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ROSE: Hi, everybody. And welcome to our conference call, understanding North Korea’s escalating threat. I’m really sorry about the slowness in starting up. We had so much interest in this call we are—our systems are overwhelmed. But now we’ve got everybody on, so we’re ready to go.
We have a wonderful group today to discuss this with. Ely Ratner, the Maurice Greenberg senior fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, just recent came from the vice president’s staff where he handled these issues in the government. Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, one of the leading experts on East Asian security issues and general sort of questions like this. Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at CFR, long-time North Korea expert and writer on this.
So we have the people we need to inform us about the situation, and calm up down, perhaps, but also scare us in other ways. (Laughs.) So I’m—hold on a second. (Background noise.) That was a(n) unplanned presence.
To start off, I’d like to draw on my classical education, for a change, and start with a quotation: "Mah nishtana hah layla hazeh mikol haleylot?" Why is this crisis different from all other crises? Right now we seem to be on the brink of potential nuclear war, or at least that’s the way the papers are playing it and cable TV is stressing it. Is this actually any different from all the other Korea crises that basically get resolved calmly without escalating? So, first things first, how scared should we be? Let’s start with Ely, then go to Sheila, then go to Scott.
So, Ely, how scared are you now and how scared should the rest of us be?
RATNER: I guess my quick answer would be, I wouldn’t be too scared yet. I think the president’s comments were irresponsible. It does do damage to his credibility. And there is potential for escalation, but I think comparisons to the Cuban missile crisis are way overblown. I don’t think we’re on the brink of a nuclear war. There’s very little indication that what the president said reflects an actual policy decision within the White House to pursue preemptive war.
And I think it’s quite important that both Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson came out within 24 hours, without directly contradicting the president, but seeking to dial down the temperature and bring us back to a very traditional U.S.-North Korea policy of deterrence and reassurance and pressure, and leaving the door open for diplomacy. So the policy itself looks business as usual, thought the rhetoric is potentially destabilizing.
ROSE: Sheila, your take. Do you agree with Ely on that? Can we breathe a little more easily, and?
SMITH: I do. I think what has freaked everybody out—to use academic language—(laughs)—is the language that our president used. It is not the way that our presidents normally address the situation. We’re supposed to be the adults in the room and we’re supposed to be the stabilizer when it comes to North Korea. And our allies in the region look to us to play that role.
I think what’s different, and where we ought to pay attention to the real policy needs of this administration, is it’s clear that during this administration North Korea will have acquired capabilities that it did not have in the last administration. I don’t want to talk about slow boiling frogs and things like that, but we’ve all known that. And our military leaders have known this, our technical experts have known this, that we’re headed to a point where North Korea has a functioning ICBM capable of having a nuclear warhead.
That could be this administration or it could be slightly after it, but we are quickly coming to the point where we’re going to have to think very carefully about how we want to defend and deter our allies at that moment. And I think the United States—you know, it’s important that we understand that it’s not just about us. It’s about South Koreans and Japanese. And it’s, frankly, about the future stability of Asia.
ROSE: Great. Scott, let’s pick up from that point. Wasn’t this Rubicon crossed a decade ago when the Bush administration let North Korea go nuclear. So why do the additional developments in their nuclear and missile programs change the strategic calculus? I mean, if they can already blow up Guam or Hawaii, why does it matter if they can blow up Alaska or California? So realistically, even if the changes that Sheila just described, or the improvements in their WMD programs—North Korean WMD programs occur over the next few years, why will that change the situation and make the older policies we’ve been relying on no longer applicable?
SNYDER: Well, I think that the major development that is driving concern is related to the missile development program, clearly. We’ve lived with a nuclear North Korea for over a decade, as you mentioned. But we really haven’t had a debate or a final decision over where the red line is for what we can tolerate in terms of vulnerability to North Korea. And so we see the president suggesting that it’s unacceptable for them to have the capability, but we’ve also lived with vulnerability to enemies with nuclear weapons for decades. And so I think that that debate is unfolding now. And it also interact with this unsolved question of, you know, how exactly do we draw the line and send the signal to North Korea that enough is enough?
ROSE: OK. Now we cycle back to Ely. Ely, it seems to me, being a little bit of an agent provocateur, that there’s a difference between how the strategic community looks at this and how the public looks at this.
I think a lot of people in the strategic community kind of take for granted that we’re not going to be able to roll back the North Korean weapons program, and the best thing we can realistically hope for at this point is sort of a deter-and-contain model. And they’re actually somewhat comfortable with that—not happy about it, but, you know, we’ve done it for six decades, and we’ve done nuclear-ly for another decade, and we can keep doing it.
But it seems like the public and the politicians aren’t really comfortable with the idea that essentially at this point we have no choice but to trust the Pyongyang regime with nukes. Is this really a distinction between how the professionals and the public looks at things?
RATNER: Well, I think a lot of that has to do with our leadership and our political leadership. And I think I personally am critical of the degree to which not only the president but others within his administration have essentially lifted this up and describe it as the most urgent national-security threat to the United States; members of his—he himself saying in a tweet months ago it will not happen in terms of their development; other members of Congress saying this is intolerable; this is unacceptable. And that not only raises the expectations for the American people but then pushes them into the—into a corner from a political perspective.
So I do think the—the rhetoric from this administration in particular has been overhyped. And we’re seeing that reflected now in the media. And, frankly, I think some of our colleagues here in Washington in the analyst community have fed that as well. So I think it starts with the president, and that’s why his rhetoric isn’t helping
I think what Secretary Tillerson tried to do on his way, ironically, in the air to Guam, to suggest Americans should be sleeping comfortable at night is the right message from our political leadership. And frankly we need more of that.
ROSE: Sheila, so I’m delighted we have you on, just for you but also for the Japanese perspective, because it’s not always taken into account in these discussions. This is obviously not just a U.S.-North Korea thing or even a U.S.-North Korea-South Korea problem. And it’s not even just a U.S.-North Korea-South Korea-Japan problem. It’s a more complex regional security issue.
So the messaging is really difficult, because there are a lot of different audiences and a lot of different goals. Rich Lowry in Politico today writes that this administration has something for everyone. You can choose the president’s bellicosity, the secretary of defense’s firmness, or the secretary of state’s palaver. Which reflects the true administration posture? Who knows? Does the Trump administration? How are American allies and regional actors more generally reacting to the situation in which the messaging out of Washington is so confused?
SMITH: Well, there’s two pieces of this puzzle that, again, I think are important for the Japanese. Let me just stick with the Japanese for a second. And that is, in any transition of American administration, there’s a certain amount of getting to know you and then getting to know who you’re going to be working with at the alliance management level, which is the day-to-day working level.
We don’t have a lot of people at that level of alliance management in either the Department of Defense or the Department of State. So the assistant-secretary positions are not yet filled. So the regular stabilizing dialogue that would happen daily, right, between our two governments and the Japanese and American government on how are you treating this and how are you reacting to data, what’s next, that level is quiet and silent and not there to bolster whatever the Trump administration strategy is, right.
Second, we have the uncertainty about U.S. thinking. And I think we’ve all pointed that out, that there is a little bit lack of clarity and a little bit of hopeful thinking that there is actually, as I think Ely and both Scott maybe have said this, is that it’s business as usual; we are treating this difficult problem in the way we’ve always tried to treat this difficult problem, right—raise sanctions, coercion, try to get them to the table, make sure defenses and deterrence are working.
So that’s the way the Japanese would like to see the play. But here’s one piece of the Japan puzzle that I think most Americans don’t quite grasp, and that is that the missile program now brings Japan under threat. And the North Koreans have made it very, very clear that they want to make the Japanese understand the extent of that threat and the insufficiency of the steps they’ve taken so far in terms of ballistic missile defense. Japan does not, as you know, have offensive capability. It can’t strike back. But you’re beginning to see in the Japanese government, and indeed the Ministry of Defense today is one of the main advocates of Japan gaining conventional strike. Is that a hedge against the United States? Well, that’s not what they’re saying. They’re saying it’s helping to bolster the current. But you’re seeing some shifting thinking in Japan that’s pretty significant for the regional balance.
ROSE: Sheila, in the—during the campaign, of course, the Republican candidate made some suggestions along these lines, suggesting that in fact a South Korean and the Japanese nuclear capability might be an appropriate response. They’ve walked that back in practice and there’s been no follow up, but is there a memory in the region of those comments? And do those have any sort of presence in the back of people’s minds?
SMITH: So, for Japan—and it’s slightly different than South Korea, so I’ll defter to Scott on South Korea. But in Japan, there is very little public support for a nuclear option for Japan. So it was a shock when the U.S., as Japan’s main ally and provider of extended deterrence, started to—a candidate for the presidency started talking about Japan sooner or later ought to get a nuclear weapon. Well, the Foreign Ministry immediately went public and said we are signatories to the NPT; we do not embrace a nuclear option for Japan’s security; we embrace a strong and solid U.S.-Japan alliance. So I don’t see demand in Japan for consideration of that option. South Korea, the politics are different.
ROSE: Scott, talk to us about South Korean politics for a second. What are they thinking through all this?
SNYDER: Well, with regard to acquisition of a nuclear weapon, actually there is strong public support for the idea that South Korea should get a nuclear capability to match that of the North, and we’re seeing increasingly a number of politicians voicing that as well. But overall, the attitude of the government is that getting a nuclear capability would entail unnecessary risk and would be highly costly. Basically, they’d be following North Korea’s path to isolation in terms of economic retribution and responses that would be very damaging, given South Korea’s high trade dependence.
The current Moon administration really wanted to find a way to engage with North Korea. They’d like to see the tensions tamped down. Even yesterday, their National Security Council called for dialogue. But every single initiative that the new president has put forward toward North Korea, the North Koreans have popped those trial balloons. And so it’s pretty clear that the North Koreans are really focused on the U.S. right now and on trying to extend their nuclear capabilities.
ROSE: Scott, actually, a question to follow up on that. There’s been a lot of turmoil in South Korean politics recently, shall we say. Is any of that relevant here, or does it affect how the South is going to respond during this kind of crisis? Or is that just a separate issue, the domestic political situation?
SNYDER: Mainly, domestically, I think the Moon administration is constrained because they have minority control in their National Assembly, and they’re also constrained by the international environment. You know, Moon really is ideologically predisposed to follow progressive administrations, including Roh Moo-hyun, where he worked as chief of staff, but that’s simply not an option given the rising North Korea threat. And so, as a result, we saw that he basically embedded himself in the U.S.-Korea alliance, stated that he agreed with President Trump on many issues related to North Korea in advance of his visit to Washington. And, in fact, it’s increasingly hard to say that the South Korean foreign policy under Moon is really dramatically different from some of his conservative predecessors.
ROSE: Got it.
Ely, back to you. Let’s turn to China. What’s the Chinese role in all this? Can it change? Will it change? How significant a player has anything done—what’s happening on that front?
RATNER: Well, the Chinese position on North Korea, in a sense, has been static for many years, and in a sense has been evolving quickly. And what I mean by that is that the fundamental strategic dilemma that China has faced, which is that although it would like to see a denuclearized North Korea, it is not willing to risk instability on the peninsula to achieve that. And so that has bound its willingness to assert pressure on North Korea, to the point that it could lead to the toppling of the regime.
I think that strategic fact remains a huge constraint on Chinese behavior. At the same time, North Korea’s behavior has—or, North Korea itself has become increasingly a strategic liability for China in terms of bringing the United States military close to China’s borders, strengthening its posture and presence in Northeast Asia, strengthening trilateral cooperation between the United States, Japan and South Korea, and enhancing the defensive missile defense capabilities of South Korea and Japan, as well as some of the discussions that Scott and Sheila mentioned about enhancing offensive, or initiating offensive capabilities in Japan’s case.
So I think the degree to which this is starting to constrain China’s own strategic space is increasing. And as a result of that, the Chinese have been willing to sign up to much more significant U.N. Security Council sanctions over time. The resolution that passed unanimously, which they agreed to just in the last few weeks, would have been completely unexpected even of a couple years ago, banning some of these major commodities. So clearly they’re being willing to exert more pressure on North Korea. By all accounts, the North Korea issue the hottest foreign policy issue in Beijing, and one where they’re probably more willing to evolve where they’ve been in the past. Whereas, on issues like the South China Sea or Taiwan, there’s a consensus view that’s very entrenched. Not so on North Korea.
And it may be the case that if North Korea follows down this path, for instance testing additional nuclear weapons, that China may even be willing to go further. And the fact that they’ve signaled that to the Trump administration I think is one of the reasons why the Trump administration has continued to try to bring them along in this process, which they’ve been willing to do. So they’re still a major player, but at the same time they’re not holding the cards, because they don’t have a lot of political influence over North Korea. And clearly they’re not going to be able to constrain Donald Trump. So they’re calling for calm, as they always do. But I think they’re worried that either the North Koreans or the Trump administration could escalate this beyond control.
ROSE: Got it.
Scott, let’s turn to you for a second. How does this play out over the next few days and weeks ahead? Not what should happen, but what happens.
SNYDER: Over the course of the next two weeks I expect tensions to escalate, actually, because the North Koreans have pledged to conduct a new demonstration over their missile capabilities in the direction of Guam. And the United States is going to be conducting, with South Korea, joint military exercises during the last two weeks of August. This is always a sensitive issue, but it is more hair-trigger as the North Koreans are very sensitive to the likely additional nuclear-capable aircraft flyovers.
Subsequent to that, the real issue is can we find a kind of exit ramp from the crisis? And I think that Secretary Tillerson has certainly tried to lay some foundations for that. And maybe the North Koreans also will come to the realization that there’s a limit to how far they should push. In fact, years ago there was an intra-Korean crisis that ended up resulting in negotiations. And so that provides hope for where Kim Jong-Un might go.
ROSE: A friend of mine in grad school always suggested to me the idea of having a counter-cyclical hedge fund that would bet against volatility based on South Korea—or, South China Sea crises, Indo-Pak crises, and Korea crises, on the grounds they always spiked up and always resolved. And you could make money betting against everybody else’s hysteria. And it’s worked out pretty well over the years.
Sheila, let me go back to you for a question about extended deterrence.
ROSE: The Europeans have grappled with the question of whether the U.S. would actually live up to its promises to protect them over the years. The French, of course, maintain their own nuclear program over worry that we wouldn’t, supposedly. Isn’t the question of whether we would in fact die for, you know, Yokohama or whatever, a class Cold War extended deterrence question that will be dealt with in the ways these things have always been dealt with, regardless of the developments of North Korean missiles?
SMITH: So, you know, the interesting thing about the extended deterrence literature, for any IR folks, right, is that it is largely based on European experience, right? It’s largely based on the land war, the scenario of NATO versus Warsaw Pact, and the horizontal escalation and vertical—all those—all those scenarios that were played out, even with the INF deployments by the Soviets, right, at the end of the Cold War. And Asia has never really been in the picture, right? There hasn’t been a healthy debate in Japan about what constitutes an effective extended deterrent. And Japan’s own constitution, of course, and the Japanese public sort of nuclear allergy, has really—has basically said, you know, the Japanese public is not interested in an overt conversation about what’s an effective nuclear umbrella.
But today I think you’re starting to see that conversation come to the surface a little bit more frequently in Japan. What is it that the United States has to do? Does it need more troops in the region? Does it need signaling and the kind of exercises that Scott was talking about, for example? In all these ways, I think the Japanese government is starting to have to tell its public that, yes, the Americans are here; and, yes, they’re with us. So you see these frequent trips by Secretary Tillerson. The early trip by Secretary Mattis meant a lot to the Japanese, right? So there’s the politics of telling your public, right, that the Americans will come if we need them.
The bigger question, as you said, is this question of, well, what happens when the North Koreans do have a capability to put Los Angeles at risk, or Tokyo, or Yokohama, or whatever? And that will raise an existential question for the Japanese on their strategic dependence on us. Will it change their preferences? No. I think it will bring Japan closer to the United States, and will start probably to incentivize, you know, some kinds of changes that have been difficult in Japan.
I think it’s important to remember the U.S.-Japan alliance militarily is not structured the same, for example, as the U.S.-ROK alliance or NATO. We don’t have a joint command in that bilateral alliance. We don’t have a warfighting strategy that’s an alliance warfighting strategy. The Japanese have kept their military close to home and have kept them out of those kinds of arrangements with us until very recently.
So you are starting to see, I think, some serious thought to how do we plan effectively in the alliance. And Prime Minister Abe, as you know, reinterpreted the Japanese constitution to allow the Japanese military to work alongside the U.S. in areas just like this. So what we’re seeing today is the very first example of what U.S. and Japanese militaries would do together in ballistic missile defense operations, for example.
ROSE: Well, so that’s actually a silver lining to this, like, in the sense that sort of we’ll actually make more practical defense arrangements and military planning because we’re now actually scared.
SMITH: Exactly. And I think the Japanese today are—and it’s not just about Mr. Abe, although he is far more hawkish on some ways on the military issues than some previous prime ministers. But these are—these are reforms that have been in the making for a couple of decades, and they’re largely driven by the North Korean example and behavior.
ROSE: Great. Let me just close my section of this with one more question to you guys—I’ll give it to Ely first, but for everyone to jump in—and then turn it over for Q&A.
So, Ely, the upshot of this crisis, if it plays out the way you guys are essentially describing, will be that I think people will take the president’s tweets even less seriously than they have been. And I wonder whether this will ultimately be something like the transgender policy tweet, in which his own military repudiated the commander in chief, essentially, by saying we’re not going to follow his tweet as policy until we get further details, and everyone sort of realized that you didn’t have to take the tweet seriously. Is the upshot of all of this going to be that sort of essentially the “fire and fury” tweet, you know, everyone’s going to say, well, that’s just Trump tweeting, and we’ll solve the crisis in the normal way with Tillerson and Mattis and everybody else negotiating, and so forth? But if that happens, what does that mean for the future of U.S. foreign policy if the president of the United States’ direct communications to the world and to everybody are no longer taken seriously?
RATNER: Well, I would hope that the upshot of this current situation is that the administration understands—and perhaps with General Kelly as chief of staff—that it’s important that they’re speaking with one voice, and that they actually develop a coherent strategy. And as I understand it, members of the president’s national security team are heading out, many of them today, up to New Jersey. Some of them are already up there and others heading up tomorrow, specifically to meet and talk about and try to coordinate on North Korea.
So I—you know, no one’s going to stop Trump from being Trump. But I think, given the severity of this issue, I’m hoping that they’ll at least come up with a coordinated approach and a coordinated messaging strategy that will achieve the goals of talking to the many voices that you articulated—to the Chinese, to the South Koreans, Japanese, and to the North Koreans, and to the American people as well. So hopefully there will be a call for coordination here, which is desperately needed.
ROSE: So they’re all heading up to the golf club to hopefully declare the tweet a mulligan.
OK. So, on that note, let’s turn this over to discussion with our wonderful participants on the phone. I’d like to remind you that this conference call is on the record. Please limit yourself to one question. And keep it concise because we have a whole lot of people on this call. And the operator will give you instructions.
OPERATOR: Thank you very much.
Ladies and gentlemen, at this time we would like to open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question will come from Paul—Kenneth Oye, MIT.
Q: Thank you very much for the presentation.
I’ll be traveling to Tokyo and Seoul and China at the end of month, and was listening with great interest. The question specifically is what do you expect to see coming out of South Korea? There had been an expression of interest in renewal of elements of the sunshine policy. How are they likely to be reacting and responding in terms of their policies toward the North?
ROSE: Scott, you want to take that?
SNYDER: Want me to take that? Sure.
So far the Moon Jae-in administration has—continues to try to tempt the North with dialogue offers. But so far the North Koreans are simply not taking them up. And so that’s a big problem for the Moon administration, because basically what they’re learning is that you really can’t have a kind of sunshine policy or an engagement policy if the other side is not only unwilling to engage but continues to pursue activity that ends up being a direct threat to your national security.
We’ll see whether there is some kind of response by the North, but I actually believe that North Korea is going to have to make some structural changes in order to be able to engage the South. The main interlocutor on North Korea in charge of South Korea policy is a military man, not somebody who has any experience negotiating.
ROSE: That’s good. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Paul Heer, George Washington University.
Q: Yes, hello. Thank you for the conversation.
There was a reference to Secretary Tillerson’s statements earlier this week. One of the things he did was to offer talks to Pyongyang if it behaved. He made this offer apparently as if Pyongyang wants to talk to us and there’s agreement on what to talk.
My question is, is there a mutually acceptable basis for dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang?
ROSE: By the way, hold on one second. Before we answer that question—and I’m happy to get into that question—Paul, as a major long-term U.S.-China intelligence specialist, do you have anything to add on the Chinese angle in this, like anything new? Or does this remind you of all the stuff in the past?
Q: (Laughs.) Oh, I don’t want to take up another hour of your time. I’ll just say that I think the Chinese are going to—I agree with Ely. The Chinese are unwilling to assume risks that they don’t perceive we’re willing to assume ourselves.
ROSE: This being the Council on Foreign Relations, the people on the call have as much expertise as the people on the panel often.
Ely or Sheila or Scott, who wants to take Paul’s question?
SMITH: I can jump in a little bit on—
SNYDER: I’ll start, I guess. OK.
SMITH: Go ahead, Scott.
RATNER: Sheila, go for it.
I mean, I think there’s a pretty compelling need for more effective direct communication and dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea, given the war of words that has ensued, if for no other reason than to try to minimize the prospect of miscalculation. But whether or not that’s going to lead to any kind of resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue, I’m pretty skeptical that we’re going to make very much progress. It’ll be an issue that remains with us for a long time.
ROSE: Next question?
RATNER: Yeah, I would just add—sorry, this is Ely—I would just add, Paul, it’s a good question, because I think there are a lot of people who are interested in the negotiations track, but it’s unclear even what the initial steps of that negotiation would look like.
And if, for instance, you take one of the proposals that the Chinese have put on the table now for almost a year, what they call a freeze-for-freeze proposal, where the North Koreans would freeze their program and in return the United States would freeze or cancel or reduce some of its military exercises with South Korea, on both accounts neither side appears willing to even take what a lot of people would consider to be an initial first step, that the North Koreans do not appear interested in this point of curbing their program, and the Trump administration—and, frankly, the same for the Obama administration—was not interested in trading down our military readiness for getting into talks with North Korea.
So on neither side is there, I think, a clear understanding of what the concessions would be. So I agree with Scott that, you know, I personally would be in favor in some—in favor of some sort of dialogue, but it’s unclear what even the first couple of steps of going toward some stabilizing agreement would look like at this point, unfortunately.
ROSE: Great. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Lee Cullum, North Texas Public Media.
Q: Thank you very much. I am interested in what’s happened to THAAD, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. When I was in Incheon on June, the new president, Moon Jae-in, had a lot—well, two of the launchers had been installed, but he postponed the other four pending an environmental study. What’s happening? Is it still in limbo?
ROSE: Who wants to tackle THAAD?
SNYDER: The THAAD deployment—so, this is Scott Snyder. The Korean administration has gone forward with authorizing on a temporary basis the deployment of the remaining components of that system, following the second ICBM test. I think there are a lot of people who—on the U.S. side—who would have liked to see that move occur after the July 4th test. But presumably, the batteries are—the components are being put into place. And the remaining components should be operational for now. They will continue with an environmental study while the unit is fully deployed.
Q: Thank you very much. And thanks for an excellent presentation.
ROSE: Thanks, Lee. Always good to talk to you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Michael Mosettig, PBS Online NewsHour.
Q: I guess this is—(coughs)—excuse me—for Ely. Even with Sheila’s caveats about Japanese public and political opinion about going nuclear, isn’t this the one thing that might change China’s strategic calculation, and particularly since they tend to think longer term? Because technically, it wouldn’t take very long if Japan made that—made that decision. Is this the one thing that might get China off the dime?
RATNER: I don’t know if it’s the one thing, and I don’t think we should necessarily think of it as a—as a card we would play, certainly not separate from Japanese government and public opinion. But it is among the types of things that I would put in the category of a much deeper, enhanced, trilateral alliance or the United States being interested in some sort of destabilizing, decapitation or regime change. That would be in the category of things that if China thought was really about to happen that they may be willing to rethink their—how they balance stability with denuclearization. But we’re not there yet. But I think you’re right to identify it as something that would raise a lot of eyebrows and a lot of concerns in Beijing.
ROSE: Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Peter Behr, EE News.
Q: (Off mic)—this briefing.
Looking at threats down the road, how do you assess North Korea’s capabilities to launch a new cyber campaign, perhaps as a warning shot aimed at critical infrastructure? And even further down the line, the threat of a high-altitude EMP weapon, which could either be missile-launched or satellite-launched?
ROSE: Good point, because, of course, the—with the Sony hack, the North Koreas already have done offensive cyberwarfare against American targets, even if it’s commercial. Anything likely to follow on that front?
SNYDER: Well, with regards to North Korea’s cyber capabilities—this is Scott Snyder—we know that they have about 5(,000) to 6,000 personnel deployed in the cyber area. Many of them—many of the threats have been emanating from outside of North Korea. I think we can anticipate that there would be continued activity, especially actually in the commercial area more recently, since the Sony hack, with regards to an attack on infrastructure. We don’t—so far, the main infrastructural attack using cyber with North Korea was on the South Korean banking system in advance of the Sony hack. But it’s reasonable to suggest that there’s a need for defense in that area.
And with regard to an EMP, that’s an interesting question that comes up from time to time, but has not really gotten nearly as extensive focus as the possibility of nuclear use. And so I—it’s an interesting question whether or not there’s a distinction there, or whether the damage would be so great that the U.S. would respond to the extent possible in the same fashion that it has stated it would respond in the event of nuclear use by North Korea.
ROSE: OK. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Vikrum Aiyer, Postmates.
Q: Hi. For anyone that had an opportunity to work in the last administration, many of us hold very closely to the sense of rhetoric that comes out and informs any foreign-policy doctrine.
I’m curious whether you think—and I think someone quoted the well-written Politico article in which it’s describing with various adjectives how each of the different spokespeople are operating—but I’m curious whether you think the way in which the announcements from the president were actually spoken, with sort of the bluster and might that have come directly from the president, if that is something, in the sort of online digital media-driven White House, should be taken seriously as informing a new doctrine of how we flex deterrence as a nuclear state, or whether we should just sort of chalk this up as typical President Trump blunder?
SMITH: Hmm. That’s an interesting question.
ROSE: Anybody? (Inaudible.)
SMITH: I will jump in just because. (Laughs.)
So there’s been a lot in the media, and there’s a little bit of it in the Japanese press, that kind of acts as an echo chamber of our media conversation about the madman theory, right. And that is, you know, that this is—we know now that it probably wasn’t a deliberate use of this kind of language by the president, but the idea is that you ratchet up the rhetoric in an effort to say, you know, we really can’t control the president. We really can’t control his thinking on this issue. You’d better get in line or you’d better get to the negotiating table.
I think, in some ways, that is—for our allies in particular, that’s a little bit of a dangerous strategy and not a comfortable one for Japan, I would say, at least. I’m not sure that people attribute that, right, to President Trump anymore. I think our media has kind of discounted that notion, that this is a coherent strategy. But I don’t think the madman theory is comforting to allies and others who, again, as I said at the beginning, depend on us for a particularly important stabilizing role, especially when it comes to considering the use of nuclear weapons. I don’t think the Japanese would buy in to an alliance strategy that had an erratic American, you know, rhetoric at its core.
And I think therein lies our challenge. Again, Gideon asked me earlier about extended deterrence. You do need your allies’ buy-in to how you’re going to effectively operate together to a regional threat. And so therein I, like you, think that rhetoric matters, but I don’t think that where we are at the moment is a very healthy course.
ROSE: Great. I should just put in a plug for the next issue of Foreign Affairs, by the way, that’ll be appearing in all of your mailboxes very soon. The lead package is on how the allies, how U.S. allies, are responding to the Trump administration, including Japan and Australia and the European allies, Canada, Mexico. So it’s a really interesting look at exactly that dilemma of what does it mean to be an American ally in the Trump era, and how do you deal with what’s going on? Very interesting package.
Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
Our next question will come from Mary Louise Kelly, National Public Radio.
Q: Hi there. Thanks for doing this, Gideon.
My question has to do with the exit ramp. Scott, you raised the—how we might find an exit ramp. And I wondered if you or one of the other speakers would care to pick up on that. Is it clear to you that the U.S. wants to find an exit ramp from the current crisis? And are there specific things you’d put under consideration, particularly, as you mentioned, as we head into two weeks where other factors may contribute to things heating up rather than ratcheting back?
ROSE: Great question.
SNYDER: Well—go ahead, Ely.
RATNER: Sure. I’ll—I hadn’t jumped in, but I will.
I mean, I think the—you know, what I would argue is that the exit ramp is to get into some kind of negotiated solution, but that the time for that is not yet ripe because neither the Chinese nor the North Koreans are at the point yet where they’re willing to make the kind of serious concessions that we would need to get into that kind of discussion.
So I actually think that the Trump administration, at the end of the day, although they don’t describe it as such, that what they’re doing is they’re pursuing a maximum-pressure strategy with, frankly, a sanctions regime that is unprecedented. This isn’t old wine in new bottles. This is a level of pressure that we haven’t seen yet, not because necessarily it will bend and twist Kim Jong-un’s arm to accept denuclearization, but that it’ll increase American leverage to get into a set of negotiations in which it can use either enhanced pressure on North Korea or have more chits, then dial back as concessions to get into negotiations. So I think we’re heading down the right road. I think the—again, the sort of—the bluster and the hype and the hystericalness that could lead to escalation is totally unwarranted.
I think there is a fairly considered policy that’s running underneath all that noise, that’s heading down a comprehensive pressure strategy. And I think the question is, do we have enough time for that to work before either the president or North Korea does something that really destabilizes the situation. But I think if we could get down that path, we could at least catch the proposition that there may be a negotiated solution where both the United States and North Korea would find an acceptable set of measures to get us off of the crisis footing.
ROSE: Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Monica Yue (sp), Voice of America.
Q: Hi. Thank you for the presentation.
So my question is, you know, Trump administration, several months ago they said that all options are on the table, including military options. So now will military option—or, can military option be an option for the United States? And how China and North Korea calculate U.S. military options? Thank you.
ROSE: Yeah, it’s a great question, guys. Is the threat to have all things on the table really just a bluff at this point, that we should make and say make, but we’re not actually intending to do a military strike? Because most people think it would be absolutely insane to do a military strike?
SMITH: So I’ll do a first cut real quick. I think every new administration, when they come in, almost all of them anyway, have used that language: All options are on the table, right? There’s a kind of—not a reset, but there’s an opportunity for rethink at the beginning of any administration. And so we’re six months into the Trump administration. It feels like forever, but in fact we’re still in a transition year, right, for them. So saying all options are on the table makes sense as a—maybe a platitude. But it certainly makes—gives them a little flexibility in the way they think about their policy review.
I think the military option, and when we talk about the military option we tend to, like—we tend to focus on preemption, that the United States would preemptively strike these military forces to strike North Korea. And that, of course, there’s no rational reason why that would happen. And the cost would be catastrophic. And I think, again, to their credit, the Trump administration has made that very clear, despite their rhetoric of this week. But I think there are a lot of other military options. And they’re much, much smaller. And they’re much, much more focused on defense and deterrence. So the military option is actually a menu, and it’s a pretty big menu.
And some of the actions can be smaller in terms of signaling. And you’ve seen a lot of that going on. You’ve seen the B-1 bomber flights. You’ve seen the—you know, the readiness level in the U.S.-Japan relationship and the Korean—the American and Korean forces in Korea responding to the July 4th missile test, for example. So there is a whole host of options that U.S. policymakers have, along with their allies, to signal the—if not red lines, because I hate—I don’t like that language, right—but to signal intent for defense and deterrence. And I think the United States has been using all of them.
ROSE: It sounds so soothing to hear actual professionals talk about these issues rationally. It’s just such a change. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Christopher Wall, Pillsbury Winthrop.
Q: Yes. Thanks very much. I’d like to follow up on China and the issue that came up previously on sanctions. We’ve been fairly light on China in the past in that regard. And that’s paid some dividends, obviously, with China signing onto the U.N. Security Council resolution. But my question is, how likely do you think China will actually follow through in enforcing the terms of that resolution? And if not, what do you think the prospects would be for—of what the next scale in terms of new sanctions would be, and how China would react to that? And whether that would be effective.
ROSE: Ely, you want to pick that up?
RATNER: Sure. You know, it’s a difficult problem, from a U.S. policy perspective, because there is—if you pushed China too hard they could decide we’re not going to help you guys anymore. In which case, you wouldn’t have much implementation at all and it would have a number of other negative effects. So there is this very difficult balancing act that U.S. administrations have to engage in, which is pushing them enough to signal that we’re serious but not so much that they get off the train in terms of wanting to cooperate on this issue. So there are debates around how much is too much and how much is too little. But I think both the Obama administration and the Trump administration have wrestled with this problem.
Toward the end of the Obama administration, there were initial efforts, both privately and publicly, to start signaling to China that we were, in fact, willing to pursue secondary sanctions against Chinese individuals and entities and banks who are engaging in illicit financial activities with North Korea, and the Trump administration has come in both saying they would do that and doing some of it. And I think they’re prepared—at least the packages are prepared at Treasury—when the administration wants to decide to deploy more of these sanctions. But again, if they’re—if they’re getting a very comprehensive regime out of—out of the Security Council, then that’s going to make it a harder calculation. But I do think they’re prepared, if the determination is made that China isn’t enforcing this latest round of sanctions, to go after in an escalating way Chinese firms and banks.
The other thing that I’ll say on this issue of diplomacy with China and how to think about how much pressure the United States wants to put on Beijing is that the diplomatic conversation is not just about pressuring North Korea. There’s also a very nascent diplomatic conversation with China about what our governments would do and what our militaries would do in the event of a contingency or in the event of instability on the peninsula. And that’s a conversation we really need to be having, in terms of who’s going to talk to whom, what are our expectations about whose military may go where. And so there is a—there is a need to maintain at least a professional dialogue with China around these issues that’s separate from the sanctions.
ROSE: Great. One last question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Angelo Lisboa, JPMorgan. Angelo, your line is open.
OK, hearing no response, we’ll go into our next question. Rick Niu, C.V. Starr.
Q: Thank you for the opportunity to ask the last question here.
In the broader context of the U.S.-China relations, the president seemed to have adopted the tactic to link how China acts on North Korea in conjunction with the U.S. and the rest of the world with how U.S. should treat China on trade and investments. So, in the interest of the United States, how do you assess this approach to link the two matters? How effective do you think that’s going to be? And in light of the latest affairs surrounding North Korea, how sustainable do you think this linkage approach can be there? Thank you.
RATNER: Yeah, I would just say—this is Ely again—I think it’s the wrong approach. I think we should be approaching the issues within the U.S.-China relationship—for instance, trade and investments issues, Taiwan issues, South China Sea issues—on their own merits, and standing by our actions in our interests based on what our priorities are and not seeing them as things that we will trade to achieve other ends, because it makes us look unprincipled; and it leads Beijing to believe, possibly rightly, that it could buy off our national interests in these other areas. And, frankly, I think we’re likely to get more cooperation over time from Beijing if we’re seen as being firm and strong on issues across the board rather than willing to trade away our relations. So I think it’s not a particularly effective approach.
And moreover, to your question about sustainability, I don’t think it’s that sustainable, in part because the—and this is a conversation for another day—but the political imperatives for President Trump to make good on being more firm with China on trade and investment issues is overwhelming. The Democrats now have gotten on board and are going to push him harder than he may have even gone otherwise. So it’s impossible for me to imagine over time that he’s not at some point—and it may happen sooner than later—come forward with some of these trade- and investment-related actions versus China. So I don’t think it’s going to last for very long.
ROSE: OK. Let’s take one last question, actually.
ROSE: Oh, yeah. Sure, sure. Sheila, and then we’ll have one last question.
SMITH: Sorry, it’s just a—just a very quick add-on to Ely’s comment, which I agree with completely. I think it’s—we should be addressing this in an issue-based manner rather than just kind of economic-to-security tradeoff.
But I think the other piece is it’s not just U.S.-China. This kind of willing to barter or to threaten trade sanctions for non-cooperation in other kinds of security areas will make our allies very nervous, and will have broader systemic consequences that also effect the health of the Japanese economy and the South Korean economy and other economies in Asia. So it could quite backfire, to be deleterious to our interests.
ROSE: Great. Let’s squeeze in one last question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Xuazin Liu (ph), Xinhua News.
Q: Yes. Hi. Thanks for your discussion.
Just like there are different stances on Iran nuclear deal between Trump and key members of his Cabinet, do you think there are divisions in the Trump administration on how to deal with North Korea at this moment? Thanks.
ROSE: Good. Why don’t you each talk a little bit about that and offer any final quick thoughts you might have.
SNYDER: I guess I’ll start. This is Scott Snyder. Certainly there are a lot of different voices coming out on North Korea from the top of the administration. You can count about five or six. And I guess the question really is whether or not it’s possible to imagine that they can be synthesized into a coherent strategy or not. And clearly, one of the big challenges in the region is trying to understand exactly what the administration is saying and who to listen to.
RATNER: I guess my comment would be, I mean, I think there is the personnel deficit that Sheila mentioned, which is inhibiting a more coordinated policy because at the working level the people who are going to be working on these day-to-day are not all yet in place. And then on top of that, the administration has not had a coordinated policy process, as it should be, in terms of working the interagency and developing a coherent strategy and a coherent policy. So I think actually on North Korea the differences are smaller than they are, for instance, on the trade and investment issues, on the China question. But they do—they do exist. And the process has not yet been in place to coordinate them. So I think what we’re seeing is really a lack of process and a lack of personnel as much as it is really sharp differences among the principals.
SMITH: I think, you know, it’s hard to tell, because we’re not in a situation—for example, to compare it with the Iran nuclear deal—we’re not yet—I think Scott said this earlier—we’re not in a position where we know what a deal with North Korea might look like. And I don’t think there’s any consensus that we have a reasonable assessment of expectation that a deal is possible. So you can’t see those kinds of divisions yet, because we’re not even in a substantive conversation about what’s possible. But where I do sense that you do see differences, and it’s not just a bureaucratic set of differences—you know, where you sit reflects how you think—but I do sense that there is a pretty strong pushback from his Cabinet. And that goes from Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson on the use of force question.
Trump implied during the campaign, and implied—has implied over his Twitter use that is he quite willing to use military force. And yet, we know for a fact that inside the White House—and you can see it in the Afghanistan debate, for example—there’s some real differences of opinion here about whether the United States should get engaged in other people’s wars, right? So I think there’s something to be said here for are we—can we see the North Korea crisis as a place where there might be some separation on these larger questions about American engagement in the world and the American role in the world? I see that as emerging, but I’m not quite sure yet if we can identify along what lines those divisions are going to play out.
ROSE: Thank you all. You know, these are—we’re living through interesting times, as the old saying goes. We’re all feeling our way. And it’s delightful to be able to take advantage of the resources of the Council on Foreign Affairs to have a discussion among rational people who know what they’re talking about and can enlighten us all, and maybe lead us to feel a little bit less crazy going into the weekend.
Thank you, Scott, and Sheila, and Ely. Thank all of you on the call. And I look forward to many future calls where we’re not yet incinerated but can discuss the ongoing American foreign policy agenda with similar degrees of rationality and substance. Thank you all.
SMITH: Thanks, Gideon.