What Next for North Korea? A Conversation with Donald Gregg

Photo - AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service

Donald Gregg is a former CIA Station Chief in South Korea (1973-1975) and U.S. Ambassador to South Korea (1989-1993). Gregg is currently chairman of the Pacific Century Institute and chairman emeritus of The Korea Society.

North Korea conducted a nuclear weapons test on January 6, 2016 at 10:00 am Pyongyang time. Shortly after, state television announced that North Korea had successfully tested its first hydrogen bomb, to which world governments responded with skepticism and condemnation. Fox & Hedgehog spoke to Donald Gregg for his reaction. In this interview, Gregg urges the United States to initiate direct dialogue with North Korea in order to reduce tensions, gather intelligence, and gradually pave the way toward peaceful Korean re-unification.

Last night North Korea announced its fourth nuclear weapons test. How should the United States react?

It is interesting to me that for the first time all of North Korea’s neighbors including China and Russia have condemned the test. We should consider meeting with all five of the countries, including South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China, to see if we can find common ground in dealing with North Korea. My own view is that our policy of “strategic patience” has not been effective. We insist that North Korea begin immediately talking about how they are going to de-nuclearize and on that basis we might consider talking to them, whereas the North Koreans say, “What we are doing in the nuclear field is defensive, so don’t ask us to give up our defense right off the bat.” We need to establish a broader dialogue where perhaps we can have some mutual understanding that might later make discussion of de-nuclearization more appropriate.

Do you think conceding to dialogue right after a nuclear test would encourage other countries to develop nuclear weapons to pressure the United States?

No, I don’t. There is a good case to be made that at this point Kim Jong-un may not want to negotiate. He might be in a very belligerent state. I refer to North Korea as “the longest-running failure in the history of American intelligence” because we still don’t understand what makes them tick. That’s because we have refused to really have sustained dialogue with them.

Sustained dialogue happened only once and that was under Bill Perry after the North Koreans fired a missile in 1998 or 1999. He talked with them at length, and that problem was solved. They sent Marshal Rok to Washington, and he invited President Bill Clinton to visit Pyongyang. That was the high point of U.S.-North Korean relations. Time ran out, and Clinton couldn’t go to North Korea.

Then in came George W. Bush. He made the absolutely idiotic statement in the State of the Union speech in 2002 that North Korea, Iraq, and Iran were part of the axis of evil. That undid everything, and it’s a statement that still stands between us and the resumption of meaningful dialogue with the North Koreans.

In a 2013 interview you compared Kim Jong-un to Gorbachev in terms of his receptiveness to diplomatic overtures. Have you now changed your opinion based on, say, the executions he’s been carrying out?

No, I haven’t. He has a very difficult job establishing himself as the leader of North Korea. The North Koreans are a very hierarchical society. They’re a Confucian country. Youth and inexperience is viewed with great suspicion. For him to suddenly be catapulted into this position of leadership makes him very suspect on the part of many of the senior people around him, many of whom are far older than he is. I think he is working hard to establish himself as the undisputed leader of North Korea.

He has pretty much succeeded in doing that, and there has been some rough things he has done along the way to achieve that, but that is his goal. The North Koreans now see him as the person who is in control. I had a meeting with North Koreans last week and talked about this. They feel that 2015 was a very good year for them in terms of their economy improving and the livelihood of their people improving, and they certainly feel that now Kim Jong-un is their very confident leader.

So do you think a nuclear test was a good move on Kim Jong-un’s part?

He is a risk taker, he is a gambler, and it is a high stakes move. It confronts us with some difficult choices. I wish he hadn’t done it, but if I were in his position I might have considered doing it because it strengthens his own position within North Korea.

I think he’s perhaps a better judge of what we will or will not do than we are a judge of what he may or may not do. In my first visit to North Korea, Kim Gye Gwan and I were talking about a certain obscure book. I said “I can’t imagine you guys are aware of this book,” and he said, “Mr. Gregg, please do not assume that we are as ignorant of you as you are ignorant of us.”

You think it’s really important to have intelligence on North Korea. What kind of information would you be looking for?

Human intelligence. We are able to listen to them through our satellites, we are able to take pictures of what they do, but we don’t know what they think. We’ve never had a really good access into the thinking. I’ve said that to the North Koreans. I’ve said “we can look down to you, we can listen to what you say, but we don’t know what you think, and we don’t know what motivates you.”

The only way to really get at that is to talk. I’ve been saying for the last 20 years: We need to talk. The hardliners are saying, “Well, why talk to them when they are not going to give up their nuclear weapons? Let’s push for regime change, they’re going to collapse anyway.” I don’t think they’re going to collapse. Their economy is getting stronger, and sooner or later we have sit down and begin to talk to them unless we want to fight them.

We certainly do not want to fight them because their conventional artillery can reach into Seoul. I don’t think their nuclear weapons are an existential threat now unless they put a bomb on an airplane, but even 24, 48 hours of fighting on the Korean Peninsula with the artillery capacity that they have would be horrendous in terms of the number of Koreans killed. I mean we would eventually win a war, but the country would be flattened. So we want to avoid fighting. And they know that. And I think they’re playing their cards very astutely.

The nuclear test shows that the hardliners in North Korea are winning influence. Under what conditions would North Korea want to negotiate in good faith?

Any use of a nuclear weapon by them would be the destruction of their country and they know that. They cannot meet us on those terms. We have threatened them with the use of nuclear weapons several times in the past, and they want us to stop that.

They have said to me, “We remember the B-29. You flattened our cities with the B-29, and when you fly a B-52 near our borders with a nuclear weapon on it, we don’t like it. We are fearful when you do that because you have threatened the use of nuclear weapons against us in the past, and what we are doing now is to do the best we can to assure you will not do that to us again.”

I think that if dialogue was started and a certain amount of mutual trust and understanding was established, they would then begin to talk about giving up their nuclear weapons. But they won’t do it right at the outset.

Now, a lot of people disagree with me, they will say “they’ll never give them up.” I disagree with that. I think they will but only on the basis of a degree of trust and understanding which we are far from having at the moment.

So one part of the dialogue you mentioned was trying to get China involved.

China has been very helpful to us in dealing with North Korea because they don’t like the North Koreans and the North Koreans do not like the Chinese. The Chinese are much more fearful of either implosion or explosion in North Korea than they are of the development of a nuclear weapons system, which they think would not ever be used. What concerns them is the stability of the North Korean regime, so that limits what they are willing to do—that limits the degree to which we see North Korea in the same frame of reference. But they have been very helpful to us. We have sort of handed over the responsibility to the Chinese to a certain extent.

We say, “Oh, the Chinese are their great friends, they can get North Korea to stop nuclearization.” That’s nonsense. They can’t. Their interest is stability, our interest is in de-nuclearization, so we sort of can go along with them a certain way, but we do not see things completely the same.

Some people suggest that North Korea benefits the United States as a kind of excuse to forward deploy troops up at China’s borders.

I don’t agree with that. We made a terrible mistake in ignoring all kinds of warnings from China not to go above the 38th parallel in the Korean war, and the Chinese have made it quite clear to us that if there is a denouement, if there is a change in North Korea, we have to be careful about how far north we deploy our troops. I think the last thing in the world we want to do is make China a military enemy to us, so I think those who say we need an excuse to keep our troops in Korea, I think that’s thinking of the past. Some people think it, but I don’t think that should be the basis of our foreign policy.

Do you think stationing troops in South Korea and Japan helps our negotiation?

It helps, certainly. It has been a stabilizing factor. But I don’t think we are looking for an excuse to make it more extensive. We have pulled our troops far away from the DMZ so that they are not immediately involved in any incidents along the DMZ. We are not interested in any military confrontation. I think we’re very much against that, and we ought to be very much against that.

So you’re interested in talks. What kind of outcome do you see or want to see coming out of the talks?

I want to see a resurrection of what I saw very briefly at the time of Marshal Jo Myong Rok’s visit to the United States in the fall of 2000, when Bill Clinton was invited to visit North Korea. We spoke of establishing dialogue, establishing mutual respect, and building the same kind of relationship that we have with South Korea. It came as a result of the only sustained period of dialogue that we’d had with the North Koreans under the auspices of former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry. He was a really fine negotiator, the best we’ve ever had. We’ve never had anybody else who’s been able to maintain dialogue for a significant period of time with the North Koreans. He got them to see that the firing of missiles, the Taepodong, was not in their interest. He really solved the missile problem. We were moving toward rapprochement when Bush came in and talked about the axis of evil, and that undid it all.

Do you see Korean unification anywhere in the future?

Absolutely. It is inevitable.

Why is it inevitable?

Well because they’re Koreans. They’ve been the same people for 5,000 years. They’ve only been forced apart for 60 or 70. Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, I used to talk about this a lot, he said “I think it’s about a 30 year process.” But he feels it is inevitable.

Why would the North Korean government agree to any kind of unification?

There is a recognition that there is something to be gained by putting the two halves of a very talented country back together. It can’t come quickly. South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s talk about suddenly having North Korea collapse and South Korea taking over by default is just a non-starter. Unification has to come as part of a gradual process, where both sides can see that they can benefit from more interaction. That goes on in a small way in Kaesong, where they have now something like 45 000 North Koreans working there. They work well, they make money, and South Koreans make money. There are more things to be done like that, but that only happens if there is a greater degree of overall confidence about things on the peninsula not falling apart and getting back into military confrontation.