Jacob L. Shapiro: Hello everyone and thanks for joining us for another edition of Geopolitical Futures podcast. I am joined again by one of our senior analysts, Kamran Bokhari. Kamran, thanks for being with us again.
Kamran Bokhari: Hey, thanks for having me.
JLS: So there’s a lot of stuff going on geopolitically in the world today but our focus is pretty sharply on the Korean Peninsula right now, and Kamran, the first thing I wanted to ask you was do you think that large bomb the U.S. dropped in Afghanistan yesterday, the largest conventional weapon in some ways that the U.S. has, do you think that was a message for the regime in Pyongyang about what might happen if they go ahead with their tests this weekend as they’ve been threatening?
KB: Well, I mean it’s a $15 million weapon, that’s the cost of using one of them. I doubt that it was just used for posturing. There has to have been some intelligence and military basis for it to be dropped in Afghanistan. So maybe there’s an added benefit to it, maybe it shapes perceptions in Pyongyang, but I don’t know.
So I wanted to ask you, where are we going with this standoff? This nuclear standoff, as you know Jacob, is not new. It’s been going on, it pops up every now and then. The pattern that we’ve noticed is that the North Koreans want something, they wave this card and get the U.S.’ attention and then either they get what they want or they just go back home until the next time. But this time it feels a bit different. Why don’t you pick that apart?
JLS: It doesn’t just feel different, in some ways it is different. You know this Kamran, we’ve been working together for a long time now. One of the most dangerous things you can do in intelligence, in analysis and in general is to assume that just because you’ve seen something happen once before that it’s going to happen the same way again. So certainly, the United States has danced with China in a diplomatic game over North Korea before and North Korea has wanted food or it’s wanted respect or it’s wanted whatever it’s wanted.
The thing that’s different this time, there’s two things. First of all, the North Koreans have always done a good job of proving themselves a little bit mentally unstable. We’ve always seen that as a bit of a ruse as a way of getting what they want. Kim Jong Un is giving an Oscar-worthy performance in this regard. Even hardcore geopolitical thinkers like us, we look at this guy and we think that he might be a little bit crazy. You know he’s executing his family members with anti-aircraft guns. I don’t know even know what that looks like, how you would even do that. You know, throwing his family members to the dogs.
But the most crazy part of all of it is there have been pictures that have surfaced of him with what looks like a nuclear weapon or some kind of deliverable thing that you could use to deliver a nuclear weapon. And so we’re moving from a place where the worst case scenario is not just the North Koreans, you know, flaunting around a program, but that they might be delivering an actual deliverable weapon. It might be in the hands of somebody that mentally isn’t quite there.
I say all that to say that all our analysis at GPF is still that China has control over what’s going on in North Korea. We know that the Trump administration wanted to put a lot of pressure on China when it came to trade. We know that China didn’t want to give in on those trade terms. We know that this North Korea stuff really started happening as those negotiations with China came closer about trade.
So we can’t say anything for sure, but when you look at what’s going on, our expectation is that China will intervene here in some way and will get North Korea perhaps not to act rationally but at least to back down enough such that the United States won’t go ahead and feel like it needs to take unilateral action.
KB: What kind of unilateral action would that be? We don’t know, at least publicly. Perhaps the U.S. intelligence community has a better picture of the reality, but we don’t really know in terms of the world of analysis, what does a DPRK nuclear program look like. Is it a device? Can they mount it on a missile? I mean there’s been mystery shrouded over this. What do you think?
JLS: I mean again with North Korea, there’s so much we don’t know. I wouldn’t put a lot of trust in the intelligence agencies considering the mistakes that they’ve had before in Iraq and other failures when it comes to evaluating this type of stuff. But I think the question that you are asking is what would intervention look like? And I think there it’s not exactly clear.
So the United States has moved a carrier battlegroup near the Korean Peninsula. We know there are a couple extra destroyers in the Western Pacific that were deployed a couple weeks ago. There was a report that U.S. intelligence officials told NBC anonymously that U.S. strategic bombers in Guam were ready if they were called on to undertake a strike. Of course, they were already ready and they were already positioned there so there’s nothing really new in that statement. We know that the Japanese have sent some destroyers into the area in order to boost or exercise with the carrier group from the U.S. that is coming.
The thing to point out here is that it would be strange if the U.S. actually went ahead and carried out some kind of strike right now, because you would expect more than just one carrier battlegroup in the region if the United States was actually going to go at North Korea. This looks more like posturing to me and it looks like some of those destroyers are there to protect against the potential threat. The North Koreans do have submarines, so you do have to make sure that your carrier battlegroup is there to protect it.
But it seems to me that if the United States were going to go ahead, and if it was going to put a carrier battlegroup in the Korean Peninsula, we’d have to see at least another one that would at least make its way to the region before anything can happen.
The second major question there is can the United States knock out whatever North Korea is doing conventionally. Would it require a nuclear strike and is it even possible to knock it out? The message that the anonymous U.S. intelligence officials were saying to NBC was basically yes, the U.S. can not only knock this out and yes, it can do it conventionally, but I don’t put a whole lot of stock in an unconfirmed report from anonymous officials from NBC about what’s going on.
So I am sure the U.S. has some intelligence. Part of what makes this such a difficult decision for the American president and for all the actors involved is probably just how little intelligence they are going to have to go on. That they’re going to have to go on basically worst-case scenarios and making sure that they don’t regret not doing something.
KB: So, I mean if we have that situation where the United States has to act militarily to take out a nuclear facility, I don’t recall the United States doing that historically. You know there was a lot of talk about air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, but I think if my memory serves me right, the only precedent for this is the Israeli nuclear strike on the Iraqi reactor in Osirak back in ’81, and so this would be a new kind of development. And the reason I bring that up is because this is not something that becomes standard operating procedure.
Conventional targets, the United States military has plenty of experience in doing that. And then you know, the fallout of such a strike, will the government of North Korea then wage war against South Korea in retaliation? This becomes bigger. Would the regime become weakened to a point where it begins to crumble? I mean there are all sorts of unintended consequences. How are you looking at that as you game this out?
JLS: Well the first thing I would remind you is that the Israelis didn’t just hit the Iraqi nuclear reactor, they also hit what is believed to be Syria, and I think that people are probably thankful the Israelis did that now when we see the civil war in Syria and Assad’s propensity for using chemical weapons. So I’d just put that on the table.
You’re right that I don’t think the United States has carried out this kind of first strike approach on a potential nuclear power before, but I think that the biggest impact here besides on the Korean Peninsula itself would be on U.S.-China relations. I mean if the U.S. preemptively strikes or does a retaliatory strike against North Korea, and the reason people are talking about this is because the North Koreans have been threatening about some kind of event or some kind of test this weekend because it’s the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, he is the founder of North Korea.
The United States has made it clear that it’s considering doing something if North Korea crosses some kind of red line in terms of their test. What that red line is, I am not entirely clear. Is it just a test by itself? Is it a missile launch? Would it have to be confirmed nuclear for the United States to feel like its red line was crossed, and would the United States carry out the threat? Those are things that are all unclear.
But the point I am making is that if it is just a pinprick retaliatory attack, that’s not going to destroy the regime in North Korea. If anything, the North Koreans could use that to their benefit to rally people to their cause. It’s the same type of thing when we see the United States striking that air base in Syria in response to the Assad regime allegedly using chemical weapons. It’s a retaliatory attack. It definitely communicates that the United States is not happy, but it doesn’t actually strategically change anything.
What happens if you do that kind of pinprick retaliatory attack on North Korea though, and if North Korea goes ahead with some kind of test that runs afoul of what the U.S. wants? That means two things.
First of all, it means that China has less control over North Korea than we thought, and we published a piece earlier this week looking at the weakness of some of the levers that the Chinese have over North Korea. I think that the stuff about coal is way overstated. I also think that the stuff about the economic relationship is overstated but China is North Korea’s only patron.
If China can’t tell North Korea to back off on this, and if it gets to the point where it provokes a U.S. response, number one, China doesn’t have as much control over North Korea as we thought, and number two, it opens up a very interesting place in U.S.-China relations because right now Xi and Trump seem to have somewhat of an understanding, and things seem to be much rosier than people thought when Trump came to office.
But the basis of that is that they’ve agreed to some kind of understanding on North Korea where Trump has said, ok, I will back off a little bit on trade, there are a lot of domestic constraints why Trump has to back off on trade too, we can talk about those later if you want. But the real heart of the deal is, ok, the United States will back off on trade if China you will assert yourself with North Korea and make sure that North Korea doesn’t do anything that the United States can’t accept.
And if China cannot control or is not willing to control North Korea to that extent, it will create a break I think in the relationship between the United States and China, because it will be not just they have divergent interests, but they will have an area of disagreement over something that before it’s been an elaborate dance but there’s been cooperation.
And then the question for the United States will become what is it willing to tolerate? Because if it can knock out the nuclear device in one strike, great, but it’s probably not that simple. And then is the United States going to have to think about well, are the North Koreans going to retaliate against the South Koreans, and does the United States respond to its South Korean ally, does the United States have to do more in order to knock out the stuff? It creates a whole host of scenarios that I am sure the Trump administration doesn’t want to go down.
KB: One of the things that I’ve been thinking about when it comes to a response from North Korea is that what are its constraints and what does it really need to do to maintain stability at home? One of the things that it has been able to project at least on the domestic front is that can act belligerently. It is not scared of the United States and the sense that at least North Korea is a regional power and therefore that becomes sort of the legitimacy or the basis for the legitimacy of the regime.
Now, if the United States goes ahead and does strikes, even if they are symbolic, that puts the regime in a very awkward position, and it’s the shine coming off of their wheels, and it’ll be forced to do something that it may not have wanted or intended. Therefore, do you see the regime being forced to take some form of action then that requires a counter response and then this thing becomes spiraling out of control perhaps not so fast but gradually even.
JLS: Look the question here, it’s a good question, but it all comes down to how much control does the regime have over North Korea. And I would almost turn it back on you and I would you ask you this question, because, I mean, you are an expert on the Middle East and there are so many different types of authoritarian dictatorships there, but the difference there is that North Korea is still relatively cut off from the rest of the world. I mean they worship Kim Jong Un and they worship the leaders before them.
It’s funny, it reminds of, I think this was Kissinger that said this about not Bashar al-Assad, but about his father, Hafez al-Assad, and he was talking about what Hafez al-Assad was like at the negotiating table.
And I think this was Kissinger who said that Hafez al-Assad was the only person he knew that wouldn’t just go to the brink of negotiations and sort of threaten, but that Hafez al-Assad would sort of throw himself off the cliff in negotiations. You know, completely blow everything up, and then he’d look down at the cliff and be holding himself up by a little branch that he’d managed to grab on and you’d make the deal because he’d completely scared you.
So the question there really is, is North Korea the type of regime that does that, are they jumping off the cliff but they know that they have the parachute that they can pull and they know exactly what the red line is and they won’t cross it, or is North Korea a little bit unstable?
My answer to that question is that I think it’s the former. I think that this is all mostly a game, but I have enough doubt in my mind that I can’t say that for 100% certainty, and when you are the president of the United States or when you’re a South Korean leader or when you’re a leader in Japan, it doesn’t work to just say, well I think this is the case. You have to prepare for any particular scenario and in North Korea it’s just not clear how much control Kim Jung Un has.
KB: So speaking about control, I don’t mean a public uprising. You’re right about the regime, the regime is more threatened from within, which is why we’ve seen this kind of behavior towards potential threats, elite threats not threats from the public. So if you are part of this regime and you have varying degrees of doubt in your mind as to their ability of this third generation of North Korea to lead, or at least you are worried, we have not been in this position before, and God knows where this guy is taking us.
So then what kind of perception-shaping is taking place if the United States goes ahead and does strikes? I mean that undermines the confidence of the elite, especially the military, and that’s where I see if this regime is going to change. It has to be an elite thing. I mean I don’t see any mass uprising because you are right, the public of North Korea is even cut off from the people in the south, much less the rest of the world.
JLS: I don’t see that we’re in a place where there’s going to be some kind of public unrest or public upheaval to remove Kim Jong Un. I would just point out that if the U.S. is moved to strike, and my impression so far is that it’s not going to get to that point, but if the U.S. does get to that point, it creates a whole host of scenarios that is very dangerous for the U.S. and for its allies in the region.
But it also creates a very dangerous host of scenarios for the regime in North Korea. And if we assume that the goal of the regime in North Korea is to survive, you would think that they’re not going to do something that would set the United States off. Now they may still carry out a test. I am not saying they are not going to carry out a test, but I would think that the Chinese are communicating through whatever channels they have what the U.S. red line is and insisting that the North Koreans not go through it.
Now if Kim Jong Un is not listening, and if the regime really just isn’t there and for whatever reason wants to go ahead, the thing that I would be more focused on, and I have not seen any evidence of this, but does China have enough influence within the upper echelons of the North Korean regime to try and make a change, to try and put someone in that chair who’s going to listen to what the Chinese interests are?
Like I said, I don’t think it’s going to come to that point, but all of this revolves around the idea that my interpretation of what’s going on in North Korea is that the North Korean regime wants to survive and it won’t do something that compromises its survival. If they carry out a nuclear test that is sufficiently threatening this weekend enough so that the United States is going to have to intervene, once the United States intervenes, it gets very hard to predict immediately what’s going to happen afterward, and it gets very hard to say with any certainty that the North Korean regime is going to stay in power because of all the Pandora’s box that it opens.
KB: I am trying to understand what is it that it’s going to do. You know doing something which is unidentifiable. It could be a nuclear test, it could be a missile launch, it could be a combination of both, but either way what would be different? I mean we know the North Koreans have some form of nuclear weapons technology at some level. It’s not really clear what level they are, but they do have a device of sorts because they’ve tested in the past. So why is a test right now, why does it force the United States to have to do something at this point in time? Couldn’t the United States just say ok you know you did a test and we’re going to put sanctions on, and that’s the end of it because we’ve been here before?
JLS: It depends on the test. And this gets back to what the U.S. assessment of Kim Jong Un’s regime is and what the U.S. assessment of whatever tests happens is. But I think the thing to point out is that the United States has already leaked via intelligence officials to various news organizations that it is considering a pre-emptive strike if some kind of test goes on this weekend.
So the United States is seeing something that it doesn’t like. And I am sure whenever the United States was seeing that it doesn’t like was communicated directly to Xi when he and Trump were eating their chocolate cake at dinner last week. And I am sure that the Chinese have relayed that message.
My expectation is that there probably will be some kind of event this weekend, but it won’t be one that provokes a U.S. response. Because the U.S. will have already communicated no there’s a certain line which you can’t go across, and if you do cross that certain line, we’re going to have a problem. We know that the United States has tolerated a weapons program in North Korea and all these missile launches for a long time. But there’s something that they are seeing that makes them uncomfortable.
KB: So in the end, if this communication is going on and we don’t expect something major to happen, then that would sort of lead us to conclude that despite all the apparent craziness and the deliberate attempt to appear unpredictable and crazy, that at the end of the day as a regime, DPRK is a rational actor. That’s the underlying assumption here, right?
JLS: Yes, that is still my assumption and I will admit that I am less sure of that today than I perhaps was even a year ago. But I still have not seen enough to make me change my analysis yet. In many ways what happens this weekend will be a very interesting test case to see just how much influence China has over North Korea, just what North Korea is doing in terms of all the actors are that surround and just how serious the United States is. It’s a very good test for the model.
KB: Well, I think that we will be working hard, burning the midnight oil to see whether or not something emerges out of North Korea or whether the United States does a pre-emptive strike. All eyes are going to be on the Korean Peninsula this weekend, and at least for us here at Geopolitical Futures.
JLS: Yeah, and I think that one thing for people to really watch, and this one of the things we’re watching internally, you know if another carrier battle group starts making its way into the Pacific, or if we start seeing things about, you know, bombers at Guam, I am going to start getting a lot more concerned about what’s going to happen. But for now, I think all eyes are on North Korea and what they are going to do to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s 105th birthday. And we’ll go from there.
KB: We will indeed.
JLS: All right. Thanks Kamran, and thanks everybody for listening. This was another podcast with Geopoliticalfutures.com. You can send us feedback always. You can either leave feedback at the bottom here in the comments section or you can send us feedback at email@example.com. Thank you, and we will talk to you all next week.