by Zahra Sadat Khezri

Sanctions alone won't get North Korea to give up nuclear arms: Boston professor

October 8, 2017

TEHRAN - A professor of international relations from Boston University believes that economic sanctions alone will not prompt North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

“Sanctions alone won't get the North Koreans to give up their weapons,” Thomas Berger tells the Tehran Times in an exclusive interview.Professor Berger, who has written extensively on the international relations of East Asia and Western Europe, also says if North Korea “could fully rely on China's
What follows is the full text of interview:

support, it might be less determined to develop nuclear weapons of its own.”  

“Eventually this type of war of nerves (between the U.S. and North Korea) can lead to an accident or miscalculation, which could plunge the whole region into war,” says Berger who teaches at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.

Q: Tensions started rising between the U.S. and North Korea after Donald Trump came to power. What were the reasons for such an escalation?

A: Tensions were already rising before Trump came to power. Indeed, after Trump's Victory, Trump and out-going President Obama had a long conversation in which North Korea was the main topic of conversation. U.S. intelligence knew that North Korea was coming to a critical juncture and its nuclear weapons development program. The election of Trump as President did not cause or even trigger the crisis. If Hillary Clinton had won, I rather suspect that we would be in the middle of the same crisis, even though she probably would be handling it differently.

Q: In his UN speech, Donald Trump warned to “totally destroy North Korea” if it threatens U.S. or its allies. What message does this threatening language send to the world?

A: In and of itself, there is nothing new about Trump's statement. Already back in the early 1990s, then President George Bush Sr. had warned that if North Korea attacked South Korea using atomic weapons, the United States would turn North Korea into “paring lot” and the U.S. policy of providing extended deterrence to its allies has long been based on this threat. What is different about Trump's speech, and his approach in general, has been his willingness to taunt the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, and to match the generally overheated rhetoric of the North measure for measure. This has the unfortunate effect of both goading Kim Jong Un into undertaking potentially more reckless behavior, as well as raising fear of confrontation among U.S. allies - South Korea and Japan - who would have to bear the brunt of any conflict that did break out.

Q: Can exchange of insults between the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea lead to a war?

A: It is still unlikely that we wind up in a war on the peninsula, since both sides are well aware of the risks and the potential costs are so high. Unfortunately, there is a real risk of escalating brinksmanship in which each side is willing to take greater risks in order to pressure the other side to back down. Eventually this type of war of nerves can lead to an accident or miscalculation, which could plunge the whole region into war. It is impossible to say how high that risk is - it is certainly less than 50%, but it is greater than 0%. And those odds are going up right now with the passage of time, as both leaders increasingly feel that their personal legitimacy is at stake and that therefore they cannot afford to be perceived as losing.

Q: Aren’t war of words in the 21st century alien to the modern world?

A: There is nothing about the modern world that makes this type of conflict less likely. Indeed, because of nuclear weapons in some ways it has become more likely.  When it becomes impossible to win a conventional military conflict, but there are still disputes in which vital national interests are at stake, political leaders are inclined to bluster and threaten each other. We saw this at different times in the Cold War - between the USSR and the United States over Korea in 1953, Berlin in 1961, Cuba in 1962 and during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, as well as between the United States and China in 1958. We have seen it between India and Pakistan over Kargil in 1998-1999 and we are seeing it between the U.S. and North Korea today. The good news is, the chances of war are less likely than they used to be. The bad news is, if things go wrong, they will go very, very wrong. Which is what makes the situation so tense.

Q: Some analysts believe the threat of regime change have prompted North Korean leader to advance its nuclear weapons program and order nuclear tests. They argue the North Korean leader, through such behaviors, is seeking guarantee that his regime will remain intact.
What is your analysis?

A: This is a widely shared view, and it is probably correct. Kim Jong Un seems to have drawn the lesson that giving up nuclear weapons is a bad idea - see for instance what happened to the Ukraine today - and that leaders, even ones that cooperate with the United States, who do not have nuclear weapons will find themselves deposed with catastrophic results for themselves and their families - as was the case with Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein.

Q: Do you believe sanctions on North Korea can cause a change in Pyongyang’s behavior? In other words, do you think North Korea leader Kim Jong Un will give in to pressure?

A: Sanctions alone won't get the North Koreans to give up their weapons,  but an effective sanctions regime - one in which China and probably Russia participate fully - combined with diplomatic and economic incentives to the North that give them things that they want might get them to screw back their program. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to get such cooperation from China and Russia, and there is considerable doubt inside the U.S. government that we can get an agreement that will be acceptable.

“Kim seems to have drawn the lesson that giving up nuclear weapons is a bad idea.”Q: The world is insisting on diplomacy to resolve the dispute between the U.S. and North Korea; however politicians and analysts say North Korean cannot trust the U.S., especially as Trump is seeking to kill all Barack Obama’s foreign policy achievements. What is your opinion?

A: The United States as well wants a diplomatic solution, the question is, will it be possible to get an agreement acceptable to both sides. An agreement that recognizes the North as a nuclear state, lifts sanctions, ends U.S. military exercises with South Korea and grants it diplomatic recognition without anything in return other than the North smiles and says it won't test its missiles any  further is not very appealing. An agreement in which the North gives up its weapons, stops testing missiles, and closes down its weapons producing facilities and agrees to an intrusive verification regime in return for a lifting of some sanctions and the start of a diplomatic dialog that would lead to a lifting of sanctions, reestablishing diplomatic and economic relations and eventually to fully normalized relations including a peace treaty might be attractive to Washington, but probably not acceptable to Pyongyang. Is there something between these two poles that could be worked out? Perhaps, but the odds are not great.

Q: Do you also agree with this analysis that North Korea no longer can trust China and Russia against the U.S. as it did in the past, therefore it feels obliged to strengthen its own power?

A: North Korea never fully trusted Russia and China, and in the past used to play one off against the other. After the Cold war, Russia largely left the picture, although it is trying to reinsert itself into the picture. North Korea could rely on China insofar as China did not want the North to collapse and be replaced with a pro-Western regime. To that extent, North Korea probably still can count on some measure of Chinese support, and China has continued to push for a diplomatic solution - the so-called “freeze for a freeze” - that is closer to the North's preferences than it is to West's. But if China could wave a magic wand and put in place a regime in the North that was more compliant with Beijing's wishes, it would. Undoubtedly, if the North felt it could fully rely on China's support, it might be less determined to develop nuclear weapons of its own. But the reality is, Pyongyang and the Kim regime has long distrusted China.

“Pyongyang and the Kim regime has long distrusted China.”

Q: What is your suggestion for resolution of the conflict between Pyongyang and Washington?
A: There is no apparent way to resolve the conflict. The best we can do is to manage it. If the North is willing to agree to an agreement and inspections regime that is acceptable to us, we should go for it. If not, we should continue to pressure the North and impose sanctions so that other countries that might want to break out of the Non-proliferation regime see that there is a cost to doing so. There are very few countries that want to pay the kind of price that North Korea is paying for its defiance. At the same time, we will need to strengthen our deterrent posture in North East Asia, enhancing missile defenses for Japan and South Korea, improving our ability to retaliate if the North attacks. Also we need to allow the South Koreans and the Japanese to develop their own ability to strike back if need be. This does not mean encouraging to develop them nuclear weapons of their own, but their own missile and tactical strike capability which if push came to shove could also deliver nuclear weapons - something along the lines NATO did for its non-nuclear allies during the Cold War. Finally we will need to work with China, Russia, South Korea and Japan to greatly strengthen the PSI (Proliferation Security Initiative) regime so that we can prevent North Korea from selling nuclear weapons technology or weapons to other countries or groups.  

Leave a Comment

3 + 12 =