Nuclear-Armed North Korea Enters The U.S. Into ‘Transition’ Period, Expert Says

Oct 24, 2017

North Korea is on the verge of becoming world’s ninth nuclear power, and the United States is entering a transition stage of having to accept Kim Jung Un’s role in the world.

“It's not something that we've lived through in the United States for a long long time, where a country that's hostile to us has acquired this kind of capability,” Jeffrey Lewis told KGOU’s World Views. Lewis is the Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

Lewis says North Korea has probably had nuclear missiles that could strike South Korea or Japan for a long time. However, missiles that can strike the American mainland shuffle the geopolitical playing deck.

“For whatever reason that ability to hit the United States really represents, I think, a change in the way both we in the United States think about them but also [how] the rest of the world thinks,” Lewis said.

Lewis says the North Koreans have always been pretty open about their aspirations to acquire nuclear weapons. He says North Korea started making rapid progress in the 1990s and 2000s because they looked at what happened to the family of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the family of Saddam Hussein in Iraq - two deposed dictators who opposed the West.

“They've decided that they're living in a really dangerous environment, that we are fairly dedicated to removing them from power, and that nuclear weapons are the thing that keeps Kim Jong Un, their leader, safe,” Lewis said.

Moving forward, Jeffrey Lewis said American leaders will need to accept that North Korea will never give up their nuclear weapons. North Korea is a country that views nuclear weapons as a source of security, Lewis said, and it is very difficult to convince any country to surrender their stockpile.

He believes the focus now should be on avoiding nuclear war.

“As much as we would like to see those weapons eliminated -- and that's the best way to avoid having a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula -- second best is trying to have a deterrent relationship that's stable. And that's going to be a big change for the way we think about things in the United States,” Lewis said.

The United States and China have some space to collectively work on resolving the North Korean issue. However, Lewis cautions that China and North Korea don’t get along particularly well, calling it an “older brother, young brother” relationship. China doesn’t like the way its younger brother behaves, and North Korea resents its older brother.

“What I see in Washington is a lot of people who use the Chinese as kind of an excuse or maybe a deus ex machina that's going to come in at the end of the movie and and fix things for us. And I think that's asking too much. I mean ultimately at the end of the day this is our problem with North Korea and we're going to be the ones who have to solve it,” Lewis said.

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Rebecca Cruise: Jeffrey Lewis, welcome to World Views.

Jeffrey Lewis: Hey it's a pleasure to be here.

Cruise: Well you are an expert on nonproliferation. So let's go with the biggest story we've been hearing the last well the last year really and that is North Korea. Tell us what's going on with North Korea.

Lewis: North Korea is at a very interesting point. They are transitioning to a situation where they have the ability to hit the United States with a nuclear weapon.

Cruise: And they've stated as much. This is a goal to hit the East Coast not just the West Coast but the East Coast of the United States.

Lewis: That's right. And I think they're actually there but we don't quite believe them yet. And so that's the interesting moment we're living in which is this transition. It's not something that we've lived through in the United States for a long long time, where a country that's hostile to us has acquired this kind of capability so it's a it's a weird moment.

Cruise: And you used the word transition so a transition from being a non-nuclear state to a nuclear state and perhaps that also means a transition for the rest of the world in terms of nonproliferation that they have proliferated.

Lewis: Yeah. You know I think the North Koreans have had nuclear weapons they can put on missiles that can strike Japan and South Korea for a while, but for whatever reason that ability to hit the United States really represents I think a change in the way both we in the United States think about them but also the rest of the world thinks and so this is a kind of moment where the world is looking at a country and saying like, wow, we have a ninth nuclear power.

Cruise: Why the wow? Why did it take us this long to realize that this was a viable threat? As you said maybe they had these for a while and we kind of weren't paying attention or we scoffed or didn't realize what was coming out. The news made it believe it.

Lewis: Yeah they're silly. Right we laugh at them. I mean if you were I think one of my favorite bits of coverage of North Korea was an Economist cover maybe 10, 15 years ago that had Kim Jong Il the father of the current leader on it. And he's looking goofy with his hair and his suit and it said, "Greetings earthlings.

Cruise: Oh no.

Lewis: It was easy to dismiss them because they were poor and backwards and weird. And that's not kind of how we think about nuclear weapons. We think about nuclear weapons as being powerful and sophisticated and fancy. And so I think it's taken us a little bit of time to wrap our heads around this.

Cruise: And have we wrapped our heads? Are we now serious about this? Do we have the capabilities to fend them off? I've heard that there's going to be drills or there have been drills to get American citizens out of South Korea or at least a practice. Are we taking them seriously, and what can we do?

Lewis: Well I think we're panicking which isn't exactly taking them seriously. I mean I think taking them seriously would be understanding why they want this capability. Thinking about the choices we made that got us here and then trying to plot a different course forward. I think what we're doing right now is engaging in a kind of it's it's a half acceptance of the problem. It's enough that we're panicked but we're still imagining that this is like a superhero movie where somebody is going to come in and save us at the end, whether it's China fixing the problem for us or a missile defense working or maybe a cyber attack making the problem go away. So we're starting to recognize it. But I would go back to that word I used at the beginning: It's a transition this is a process that's going to have to play out probably over the next year or so.

Cruise: Well let's go back to those three questions that you just posed then. Why do they want nuclear weapons? Is this to actually instigate some sort of an attack, or is it a power positioning? And how did we get here? And where do we go going forward?

Lewis: So I think it's really simple why the North Koreans want nuclear weapons. They're afraid that we're going to attack them. You know we're still at war with North Korea. There is not a peace treaty.

Cruise: From the Korean War.

Lewis: There is no peace treaty, that's an armistice. That is a ceasefire. And so we have seen the North Koreans I think pretty consistently since the late 1960s early 1970s talk about their aspirations to have nuclear weapons. And in the 1990s and then 2000s I think we saw a rapid progress from the North Koreans in part because they were worried. They were worried that the Kim family was going to end up like, first, Saddam's family. And then later Moammar Gadhafi's family in Libya. And so I think we're now at the point where they've decided that they're living in a really dangerous environment that we are fairly dedicated to removing them from power and that nuclear weapons are the thing that keeps Kim Jong Un, their leader, safe.

Cruise: So they may be looking at this purely from a defensive point of view?

Lewis: Yeah you know you never know how people's attitudes will change over time. I mean maybe they'll maybe they'll come to see some offensive capability inherent in those weapons. But you know I do think that the fundamental concern is they know that they're weak. They know that they would lose any war and they saw what happened to Saddam and Gadhafi and they don't want to end up that way.

Cruise: The other question you raised then was how we got here how this relationship changed and how we ended up now having having to transition. Talk to us a little bit about that.

Lewis: Well you know we had a nuclear agreement with them in the 1990s. It wasn't perfect. The North Koreans didn't trust us and we didn't trust them and so any time you have an agreement between two parties that don't really trust one another, things aren't great. But there was a process under which the North Koreans had frozen the aspects of the nuclear program that we knew about. And there were negotiations underway to deal with their missile program and I think ultimately would have been negotiations under way to deal with some of the some of the aspects that we tend to refer to as North Koreans cheating. So there was a deal but it was a precarious deal. And ultimately when the Bush administration got very good evidence that the North Koreans were violating the agreement.

Cruise: The first Bush or the second the second Bush?

Lewis: The second Bush. Sorry, George W. Bush. they had they had a momentous choice to make. You know the Clinton administration had known that the North Koreans were fussing around on the edges of the deal and had to decide whether you wanted to go back and try to get another agreement and try to preserve what you had or you could choose to walk away entirely and negotiate an entire agreement. The Bush administration chose to walk away and then tried actually tried very sincerely I think to negotiate a new agreement and then never got there. So you know we had a deal. It wasn't the greatest deal we walked away in hopes of getting a better one. And what we got was a nuclear armed North Korea.

Cruise: Well and how do we move forward? What is this transition going to look like? And I ask that fully aware we now find ourselves in kind of a war of words between the two leaders be it over Twitter or social media on the floor of the United Nations. That seems less than productive. But but where and how do we move forward?

Lewis: Well I think we have to start by accepting that the North Koreans are never going to give up their nuclear weapons. I would like to have seen us prevent them from building them but it's very hard to get a country to give them up once they have them. This is a country that sees nuclear weapons as an important source of security. So what I think we have to do is we have to focus on not having a nuclear war. You know as much as we would like to see those weapons eliminated and that's the best way to avoid having a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula, second best is trying to have a deterrent relationship that's stable. And that's going to be a big change for the way we think about things in the United States.

Cruise: And a challenge no doubt to try to figure out what that will look like. Earlier you also mentioned China. China is by many accounts kind of the key here. Also a nuclear power. They have seemed to have an interesting relationship with our current administration. At one point it looks like President Xi and President Trump are great friends and in the next moment they're not. What are we to make of that relationship and how will that play into nuclear capabilities and proliferation in the region?

Lewis: Well I do think that sometimes in the United States we have a simplistic idea that the Chinese can come solve our problem for us which is it's a natural tendency because who wants to admit that your policy doesn't work. You know it's much easier to imagine that you had a brilliant policy but they you were sabotaged by someone else. The Chinese and the North Koreans don't really get along all that well. You know it's it's an older brother younger brother kind of relationship. The Chinese don't really like the North Koreans very much as the younger brother and the North Koreans I think resent the Chinese role. So when I when I look at the situation the Chinese just want this problem to go away.

Cruise: Sure.

Lewis: But they don't I think feel like they have a lot of tools to do that. You know they did have pro-Chinese elements in the North Korean government and the North Korean government responded by executing those people. And so I think that there is space for the United States and China to work collaboratively on this problem. But my sense is what I see in Washington is a lot of people who use the Chinese as kind of an excuse or maybe a deus ex machina that's going to come in at the end of the movie and and fix things for us. And I think that's asking too much. I mean ultimately at the end of the day this is our problem with North Korea and we're going to be the ones who have to solve it.

Cruise: Now obviously with China being being a neighbor they're going to be affected one way or the other. One thing that we've tried and have pushed recently are sanctions and Beijing and Moscow have to some degree gotten behind this. Is this effective? Is this a smart choice?

Lewis: Well I understand why we put sanctions on. If the North Koreans are doing things we don't like this is a way of giving ourselves a little bit of leverage. And so I don't I don't object to that strategy. I think it is a good element of a broader strategy where I where I get concerned is I sometimes see people imagining that that sanctions will have the same magical effect as say a Chinese intervention. And you know the reality is that we don't have any cases where sanctions stopped the country from building nuclear weapons. You know the United States figured out how to do this in 1945. This is a very old technology and so sanctions might be an inconvenience and they might slow a country but at the end of the day the North Koreans did this by themselves and I think that there's very little hope of sanctions stopping that. Well we do hope is that sanctions will punish the regime, that will make life more difficult for the leaders. But then I think that's a tricky game because you have to also be able to credibly take those sanctions off in exchange for a different, better relationship. And if you're the North Koreans I don't know that you'd be willing to trade away your weapons for promises.

Cruise: And sanctions unfortunately often end up hurting the people and so that that becomes another complication. Another area dealing with proliferation or nonproliferation is Iran. We've heard recently, last year, we know that there was an Iranian deal. We've heard that this may be faltering. The United States may not be as big a partner or a player in this going forward. What's going on there?

Lewis: Well it's a very peculiar circumstance. The United States worked with its allies in Germany France and Britain along with the Russians and the Chinese to reach a an agreement with the Iranians in which their civil nuclear energy program would be subject to limits and better international monitoring in exchange for the removal of some sanctions. And what the president has said is that he is not going to provide a routine certification to Congress that says Iran is implementing its obligations, even though everyone agrees they are, because he doesn't like the deal. And that, what that will do is allow Congress if it chooses to reimpose some of those sanctions. What happens is anybody's guess. Congress could reimpose all the sanctions, some of the sanctions, or none of them, and the Iranians could choose to walk away from the agreement or they could choose to stay in it because they're still getting sanctions relief from Russia, China and our European partners. So we don't we don't really know what's going to happen. But this is producing a second nuclear crisis that we're going to have to sort of go through and see where we come out on the other side.

Cruise: So we've got North Korea the situation there Iran two potential crises as you say anywhere else that we should be paying attention to? Pakistan perhaps?

Lewis: Yeah. The strange part of my job is that there are a lot of places around the world where things are terrible. I mean it's a long list so it's constantly a worry about the relationship between India and Pakistan, both of which have nuclear weapons. There is also the U.S. relationship with Russia and the U.S. relationship with China. Those are nuclear relationships and I think we're watching a complete collapse of the you know now 30 plus year history of arms control between Moscow and Washington. And so what comes after that is anyone's guess. We haven't heard much about China's nuclear forces, but they're slowly growing and I think there are still some really unsettled questions there. And then, you know, the last thing is there are always the surprises. They're the countries we don't know about. And you know we live in this world where, as I said earlier, this is a this is a technology from the 1940s. And so I wouldn't be surprised if over the next 10 or 20 years we have a new nuclear aspirant that we find ourselves scratching our heads over.

Cruise: A new nuclear aspirant. A state or perhaps a non-state actor?

Lewis: Well I think for now it's still too hard for non-state actors to make the plutonium or highly enriched uranium you'd need in a nuclear weapons. They would still need to steal that, which they could do. I mean I think it's very important that we spend a lot of time and effort on securing the nuclear materials that we've produced. But I definitely think you could see a new state actor that you're just not expecting because the reality is that the barrier to entry has dropped so dramatically and so every decade we've gotten a new one. You know sometimes sometimes they get the bomb sometimes they don't. But it'll be interesting to see who it is.

Cruise: Well this is somewhat concerning and leave us on a positive note. Is there anything to be optimistic about?

Lewis: You know the way I look at it is this: We have had these weapons since 1945 and we've managed not to collectively commit suicide. And there's a there's a long running debate about whether that's good judgment on our part or just luck. But we've muddled through. So the way I tend to think about it and I encourage people not to panic is, these risks are actually very very low. It's just that it would be such a catastrophe if it happened. And so instead of panicking, right, what we have to do is understand that these are small risks. And our job is to drive them down lower and lower and lower and ultimately start thinking about a life without nuclear weapons because no matter how small we make the risks and if we run them year after year after year. Eventually the bill will come due.

Cruise: Wonderful. Thank you so much for your time and we'll definitely think about these issues going forward.

Lewis: It was a pleasure.

Cruise: Thank you.

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