Small Steps, Road to Peace

Security in Northeast Asia 


Small Steps, Road to Peace


[Special Interview] with Scott Snyder


Scott Snyder is a senior fellow for Korea Studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea Policy in Council on Foreign Relations. He is an expert in U.S.-Korea relations, U.S.-Asia relations, and politics of inter-Korean relations.

Snyder has authored numerous book chapters on aspects of Korean politics and foreign policy and Asian regionalism and is the author of China's Rise and the Two Koreas: Politics, Economics, Security (2009), Paved With Good Intentions: The NGO Experience in North Korea (co-editor, 2003), and Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior(1999). He has provided advice to NGOs and humanitarian organizations active in North Korea and serves on the advisory council of the National Committee on North Korea and Global Resource Services.

Snyder received a BA from Rice University and an MA from the regional studies East Asia program at Harvard University and was a Thomas G. Watson fellow at Yonsei University in South Korea.

On December 5th in Washington D.C., Jonghun Eun from Peace Network interviewed Scott Snyder and talked about Korean Peninsula and issues around it. He pointed that there should be some changes in approach from South Korea and the U.S. on inter-Korean relations and North Korea needs to be part of that change as well.

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You mentioned in the paper that South Korea has become the producer rather than the consumer of global security resources. Could you briefly explain why and how Korea could do that? What caused it?
We did this report on South Korea’s role in providing international security resources because we identified it as a new aspect of South Korea’s approach to a security, and I think that it reflects the fact that South Korea’s interests have broadened especially as a results of its trade profile as a leading exporter around the world. So because South Korea has more trade exposure, it has a greater stake in international stability. Previously, South Korean diplomacy and foreign strategy has been primarily focused on the U.S. and on the major powers and really focused on the peninsula. But now it’s different. I am sure you saw the news just yesterday-these South Koreans who got kidnapped in the Middle East just came back. You know, that never happened before or maybe it was like 10 years ago. And so, just like South Korean can get in trouble over the world, South Korea also has become a purchase man and a contributor in efforts to try to promote stability. So that’s the centrally what we are writing about.

How would it affect the Korean Peninsula situation?
I think what the Korean government is trying to do is, you know, to do both: provide the security on the peninsula and manage the relationship with North Korea; and do things off the peninsula. And so actually I think that the thing that is kind of striking so far is that the all of South Korea’s international security contributions have been far away from the peninsula and from the region.

So do you think it will cause some changes in East Asia or in Korean Peninsula?
Um.. so far it’s not really causing any changes in East Asia because it’s been something that Korea has done away from the peninsula. So I don’t see that particular issue as necessarily being a driver for the change in any of the security relationships in East Asia. And honestly I don’t think that it will be a negative factor for the inter-Korean relationship, either. I actually read a report on the anti-piracy effort by South Korea that they actually helped some North Koreans who got kidnapped. So you can even make an argument that this kind of contribution might be a good factor. You can make an argument that it might be good for inter-Korean relationships, but frankly I think it is just irrelevant. So it reflects Korea’s expanded vision for what it needs in the world, but so far that issue doesn’t really intersect very much with North Korea. Some people thought that maybe with the sinking of the Cheonan(천안함), that South Korea and its Navy would end up focusing more on the peninsula security. But actually that’s not what happened. Navy continued and tried to do both things. So I don’t think the Korea’s international security role is going to be really relevant to the denuclearization of North Korea. The other aspect that might be relevant is that South Korea also has a greater interest in promoting Non-Proliferation norms. And I think that is derived primarily from South Korea’s role as an exporter of the nuclear plants at this stage. It’s broader interest in adhering to non-proliferation norms.

But North Korea might see it differently. Wouldn’t it provide some reasons for North Korea to build up and strengthen their arming? They always have some excuses, for example, like “South Korea has nuclear plants and it’s why we need the nuclear development programs”.
Well, What North Korea is likely to say is “Well if South Korea does it, why can’t we?”

That’s what I am saying. Wouldn’t this affect the nuclear crisis? How should we balance it?
Well.. North Korea has already made a lot of those kinds of arguments. And so, when you say how Korea should balance it, on the one hand, South Korea was ready to supply a nuclear plant to North Korea in the 90’s-KEDO project-. On the other hand, North Korea presumably has the capability to have enough material to make a nuclear weapon. But I don’t think we want to see South Korea trying to balance North Korea in the weapons category. So the difference between the two is really that North Korea’s focus on nuclear is occurring outside of the international norms, outside of the IAEA. But what South Korea has been doing on the nuclear energy side is inside the IAEA and consistent with the international norms, not trying to develop it for weapons purposes. I see them as basically different in kind because one is being pursued outside of the international structures and the other is being pursued inside the international structure.

For many years, many countries wanted North Korea to be denuclearized. There were ups and downs, but I think we can say that denuclearization of the North Korea kind of failed for now. Why do you think so? What was the key factor of this failure?
Now, the issue of how to deal with the nuclear question of North Korea is obviously very complicated. We tried very hard to impress upon North Korea that they shouldn’t pursue nuclear capabilities, but we haven’t been very successful at stopping them. And I think that the failure to stop them is related to two issues. One is that they have demonstrated great persistence and will to continue to pursue the nuclear development. So perseverance, stubbornness-whatever word you want to use. But, secondly, there is an underlined security motive that North Korea has. I think one of the reasons why they pursuit nuclear capability is that they do see it as a potentially effective deterrence against South Korea and the U.S. attacks. And so, you know, maybe that has reinforced the persistence and will of North Korea to continue to develop the program.

Do you think ‘6 party talk’ is the efficient way to denuclearize Pyeongyang? Why or why not?
A prerequisite for six-party talks to be effective is that North Korea has to be willing to come back to the denuclearization path. They signed up to that path in 2005. In a statement that said they’d abandon the nuclear program. But then from the end of 2008, they’ve really been unwilling to participate in that dialogue.

Do you think these changes were caused from the change in Korean governments? What do you think was the essential variable?
uhm… I don’t know. I mean, that’s a very interesting question. On that issue, usually I would say it’s because of Kim Jong Il’s health problems. But, you know, it’s complicated. You really have to make a lot of conversations with North Korean policy makers in order to understand precisely. My perception is that the down or turn in the inter-Korean relationship really had not yet occurred decisively by the beginning of 2009, but it was an emerging background factor. Initial phase of the MB period, I think North Korea hadn’t yet closed the door to improvements in inter-Korean relations. I mean, it really did begin in early 2008 on some of the humanitarian aid issues. But, I’d want to go back and take a look at that. That’s actually a very interesting question.
And, six-party talks is not the most efficient way to denuclearize Pyeongyang. But, it is a framework that has been set up because it’s the venue where North Korea actually agreed toward abandoning nuclear weapons.

What would be the alternatives?
Well if you really look at what was happening in 2007 and 2008, the six-party framework served as a ratification mechanism, but it was really driven by the U.S.-DPRK talk. And so, I still think that if denuclearization is going to progress, so far it seems that the U.S.-DPRK interaction is the critical interaction among all the interactions in the six-party talks. And so, six-party talks at one time could help facilitate U.S.-DPRK contact and it provided an umbrella because the other parties are also stakeholders in that process. But, as you know, who does Pyeongyang really want to talk to, who they really were willing to talk to about this so far was the U.S. China has not been able to independently solve this, the idea that North Korea will talk with South Korea about nuclear issues has not yet been fully, effectively realized. And so, the six-party talks are viable framework. They are necessary but not sufficient. And the sufficiency comes from the bilateral U.S.-DPRK interaction.

Considering North Korea’s past acts and power-shifts in North Korea and countries around it, what would be the efficient future strategy toward North Korea?
Well, North Korea has tried to use divisions in its international environments as a way of affording its interests. Historically they did that between the Soviets and Chinese. I think today, they are interested in trying to exploit those kinds of apparent divisions between the U.S. and China and South Korea and China. And so, this is a challenging issue because on the one hand, success in dealing with North Korea involves more effective external coordination. But at the same time you don’t want to do it in such way that North Korea feels trapped. North Korea needs to feel like it has a way out. And so, I think that the challenge for the region is to shape a direction for North Korea to go that way which leads to a kind of benefit for North Korea and for the region. It would be the coordinated win-win approach.

If we succeed in forming that path, do you think Kim Jong-Un would talk to the U.S.?
Yes, possibly. I think the North Koreans still would like to see an improved relationship with the United States but they’ve also expressed very clearly their frustration and feeling that the ball is in the U.S. court. We think the ball’s in their court, and they think the ball’s in our court. It makes it more difficult to find the precise path but, is it possible to imagine that Kim Jong-Un would want to talk with the U.S. and there could be more positive interactions at a leadership level? I don’t think you should rule it out. But at this stage, I think on the U.S. side, level of mistrust is high enough that a litmus test on our side is actually probably going to be internal reform. I think that the U.S. wants to see Kim Jong-Un take a different leadership path for his own people, to change the nature of the leadership.

Like how? Are you talking about the political reform or the economic reform?
Evidence of a system that is more empowering to the people and that takes better care of the people. At this point in United States, I think one of the obstacles to engaging with North Korea, there is real politic but there is also a moral issue at this point because North Korean governance is so poor that we really need to see a change in the nature of the system that governs North Korea. And the first in that direction would be to embrace an economic reform path where the state doesn’t control everything, where individuals are powered to seek improvements economically. We believe that will also be accompanied by the political changes. That’s really the first step. The U.S. and China have normalized relationship even though they have big system differences. But I think at this stage, it is hard to even imagine a normal diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and DPRK without some systemic changes.

North Korea acts like ‘troublemaker’. They shake hands one day, and launch the missile next day. We can assume this as their negotiation strategy. What do you think is behind these unpredictable inconsistent acts? How should we cope with it?
About the North Korea’s troublemaking strategy, there is a sense in which North Korea has the incentive to stir up to engage in provocations as part of its strategy. But, I think that also reflects on the nature of the system because the system actually needs to be able to view the world as hostile in order to maintain that level of political control. So, they complain about the hostile environment, but they need the hostile environment. And so, it’s almost like this. They just walk up and say to someone ‘you don’t like me and that pisses me off!’ and then they slap you. And then you will think ‘damn right I don’t like you. You just slapped me!’, right? So it’s basically a very difficult strategy to deal with. And I think the approach the U.S. has wanted to take is that we want to change the terms of that interaction because, the way I described it obviously, it’s uncomfortable to have those kinds of terms in interactions. We’d like to do it in a different way. That means we need to get the North Koreans to stop slapping people.

Do you think the U.S. government would have policies based on that approach?
I think it makes it difficult for the U.S. government to be able to respond because we’ve already lost faith several times, even like in February as a good example. It’s tough, when you get slapped, it makes it a lot harder to revamp that relationship and it puts the pressure on the other person to take the first step. So North Korea says “Well, we are small and you are big, so you should take the first step.” But then they are the provocateur, so it’s challenging.

North Korea advocates nationalism strongly. They act ‘Anti America’ and use the military provocation to keep the dictating system going. This means peace in Korean Peninsula is not very helpful for the North Korean government’s dictatorship. How can we draw North Korea to pursue the peace? In other words, what could be their incentives?
How do we draw North Korea into peace? This is really critical because one of their leading talking points is that they want peace, but they are actually the ones that are making it difficult to get there. Right now, they say something like “Let’s talk about a peace treaty” but our way of thinking about it is ‘if you want peace, then let’s create the conditions for peace and then we can ratify it.’ Their idea is ‘let’s declare peace and maybe the circumstances would change.’ On this peace issue, I really think that we should focus on the fundamentals. They like to talk about the peace with the United States but the reality is that peace can’t occur unless there are peaceful conditions between North and South Korea because that’s where the guns are. So, I really see the inter-Korean relationship as the cauldron, or the core venue for trying to address those issues, and the U.S. can be supportive. But I actually think that in changing the conventional postures, creating the conditions necessary for peace, it’s going to have to have North and South Korea at the forefront.

What would be the ideas for the peaceful environment? In Korea, there are some talks about the changing the ceasefire treaty into the ‘permanent peace treaty’. Do you think it would work?
I think there needs to be more thinking about that. The way that North Korea has thought about this issue so far has not been very practical. I mean, there hasn’t been any thinking about it recently but the old proposals from North Korea were things like ‘let’s just reduce our weapons and manpower to like a 100,000 on each side’. Because they had that kind of idea, it wasn’t really practical as an approach and it wasn’t necessarily mutual. So there needs to be mutuality to that process. There needs to be basically a CBM based approach where each side picks a step. CBM is Confronts Building Measures type approach, something that happens really from the bottom-up, and builds confronts. But North Korea is a top-down system. So they want to start at the leader. If the leader can agree, then anything is possible. And so, that’s very specific institutional challenge.

There were some power-shifts. Do you expect some changes in North Korea-Chinese relations? How would it be different?
Right now, we are in a phase in North Korea-China relations where China is holding North Korea tight. I think it’s in an attempt to keep North Korea from doing things that China doesn’t like but it hasn’t been very effective. Among all the neighbors of North Korea, I see China as a party that has actually changed its policy most often in the last ten years because they try to engage North Korea using economic incentives up to 2006, the first North Korean nuclear test, then they pulled back between the first test and the second test, 2006 to 2009, and then in 2009, they embraced. But it leaves me to ask the question ‘If North Korea provokes again in a dramatic way, will Chinese policy change again?’ because they’ve actually been the mostly tactically inconsistent.

How about the relationship between the U.S. and China?
It’s complicated right now. At this moment, I think there is more anxiety about Chinese policies in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. And I don’t know whether that’s going to mean that China feels like they should have something they work well with the U.S. and Korean Peninsula might be it, or whether there might just be a setback in terms of the ability to work with the U.S. and China. And in China, it’s a new group. They are untested, so I don’t have a way of predicting what’s going to happen. But generally speaking, there is a commitment to trying to have a stable U.S.-China relationship. I think both sides recognize the importance of that. But there could be some unanticipated accidents or other disagreements that flare up that could make things difficult. And, we are also doing a lot with China in terms of dialogue, talking about many issues.

There are predictions that the 2nd Obama Administration would focus more on Asia. In specific policies, do you think the U.S. would focus on East Asia and Korean Peninsula or do you think they would focus more on South-East Asia such as South China Sea?
I don’t know the answer for that question, because we don’t know who’s going to be running the policy yet. Broadly speaking, I think Obama Administration is committed to this rebalancing policy to greater engagement in Asia, greater prioritization of Asia. But prioritization of Asia doesn’t necessarily mean prioritization of North Korea as an issue that has to be solved. In fact, so far, what we’ve seen from the Obama Administration is that the perception that North Korea isn’t solvable unless North Korea wants to be a part of the solution. If North Korea doesn’t want to be a part of the solution, then the Obama Administration is not going to expand much effort to do it.

Do you think North Korea would be democratized some day? How would it be? Like the Middle East? Or like the Burma? What do you think of the Obama’s speech in Burma towards North Korea?
I think President Obama very clearly expressed that sentiment in Burma that you referred to. It’s very clear effort to reach out to North Korea and to say that North Korea should become a part of the rest of the world, but the nature of that process is going to have to be one in which North Korea itself decides that it wants to change and it wants to join. And I think President Obama himself made very clear that he wanted to support that process and he offered the extended hand, but it requires both sides. The Nuclear issue needs to be resolved. There has to be intent on North Korea’s side at least to address it. But I think that the President Obama’s statement is an indicator of willingness to change the terms of the relationship to one that looks more like non-hostility. But it’s going to require North Korean cooperation in order to do that. So it really put a lot of burden on North Korea to show that it would be willing to transform itself in that sort of way.

Many people say that North Korea will eventually change. If they change somehow, what parts can be changed and what can’t? That is, from the outside North Korea, what should we expect?
North Korea’s circumstances are changing and there are changes going on inside North Korea, but those are changes that are occurring on the periphery. The leadership itself, I think that Kim Jong-Un made a positive statement in his April 15th speech about the need to improve the economic situation of the people. But it’s not clear so far that the government has beliefs that there is need for it to change its policies in order to be able to effectively address those issues. So in another word, it’s the same system working harder. But there are argues that system has exhibited evidence of failure. North Korea needs to actually change the system, let go of central planning, empower people to play more effective economic role. And that is the way to promote both parts and really greater independence autonomy freedom in terms of political expression. And we’d like to see that. I think that, North Korea, as a system, has not shown any indications that it wants to embrace that. It has shown a desire to tinker with specific policies that might provide productivity improvements within the existing system, but the existing system is already bankrupt. It’s already failed. And so, what we really need to see as evidence of transformative change is an approach by the central government that economically empowers people to engage in the type of economic activity that can really bring North Korea into the world.

Maybe, China can help North Korea do that?
Yes, what we are really talking about is North Korea following the kind of model that the Chinese have done and I think China also would like to see that, but they are caught in the ‘stability vs. reform paradox’. That is, China’s highest priority is the stability even though it wants reform. A reform inherently runs the risk of containing seeds of instability. It means that every time China tries to move North Korea in the direction of reform, if they see the evidence of instability, then they pull back. So I think that’s the problem with the Chinese approach.
I’m sorry that I rushed through these so fast.

No, it’s ok. But could you give one minute for the final question. It’s quiet casual.

It’s obvious that the U.S. wants the Korean Peninsula to be denuclearized. But do you think that the U.S. also wants the reunification of the South and the North as well?
U.S.-Korea joint statement from June, 2009 provides a formal commitment of the U.S. to see a unified peninsula on the basis of democracy and a market economy. So that’s the type of vision that the U.S. has embraced. However, it’s not clear that the U.S. government feels committed to doing very much in order to achieve the vision. That challenges teams to be more aware that the South Korea would be the taking the lead role.

Thanks for taking your time for the interview.


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