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What is Going On in North Korea?

January 7, 2016 by Victor Cha

The United Nations Security Council met on January 6, 2016, to deal with North Korea, where reports of the country testing a hydrogen bomb surfaced overnight. A debate has ensued over whether such a bomb actually was tested, but still this is a matter of international concern. The Bush Institute asked Victor Cha, a fellow in the Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative, to comment on the development.

In your estimation, what is happening in North Korea? Is this different from anything we have seen before?

It is not different in the sense that we have grown unaccustomed (unfortunately) to North Korea’s spasmodic and belligerent acts over time.  What is different is that the young leader Kim Jong-un seems even more unpredictable than his predecessors, and seems to have no regard for equities in any of his international relationships, most obviously China.  The Chinese foreign ministry stated in response to a question this week that the government had received no advance notice from Pyongyang that a test was imminent.  With friends like this, who needs enemies? 

As you noted, China isn’t pleased about this test, but can we make any predictions about what this means for the relationship between China and North Korea going forward?

The Chinese are not pleased with this surprise test, as evident in their foreign ministry statement after the nuclear test.  However, despite how displeased Beijing may be with Pyongyang’s latest behavior, one should not realistically hope that will be the final straw for Xi Jinping to finally abandon Kim. 

The Chinese prefer the devil they know to the one they don’t know.  The latter refers to economic pressure by China that could destabilize the regime.  This is China’s worst nightmare with millions of refugees from a collapsing North Korea flowing across the Yalu River into China to join up with the Korean ethnic minority in Jilin Province. 

China thinks about the long-term both in the future and in the past.  One of its historic lessons is that whenever the Korean peninsula is unstable, it has redounded poorly for Chinese interests.  Hence, China is caught in a dilemma – it despises Kim’s behavior, but is not willing to do more to pressure him for fear of collapsing the regime.   

Most Americans will want to know how this situation affects them. What is your thought about that?

It is a fair question.  After all, why should Americans care about a strange leader who likes to explode bombs in an underground cave on the other side of the world? 

While it may be sometime before North Korea can directly target the U.S. mainland with their weapons, we must acknowledge that the pariah country is already a nascent nuclear weapons state with a growing stockpile of fissile material and improving long-range delivery capability, which poses not only a significant threat to U.S. national security and interests, but to Japan and Korea where the United States has over 50,000 troops, as well as hundreds of thousands of expatriates.  The additional danger for Americans is that North Korea had sold every weapons system it has ever developed.  This raises the specter of weapons or fissile material transfer to other states or terrorist actors wanting to do harm to the U.S.

The UN Security Council met to address this issue. Will anything meaningful come of that?

A new United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) is expected in response to the nuclear test, with the UN, and the U.S. expected to increase sanctions against the North Koreans for their provocative actions. But as we have seen, despite the past three UNSCRs, those actions have not really impeded the North Korean nuclear program or deterred more tests by them.  We shall see if this new UNSCR can feature any new sanctions that might have more of a bite on the regime.  Or more important, create a more robust mechanism requiring UN member states to comply with existing sanctions.

Does this event tie into North Korea’s human rights abuses? If so, what is the connection? From afar, it’s hard to see how this helps the average North Korean.

There is definitely a direct link between Pyongyang’s human rights abuses and its nuclear program. Some of these atrocious abuses come in the form of revenues from slave labor, which help bankroll its growing and improving missile and nuclear program. Increased pressures should be placed on not only on the regime, but also on neighboring countries like China and Russia to stop accepting these forced laborers. 

As a Fellow in Human Freedom, Victor Cha is helping lead an initiative on the problem of human rights in North Korea. In addition, he is a senior adviser and the inaugural holder of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and Director of Asian studies and holder of the D.S. Song-KF Chair in the Department of Government and School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.


Author

Victor Cha
Victor Cha

As a Senior Fellow in Human Freedom, Victor Cha is helping lead an initiative on the problem of human rights in North Korea.  In addition, he is a senior adviser and the inaugural holder of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and Director of Asian studies and holder of the D.S. Song-KF Chair in the Department of Government and School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. From 2004 to 2007, he served as Director for Asian Affairs at the White House on the National Security Council (NSC), where he was responsible primarily for Japan, the Korean peninsula, Australia/New Zealand, and Pacific Island nation affairs. Dr. Cha was also the Deputy Head of Delegation for the United States at the Six-Party Talks in Beijing and received two Outstanding Service Commendations during his tenure at the NSC. He is the award-winning author of Alignment Despite Antagonism: The United States-Korea-Japan Security Triangle (Stanford University Press, 1999), winner of the 2000 Ohira Book Prize; Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies, with Dave Kang (Columbia University Press, 2004); Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia (Columbia University Press, 2009); and The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (Ecco, 2012), selected by Foreign Affairs magazine as a 2012 “Best Book on Asia and the Pacific.” His next book is Powerplay: Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia (Princeton University Press, forthcoming). He has written articles on international relations and East Asia in journals including Foreign Affairs, International Security, Political Science Quarterly, Survival, International Studies Quarterly, and Asian Survey.

Dr. Cha is a former John M. Olin National Security Fellow at Harvard University, a two-time Fulbright Scholar, and a Hoover National Fellow, CISAC Fellow, and William J. Perry Fellow at Stanford University. He holds Georgetown University’s Dean’s Teaching Award for 2010 and the Distinguished Research Award for 2011. He serves as an independent consultant and has testified before Congress on Asian security issues. He has been a guest analyst for various media including CNN, ABC Nightline, NBC Today Show, CBS Morning Show, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, BBC, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and National Public Radio. He has a cameo role (as himself) in the action film Red Dawn (Contrafilm, MGM, Vincent Newman Entertainment) released in November 2012. Dr. Cha holds a B.A., an M.I.A., and a Ph.D. from Columbia University, as well as an M.A. from Oxford University.

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