Foreign policy elites in the West were rattled in early January after news broke that North Korea had conducted an underground test of a hydrogen bomb, its first. Although many experts doubted the claim, the action drew immediate condemnation from the United States and its allies and sparked renewed calls for tougher sanctions on North Korea — and a more forceful response from China, the Hermit Kingdom's closest ally.
Earlier this month, PND spoke with Gloria Duffy, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Club of California, the oldest and largest public affairs forum in the United States, about the news and what it means for the current sanctions regime and further nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Before joining the Commonwealth Club in 1996, Duffy served as executive director of the Ploughshares Fund and later joined the incoming Clinton administration as an assistant secretary of defense, in which position she was credited with negotiating historic agreements with Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to dismantle their nuclear arsenals, and with Russia to prevent the spread of its weapons, materials, and know-how.
Philanthropy News Digest: How worried should we be about North Korea's claim to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb?
Gloria Duffy: Well, it's just that, a claim. There's really no verification that it was a hydrogen bomb, and if it were a hydrogen bomb, it was a rather crude one. The concern is the continuing pattern of North Korea testing both nuclear devices and long-range delivery vehicles. That's the worrisome part, because they do glean data from each test, and we assume they are using that data to improve their nuclear weapons, improve the miniaturization of those weapons, and gradually build their way to having a functioning nuclear weapon on a functioning long-range delivery system.
PND: What kind of message is North Korea trying to send the United States with its actions?
GD: We like to think of ourselves as the intended target of overt messages from a country like North Korea, but it's likely they have various audiences in mind. One of the primary audiences is internal, the people of North Korea itself. There is a Communist Party Congress coming up in May, and Kim Jong-un, the country's supreme leader, clearly wants to demonstrate he's in charge, that his policies are succeeding, and that he can repel any challenges to his authority. Then there's a global audience, the main components of which are South Korea and other countries that might directly threaten North Korea or try to intervene in its affairs. So there are multiple audiences and multiple messages, but the overriding message is one of strength and power, possibly with the aim of squeezing more concessions from the United States and other countries in return for slowing down or moving away from its nuclear program.
PND: How secure is Kim Jong-un's hold on power?
GD: Well, that's a bit of a black box. There have been rumors of various challenges to him, and he's taken some actions against family members and others who he perhaps perceived as a threat. So, while his position appears to be strong, he is not immune to challenges, and I'm sure he's aware of that.
PND: Are policies put in place by the United States and its allies to deal with the situation working?
GD: Are they working to deter North Korea from its nuclear path? Clearly not. I believe North Korea is on a measured path toward developing both a nuclear weapons capability and the ability to deliver those weapons over long distances. Sanctions have not prevented it from proceeding along that path. Are they creating hardships for North Korea? Yes. There are sanctions in place on international banks that have or have had operations in North Korea, there are some sanctions on trade, and the UN Security Council is talking about expanding and deepening its sanctions. All those things are contributing to economic hardship in the country. But are they deterring North Korea from the nuclear path it has been on for more than a decade? No.
PND: Do you think the situation on the Korean peninsula will be resolved peacefully? And what should we expect if it isn't?
GD: Well, the North Koreans could escalate the situation by attacking a target in South Korea, which they've done in the past and may do in the future. The real question, however, is whether there are other approaches, beyond sanctions, that could be productive. I think there are. It's interesting that North Korea seems to allow some nongovernmental contact with the West. One can speculate about the reasons and thinking behind it, but a couple of years ago, the country's leadership actually solicited the Commonwealth Club and representatives of Stanford and other organizations to lead a tour of the country. It was very controlled, as you would expect, but it was a reflection of the fact there is interest at some levels of the government, probably motivated by a desire for the funds that can be earned, in having more contact with Westerners.
Similarly, there has been rudimentary collaboration between a number of scientific and environmental organizations in the U.S. and their North Korean counterparts. Back in 2009, I attended a very interesting session sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science on scientific engagement with North Korea and was surprised to learn how many projects involving scientific and environmental organizations in the U.S. and entities in North Korea were going on. Much of that activity was supported by U.S. foundations. Now, I'm not sure how much, if any, of it is still going on, but those are the kinds of activities that, while they may not involve bilateral policy statements and positions, do end up introducing outside perspectives and thinking to people in North Korea.
The best case, I suppose, is that the so-called six party talks involving the U.S., South Korean, China, Japan, Russia, and North Korean would resume. The Chinese have declared their opposition to the recent test, and if they decided to take a stronger position with respect to North Korea and agreed to sit down with the other parties to devise a path, perhaps similar to the one worked out by the United States and its allies with Iran, well, that would be a good thing.
But that's a long shot. I don't think Kim Jong-un is as rational as the current Iranian government, and even if we did manage to restart talks with North Korea, we would want to be careful not to let the government in Pyongyang leverage its nuclear saber rattling into additional assistance without the promise of real concessions.
— Mitch Nauffts