi is worried that if North Korea is allowed to successful reach its research goals, there will be fewer options available to deal with the country. From that perspective, "this (could be) the opportune time to take action, while we still can" without the threat of a retaliatory missile strike.

For this reason, Nishi believes it may be time to change strategies, and that there are only six to twelve months left before North Korea brings its technology to a usable state. Regarding six-party discussions, Nishi stated that he sees Russia having a large role to play.

Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation, addressed some previous comments that suggested the U.S. is not working hard enough to engage with the North Korean regime, and clearly stated why he disagreed.

"We've had four international agreements where North Korea promised never to build nuclear weapons, four subsequent agreements promising to give up what they promised never to build in the first place," Klingner said. "We've had 25 years of official and unofficial dialogue. We even tried without pre-conditions..."

Klingner described how South Korean had entered into more than 240 agreements with North Korea that "failed to induce political and economic reform and moderate Pyongyang's behavior."

According to Klingner, North Korea has said they won't denuclearize, though some officials have hinted that they might if "the U.S. abandons its hostile policy". The issue there is that North Korea's definition of hostile includes a remarkably broad array of activities that they want the U.S. to abandon, including its defense treaties with Japan and South Korea, the presence of U.S. Forces in Japan and South Korea, U.S. and U.N. sanctions, and even adds societal requirements such as prohibiting criticism of the North Korean regime.

In response to this, Klingner says that what the U.S. is looking for is much simpler. It only wants North Korea to obey the law: to stop counterfeiting U.S. dollars, stop trafficking drugs, stop committing crimes against humanity, etc.

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James L. Schoff is a Senior Fellow in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and he told the audience that there is still debate in the U.S. on whether force should be used to resolve the North Korea nuclear weapon problem.

"Some are beginning to argue that," he began. "As bad as a potential war could be on the Korean peninsula if we use military force to stop this program, the worse option is to have a highly-sophisticated, nuclear-capable North Korea that could put multiple US cities at risk of attack by nuclear weapons. The idea is that sooner is better than later if we have to deal with the problem through military means."

The counterargument is that past experience has shown that nuclear threats can be deterred.

"If Kim Jong Un understands that any nuclear use would mean the relatively immediate and complete destruction of his country, that in itself would be a limited behavior on North Korea."

While deterrence depends entirely on how Kim Jong Un responds to it, Schoff personally believes that the military option is still less preferable, though the argument posed is a reasonable one.

Schoff doesn't think there is an imminent threat of a U.S. preventative strike, but he does think the Trump administration "is interested in finding a way to demonstrate our stronger resolve and power" in reaction to something that North Korea would do, and so a reactive strike could be possible.

At this point, Kudo asked Jenny Town to clarify her points regarding what concrete measures can be taken in response to North Korea.

"There is no easy answer to that question," Town responded. "North Korea is more empowered now than it has been in past years. It does feel more justified in its programs because it can point to active threats, especially from President Trump."

More than this, North Korea is interpreting U.S. pressure and U.S. encouragement of other countries to participate in sanctions as a "U.S. campaign, not necessarily universal condemnation of what they're doing."

In short, Town thinks that it is counter-productive to push the North Korean regime to an agreement before negotiations begin, as that gives them more time to develop their weapons. She also made the point that previous negotiations - successful or not - were conducted with Kim Jong Il.

"We have not necessarily had a real diplomatic negotiation with Kim Jong Un from start to finish, to really understand how he reacts to different things."

Town's sources suggest that North Korea is open to negotiations, but will not come to the table if they look weak in doing so.

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Yuji Miyamoto returned to the discussion at this point to state that he believes the world faces a difficult decision regarding what sorts of approaches to take with North Korea. However, he doesn't believe the world has exhausted all the options available.

If the international community remains united, applying pressure can be effective, but, "the moment we don't look united, North Korea will take advantage of that divisiveness to buy themselves more time to become a genuine nuclear state."

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Yoji Koda is a former Commander in Chief of the Japanese Self Defense Fleet, and he asked the panel to consider why North Korea hasn't abandoned nuclear weapon development, and to consider a scenario in which North Korea has ICBMs capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

"What would happen if North Korea suddenly crossed the 38th parallel? Could we stop them if they had nuclear capabilities? What if North Korea wants to strike Japan? If their ICBMs and nuclear weapons deter the U.S. from getting involved, can they attack Japan with impunity? Would that deterrence neutralize the South Korea-U.S. and Japan-U.S. treaties?"

While the scenario posed was extreme, Koda reminded everyone present that the Japan-U.S. security arrangement is not only aimed at North Korea, but covers the entire Pacific region. It would be unacceptable for North Korea to maintain, for example, ten nuclear weapons, Koda believes, and complacency is not a solution. Koda believes that in the current situation, those involved must consider how far North Korean influence will extend if they are allowed to maintain a nuclear arsenal.

Hideshi Tokuchi served as Vice Minister for International Affairs at Japan's Ministry of Defense. He addressed a point that was brought up by numerous panelists, which questioned how much U.S. allies trust in the effectiveness of U.S. deterrence.

"This question has already been answered by our having won the Cold War," Tokuchi responded. "This may be an overly optimistic way of looking at it, but Japan and the U.S. didn't fully understand Soviet policy during the Cold War, and yet deterrence was still successful. So, even if we don't fully understand NK strategy, US deterrence can still function."

Tokuchi then returned to the three options Mark Lippert mentioned toward the beginning of the forum - containment, pressure and strikes - and pointed out that they need not be mutually exclusive. The Cold War, he said, was won using that sort of logic. However, he also stressed that utilizing the containment option will require China to play a role. China should be asked to cooperate, he added, but U.S. deterrence should remain at the heart of the efforts.

After a lively discussion and question period, Yasushi Kudo asked James Schoff to bring the public forum to a conclusion. Schoff emphasized the need for restraint and mutual understanding in the region, and these are achievable through multi-lateral dialogue.

"During these discussions, what I have learned is the importance for regional unity and regional dialogue. What could give us more time to deal with this situation - and I think we need more time in this regard - is regional cooperation. The region-wide approach can make up for not having complete U.S.-China unity on purpose and strategy. I would like to see concrete movement toward convening five-party talks. Only multi-lateral dialogue can ensure everyone is on the same page."

Japan-U.S. Conference on Peace in Northeast Asia
How can we address the North Korean nuclear threat and develop peace in Northeast Asia?
Monday, October 30, 2017 / Tokyo


Panelists:
Japan
Yoji Koda     Former Commander in Chief, Maritime Self-Defense Fleet
Hideshi Tokuchi  Former Vice-Minister of Defense for International Affairs
Masanori Nishi   Former Administrative Vice-Minister of Defense
Yuji Miyamoto   Former Japanese Ambassador to China

The United States
Bruce Klingner  Senior Research fellow, The Heritage Foundation
Mark Lippert   Former United States Ambassador to the Republic of Korea
Douglas H. Paal  Vice President for Studies, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
James L. Schoff  Senior Fellow, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Shibley Telhami  Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland   
Jenny Town     Assistant Director, US-Korea Institute, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), "38 North" Managing Editor
   
Moderated by Yasushi Kudo: President, The Genron NPO

LUCE_logo-best.pngJapan-U.S. Conference on Peace in Northeast Asia is funded by a generous
grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

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