Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, former special envoy of the United States for negotiations with North Korea, sat down with Sankei Shimbun’s Washington bureau chief, Yoshinari Kurose, on June 8.
He gives insights into why Pyongyang responds with more missile launches or the threat of them whenever the international community warns against it. He also talks about the prospects of the North agreeing to denuclearization, as lobbied by South Korea, the US, and Japan.
“I just think there is a lot we can do to put additional pressure on North Korea,” DeTrani says.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
In April, there was a US-China summit, and China seems to have agreed to pressure North Korea to stop the provocation and agree to move to the path of denuclearization. But, actually, North Korea has not responded as anticipated, and is firing missiles almost every week. So what is North Korea’s intention in doing this?
I think the Xi Jinping visit with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago went very well. You are right, I think China has been doing a number of things. They stopped taking coal in 2017. It is quite a bit of money that North Korea is not going to be getting. But nonetheless, Kim Jong-un continues to launch missiles and then threaten another nuclear—the sixth nuclear test.
Why would North Korea be doing these things? Well, I think, for two reasons. One is obviously the technological reason. He is perfecting his capabilities. As we see with the missile launches, they are becoming more sophisticated, right? I think the intermediate range ballistic missile that was launched when Shinzo Abe was meeting with our President at Mar-a-Lago was one of the most sophisticated intermediate-range ballistic missiles. It was mobile. I think it was solid fuel. So, one is technology, so you want to continue to build capabilities.
And I think just on the 14th, we saw another missile launch that speaks to also greater capabilities. Just yesterday (June 7), there were four cruise missiles launched. This is land-to-sea, basically threatening vessels, whether it is aircraft carriers or what have you.
So technical capabilities are very, very important, but also the political statement that North Korea is not going to be dictated to by China, the US, Japan, or South Korea; that UN Security Council resolutions further sanctioning North Korea will not deter them from continuing to build their nuclear and missile capabilities.
Which means, is it a sign or a statement that they will not give up the nuclear arsenals in any way?
I think, at this time, most people would say they are not prepared to give up their nuclear weapons.
In that sense, is China’s pressure not working? Or is China doing enough to pressure North Korea?
That is a very difficult question. Personally, I think China is doing quite a bit to moderate Kim Jong-un’s behavior. I think not taking coal in 2017 is significant. But can China do more? Personally, I…agree maybe they could be doing more, and hopefully they will do more—I mean, they have crude oil also. More than 90% of the crude oil that goes into North Korea is from China. So, I mean, that is a major card China has. Truly, it is North Korea’s only ally.
So, could China do more? Hopefully, China can do more. But I think it is unfair to say this is just China’s issue. We all have to contribute to this issue. I don’t think China alone cannot solve the North Korean nuclear issue. China has influence on North Korea. They could help solve it in a big way, more so than Japan or the United States. There is no question about that. But that is why we have to work in concert all together.
And, personally, I also think China—and hopefully China is doing this—can convince North Korea to stop these missile launches because it is really very threatening, it is very intimidating. I think the international community, certainly Japan and the United States and South Korea, feel this is now becoming a real existential threat to all of us.
What can the international community do to exert pressure?
I think the trilateral work between Japan, South Korea, and the United States is very important. The trilateral intelligence exchanges, the dialogue between the three countries, I think eventually we may even want to look at combined military exercises with the three countries to show to North Korea that these three countries—Japan, South Korea, and the US—are totally united on this issue of denuclearization.
I also think additional missile defense capabilities—whether it is THAAD, whether it is AEGIS land- or sea-based—I think additional missile defense capabilities in the region. I just think there is a lot we can do to put additional pressure on North Korea.
I would like to ask about the new South Korean government. The new government under President Moon Jae-in halted the deployment of the THAAD missile. How do you assess President Moon? Will the new government be a reliable partner for the US and Japan?
I think the Moon Jae-in government will assist in assuring that our three countries—Japan, the US, and South Korea—really work closely on this issue.
The Moon Jae-in government has made it very clear they want a dialogue with North Korea. They made that very clear. But so does Japan; so does the United States. We want dialogue. We don’t want confrontation.
But the fact of the matter is, we want meaningful dialogue—a dialogue that will produce results and not dialogue for the sake of dialogue, a dialogue that would ensure there is a halt to the missile launches and the nuclear tests, and we have a discussion on comprehensive verifiable denuclearization. I think the Moon Jae-in government would support or is supportive of that vision. I don’t think there is any difference there.
It is how we go about doing that. I think missile defense, as we just talked about, is very important on that and I think—I know the Moon Jae-in government recently has said that they are going to revisit the additional four components to the THAAD system that is operational. I think that is a procedural issue, but THAAD is operational in South Korea, we do have the system up and running, and I think it has very significant capability.
So, to answer your question, I think the Moon Jae-in government could be a catalyst for enhancing the prospects of dialogue, meaningful dialogue, but ensuring that our goals are the same, our goals and objective, which is comprehensive verifiable denuclearization once North Korea ceases missile launches and nuclear tests.
So, I am guardedly optimistic that the Moon Jae-in government will move us in the right direction, but, having said that, we need to see what happens. But let me just note the last point on Moon Jae-in: I think the new president obviously has got to reflect the sentiment of the people of South Korea, so I think he would be also very responsive to people of South Korea and that is an important part of it also.
So what would be the conditions for returning to talks?
Well, I think we should have exploratory talks. Ideally, we should have official talks—representatives from Japan, the United States, South Korea, China, and Russia. I think that is the goal. But initially, those talks could be exploratory in nature. They don’t have to be official or reconvening the Six Party process.
Let me put it this way: I don’t think anyone wants to sit down with North Korea—my personal view—with North Korea launching missiles and having nuclear tests. I find that intimidating. As a former negotiator, if I am sitting down talking to you about reconciliation, about resolving issues, and you are launching missiles and having nuclear tests, I find that incongruous. It is in violation of a spirit of cooperation, of trust.
So, I would think, for anyone to sit down with North Korea for these exploratory talks, that North Korea would not be launching missiles and having nuclear tests. Now, is that a condition? I don’t know if that is a condition or not, but I would hope that North Korea would understand no one would want to sit down with them if they are launching missiles and having nuclear tests.
Now, if they halt those tests and launches, yes, there could be exploratory discussions, there should be. But I think the ultimate goal for the United States—and I am not speaking for Japan, but I believe very clearly this is Japan’s view and South Korea’s view and China’s, I might add—is denuclearization. We want to talk about comprehensive, verifiable denuclearization.
Now, North Korea may say, “We are not interested in doing that,” and they can put what they want on the table. But our goal has to be that. And if the North Koreans say, “We’re not going to talk about that and we won’t talk to you if you talk about it,” well, that’s not fair. That wouldn’t be right. They could talk about anything they want, but it needs to deal with the core issue, which is comprehensive, verifiable denuclearization.
And I will add this: not recognizing North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.
I have noticed recently that some of the experts and former officials in the United States have started mentioning the possibility of recognizing North Korea as a de facto nuclear state, and let them have the minimum deterrent capability. And I can assume that some of officials in the present government may have a similar way of thinking. So what is your opinion on that point?
I feel very strongly on this issue. I’m a believer in halting nuclear tests and missile launches and getting back to a dialogue. I am for negotiations to deal with comprehensive, verifiable denuclearization. But capping the program, accepting North Korea as a de facto nuclear weapons state? I am totally opposed to that. I just think it would be a proliferation nightmare for the region, for the world.
I think other countries will seek, possibly seek, nuclear weapons themselves and, having the prospects of possibly seeing some of these nuclear weapons, fissile material, getting into the hands of bad actors, state actors, rogue states, non-state actors. And also the miscalculation of stumbling into something.
Last fall, you took part in informal talk with North Korean officials in Malaysia. At that time, what were the demands of the North Korean side? Are they asking from the United States anything in particular?
Well, I think it is fair for me to say, North Korea—and this came out in our discussions—wants to be accepted as a nuclear weapons state, a responsible nuclear weapons state.
I think North Korea in the past has said this before, they will be very responsible and just accept them as a nuclear weapons state, and I think they heard from the US side that this was something that, as former officials (we are not officials), we just feel that is not achievable or recommended.
I think, on the North Korean side—and I understand this issue from their optic—they need security assurances. If we are telling them to halt everything, halt their nuclear program by not having nuclear tests and halting missile launches, what are we giving them in return?
So they have security concerns for themselves and, I mean, this is a country that has seen a lot of invasions over 2,000 years of recorded history, so they have security concerns, they are concerned about the joint military exercises, they are concerned about the sanctions that are biting and so forth and so on. So, they will have a number of demands, if you will, on their side, saying, “You want us to do things unilaterally. Okay, what are you going to do on your side?”
So, the value of the talks in the fall, and that is the value of these informal discussions, is we hear both sides.
They hear our issues and how we see things and we could hear their views on some of the most important issues, which is security, which is the sense that our military exercises are meant to decapitate their leadership in Pyongyang and they are concerned for the survival of the leadership in Pyongyang, and how sanctions are really hurting the ability of the country to function. So, both sides hear everything.
So, I think this is what negotiations are all about, where both sides put things on the table and say, “Okay, we need to build confidence.” That is why confidence-building measures are so important. We need to build trust and we put some confidence building measures on the table. We want you to halt everything and they do halt everything. We were talking about coming back to formal talks and they will talk about how we need a peace treaty. They will talk about the joint military exercises with South Korea, making them less intense.
Or maybe rolling back some of those sanctions from the United Nations. So we need to hear those things.
And that is what we discussed in the fall. They put their demands on the table, we put ours on the table, but I think, most importantly, both sides agreed that there is no trust. There is no trust in the relationship.
We also mentioned—at that time, they had two Americans, now they have four Americans they are holding—that would be a nice gesture to open up on the Americans they are holding. And certainly for Japan, you have the abduction issue, which is a very important issue. I know Prime Minister Koizumi in 2002, when he met with Kim Jong-Il, this was one of the issues that were put on the table. It still is an issue.
At that time, did you bring some sort of letter from the Obama administration?
No, we did not.
Do you see any possibility of like a military option should the diplomatic efforts fail?
You know, I see preemption very clearly as something that is an imminent threat to one of our allies or the United States. A missile launch that could have a nuclear warhead is threatening Japan, the United States, and South Korea. I think our respective leaders have to ensure that they protect our respective countries.
That’s preemption: an imminent threat, responding to that imminent threat.
Going left of that, the military option, whether it is nuclear reactors, whether it is going after missile facilities, and so forth, I think that is fraught with lots of danger, lots of uncertainty. I am not an advocate of that at all. I am an advocate for ensuring preemption is on the table. If there is an imminent threat, we have to respond to that threat, but to go beyond that, after infrastructure and so forth, I personally think North Korea would respond, they would retaliate, and I just fear that things would escalate and there would be significant casualties.
North Korea may respond to preemptive attack by attacking Seoul.
But, you know, if North Korea were launching, let’s say, an ICBM, what would they expect? What would they expect, that the US would sit here? Or a Nodong going to Japan? That we would just sit here and watch it being launched and say, “There is no way it is going to have a nuclear warhead”? I don’t think so. They have nuclear weapons, they have said they have miniaturized the weapons, they have had YouTube taking out Tokyo and Washington. I think we would have to—so how would they respond if we took out one of their missiles? I would have to believe they are rational actors and it would be proportional to what we did. Maybe something on the northern limit line. Going after Seoul? That’s war.
That is all-out war.
If one of their intentions of acquiring the weapon is survival of the regime, it doesn’t make sense for them to start a war.
Absolutely. I think that would be a—there is no question what would happen. But, again, having said that, when they have nuclear weapons and missiles that can deliver them, we have to be very obviously prudent and careful.
By the way, what was more striking during your recent visit to Japan (in May, for a fact-finding mission)?
Let me tell you what was striking. We had a lot of meetings with Diet members. It was a congressional group, so we had a large session with the Diet, and then we had another session with the LDP and some of their leadership in the Diet. It is the unanimity of this close alliance between Japan and the United States. I have a strong sense that we are partners, we are working together, and we are making progress with trilateral.
I think President Trump’s meeting with Shinzo Abe resonated nicely—“all options on the table” resonated, and “We are not patient with North Korea any longer”—it has got to be resolved. Those things came out loud and clear. And it was good being with a close ally like Japan. It was a great visit. A great group of people. You are a great ally. Good luck to you.
Ambassador Joseph R. DeTranni served as president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, and now serves on their board of advisors. He was senior advisor to the Director of National Intelligence, director of the National Counter Proliferation Center, and Intelligence Community Mission manager for North Korea. He also served at the State Department as the Special Envoy for Six-Party Talks with North Korea, and the US Representative to the Korea Energy Development Organization. He had a distinguished career with the Central Intelligence Agency, serving as a member of the Senior Executive Service, and director of East Asia Operations.