Summary of the presentation on….
Confronting North Korea
Dr. John Scire, Professor Xiaoyu Pu, and
Former Assemblyman Pat Hickey
North Korea has risen to become a major national security challenge for the United States and its allies. While long regarded as a nuisance, Pyongyang was not seen as a major threat to the United States, its allies, or even China. However, despite years of diplomacy marked by “strategic patience” and even offering “carrots” to the regime, nothing seems to have slowed down the North Korean quest for a nuclear weapons capability.
Our panelists agreed that North Korea has demonstrated it possesses nuclear devices and long range missiles capable of striking the continental United States. The time is coming to consider more serious steps to moderate or even eliminate the North Korea nuclear weapons programs.
The most recent missile launch by Pyongyang occurred just a day after the election of South Korea’s new President, Moon Jae-in. Moon has advocated reopening talks with North Korea, has refused to endorse U.S. missile defense in the region, and seems bent on relying on diplomatic negotiations and additional carrots in order to moderate the regime of Kim Jong-Un. Interestingly, all of our panelists seemed to have basic agreement with the new South Korean President’s approach and, despite North Korean missile tests and other hostile actions, seemed to favor additional diplomatic overtures and not– at least right now– to consider strikes against North Korean military targets.
Pat Hickey on North Korean Society and Economy
Former Nevada Assemblyman Pat Hickey, who is also an Honorary Consul to the Republic of Korea, began the discussions by presenting an overview of basic factors regarding North Korea. Hickey’s first slide, showing both North and South Korea at night, provided a striking comparison of the environment of both Koreas, with the North virtually dark and the South well lit up. Hickey also noted comparisons of each country’s population, political systems, significant variations in per capita income/GDP, trade with neighboring countries and the U.S., and, most importantly, size of the armed services and military equipment. Most striking in these comparisons was the absolute domination by Seoul in terms of economic output, but the vast advantage the North has in terms of military manpower and equipment.
Hickey pointed out trends within North Korea that will ultimately lead to the erosion of the “information blockade” that the regime has attempted to impose on North Korean society. The regime’s information blockade is being broken down by cross-border movement, trade, and new technologies. “Marketization” is increasing the proliferation of mobile phones, televisions, radios, DVD players, and South Korean dramas and Chinese films to watch on them. It is possible to buy cheap Chinese DVD players for around $20, and DVDs themselves are available for less than a dollar and are commonly shared or even rented. USB drives are also growing in popularity, and are used with computers and the newer DVD players that have a USB input port. This makes it easier to share and watch foreign media without being detected, because USB drives are so easy to conceal. The markets also provide a rare gathering space that can act as a forum for news, rumors, ideas and even low-level or implied criticism of the regime.
North Koreans are learning more about the reality of life in in the outside world and the reasons for their own poverty, and they cannot unlearn these things, Hickey stressed. All signs indicate that this ‘education in reality’ will only continue, and will further empower the North Korean people to think independently from the regime.
Dr. John Scire on North Korea’s military and nuclear capabilities
Dr. John Scire, who has over 30 years of experience in the U.S. Army, addressed the military threat represented by the North. Scire laid out more definitively the size of the armed forces of both countries and the– at least on paper– significant numerical advantages possessed by Pyongyang. However, Scire stressed, the North Korean capabilities were mitigated by the age of the equipment, the lack of mobility, and the absence of a sophisticated transportation system to move troops. Scire laid out a number of options that South Korea and the U.S. might pursue in bringing North Korea to the negotiating table, or, if necessary, eliminating the threat. The options ranged from surgical nuclear strikes, a pre-emptive invasion by the Republic of Korea and U.S. troops, limited harassment operations, and full out nuclear exchange. Scire’s analysis showed that the consequences of a conflict on South Korea would be enormous, and nearby countries such as China and Russia would likely also be impacted and perhaps involved. Scire concluded that while he did not favor the implementation of a military strike at this time, he strongly advocated that the U.S. and South Korea prepare viable options for the conduct of a campaign that would quickly neutralize North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities.
John explained the quality of the North Korean forces and their concentration along the DMZ as “vulnerabilities.” He also focused on the necessity to take preemptive action if the North Koreans did not denuclearize. This included the “use of tactical atomic weapons on their atomic weapons’ sites.”
Dr. Xiaoyu Pu on China’s Relationships with Both Koreas
Dr. Xiaoyu Pu, professor of political science at UNR, specifically addressed the role that China might play in either ameliorating the tensions or acting as an ally in the case that conflict ensued. Pu discussed the history of China/North Korea relations, in which, although beset by tensions, China still regards North Korea as a “buffer zone”. More importantly, Beijing feels that any conflict on the peninsula would quickly escalate to involve China itself, including a massive refugee flow out of the North. Within China public opinion leans toward a negative view of the DPRK and officials increasingly see that country as a strategic liability.
Dr. Pu pointed out that China does have a capability to restrain North Korea, as it is Pyongyang’s major supplier of energy and is the DPRK’s top trading partner. Pu concluded that despite China’s traditional relationship with the North, he believed that the key to reducing tensions on the peninsula lie in greater U.S./China cooperation. Pu, interestingly, thought that, like Nixon going to China, it was possible for President Trump to actually meet with the North Korean leader. Doing so might give Kim Jong-Un the visibility and prestige he so badly wants and might lead to a reduction of tensions.
Is a Conflict with North Korea Unavoidable?
In the discussion that followed, all three participants agreed that a conflict with North Korea might not be avoided. If such a conflict ensued, Scire felt that the U.S. could eliminate quickly Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities through a “Rolling Thunder” type of assault (full bombing strike).
Dr. Pu was asked why China could not be more helpful in alleviating tensions in the region. He stressed that while a mutual aid treaty still exists, the top leaders of both countries have never met, and the two sides have increasing distrust between them. And, in fact, China has not expressly stated that it will defend North Korea if a military conflict ensued, and Beijing has been quite critical of Pyongyang’s actions. He said this is “not a normal alliance” but more like a “bad marriage”. Further, Pu noted, China has supported sanctions placed on the North by the UN Security Council and for more than 20 years has had a formal relationship with South Korea. Both Pu and Scire felt that common ground could be found between China and the U.S. regarding the need for eliminating nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. Given Beijing and Washington’s common interest in preventing a major conflict between the Koreas that could easily go nuclear, they advocated for increased diplomatic overtures to the North and for both President Trump and President Xi to develop a more cooperative stance in dealing with the North Korean threat.
A record attendance was set by this meeting and it was clear that participants would welcome a further session on North Korea, particularly if the NSF is able to secure the presence of a high level current or former U.S. official who had responsibility for this region.
Dr. Tyrus W. Cobb
Be sure and look at the comprehensive PowerPoint our speakers used in their presentations (link below).