What actually changed this week with North Korea? One top expert explains.
By SARAH HOLDER
Over the past 72 hours, a teetering uncertainty has loomed over the ongoing crisis in North Korea. There’s been a dizzying array of news: military exercises, intelligence reports that the nation now has the ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead and fit it onto a missile, President Donald Trump’s promise of “fire, fury and, frankly, power the likes of which this world has never seen before” if North Korea continues with its current path, and, hours later, a North Korean response announcing plans for a missile strike near the U.S. territory of Guam.
But what actually changed this week? Not much, says Lisa Collins, an expert on North Korea and fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Collins says that what we’re seeing is very serious, but also unlikely to lead to a war anytime soon. And, she cautions, if you understand North Korea’s point of view, you’ll see why Trump’s comments might be just what North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was looking for.
POLITICO Magazine: What is the practical impact of Trump’s “fire and fury” comments on the North Korea crisis?
Lisa Collins: The rhetoric has been heightened, but I don’t think that it changes the actual reality of the North Korean threat. North Korea is used to giving and relaying this kind of rhetoric, and North Korea is very used to these responses.
Threatening war or military action against North Korea … works more towards the advantage of North Korea, not our advantage. After all, it’s a totalitarian regime—it uses threats from the U.S. to consolidate control within the country. It represses its people. The more that North Korea can create the perception of an outside threat, the more it can control the internal domestic situation. That gives the regime more power internally, which it can use externally.
POLITICO Mag: So far, has North Korea’s response to the U.S. been different than in past crises?
Collins: [Ed. Note: Shortly after this interview took place, North Korea made a second statement about Guam. The answer the follows has been updated since this piece was initially published.] The threat that North Korea initially made about shooting missiles at Guam, I don’t think it was different qualitatively than other statements. However, the second statement that was released on Guam was actually very different because it was so specific about the number of missiles, the type of missiles, and how close they would fall to the territory of Guam. Normally, North Korea does not communicate specific missile launches ahead of time. This detailed statement may have been released to prevent the U.S. from reacting militarily to a future missile launch or to coerce the U.S. into stopping flights of bombers and stealth jets from Guam.
POLITICO Mag: How seriously should we take North Korea’s ability to cause damage?
Collins: The North Korean threat is very real. I don’t think we should take it as a joke. The North Koreans are very focused on their goal, which is developing a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile. But I don’t think we’re going to go to war tomorrow. The tensions are high, but I don’t think it’s spiraling out of control. The United States and South Korea are determined to contain the threat, and are working hard within the bounds of their alliance to do so.
Personally, I think we tend to underestimate North Korea and how fast they can develop technologies. They’ve consistently surprised us with how fast they’ve been able to develop this stuff. Think about the missile tests on July 4 and July 28: People hadn’t expected North Korea would have the technical ability to shoot ballistic missiles at such a far range, but they showed they could do it at least once. So we shouldn’t underestimate how quickly they’re working.
Something important to note is that they tend to not be afraid of failure in comparison to other countries. North Korea consistently tests technology even if they’ve had failures in the past. They get information from every test that helps them improve technology. In other countries, they wait to perfect things before testing them. North Korea doesn’t do that.
There are two objectives of this kind of rapid testing. One, they prove they can do what they say they will do. When there’s a test, a lot of people question them; experts go on TV and question whether North Korea can really do what they say they will. Two, North Korea wants to prove that they can actually do the damage they want to in order to achieve their strategic objectives. They want to show their hand.
POLITICO Mag: What catalysts cause these kinds of threats from North Korea?
Collins: They usually do it in response to something that’s happened. For example, if a sanctions resolution is passed that targets North Korea, they might do something like release a video showing missiles being aimed at D.C.
[Kim’s regime] has two audiences for almost every action: It has an internal audience, the North Korean people, and it has an external audience, the rest of the world. So I think when North Korea engages in bombastic rhetoric, it’s speaking to an internal audience, saying “the U.S. is a threat, therefore we need to concentrate our resources on building up our army, and you should contribute money to that.” They’re trying to consolidate power within country; they’re creating a perception threat that they can use to repress people. That’s one rationale.
And the other, in external communication, is to show to the world that North Korea isn’t about to back down to any sort of U.S. pressure, while communicating that message to China and South Korea at the same time. So there are many different audiences North Korea is targeting when it makes statements.
POLITICO Mag: On a leader-to-leader level, is the more aggressive language Trump’s using likely to be more effective, because it’s sort of more in Kim’s wheelhouse?
Collins: So Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump don’t have a personal relationship—they’ve never met in person—but in terms of communicating between leaders around the world, this is definitely not traditional. I don’t think leaders usually communicate over Twitter or KCNA [North Korea’s state-run news agency] messages; there are other channels of communication that normal leaders use, such as secret phone calls or messages communicated through military [channels].
I don’t think the communication over Twitter is particularly helpful—that’s my personal opinion—but it depends on what Trump’s motive is. We don’t know what that motive is. Is he just doing something to draw a response from North Korea? Is his audience China or Russia instead? We don’t really know what his motives are, and unless we know that, it’s pretty hard to judge what he’s trying to do. But no, I don’t think it’s a particularly effective way of communicating with North Korea.
POLITICO Mag: Regardless of Trump’s motives, how do you think a North Korean audience, whether that’s Kim Jong Un or the general populace, reads Trump’s rhetoric?
Collins: North Koreans don’t generally respond very well to threats. I think they’d be unlikely to back down from this because they’d see it as weakness to back down. There’s been a pattern of North Korean response in the past, going back to Kim’s father and grandfather, that generally they tend not to back down from, but to escalate threats until they get some sort of benefit out of it. They use escalation as leverage to get something they want, and return to negotiations of some sort. Unfortunately, the more rhetorical back and forth there is, the greater chance for miscalculation that could spiral into conflict.
I do think there are people around Trump, like Secretary of State [Rex] Tillerson and chief of staff [John] Kelly, and [national security adviser H.R.] McMaster, who are all trying to tone down and moderate the kind of back-and-forth communications.
POLITICO Mag: You said that in the past, North Korea has made threats similar to the one they made this week about Guam, promising the tiny island an attack in the form of “enveloping fire.” Is there something more troubling about the message this time?
Collins: So the statement about Guam from North Korea yesterday was more specific than it normally is. I think one of the reasons they mentioned Guam was because there’s a U.S. base there that houses some of the B-1B bombers that are sent to fly over the Korean Peninsula to show North Korea that the U.S. is ready to respond at any time. So I think that’s probably one of the reasons—I believe it was Tuesday (Korea Standard Time) when U.S. last sent fighter flights near the Korean Peninsula from Guam.
Guam is about 3,500 kilometers from North Korea, and the missiles that North Korea is developing—one of their latest missiles they tested is called the Hwasong 12. It’s in the range between medium-to-intercontinental ballistic missile. It can reach Guam—or, North Korea has claimed that it can reach Guam. So North Korea might be using this to show that they have this technology that they’ve developed in this missile that can be launched at any time. It [would be] more technical proof that they possess technology and the capabilities they’ve been claiming this entire time.
POLITICO Mag: I’m wondering if you’d agree that North Korea isn’t a rational actor, and if not, how do we deal with that?
Collins: I do think North Korea is a rational actor. It’s not doing what we anticipate or expect it to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily irrational.
North Korea has a goal and objective to everything it does. It just might not be very clear to us what its motives are at the time. Deterrence is working and we can see that because a lot of people anticipated that North Korea was going to conduct a sixth nuclear test over the last few months, and it has not yet done that. There might be a couple of reasons for that: It might be because of fear of reaction of U.S., or because of fear of reaction from China.
So I think we do see deterrence working in effect because what we anticipate North Korea might do, it actually does not do sometimes. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t underestimate what North Korea can do. But I think the U.S. is consistently working with its allies to show and demonstrate that deterrence is in effect. That’s through sending aircraft carriers to the region, doing flights of stealth aircraft over the peninsula, working with Japan and South Korea on missile defense systems. There’s different pieces of this that the U.S. is always working on.
POLITICO Mag: You lived in South Korea for 10 years. How does the North Korea threat look from there?
Collins: South Koreans often don’t react at all to what’s happening in North Korea. Overnight, there wasn’t much reaction from the South Korean public in terms of what was happening with North Korean threats, but in the U.S., obviously, people were very concerned. South Koreans have lived under the North Korean threat for more than 50 years now. They’ve become accustomed to North Korea doing unexpected things and making threats like this, so part of it is that they’ve tuned it out.
POLITICO Mag: How do we find an off-ramp for this crisis?
Collins: I don’t think they’ll be sitting down in public for a negotiation, but there would probably have to be some communication—either public or through back channels—just to make sure there are no misunderstandings that can lead to further escalation of tensions. There’s a hotline between the North and the South: A military hotline that could be opened to sort of maybe create a channel that could relieve some of the tensions.
Diplomacy is ultimately a goal that we want to strive for—that’s the only solution to the North Korean nuclear situation or crisis: an agreement to encourage them to get rid of their program.