North is not ready to negotiate on its nukes, says Einhorn
Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank the Brookings Institution, sat for an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo and Korea JoongAng Daily on Nov. 13 at the newspaper’s headquarters in central Seoul.
His visit to Seoul came after President Trump’s first visit to South Korea, where he held a summit with President Moon Jae-in on Nov. 7 and addressed the National Assembly the following day as part of a 12-day, five-country tour of Asia.
Einhorn said that if it becomes clear that North Korea will not give up their nuclear and missile programs completely, the Trump administration may be forced into one of two options: to seek a realistic, phased approach to negotiation that would begin with an interim freeze on North Korea’s capabilities, or to head to a long-term strategy of deterrence and containment.
Even though conditions may be premature for dialogue at the moment, Einhorn said that Washington “should not establish difficult preconditions for sitting down with the North.”
He also pointed out that it is necessary for Washington to “take Chinese security concerns into account” and reassure that country when trying to get Beijing’s help on the North Korean nuclear problem.
The following are edited excerpts of the interview.
Q. President Trump in his National Assembly speech refrained from using bellicose rhetoric toward Pyongyang, as he did at the United Nations. What is behind his change in tone?
A. I think he was convinced by his advisers that he would have a more successful visit if he was more disciplined in terms of his public presentations. He used a prepared script that was carefully devised to appeal to the South Korean public. I think it was a very successful speech that he gave to the National Assembly… It did a number of necessary things. It showed U.S. support to the security of the Republic of Korea. He reaffirmed this in very strong terms, and that was very important. He also described the threat from the North in very stark terms. And I think it’s important to remind not just the American public but the South Korean public that there really is a moral choice here between the North and the South.
Trump called Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to talk with North Korea a waste of time.
I think what President Trump was saying when he told Tillerson that diplomacy was a waste of time was that diplomacy is premature. That at the moment, there is not much hope for diplomacy and that the priority needs to be given to apply maximum pressure against the North. I don’t think that President Trump was ruling out negotiations for all time.
Tillerson says there are two to three communications channels between the United States and North Korea. Do you expect those channels to bring the two sides together any time soon?
The prospects for productive talks are not very good at the moment. They’re not good because of North Korea. The North Koreans have made very clear that they want to continue to make progress in their nuclear and missile programs before they’re prepared to sit down and talk.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has restrained from provocative actions for two months now. Why is he keeping such a low profile?
If he is showing restraint, we don’t know why he’s showing restraint. Perhaps he fears that if he engages in further testing, China will be more inclined to get tough with North Korea. Perhaps Kim Jong-un fears that if he conducts another missile test or nuclear test the Chinese will be more prepared to join with the United States in implementing harsh sanctions, including restrictions on the Chinese supply of energy, of oil, to North Korea.
Or perhaps Kim Jong-un is concerned about the Trump administration. Perhaps he sees three aircraft carrier strike groups in East Sea. Perhaps he sees other steps the United States has taken to demonstrate the strength of the extended deterrent. So maybe he does not want to provoke President Trump at this stage. We don’t really know the reasons he hasn’t tested missiles in nearly two months, but it’s a positive.
Is it an opportune time for Washington to take the initiative to engage Pyongyang in one way or another right now?
I think if there is a risk of war now, it’s not the risk of intentional initiation of war. It is war by miscalculation war, war by accident. And I think keeping the channels of communication open, even military-to-military channels, or intelligence-to-intelligence channels, is a way of avoiding miscalculation, and that would be positive. But in terms of reaching out to the North now, to try to engage on the nuclear issue, it may be a bit too early because the North Koreans don’t seem ready to engage on the nuclear issue. They’ve said publicly that they’re not prepared to talk about the nuclear issue. They want to make more progress toward the achievement of what they consider to be their goal, which is to be able to reach the United States with a nuclear-armed missile. So it may be premature to reach out to them, but I think we should be thinking about engagement, and we should be sending out signals, continuing to send out signals, that we are prepared to engage. And I do not believe we should not establish difficult preconditions for sitting down with the North. We should have realistic conditions for sitting down to talk to them.
Kim Jong-un may not renounce his nuclear and missile programs until they are completed, meaning he possesses a nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of striking the U.S. mainland. Is there still room and time to make him stop short of reaching his goal?
I think there is a misconception there is some line that’s drawn, and that once Kim Jong-un exceeds that line, then somehow he’s achieved his objective. There’s a continuum rather than a sharp line. And it would be good to persuade North Korea to stop nuclear testing and to stop flight-testing of long-range missiles as soon as possible. It would be good if we had persuaded him to that a year or two years ago, but we didn’t. But still, I don’t think there’s an absolute line. I think any time we can get Kim Jong-un to stop testing would be positive. Because if we got him to stop nuclear testing, that would put a limit on improvements in the yield-to-weight ratio of his nuclear warheads, on the miniaturization of nuclear warheads. If we can limit his miniaturization, then we could make it almost impossible to produce multiple warheads. It would be good to prevent him from gaining more confidence in the reliability and the accuracy of these missiles. So I believe that an objective should be to get a suspension as soon as we can on his nuclear testing and his flight-testing of long-range missiles.
Henry Kissinger suggested a big deal between Washington and Beijing, including withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea.
Any solution of the North Korea problem requires not just the United States and South Korea to be in total alignment, but also for the U.S. and South Korea to have the full cooperation of China. It’s very difficult to have an antagonistic relationship with China, and at the same time call on China to help us resolve the North Korea problem… We should be trying to reassure China that if China puts tremendous pressure on North Korea and instability is created in North Korea, that we would not try to take advantage of that situation to the detriment of Chinese security. I think it goes too far, by the way, to indicate that the U.S. should withdraw its troops from the peninsula. We can make certain commitments to China, that perhaps we wouldn’t see a need to deploy U.S. forces north of the 38th parallel, or something like that.
What reward or incentive is Washington prepared to give Kim Jong-un in return for his halting of the nuclear program?
What we would offer to the North would depend on what they are prepared to give. If they were genuinely prepared to give up their nuclear and missile programs completely and verifiably, I think we should be prepared to give a lot, in terms of relaxation of sanctions, in terms of offering a peace treaty and normalization [of relations]… I think it’s going to be very, very difficult to persuade the North Koreans to give up their nuclear and missile programs completely and in the near future. I think that’s almost unachievable. When it becomes clear to the U.S. and ROK governments that that ambitious objective is unachievable, we will have to make some hard decisions. We have at that point two principle options: one is to seek a more modest but more realistic objective, namely a phased approach to negotiation that would begin with an interim freeze on North Korea’s capabilities. The other option is to go directly to a long-term strategy of deterrence and containment.
Each approach has its benefits and its weaknesses. The great benefit of an interim freeze is that if it’s successful, you can arrest the momentum of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and that’s worth a lot. But at the same time, a freeze which puts off the ultimate denuclearization to an indefinite future would be criticized as de facto recognition, de facto acceptance, of North Korea’s capability. But the problem with a long-term strategy of deterrence and containment is that essentially it concedes that North Korea can continue to make progress on its nuclear and missile programs. It can continue to produce highly-enriched uranium and plutonium to make more and more weapons, and perhaps sell the fissile material to third countries or even to terrorists. This is not good for our security.
Koreans are concerned about the guarantee of the so-called extended nuclear deterrence and nuclear umbrella provided by Washington, in light of North Korea’s nuclear threat.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was able to strike American cities with thousands of nuclear weapons. Yet, the U.S. extended deterrent to our NATO allies remained credible. If that’s the case, then why should our Northeast Asian allies have concerns about the U.S. extended deterrent when the threat to the U.S. homeland comes from the North Korean capability, which is a tiny, tiny fraction of what the Soviet Union had... We’ve engaged in a range of activities designed to show the ROK the U.S. extended deterrent can be relied upon, and there’s more that we can do. I think these steps we’ve taken and additional ones we can take will convince the South Korean public that their security is protected, and they don’t need to call on the United States to return U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea. I don’t believe that’s an answer.
Korea is in a dilemma over Trump’s new so-called Indo-Pacific strategy.
I don’t think we have to jump to any conclusions about the meaning of this new term. India is an important player. It would be useful for the democracies of Asia and the Pacific to have discussions about the future. That doesn’t necessarily mean we are forming an alliance to gang up on China.
Could you draw a picture of Northeast Asia’s security environment 10 years from now?
I can have an optimistic projection and a realistic projection. I think the most likely, although not the most desirable, future in ten years would be a policy of containment of North Korea. It would be strengthening the deterrence of North Korea, with strong ROK-U.S. security cooperation, and if there can be stability that way, that’s not a bad outcome. I think that may be the most likely outcome. That’s not a bad outcome. I prefer an even better outcome, which is some kind of an agreed arrangement with the North by which the North Koreans agree to cap their nuclear and missile capabilities, to freeze their capabilities, while committing to the longer-term complete denuclearization.
Is the Trump administration on that track?
I think the Trump administration is hoping that it can persuade the North to give up its nuclear capability completely. I hope it succeeds, but I think that outcome may be very hard to achieve. I think sooner or later the Trump administration will have to choose between two more realistic objectives. One is an interim freeze and the other is long-term containment.
Georgetown University Professor Robert Gallucci suggested that President Trump send you as personal envoy to Pyongyang.
I think the Trump administration may have a different view on my qualifications for that particular job. So I don’t except to be asked to be any kind of special envoy. I have met with North Koreans in a track 2 or 1.5 setting several times.
BY KIM YOUNG-HIE, SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]