As a part of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2017 Discussion Series, the IISS–Americas on 30 May 2017 hosted a panel discussion on ‘North Korea: Boom or Bust’ – a title with multiple meanings.  Broadcasted on C-Span, the event was chaired by IISS–Americas Executive Director Mark Fitzpatrick and featured remarks by Victor Cha, Senior Adviser and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Sue Mi Terry, Managing Director for Korea at BowerGroupAsia; Jihwan Hwang, Professor of International Relations at the University of Seoul; and Michael Elleman, IISS Senior Fellow for Missile Defence.

Noting the qualitative leap in the pace and cost of North Korea’s missile programme, Cha said American analysts no longer believe the tests are aimed at drawing the US into negotiations. Rather, the effort to develop an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) able to hit US cities demonstrates an intention to undermine the credibility of US security guarantees to Asian allies.   The missile programme is also aimed at creating Japanese hesitation over hosting US forces. Kim Jong-un’s purpose is not just survival, Cha said, but also dominance of the Korean Peninsula. Commenting on fears that a resumed ‘Sunshine’ policy towards North Korea by the new South Korean government would create a rift with the US, he said so far President Moon Jae-in has taken a measured position. Cha added that the US would support engagement if it is well-coordinated and done at ‘the right time’.

Terry also highlighted the differences under the current leader, who is staking the legitimacy of his regime on perfecting a nuclear arsenal. While agreeing with the policy of applying maximum pressure on North Korea, Terry worried that these and other measures will not achieve the denuclearisation goal. A North Korean nuclear arsenal would heighten the potential for miscalculation on its part and undermine the effectiveness of US nuclear deterrence, she argued. Making the case for a long-term policy, she stressed the need to consider regime change, as unfashionable as it may be to talk about this. Sanctions can contribute to this goal by undermining internal support for the regime. An information campaign is also needed, targeted not just at the general population but also at the North Korean elite, to encourage defections.

Offering a South Korean political perspective, Hwang said what while the new Moon government’s emphasis on inter-Korean relations will differ from that of the previous government, three variables will moderate the degree of change. The first variable is an emphasis on inter-Korea relations, primarily the re-introduction of the Sunshine Policy – now nicknamed the Moonshine Policy – which aims to loosen containment in an effort to guide North Korea to denuclearisation. Hwang suggested that many in the South Korean government believe that sanctions are not enough to change North Korea’s course of action, and are working to pursue a new policy towards unification through social and cultural means. Second, Hwang brought to attention the action-and-reaction nature of the relationship between the two entities. Since most of South Korea’s policies are implemented in response to, and in defence against, North Korea’s actions, Hwang argued that continued provocative behaviour from North Korea would likely lead to a decline in public support for engagement on behalf of the South Korean people. Third, Hwang emphasised the importance of the South Korea–US alliance, and said the Moon government is likely to support heavier international sanctions in cooperation with the US.

Elleman assessed that the increased pace of North Korean missile testing reflects far more than political messaging. The purpose is to develop multiple new systems and to train flight crews.  He believes that the missile tests should not all be treated with equal gravity. He highlighted the two-stage solid-propelled Pukguksong submarine-launched missile and its land-based variant, which appear to have been developed indigenously. The recently tested Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile with its mysterious engine is the most troubling of all, because it is a true stepping stone to an ICBM. Elleman assessed that North Korea may be able to achieve a road-mobile ICBM based on the Hwasong-12 in about 2020–21, although an unreliable ‘emergency-use’ system might come earlier.  He suggested that policy responses to the various missiles should be tailored accordingly.

The engaging question-and-answer session reflected the importance of the issues raised. Cha said that while China knows all the arguments for why it should stop propping up North Korea, it is unlikely to apply economic pressure for fear of collapsing the regime; and because the North Koreans know this, they ‘push the envelope’. He framed the relationship between China and North Korea as a ‘mutual hostage’ situation. In response to doubts about the effectiveness of sanctions which a questioner said have been found to work in only 14 of 100 cases worldwide, Terry argued that strong sanctions have only been in place in North Korea since February of last year, and that they should be given a chance to succeed. Cha added that ‘sanctions don’t work until they do’, and that without stricter sanctions, ‘historians will write about how this was a path to war’. Elleman expressed confidence that in a collapse scenario nuclear material could be secured. He judged that North Korea had a domestic capability for chemical and biological weapons but that some chemicals likely came across the leaky China border. Looking forward, the speakers’ closing remarks urged resilient responses to the North Korea problem, and highlighted the importance of international cooperation on the path to regional security.

Rapporteur: Minori Fryer

Victor Cha joined CSIS in May 2009 as a senior adviser and the inaugural holder of the Korea Chair. He is also director of Asian studies and holds the D.S. Song-KF Chair in the Department of Government and School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. From 2004 to 2007, he served as director for Asian affairs at the White House on the National Security Council. His latest book is Powerplay: Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia (Princeton University Press, 2016).

Michael Elleman is IISS Senior Fellow for Missile Defence, based in Washington DC. Before joining the IISS, he spent five years at Booz Allen Hamilton where he supported the implementation of cooperative threat reduction programmes sponsored by the US Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. Previously, he spent 18 months at the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission as a missile expert for weapons inspection missions in Iraq.

Jihwan Hwang is professor of international relations at the University of Seoul, Korea. Currently, he is a yearlong visiting research scholar at the Catholic University of America. He has served in several advisory positions in the Korean government, including the Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Unification. His publications include "The Paradox of South Korea's Unification Diplomacy," and "The Two Koreas after US Unipolarity."

Sue Mi Terry is BowerGroupAsia’s managing director for Korea. She leads the company's advisory work and development strategies for BGA clients pursuing opportunities in South Korea and regionally. From 2009 to 2010, she was the deputy national intelligence officer for East Asia at the National Intelligence Council and before that she served as director for Korea, Japan, and Oceanic Affairs at the National Security Council (2008-2009). Earlier, she worked as a senior analyst on Korean issues at the Central Intelligence Agency (2001-2008).

Mark Fitzpatrick is the Executive Director of the IISS–Americas, as well as head of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme. He joined IISS in 2005, after 26 years at the State Department, and moved back to Washington in December 2015. His research focus is on preventing nuclear dangers through non-proliferation, nuclear security, and arms control. Follow Mark Fitzpatrick @FitzpatrickIISS

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Event details

IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2017 Discussion Series
Victor Cha, Senior Adviser & Korea Chair, CSIS
Michael Elleman, Senior Fellow for Missile Defence, IISS
Jihwan Hwang, Professor of International Relations, University of Seoul
Sue Mi Terry, Managing Director for Korea, BowerGroupAsia
Chaired by Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS-Americas
IISS–Americas, Washington DC
Tuesday 30 May 2017, 10.00-11.30am EDT