Douglas H. Paal, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, spoke with the Sankei Shimbun’s Washington correspondent Hiroyuki Kano. As a former White House Asia specialist, Paal emphasized the need for an ambitious regional strategy after President Donald Trump’s Asia trip in November 2017.
How do you evaluate President Trump’s Asia visit overall?
My overall evaluation was that the organization and the delivery of the trip were not ambitious enough. This is an important time. It is an important transition in China because of the Party Congress and reaffirmation of Xi Jinping’s leadership. It is an important time because of the transition taking place between the rise of Chinese power and the US preoccupation with the Middle East and other places.
In a properly functioning American administration, the Secretary of State or National Security Adviser would have gone out before Trump and laid down some big concepts for managing Northeast Asian security, East Asian security, Southeast Asian [security]. Also, we could have, I think, taken a different approach on the big trade issues. I think Trump approaches every deficit as a bilateral deficit. This is fundamentally contradictory to the laws of economics, so it is doomed to fail, but he managed to dig the hole deeper in failure. So, from a strategic and an economic and trade point of view, it was underperforming and not very successful.
Now, different countries will have different reactions. I think Mr. [Shinzo] Abe felt he reinforced his strong relationship with Trump. That is good. I think Xi Jinping felt he was a big winner and he and Trump will have a friendly relationship, even though US-China relations will get very tough this month, next month, and in the following months over trade and investment and security issues. So, underperforming, under-ambitious is my characterization.
President Trump seemed satisfied with China’s pledge to buy over $250 billion worth of US airplanes or something.
Well, really, there is nothing new in that. This was not requested from the US. This was a unilateral Chinese action. The US actually refrained from asking for contracts. The new approach that Mr. Lighthizer is taking is one where you—Japan, China, Korea—you do what you do for your national interest and we will do what we do. We are not going to negotiate this with you. So it is a very different approach from the last 30 years of how we have been doing business. So, the Chinese were quite surprised. They had made offers to open up financial services and other services in the Chinese market, and the US refused. And they offered the $253 billion in trade, and the US said, “Okay, it is not our business; you are making your own decision.” These announcements are probably good for some businesses. They move things along, but they do not change the course of business.
What you have to watch now will be the next few months, as the US puts in tariffs or quotas or countervailing duties on steel, aluminum, and other products, and how China reacts to that. What kind of retaliation will there be against American products, like soybeans, chicken, pork, beef? Things that China can get from Australia, New Zealand, Argentina.
The $253 billion deal cannot solve the problem of the imbalance?
Impossible. There is a fundamental contradiction in Trump’s policy. One policy is to remove bilateral deficits and, theoretically, that is not possible. The other side is domestic policy, which is to reduce taxes, raise spending, stimulate the economy. If you stimulate the economy, the trade deficit will go up. Always does, always will. You can’t get both policy objectives, so it is a fundamental contradiction.
How do you view President Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy? Does that conflict with China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy?
There are some indications that it may be in competition with the “One Belt, One Road” strategy, but I have to tell you I don’t really understand the Indo-Pacific strategy. It seems to me more a slogan than a strategy. Japanese diplomats came to the White House with the idea of the Indo-Pacific strategy just before the travel to Asia, and I think it was a very welcome gift from Japan, a sort of conceptual framework. But you know, we say in American English, “Where’s the beef?” We see the slogan, but where’s the beef? It is up to the administration to explain to us what the strategy is and they are not doing that.
That is why you said that Donald Trump’s trip to Asia is not so ambitious.
There are a host of issues, starting with North Korea as the most urgent, that need to be re-conceptualized, and I think that this administration is not capable of doing that.
Why do you think so?
There are three generals responsible for the White House who have spent all their lives in the Middle East. What do they know about Japan or Korea or China? All of their enemies have been without air force, without missile force. You know, it is different in Asia.
Do the reports that Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson might be replaced undermine US diplomacy?
Well, not very much. We already are giving up on diplomacy. That is a matter of policy by this administration. The other reports are that Mike Pompeo would become Secretary of State. I actually have a high opinion of Mr. Pompeo. I think he is very smart, very tough. So we have to see how well he can do in that job.
But if the United States gives up on diplomacy…
Well, we are not going to give up diplomacy. We have embassies. But whether we have a driving concept and a way of looking to the future to protect our interests and our allies’ interests, that is another element that is missing, I think.
What do you think is the intention of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea?
Well, again, I have been confused and frustrated by the administration. This is not just the administration. Most of Washington—think tanks and defense department, and others—believe that China is the solution to North Korea’s weapons threat. China is a necessary part of any solution, but it is not by itself a sufficient solution. You need to have other actions, other activities to try to draw North Korea to some kind of limit its capability and maybe reduce the capability. China cannot do that. The Chinese history with North Korea is very unfriendly.
Moreover, China doesn’t seem to be willing to go all the way. When China sent its emissary to North Korea two weeks ago, Mr. Song Tao, they must have known they would never see Kim Jong Un. He is too low ranking. If China sent Liu Yunshan or another member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, then Kim Jong Un would have received him. But China chose somebody lower ranking. But it is not necessarily a reason to criticize China because the Chinese themselves know they cannot produce the result we want in Pyongyang. China’s best friend in Pyongyang was killed by Kim Jong Un! And his children. Jang Song Thaek. So, I think the administration has a very flawed analysis of how to make this work.
Furthermore, the recent pressure on diplomats dealing with North Korea, the “maximum pressure” concept, we are asking the Germans and the British and the Swedes to give up their embassies in Pyongyang. Why? Isn’t that helpful to have somebody there? I think it is a substitute for thinking about what we need to do.
I have my own four-part things that the US needs to do to put pressure on North Korea. First is to start installing our own missiles in Guam and Hawaii and maybe Kadena somewhere, to counter both the Chinese and North Korean missiles. Second, reintroduce tactical nuclear weapons to show the North Koreans we are committed and also to show Seoul and Tokyo that the security umbrella continues to cover them. Third would be maximum effort to put in covert action against North Korea, much more intensive covert action. And all of these things may get North Korea to pay more attention to our concerns. We also need to increase missile defenses. Now, Congress is already starting to take steps on that. If we are going to add missiles to the region, it is going to take a few years to build them and all. To introduce tactical nuclear weapons is going to take a few years as well, so this is not sudden escalation, but it is a long-term plan. And if North Korea comes to the negotiating table, we can talk about these things as bargaining chips. But if we don’t have any chips, what will we talk about?
Do you think that tactical nuclear weapons should be deployed to South Korea and Japan?
My initial deployment would be to American ships and planes in the Guam-Hawaii area, rather than on Japanese soil. Mr. Ishiba and others have talked about possibly permitting them into Japanese ports. We could keep talking about that. We don’t have any tactical nuclear weapons now, we have to build them. So it is going to take some time. We have plenty of time to talk. But the North needs to know we are serious, that we have these long-term plans to counter their pressures on us. Right now, we are not talking about that, we are just talking about getting other people to put sanctions on North Korea. Already, for example, the sanction on seafood has actually led to an increase in seafood available in North Korea. People are living better. The sanctions on trade—more exports are staying inside North Korea, so living standards are coming up. So they won’t feel the sanctions for some months to come, six months, or a year.
In other words, President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign cannot succeed?
I think it is based on a fundamental mis-assessment of where the problem lies. If you think the problem lies in Beijing, you will fail. I am not making apologies for Beijing. Beijing has its own games they are playing. But even if they were American allies, they could not deliver North Korea.
The Washington Post reported that you were approached by the North Koreans. Who approached you?
Actually, it has been eight times. They are very eager to talk. I think they were very eager to talk in January and February because Trump was new and, during the campaign, he talked about a hamburger with Kim Jong Un or meeting with Kim Jong Un, so they wanted to find out, is there something new? And instead of talking to the usual people they normally talk to from different organizations, they talked to me and to Bruce Klingner up at the Heritage Foundation, thinking maybe we could have more insight into Trump. But they had nothing to say that was worth getting on an airplane for, so we haven’t had any formal meetings.
Eight times from January?
Who would be the counterparts? North Korean government officials?
Well, what they have said is, if we go to Pyongyang, we will meet with a number of senior people, including the State Chairman and the Foreign Ministry, but if we go meet outside of North Korea, which is now the only place we can meet, it would be the same woman who goes to all the other meetings, Director of the North American Department Choe Son-hui. Again, there was nothing new, so I am not interested.
That was the proposal in January?
January and then subsequently—before and after the April exercises and before and after the August exercises. It is a very standard pattern.
Have there been more recent approaches?
Not more—the last one was in early October.
What did they say?
We can talk about anything we want to talk about, they will talk about all the things they want to talk about; they are not going to negotiate their nuclear weapons, but if we want to talk about nuclear weapons, we are welcome to talk about (nuclear weapons). No change. Same position, so not interesting to me.
They didn’t offer the agenda for the meeting?
No, in Pyongyang, they offered a series of meetings and I wasn’t able to go in April because of technical difficulties. Now we have two new rules: one is the Treasury Department license, and secondly you have to have a special passport from the State Department to go to North Korea. So, practically speaking, you cannot go to North Korea.
In October, they requested you to meet Ms. Choe?
To meet Ms. Choe somewhere outside of North Korea. It doesn’t matter: Switzerland, Oslo, Norway, Berlin, anywhere.
To talk about what?
The same thing: “You can talk about anything you want to talk about, I can talk about anything I want to talk about. We will not negotiate nuclear weapons.”
What do you think was their intention in seeing you?
I think that if I were a North Korean official, I would want to go outside of North Korea at every opportunity. Take a trip. Again, I don’t take it seriously. My fundamental view is that North Korea will not be ready to talk to us seriously until they have their weapons system convincingly to show off. They may feel that now after this statement this week by Kim Jong Un, “Complete the nuclear program.” But, you know, maybe six months or a year more before they really are ready to talk. And for the American side, the sanctions were just turned on. They are not ready to feel the pressure yet. Another six months or a year. In six months or a year, maybe there will be a time for talks. If they are going to have talks, talk to officials, not to NGOs. Talk to real officials.
Not Track 1.5.
Right. 1.5 discussions are not bad, but I don’t want to get on an airplane and fly 10 hours and hear exactly what I can hear sitting here.
Some people say North Korea’s ICBM launch on November 29th was meant to create a basis for negotiations with the United States. Do you agree?
No. I don’t rule out that possibility, but the evidence is not there yet. This was a new missile, newly tested. Militaries don’t just do one test, they really do more. So I don’t think they are ready yet. They don’t feel they have demonstrated to the world they have the capability to do this. I might be wrong about that, but we need more time to discover.
Are their warheads already able to survive reentry into the atmosphere?
We don’t know. We haven’t seen them do the reentry test. You know, one of the worries we have—I have—is that they need to test a reentry vehicle. To do that, you can’t launch straight up and then down by Japan, you have to go across the Pacific. If the US government sees a missile coming at the US, we cannot assume it is a test, so we have to launch missiles to shoot it from Alaska and the chance of success is only about 50%. So then we get, “Okay, maybe we should shoot the missile before it is launched.” So we have preemptive attack. So I think we are moving in that direction. The period ahead, the next six months to a year before talks can take place, will probably have some very frightening moments. If they send a missile toward Alaska, but it is just a test that will go short of Alaska, we won’t know that. We will think it is coming towards us.
President Trump said Song Tao’s visit to Pyongyang had no impact.
Trump said that? Trump was the one who said sending Song Tao is a big deal and I say, no, this is not a big deal. A big deal would be someone from the Central Standing Committee. Then Kim Jong Un would have to pay attention.
What should the US and Japan do to address the North Korean missile and nuclear threat?
I think that if we had an ambitious foreign policy, we would send the Secretary of State or National Security Adviser to talk to Xi Jinping before the Party Congress and try to envision Northeast Asia without the North Korean nuclear threat. What would the US do? Do we need THAAD if the threat is gone? No, we can offer to take THAAD out. Or we can offer to give briefings to China on how THAAD can be reduced. We ask, what does China need from security from North Korea? What can we do together and what can we do with our allies, Seoul and Tokyo? But, conceptually, we are not doing that. We are just saying, “more pressure, more pressure,” and there is no incentive to get China to do more about the ending of the North Korean regime and envisioning a different kind of Korean peninsula. I think we need to test that proposition. It may be unsuccessful, but we ought to have big ambitions.
After the September 15th missile launch over Japan, it was reported that the Special Envoy, Joseph Yun, was going to test North Korea to see if they would halt testing for 60 days.
Well, you know, every year the North averages three missile tests, from January through September, and then the last three months of the year, one test per month. So many people interpreted, I think it was 70 days without a test, as a sign of a willingness to talk. No, it was just normal for them not to test during those months. The North Korean army sends its troops into countryside to harvest crops and the budget goes down for tests and things. So, I don’t read any significance into the testing pause. And the test we just saw shows they have been working very hard at a new class of missile, the Hwasong 15. Joseph Yun also said that they have to announce it at the beginning of the 60 days. Just to have 60 days go by doesn’t do anything.
Do you think the idea of 60-day freeze is viable?
Freeze for freeze is not a solution. Freeze for freeze is uniquely good for North Korea. And, moreover, who enforces the freeze? Who inspects the freeze? The world will know if we freeze our activities for military exercises, but we won’t know what missiles they are working on in factories or what things they are preparing, what bombs they are building. So it is an unhelpful suggestion.
Douglas H. Paal is Vice President for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Paal served as Vice Chairman of Asia-Pacific at JPMorgan Chase International from 2006 to 2008, and before that as unofficial U.S. representative to Taiwan as Director of the American Institute in Taiwan from 2002 to 2006. Mr. Paal previously served as unofficial U.S. representative to Taiwan as Director of the American Institute in Taiwan from April 2002 to January
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