The enormous fluctuations in Donald Trump’s policies toward North Korea are a “truly disorienting experience,” says John Feffer, a leading expert on US policy toward Korea who currently serves as a project director and associate fellow at Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.
In this interview, Feffer — the author of North Korea/South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis — discusses the history of the conflict between the United States and North Korea. Feffer also talks about the foreign policy of President Donald Trump and his conflicting messages about his desire to “bomb them out of existence” on the one hand, and to sit down to talk with Kim Jong-un on the other.
Daniel Falcone: Could you talk about the United States and North Korea historically? What are the roots of the recent US headlines we see in terms of North Korea militarily?
John Feffer: If you approached the issues based on the past three weeks it would seem somewhat difficult to understand why this country — which is so far away from the United States and so small (North Korea is only 25 million people or so) — should pose such an outsized threat to US national interests, and even the US homeland. If we look back into history, we realize that actually North Korea is really the longest-standing adversary of the United States at this point, even longer than China. Other adversaries disappeared, like the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein, etc. But North Korea began in opposition immediately after the end of World War II.
This was the birth of the Cold War (1945-1947), as the United States had transitioned from being an ally of the Soviet Union in the fight against Hitler to a thorough adversary and competitor. And, of course, the Korean Peninsula is caught up in this because it’s divided in the immediate aftermath of World War II in August of 1945 after the defeat of Japan. The Korean Peninsula was a Japanese colony for the preceding several decades, beginning in 1910 … and so the Peninsula is an immediate victim of the Cold War and is divided between North and South. And the South falls into the US occupation authority, and the North falls into Soviet occupation.
Perhaps if there hadn’t been a Korean War, if North and South Korea hadn’t fought each other for dominance of the Korean Peninsula, North Korea would’ve remained a rather distant adversary, perhaps like Laos — also a communist country in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. But the Korean War drags us in under the banner of the United Nations. We fight to a standstill after three years and the Peninsula remains divided.
North Korea then consolidated under the rule of Kim Il-sung. And North Korea refuses — and this I think is the important thing — North Korea refuses to become a subject of the Soviet imperium. It does not integrate itself in the Soviet economic system and stands somewhat apart from the Soviet Union politically and ideologically. And when China turns communist, North Korea skillfully plays both of these communist powers off one another and preserves its independence. And this is important, because it means that North Korea does not collapse in the aftermath at the end of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, because it was never integrated into that system.
North Korea hasn’t integrated itself into the Chinese system, either. So, when China embarks on its economic policy and becomes integrated into the global economy, North Korea does not. So, it is the ultimate outlier. This explains more than anything else why North Korea and the United States remain adversarial and why this relationship is kind of locked in the amber of the Cold War. The fact that North Korea develops a nuclear program, well, that only makes the conflict sharper, perhaps more urgent, and North Korea’s development of long-range missiles, more urgent still. But the origins to conflict really lie in North Korea’s outlier status.
The United States also has a military presence in South Korea and conducts annual drills along the border. How much of the North Korean nuclear policy is either a deterrent or a way of responding to American hostility, which they might consider as part of their historical memory? For instance, B-52 bombers overhead, etc. This isn’t to excuse any horrific nature of their leadership, or the government, but I’m just trying to figure out how the issue of symmetry seems to be resolved so easily, in the US media for example, when North Korea, in their mind, from the leadership perspective, wants a deterrent.
I think that the view from Chun Yung is one of weakness. It is acutely aware that it is a small and relatively poor country. It recovered very quickly from the Korean War, and the economy grew quite rapidly. But it has become economically quite disadvantaged since the end of the Cold War via the loss of oil. The loss of cheap oil [hindered] the country considerably. Not only did its agriculture and industry effectively collapse in the mid-1990s, but it could no longer sustain the kind of military parity that it enjoyed with South Korea for so long.
North Korea had more people serving in the army and it developed, with the help of its occasional allies, rather sophisticated conventional weaponry, artillery, jet fighters, etc. But you can’t maintain a modern conventional army without oil, and so after the late 1980s, North Korea really could not compete conventionally with South Korea. So, the nuclear program really serves as a kind of a way of compensating for this rather rapid decline in conventional military force.
The United States has been wedded to the idea of regime-change policies for much of its material lifespan, but that certainly accelerated in the 1990s as a result of the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of a unipolar world. This meant that North Korea was of course acutely aware that it could be the next in line. It received confirmation of that in 2002 with George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech.
The nuclear program also serves as an insurance policy against whatever the United States might decide. North Korea is also aware that the United States is a democracy and its policies can change from one administration to another. So even if one administration pledges not to embark on regime-change policies, another administration could be voted in with an entirely different set of national security priorities.
So yes, from Washington’s point of view, the focus seems to be entirely on the United States, our regime-change proclivities, our troops based in South Korea, our military exercises and our Asian-Pacific military footprint.
The New York Times’ coverage of the conflict has a tendency to put the United States in a defensive posture. For instance, a recent headline read: “If U.S. Attacks North Korea First, Is That Self-Defense?” Furthermore, David Sanger and Russell Goldman cover North Korea for the Times from a United States perspective and cite our fluctuations and treatment of North Korea. For example, Bill Clinton tried to issue a “carrot.” George W. Bush used the “stick.” Barack Obama was basically neutral.
On the question of fluctuation, within the conventional Washington framework and policy toward North Korea, you’re right, it was effectively carrot and stick. North Korea bristles — understandably so — from that very model. Because what is carrot and stick but a way of dealing with a recalcitrant donkey? And North Korea certainly didn’t like to be thought of as manipulated. And yet, that was our way of thinking. It robbed North Korea of any agency of its own, and put the onus entirely on the United States, [to figure out how] … to move North Korea in the direction it wanted it to move.
When we began to approach North Korea from its own kind of sensibility, from its own perspective, we achieved any kind of movement, in any direction, to be honest.
During the Agreed Framework negotiations and during the Six-Party Talks, North Korea had some agency, as national security objectives were considered legitimate to a certain extent within the framework. That’s the fluctuation within the conventional framework. And it vacillates within a relatively narrow range.
What is the Trump foreign policy concerning North Korea? Based on the rhetoric, it sounds increasingly dangerous.
What disturbs people the most about Donald Trump is that the fluctuation is much greater. It doesn’t seem that Donald Trump thinks strategically or tactically. He has departed from the carrot-and-stick approach to North Korea. Instead, he says or implies that we will bomb them out of existence. On the other hand, he has said that Kim Jong-un is a smart cookie, has played his cards well, and that he could imagine sitting down and talking with Kim Jong-un. And why not, since Donald Trump has an affinity it seems with tyrants all around the world? For those of us who are more accustomed to either operating within the narrow fluctuations of carrot and stick, the enormous fluctuations in Trump’s policies is a truly disorienting experience. We’ve lost our kind of geopolitical compass.
A few months back, Donald Trump said in an interview with the Financial Times that he would be willing to take unilateral action against North Korea over its nuclear weapons program and remarked, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.” Since then, the rhetoric has become markedly worse. Can you comment on the danger of this rhetoric and what that would entail policy wise?
China is even more disturbed about North Korea’s conduct than the United States. After all, North Korea is an adjacent power. North Korea has certainly solicited China’s help in the past — most notably during the Korean War, when North Korea was quite nearly defeated, [until] Chinese volunteers, a million or so, intervened in the conflict and were able to bring equilibrium to the war. But generally speaking, North Korea doesn’t really like to acknowledge Chinese support or listen to Chinese advice.
It has gone forward with its nuclear program against China’s wishes. And China’s not happy about all the negative attention that North Korea has brought to the region. Generally, China would like to go about its business, i.e. growing its economy, connecting the region in its belt and road infrastructure plan. The attention that North Korea brings really undercuts a confidence of investors in the region. If there were to be any kind of conflict with North Korea, it would go beyond merely reducing confidence.
The United States, across several administrations, has labored under the illusion that China holds the key to unlocking the dilemma of North Korea’s nuclear program. “It’s simply a matter of the leadership in Beijing deciding to deploy that key.” Every administration has come to office believing that. And it’s only taken a few months, usually, to disabuse administrations of that policy. The Trump administration is right now in the process of being disillusioned and learning that China is not going to do its bidding. Usually, this produced in administrations past a more sophisticated understanding of the role China can play in any kind of negotiating framework.
There is a tension (or was with Steve Bannon) within the administration over China policy. This, of course, goes into how we work with China or don’t work with China on North Korea. In other words, do we sanction China and Chinese individuals and institutions that are working with North Korea on trade and other issues, in order to get at Kim Jong? Or do we find a more cooperative approach with China to “solve” the North Korea problem?