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From illicit weapons tests to reports of high profile officials being executed, North Korea and Kim Jong Un have seized headlines again. We asked Victor Cha to shed some light on recent happenings in North Korea. As a Fellow in Human Freedom at the Bush Institute, Cha is helping lead the initiative on the problem of human rights in North Korea.
As Kim Jong Un continues to defy bans on ballistic missile testing, having launched a missile from a submarine in late August and another major missile test today, what threat do these tests pose to global security and how should the world respond to the regime’s continued defiance?
VC: According to Beyond Parallel which collects data on North Korean provocations, the DPRK has done 74 missile and nuclear tests under President Obama’s two terms in office. It did one-third as many during President Bush’s two terms in office. These tests do pose a threat to global security because they are increasingly not merely political ploys but appear to reflect purposeful efforts at perfecting new technologies related to their missile and nuclear program, including miniaturized warheads, re-entry vehicles, solid fuel, and mobile launch capabilities.
North Korea appears to be headed towards demonstrating a survivable nuclear deterrent that – at least in their minds – would deter the United States from responding to any further North Korean coercion. This is a false belief, in my opinion, but that does not make it any less dangerous. The world is really at a loss as to what to do. UN sanctions have been ongoing and better implementation of those sanctions needs to be executed. China’s role is obviously important. China appears to have taken some action to cut trade with North Korea in the aftermath of the January 2016 nuclear test (again, see Beyond Parallel), but indications are that such pressure has tapered off since then.
President Obama responded to the latest round of North Korean missile tests by threatening to tighten sanctions. Are the new sanctions being imposed on North Korea by the United States and the United Nations having an effect?
VC: This is a difficult question to answer largely because it can only be determined posthoc. What I mean by this is that if the purpose of the sanctions is to collapse the regime, we will only know if this works after the regime has collapsed. Similarly if the purpose of sanctions is to squeeze the regime enough so that it returns to the negotiation table (this has been the US government’s stated purpose of sanctions), then again, we would only know whether this has succeeded after the North has returned to the table.
Thus in the meantime, sanctions come under criticism for having failed. The stated instrumental purpose of sanctions is to curb North Korea’s access to money and technology that enables their WMD programs. However, based on the tempo and types of tests they have been doing, it does not appear that sanctions have significantly slowed them down.
Kim Jong Un and other top North Korean officials have been targeted by U.S. sanctions in connection to human rights abuses. How does tying human rights to these sanctions change the situation and what do Pyongyang’s reactions reveal?
VC: Probably the most important new element of the sanctioning against North Korea has been the Treasury Department’s designation of the North Korean leader for crimes against humanity. Never before has the US government taken such action against the regime, holding the leader directly accountable for human rights violations. There is no denying a link between human rights violations and the DPRK’s WMD proliferation.
The use of labor to export minerals by state-run companies, already sanctioned by Treasury, the proceeds of which finance proliferation demonstrates a clear link. The export of slave labor to foreign countries is another source of income for the regime that we believe is funneled back into the WMD programs. So, the link between the two issue sets is real and significant.
What does the recent execution of top education official Kim Yong Jin and the defection of Deputy Ambassador Thae Yong Ho in London say about the regime’s stability?
VC: It is very difficult to read the tea leaves in North Korea, but the defection is significant in the sense that those who get dispatched to the English-speaking embassies like London tend to be some of the top of the foreign ministry offices, the so-called cream of the crop. As an example, the former Ambassador to the UK for many years was Ri Yong-ho, who has since returned to Pyongyang to be the chief representative to the Six-Party talks and now currently holds the position of foreign minister. They are evaluated for their loyalty, of course, and when approved to go abroad, they are expected to be one of the main outlets for propagating the DPRK’s position in the Western media and public.
This was in fact what Thae did, and he was in fact pretty good at it. Thus, his defection proves quite embarrassing for the regime, and probably reflects a sentiment among the diplomatic class that is not uncommon. The reported execution official is a little less clear. Often these things happen because of poor performance – at least as justified by the regime – which also may reflect further vulnerabilities in the system. The fact that the education minister got executed may mean that the leadership is unhappy with the levels of indoctrination as society grows more independent from the state because of markets and outside information.
Cha 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.
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. 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.
Christopher Walsh serves as a Manager for the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. In this role, Christopher manages communications, evaluation, and public policy research projects that advance freedom and democracy in the world. He also develops and implements efforts to make the Bush Institute a welcoming place for today’s generation of dissidents and democracy advocates, overseeing visits for training, inspiration, and insight.
Prior to joining the Bush Institute, Christopher worked with the International Republican Institute in Washington, D.C. As IRI’s program officer for Central and Eastern Europe, he coordinated political party building and civic advocacy programs in the Balkans and Turkey.
A native of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Christopher is a graduate of American University with a B.A. in International Studies. He currently lives in Dallas with his wife and three young children.Full Bio
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