Lee Ho Ryung (left), chief of North Korean studies at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, recently sat down with Daily NK in Seoul to discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development program and the international community’s response. Below is a transcript of the interview, which has been edited for clarity.
The North has claimed after the launch of the “Hwasong-14” ICBM, first tested on July 4, 2016, that they are capable of mounting large-scale nuclear warheads on these missiles as well. This is in contradiction to the assessments of both local and international and experts. Do you think there’s any truth in the North’s claims?
The North claims that the successful test launch is proof that they have succeeded in atmospheric re-entry and staging systems, with financial support and technology for mounting large-scale nuclear warheads successfully demonstrated. The most important point to note is the term “large-scale nuclear warheads”. The crucial factors are the size of the warhead and the payload, for which the North has not been able to provide specific details. It leads us to believe that the claims for the technology that the test launch involved a large warhead and a warhead protection system have been exaggerated. If the North acquires the skills to minimize nuclear warheads, they would launch numerous types of warheads instead of just a single large ICBM.
What are your opinions on atmospheric re-entry?
The front portion of the ICBM has to withstand temperatures of up to 6000 to 7000℃. The North claims that they have successfully completed all tests for atmospheric re-entry through the use of carbon composites. The key issue is whether the North has acquired the technology to overcome ablation factors as well. The warhead guard systems must ensure that the warhead does not explode before reaching its target and also provide uniform safeguards to the nuclear payload mounted. Experts have concluded that the North still does not possess the technology for a uniform Re-entry Vehicle (RV) that overcomes the ablation factors.
We also have to take a closer examination of whether the ICBM has actually performed a successful staging process for a flight of over 5500km and also whether it reached the desired target as well. Only when the detailed missile trajectory controls are perfected can one claim that ICBM capability has been achieved. Also, the “Hwasong-14” test launch was carried out under fixed launch pad conditions, which is indicative of an early stage of basic ICBM research.
On the other hand, we also have to consider that the North’s definition of ICBM capability may be different from other nations in terms of function, deployment and technology. The North claimed in the New Year’s address that they were in the final stages of ICBM technology and this test launch would have been public confirmation that they have “accomplished” their ICBM propaganda targets.
Kim Jong Un claimed after the first “Hwasong-14” launch that nuclear and ballistic missiles would never be on the agenda of any peace talks. Does this mean that the North has no intention of returning to denuclearization talks?
Kim Jong Un’s agenda for the past 5 years shows that he is not the traditional strategic or negotiation type. If he was really in support of the unity of the people and the consolidation of the party system, the test launch of the “Hwasong-14” would not have happened. The North were at their most advantageous negotiating point a day before the test launch on the 3rd of July. Having gone ahead with the launch the next day and also the significance of the dropping zone of the test launch, the North will have to face severe consequences before being invited back to the negotiation table.
What are the possible reasons behind this provocative launch in the midst of hopes for negotiations with the South and the US?
The North places more value and importance on accomplishing Kim Jong Un’s proclamations than international diplomacy. He is portrayed as a strong leader by going through with the ICBM test launch and also as an unpredictable independent leader that has proven foreign experts and leaders wrong at every turn. However, when one considers the consequences of the provocative ICBM test launch, the North may rue this miscalculation.
The fact that the North repeatedly keeps refusing peace talks may throw a spanner in the works for South Korea’s Moon administration, which is seeking a thaw in relations beginning with denuclearization.
Firstly, the possibility that the North will participate in peace talks anytime soon is very slim. We need to take a closer look at the factors behind the reasons for the North’s reluctance to join the peace talks. The most significant reason is the fact that sanctions and pressure from the international community is still insufficient to curtail Kim Jong Un’s actions at the moment. Another reason may be that the North is unable to cope with the anti-US defiance on a domestic level. If the former is true, the international community needs to continue to increase pressure and sanctions against the North, and if the latter is true, the North will seek to take more strategic provocative measures against the US. Hence, no matter what reason it may be, the North will inevitably face more pressure.
Consequently, if the North drags its feet on peace talks, sanctions and pressure will inevitably increase. The more they postpone it, the higher the costs they will face. If such a situation is prolonged, the residents of the North will harbor even more dissent towards the regime due to the inevitable deficiencies in ration distribution and the suffering to follow. The previous USSR regime sought a safe point in the midst of international pressure and restructured their policies toward economic reform. It is only a matter of time before the North faces the same dilemma.
Hence, the only way to open talks for denuclearization is to apply more international sanctions and pressure on the North. It is only with the twin effects of sanctions and international pressure that the North will be put back on track for peace talks and denuclearization.
There are many voices arguing that disarmament should be the first step before denuclearization. How do you feel about that?
Disarmament can only occur after denuclearization. It is only after reaching a balanced deterrent point between the two nations whereby the increasing costs of production of the remaining weapons and maintenance will bring about pressure for disarmament. It is only after the two nations realize the futility of the budget in a meaningless arms race that disarmament talks will begin. This will lead to the actual disarmament and lower military costs, but in the present context, such talks are not possible between the North and the US.
The current Moon administration has sought to be behind the driving seat to improve North-South relations. Are there any strategies to outmaneuver the North in this stalemate?
There have been many discussions between foreign experts on this matter. Most of them agree that the best method would be for the North and South to garner more trust and confidence to resolve the issue within the two Koreas without any external assistance. However, when considering the continuing pressure from the international community that would lead the North to inevitably succumb to offers of negotiation, the South has no choice but to lean on international support until it is cornered into talks. It is important then that the South pursues the correct solution with the North in the midst of sanctions and pressure, hopefully persuading the North to seek peace talks voluntarily. It is only then that the South will grasp the upper hand in negotiations and resolve this conflict.
The various presidential administrations so far have only announced a general consensus about North Korean policies, with no major differences in the direction or finer details in resolving the conflict. The similarity between the administrations’ consensus is due to the North’s provocations. Hence it can be said that the solution to the North’s provocations will be a key element in the current Moon administration’s North Korea policies.
If the Moon administration overlooks this critical element and seeks to resolve simple issues first by promoting solutions favorable to the North, there will be no great improvement towards the final step in resolving the conflict. The present regime will not seek solutions as in the past and the South Korean people will also not look favorably upon such predictable proposals. Hence the present Moon administration has to delve deeply into the matter and seek a more detailed and constructive policy against the North.
The international community has been stressing the importance of resolving the conflict through dialogue whilst advocating even more sanctions and pressure against the North. How do you foresee the future trends that the international community might lean to?
The North has repeatedly crossed the proverbial “Red Line” as advocated by the international community and has faced increasing sanctions and pressure, even from UN Security Council resolutions. The line crossed by the North this time is very different from the past. The US classifies the North as an extremely irrational nation. In the past, the US has been content to restrict the North’s activities centered around the Korean peninsula. However, due to the threat that ICBM missiles may actually reach the American continent, the US is highly sensitive and responsive to the North’s current threat.
Hence, because the threat felt by the US increases, sanctions and pressure against the North will also increase consequently. The problem lies in the fact that both Russia and China may feel that such strong responses from the US may disrupt the balance of power in this region. Both countries have to re-evaluate their national interests every time the North crosses the line with nuclear test launches. Moreover, each time the North crosses the “red line” step, they complicate the international community’s evaluation of the stability of the region.
Consequently, while there has always been differences between the opinions of the US, Russia and China in relation to the North’s provocations, Russia and China may begin to re-consider their objections to the US when faced with threats to their own national interests. To circumvent the North’s missile threats, the three countries may consider a new balance of power and re-draw the lines of combat.
The anti-North policies employed by the US are not all pessimistic, are they?
Yes, there are silver linings. The US has employed a strategy of applying indirect pressure through China to curtail the North. As the US applies continued pressure on China over provocations by the North, China will not take a perfunctory stance as before, because the US stresses that the North has crossed a “red line” with ICBM tests and no doubt will apply more pressure on China. In particular, sentiments against the North and China are at an all-time high in the US with the possibility of secondary boycotts very likely. China has not failed to read the trends and will no doubt cooperate with the US in future anti-North policies.
The US has been focusing on restricting crude oil imports to the North, and also restricting laborers being sent abroad as well. As this deals a severe blow to the North’s regime, will China support the US?
After the second North Korea nuclear test in 2003, China coerced the North back to the negotiation table by threatening to stop crude oil exports to the North. China was threatened by the discovery of the existence of high-enriched Uranium (HEU) which is hard to detect, as opposed to plutonium. The present ICBM tests raise an even higher security threat within China. No matter how long China and the North have maintained a friendly relationship, anti-China sentiments in the North are very high now and China can no longer ignore the fact that the North’s nuclear threat is not solely the concern of the US, Japan and South Korea any more.
Hence, China can no longer sit on the fence in relation to anti-North policies. Curtailing the North’s threat now will help in improving a very destabilized Korean peninsula, and missing the chance now to stop the North’s threats can only lead to unpredictable results in the region’s security.