Washington is not ‘hyping’ threatIn a Feb. 9 editorial in this newspaper, I was accused of unnecessarily stoking fears of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula. I was labeled as “joining the chorus” of government officials in Washington and Seoul who “have a habit of maintaining tensions” vis-à-vis North Korea. I was also accused of “jumping to the conclusion” in my 2012 book “The Impossible State” that North Korea “would collapse.”
We must all accept that U.S.-ROK solidarity to deal with the challenges posed by North Korea is critical. It is important for those of us who explain the North Korean situation to be clear about what we mean. The editorial presentation of my position (and others in Washington) was confusing and alarming in itself. Allow me to explain exactly what I have been writing and saying so that readers can make their own judgments based on my analysis rather than another’s characterization. As allies, we owe that to one another.
I presume that the reference to my fear-mongering has to do with my public statements in Seoul and testimony before the U.S. Congress this week. In it, I did say that I expected North Korea would do a provocation early in the Trump administration, but this was not an argument made from ideology or opinion. It is a prediction based on empirical data. Indeed, my testimony referenced two data sets that we have collected at CSIS on the correlation between North Korean provocations and U.S. elections.
Our data set is the most comprehensive publicly sourced work on the topic and goes back to Kim Il Sung. Unlike most other punditry on North Korea, I have made a point of making claims based on data rather than mere opinion or ideology. Others can, of course, disagree with the data, but I am not “hyping” the threat. I am reporting what I see based on research.
Second, the editorial claimed that I stated in my book that North Korea would collapse during Obama’s term in office. Again, this statement does not reflect an actual reading of the book. I did not “jump to the conclusion” of DPRK collapse but thought about its possibility after some 500 pages of research.
In the end, I stated that I believed North Korea would experience some fundamental political discontinuities under Kim Jong-un compared with its past history. This has largely to do with the growing gap between an antiquated and rigid authoritarian political system and a civil society that grows more comfortable with market activities and outside information. This conclusion is substantively different from a claim of collapse.
Finally, had the editorial been based on a full reading of my views, it would have found that I value deeply the diplomatic track. In my congressional testimony, I argued that sanctions and military exercises without diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula would be remembered by historians as a path to war. I then talked about the need for greater risk-taking in our diplomatic approach that should give serious consideration to upending some of the conventional wisdom that have informed policies up until now.
The warnings of North Korea fielding a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. within two years is not an “arbitrary” tool used by Washington insiders to hype the threat. For those who are responsible for national security, it is a serious threat that must be stopped.
The editorial argues the U.S. and ROK need to “take a deep breath” and avoid crisis with North Korea in order to deal with Seoul’s political crisis and social divides. To argue that we should remain calm in order to quell the danger of capital flight is the type of logic that is well received in Pyongyang. It allows North Korea to leverage the peaceful status quo to their benefit and hold for ransom South Korea’s wealth while Pyongyang builds a modern nuclear force.
The editorial implies we should take a “business as usual” approach to North Korea given other pressing issues in South Korea.
However, policies in the U.S. and ROK will never change in ways that might be effective unless we acknowledge together the severity of the threat. Otherwise, we will continue down the same path of North Korean nuclearization, which will force both the ROK and U.S. to make choices later that they may not like.
*The author is D.S. Song professor of government and director of Asian studies at Georgetown University.