Daily NK contributor Gabriela Bernal recently posed a number of questions to A.B. Abrams, the author of a new book about North Korea called “Immovable Object: North Korea’s 70 Years at War with American Power.”
Q. Your book provides readers with interesting insights into the Korean War. From your perspective, what are the chances that another war will be fought on the Korean Peninsula within the next decade? What would such a war look like?
The Korean Peninsula is technically at war today, and although both Pyongyang and Seoul have taken steps towards reconciliation, a formal end to the Korean War is unlikely to be reached so long as the third party, the United States, does not perceive this to be in its interests under the current circumstances. Despite this, the possibility of escalation to a new hot war remains slim due to the mutual vulnerability between all three actors. As confirmed multiple times by US intelligence, North Korea demonstrated the capability in 2017 to deliver nuclear strikes across the US mainland, including to New York City and Washington D. C., building on its prior missile deterrent which held Guam and bases in Japan under threat. This kind of mutual vulnerability was wholly absent during the Korean War period in the early 1950s, where cities across North Korea were bombarded continuously for almost three years primarily by American aircraft which could strike from bases in Japan and South Korea without any risk of retaliation against Japanese or South Korean cities, much less American ones, or against the airfields housing the bombers.
To quote Ronald Reagan: “History teaches that wars begin when governments believe the price of aggression is cheap.” Both sides can do such massive damage even without escalating to use of weapons of mass destruction that the chances of any party initiating a conflict remain very low. There is a strong case to be made that the chances of war were reduced considerably after 2017, as many in the American leadership such as Senator Lindsey Graham, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford and President Trump’s National Security Adviser at the time H. R. McMaster, among others, had all expressed the rationale that so long as the US mainland was safe from attack, initiating a war in Korea was possible. This was despite the expected “humanitarian catastrophe,” as McMaster put it, for Japan and South Korea should America choose to attack North Korea. Mutual vulnerability which now encompasses the U.S. mainland itself means Washington is highly unlikely to risk a war.
This reality is not necessarily indefinite, and as the US moves to invest more in technologies for combating peer level adversaries we could see growing confidence in its ability to intercept North Korean strategic missile attacks using new missile defense systems. Pyongyang is thus likely to also continue to modernize its strategic deterrent, which has provided it with a much more cost-effective means to improve its security situation relative to investments in conventional military forces. Modernization could include deployment of greater numbers of more sophisticated ballistic missile submarines and of intercontinental range missiles with multiple warhead re-entry vehicles. North Korea’s military modernization efforts will very likely continue to be premised on and shaped by the requirements the military thinks it needs to deter the United States from launching a war.
Regarding the initiation of open hostilities, of the three actors involved Pyongyang and Seoul are much less likely to pursue such a course of action than Washington. North Korea in particular has negligible expeditionary or power projection capabilities and limited logistics for large scale operations beyond its borders. Its ground forces are thus not well suited to anything beyond territorial defense, and cannot realistically aim to capture territory in South Korea or elsewhere. South Korea’s armed forces are similarly, although to a lesser extent, oriented towards defense. This contrasts strongly to the United States military, which is oriented overwhelmingly towards long range power projection and offensive operations overseas, meaning it does have the capability to benefit from a war by capturing territory and seeking to occupy North Korea. While in the 1990s when there was a prevalent “victory disease” in the US in the aftermath of the Gulf War, and when North Korea’s armed forces and missile deterrents were a shadow of what they are today, there may have been such a possibility; however, the likelihood of America seeking to do so today remains very low.
Q. In the book, you mention that the COVID pandemic has further weakened the West’s power and influence relative to East Asia. How do you see this influencing North Korea’s relationship with China as well as North Korea’s future negotiation stance vis-à-vis the US?
In the short term the COVID-19 crisis has negatively affected the North Korean economy, although in the medium and long term the global power trajectories it has helped to accelerate will be strongly in Pyongyang’s favor. The decline of Western economies relative to those in East Asia, and relative to China in particular, are highly favorable for Pyongyang as those parties seeking the North Korean government’s overthrow and to force change in the country are weakened. Countries willing to work cooperatively with North Korea, including not only China but also South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, and others have been strengthened relative to the Western world, and a weaker West in turn will be less able to place pressure on countries to shun ties with and isolate Pyongyang as it has been doing for decades. China’s emergence as the largest trading partner of South Korea, and many other third parties critical to Western efforts to isolate North Korea, was already a major development in this regard which reduced Western leverage across much of the world. As the discrepancy between the importance of trade with China and the West continues to grow in favor of the former, the latter’s ability to place pressure on countries to conduct foreign policy in line with Western interests will decline.
This trend bodes well for North Korea, as while it has been shut out of the Western-centered global economy due to largely ideologically driven Western hostility, a global economy centered on China and other non-Western parties could allow Pyongyang to integrate itself as a trading nation. Military implications are also significant, with China having matched American spending on military acquisitions for the first time in 2020 and expected to exceed this considerably over the coming decade, meaning the balance of power in East Asia will be increasingly unfavorable to Western interests. This in turn will reduce pressure on North Korea from the military front, as the US and its allies will no longer have the freedom to initiate military action across the region on favorable terms. China’s surpassing of the US in a number of key fields vital to its status as a major power, from hypersonic weapons to the number of research papers published, similarly bode well for Pyongyang as part of a broader trend in this regard.
A stronger China will be less prone to Western pressure to neglect ties to North Korea in the economic and military spheres, and a more overt improvement in ties could be seen in 2019 with a state visit by President Xi Jinping to Pyongyang, renewed military exchanges and the signing of agreements on economic cooperation and defense agreements. This could lead Washington to seek to more quickly make a deal with Pyongyang to focus its attentions on Beijing, or conversely to place further pressure on North Korea as a means of both maintaining influence in South Korea and pressuring Beijing through tensions with its treaty ally.
Q. You mention that the West’s main goal with North Korea goes further than denuclearization and is actually about complete regime change. If talks with North Korea continue to fail, how far do you think the West will go in order to achieve this goal?
Forcing a change in the government in North Korea is notably referred much less today to in the West than it was 25 years ago – and when referred to it is increasingly considered a remote and very long-term goal rather than something that can be achieved in the near future. When the Western world was at the height of its power in the 1990s, Pyongyang was facing its deepest crisis since the Korean War due to a combination of both three years of serious natural disasters and economic isolation from the collapse of the USSR and Warsaw Pact states which had been its leading trading partners. At that stage the collapse of all communist countries including North Korea and China was widely considered an inevitability in the West, and economic sanctions and military pressure were applied on the former by the US and South Korea in particular which worsened its already serious situation. With North Korea having survived this “Second Arduous March,” as it is referred to in the country, and subsequently endured the death of its second leader Kim Jong Il without signs of instability that Western analysts had almost unanimously predicted, the US and its allies began to realize the possibility that the East Asian state was much more resilient that previously thought.
While regime change today is a Western objective, it has become a remote goal where it had previously been an immediate one, with eliminating or restricting the country’s nuclear program seen as a key near-term objective. The loss of faith in the idea that the “tide of history” or “human nature” would ensure North Korea’s destruction and eventual Westernization, something widely expressed by Western officials and analysts in the 1990s and 2000s, could be clearly seen under the Barak Obama administration. As late as January 2015 President Obama expressed his continued belief that a Korean collapse was a historical certainty, but later that year shifted to a more proactive stance against Pyongyang by initiating a campaign of cyber attacks. This was followed in 2016 by moves to seriously consider initiating a war against the East Asian state. This shift notably came in parallel to a growing realization in the same decade that indefinite Western primacy in the economic and technological spheres was not a certainty, despite the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and stagnation of Japan in the 1990s, with growing perceptions of a “China threat” in the Obama and Trump years.
The Western world will, if again in a position of power, use all means at its disposal aside from those which it is deterred from pursuing to bring about a collapse of the North Korean state. Radio broadcasts and the smuggling of USBs to promote pro-Western and anti-government political narratives, pressure on third parties to cut economic and diplomatic ties, and military flights very near North Korean airspace to place more pressure on its air force to intercept them, are examples of means of pressure used in the past in the respective information, economic and military fronts. As it is, however, pursuit of denuclearization is seen as a much more urgent goal which from the mid-2010s increasingly shifted attentions away from regime change, with the nuclear program having thus to a large extent shielded Pyongyang.
Q. Related to the previous question, you make it clear in your book that you do not agree with regime change in North Korea. Do you believe long-term peace is possible on the Korean Peninsula if the Kim family remains in power? If so, would you say a two-state solution on the Peninsula would be preferable to unification?
This is an interesting question. I would clarify that it is not that I do not agree or disagree with a change in government per se, but rather with the imposition by external actors of a change in government – which would inevitably reflect the interests of those engineering such change rather than the interests of Koreans themselves. Under the UN charter countries are not given the right to impose their own ideals or models of governance on other member states. The record of unilateral regime change efforts since the UN was established have been far from positive, ranging from the widely documented and severe war crimes committed against the North Koreans when US forces crossed the 38th parallel in 1950, to conduct at Abu Ghraib prison or towards Afghan civilians more recently, among many others. Thus the credibility of those external actors claiming that remaking North Korea in their own image by dismantling the Pyongyang government is an altruistic goal in the Korean population’s own good is very questionable.
I would argue that whether Chairman Kim or his family remain in power is primarily important for domestic purposes – namely because it demonstrates continuity with the resistance struggles in the Japanese Imperial and Korean War periods to the Korean population through a single bloodline. In terms of foreign relations however, governance is done through a consensus of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the Korean People’s Army as the country’s most powerful institutions – hence why regime change referred to in the West requires a removal of all governing institutions in the country and a forceful remaking of the country’s political culture rather than simply a change in the head of state. Thus should the Kim family retire from power for any reason, I do not expect that the country’s foreign relations would change significantly.
A long term peaceful solution to the Korean conflict is possible since both Pyongyang and Seoul, at least under the Moon Jae In government, appear willing to accommodate one another and neither appears intent on imposing its system or ideology on the other. Reunification remains possible, although it would likely be far from a full unification given the very significant cultural and systematic differences between the two countries. We could instead see something akin to “one country two systems,” with a closed border and potentially separate militaries and diplomatic missions, but with extensive free trade agreements and close coordination for economic planning and in some aspects of foreign policy. As was evident over the past three years, however, South Korea’s ability to move forward with reconciliation is constrained by the nature of its relations with the United States, despite an eagerness on the part of the Moon administration and seemingly by the general public to do so. This means either a change in Washington’s position, or some form of political change in South Korea itself to gain greater independence, will be a prerequisite for any major steps beyond the symbolic gestures of the past three years towards a serious change in the relationship.
Q. In the book, you mention the many negative humanitarian effects sanctions have had on the North Korean population. In your view, will sanctions ever have their desired effect or is it time to move on to another strategy?
Whether or not sanctions have their desired effect depends on what one perceives their purpose to be, in that while they often fail to influence the behavior of the governments of the targeted countries, they are effective in placing downward pressure on living standards and hindering economic growth and modernization. Examples of this are manifold. UN sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s killed over 500,000 children in half a decade and devastated living standards, while US and EU sanctions on Syria today are imposed specifically to impede post-war reconstruction. The negative humanitarian effects of sanctions in Korea have been far less serious, and there has been no runaway inflation or serious increases in the prices of essential goods as was seen in the Middle East or in Venezuela, primarily because of the country’s far more advanced, diverse and less import reliant economy. The primary impact has been to reduce potential for economic growth and impede plans to raise living standards. Reports from South Korean sources widely indicated a relatively high rate of GDP growth in North Korea before 2020 despite the extreme amount of economic pressure the country is under, highlighting that, if anything, estimated growth rates have been too low. If the country were free to trade and export its goods, capitalizing on advantages including a weak currency and a highly educated and skilled workforce and established technological and industrial bases, annual growth rates several times higher and likely significantly over 10% would be expected. Located between Japan, China and South Korea, North Korea’s position as a trading nation at the geographical heart of the world economy is highly enviable.
Lack of access to international markets was a key hindrance to the economy even during the Cold War period, when North Korea was listed under the Trading with the Enemy Act while Japan and South Korea were given open access to world markets by the US and its Western partners. Should North Korea’s economy have been allowed to grow unimpeded it would have significant geopolitical implications for East Asia and the wider world to the detriment of Western interests. Sanctions are thus effective in placing downward pressure on both economic growth and living standards for a country which is governed under non-Westernised political and economic systems, which makes them an effective foreign policy tool. As the center of the global economy increasingly shifts away from the Western world, however, the potency of Western sanctions is likely to be reduced considerably. This trend is likely to be exacerbated by the wider applications of Western sanctions, which was seen particularly in the US under the Trump administration where countries threatened with sanctions ranged widely from Indonesia and India to Egypt and Belarus. As more countries are targeted or threatened, the number of workarounds will increase and a greater proportion of the world economy will begin to move away from reliance on trade with the West.
I expect the US and its European partners will continue to apply sanctions throughout the coming decade, and will only be willing to partially lift them in exchange for Korean concessions on its weapons programs. As elaborated further in the book, the nature of North Korea’s political and economic systems and its foreign policy mean that unilateral Western sanctions will remain in place indefinitely regardless of whether or not it maintains its nuclear or missile programs, as the West is fundamentally opposed to allowing such a country to exist in East Asia for ideological and geopolitical reasons. These unilateral sanctions are imposed under a range of pretexts including a number of alleged human rights abuses which makes them extremely difficult, often for legislative reasons, to lift. This contrasts to the multilateral sanctions imposed through the United Nations which are specifically in response to the North Korean nuclear program, and which there is greater room to see lifted. With options for military pressure increasingly limited, sanctions are one of the few means for the West to apply pressure and seek to gain concessions, although ultimately to press for more fundamental change in the country a greater focus on a third means of applying pressure, through information warfare, is expected.
Q. What do you think we can expect from Kim Jong Un in 2021?
The course North Korea takes in terms of foreign policy will largely depend on the behavior of the incoming Biden-Harris administration. The Obama-Biden administration notably oversaw the most hostile period in US-North Korean relations since the Cold War, and as elaborated in the book, it brought the two countries the closest they have come to a large scale hot war since the 1960s. Obama notably took a much harder line on Korea than any other post-Cold War president, from sanctions and military pressure to cyber warfare and a much greater focus on information warfare. Mirroring this, Pyongyang applied pressure of its own with by far the most missile tests under any administration occurring during the Obama years.
Joe Biden has expressed support for very similar policies to those of Barak Obama, and as a candidate for the Democratic Party nominee he echoed discourse prevalent throughout the party by slamming Trump for having “rushed to legitimize a dictator” by holding dialogue. He instead advocated cutting talks until Pyongyang first made unilateral concessions towards denuclearization, and notably referred to dialogue as a “reward” for North Korea rather than a means for resolving issues. He later advocated attacks on Korean targets to prevent the country from further developing its long-range missile capability. In his first presidential debate with Donald Trump in October Biden went so far as to liken Trump’s development of more positive relations with Pyongyang to the appeasement of Nazi Germany before the Second World War.
Despite strong rhetoric on campaign, it is possible that Biden as president will take a softer line than Obama did due to the very different geopolitical position the United States faces in 2021 relative to 2009. This relates not only to North Korea itself, which has demonstrated far greater resilience to economic sanctions and has carried out an unprecedented transformation in its military capabilities over the past five years, but also to America’s position in the wider world with its military, economic and technological dominance increasingly challenged. Should the Biden administration seek a deal early on, in order to focus foreign policy attentions more on China, Russia, Venezuela or other theatres, we can expect that North Korea will offer concessions such as a ban on ICBM tests, a freeze on nuclear warhead production, and limited inspections of its nuclear sites. This could provide the American administration with an early public victory which its predecessor had failed to achieve, and in return Pyongyang could see sanctions passed through the United Nations Security Council from 2017 and 2016, and possibly even from 2013, rolled back.
Alternatively, should the Biden administration seek to press for a more one-sided deal through pressure, or even to force unilateral action by Pyongyang before it agrees to negotiations much like the Obama administration did, we could see a repetition of the cycle of escalation and de-escalation as was seen under Clinton, Bush and Trump administrations. The US could attempt to pressure third parties to enforce sanctions more strictly and conduct more military exercises near Korea, and Pyongyang could in turn conspicuously test more strategic missiles. Now that North Korea has the option from the outset of escalating to the level of ICBM tests, the dynamics of this escalatory cycle will be very different. The Biden administration will likely be forced to return to the negotiating table as its immediate predecessor was should it take this course. Past trends in relations can give indications as to the future trajectories the 70-year conflict will take, but the nature of the American position today is unprecedented particularly after the COVID-19 crisis and when considering the sharp decline in its power relative to China. While Pyongyang’s policies are expected to be consistent with those of previous years, the United States could well make some unexpected and more unconventional moves in the foreign policy realm in response to these changes which could affect its relations with Pyongyang.
A. B. Abrams is the author of Power and Primacy: A History of Western Intervention in the Asia-Pacific. He has published widely on defence and politics under various pseudonyms, and is proficient in Chinese, Korean and other East Asian languages. He has completed Masters degrees in related subjects at the University of London. Abrams has spent much time in North Korea, studied the Korean language at university in Pyongyang, and has many contacts with Koreans inside the DPRK and overseas.
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