Thae Yong Ho is not terribly enthused by those who advocate a preemptive strike on North Korea. Such a move isn’t “realistic” when U.S. troops and their families are stationed in South Korea. Also, Kim Jong-un isn’t terribly concerned about the threat of a preemptive strike since he can detect troop movements through surveillance. He would probably think such a threat is just “empty rhetoric,” according to Thae.
Thae made his remarks on February 9th at a symposium entitled “Prospects on Northeast Asian Security and ROK’s Choice,” held at the Korea Press Center (which is 1 block north of the City Hall in Seoul’s city center). The symposium was sponsored by the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS). Thae attended the second session of the symposium in a panel discussion. Aside from addressing the viability of preemptively striking Kim Jong-un, Thae discussed the limitations of engagement with North Korea and why the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework was destined to fail from the beginning.
How a Preemptive Strike on NK is Irrational and Could Backfire
Thae Yong Ho thinks a preemptive strike on Kim Jong-un is unrealistic because ultimately no rational leader would make that decision: “I can’t think of a U.S. president that would preemptively strike North Korea when 25,000 U.S. troops and their families are stationed in South Korea. Do you think any U.S. president would agree to do that without moving them to safety first?” If he did that, they would become fodder for North Korea’s retaliation.
Thae: "Not realistic" when 25,000 U.S. troops and their families are in ROK. YT screen capture linked to source.
Plus, Kim Jong-un can tell through surveillance when a preemptive strike might be coming: “If the U.S. armed forces in South Korea are going on vacations as scheduled, their families come and go as usual … then North Korea can tell that this preemptive strike is just an empty threat.”
If the U.S. does follow through and launch a preemptive strike, however, it may not end well. Thae thinks it could result in “full frontal warfare” and end “disastrously” for the Korean Peninsula. This is because the North Korean regime will behave like a cornered mouse: “Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. How many people have been killed by these 3? Kim Jong-un knows that he has no choice. He will think that he has nothing to lose.” Kim Jong-un knows how dictators like Nicolae Ceaușescu and Muammar Gaddafi met their fates when their dictatorships fell. So Thae thinks he would unleash “suicidal intentions” and the preemptive strike could end disastrously for everyone involved.
[To be sure, Thae is referring here primarily to a preemptive strike on the North Korean regime, not necessarily to surgical strikes on the country’s nuclear and missile capabilities. The two are different and the issues become complex. We note this here to elucidate the context in which Thae is making his observation.]
Thae: Kim Jong-un would probably react with "suicidal intentions" if preemptively struck. It would be a trainwreck.
— 조선일보 (@Chosun) February 9, 2017
Being Realistic on Any Engagement Policy with North Korea
Thae also pointed out that any engagement policy with North Korea must be “realistic.” North Korea vitally needs economic aid but the regime makes all of its decisions based on whether they are good for the regime’s stability or not.
For example, Vladimir Putin met with Kim Jong-il in Moscow to make a business proposal: Putin wanted to build natural gas pipelines and railways to transport coal from Russia down to South Korea. Putin told Kim “it would be enormously profitable just being a toll collector and let them pass through.” [We think Thae is mistaken here: Kim Jong-il met with Dmitry Medvedev in Vladivostok in 2011 to discuss Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas company company, build natural gas pipelines to South Korea — this would not have taken place during Kim Jong-il’s 2001 visit to Moscow]. However, Kim Jong-il thought that facilitating an economic relationship between Russia and South Korea will not be good for the regime’s long-term stability. For instance, North Korea would have to let coal and natural gas shipment through even if relations with South Korea go sour. “So Kim Jong-il never seriously considered the proposal.” According to Thae, Putin “drank vodka with Kim Jong-il all night” to persuade him but Kim never budged.
Putin supposedly drank vodka with Kim Jong-il all night to convince him to allow natural gas pipelines to travel down to South Korea.
Thae recounts another incident — this time between Kim Jong-il and Chinese leader Hu Jintao (who preceded Xi Jinping). “Hu Jin-tao once proposed building a freeway between Dandong and Kaesong. Hu told Kim Jong-il that North Korea has to just collect tolls [presumably China would foot the bill for building the highway]. This would have been a tremendous coup for the regime to earn hard currency. However, North Korea still turned it down.”
Why? Once again, as Thae explains, the regime’s stability trumps everything: “What do you think peasants in North Korea would think if they happen to see freight trains full of cars being exported to China. Or if they see South Korean tourists headed to vacation spots in China? That’s why it’s not allowed even though it would be enormously profitable for the regime.”
Hu Jintao got the hug but not the highway he wanted.
Thae, therefore, cautions anyone who thinks a carrot might work better than a stick when dealing with North Korea: “North Korea is wary of being involved in strategic economic relationships with Russia or China. They could earn some foreign currency but it may not be the best thing for the regime’s long-term survival … [T]hat’s why it’s a mistake to think that you can resolve the nuclear crisis by providing better economic incentives.”
Thae then rhetorically asks, “Can the U.S. and South Korea verify that North Korea destroyed its nuclear facilities? Can you obtain that information or will you have the right to inspect North Korean facilities? There isn’t anyone who will support a denuclearization pact with North Korea unless you can verify. It’s not possible even if a mutually agreeable pact is reached between the parties involved.”
The reality is pretty grim, according to Thae. North Korea cannot be persuaded to give up nuclear weapons. Previously, he said, “You can offer Kim Jong-un 10 trillion dollars. He still won’t give up nuclear weapons.” Thae is being pretty direct when he concludes, “It is not possible to denuclearize North Korea no matter how big the incentive is. To denuclearize North Korea, you need to eliminate Kim Jong-un.”
How the 1994 Agreed Framework Was Destined to Fail
Thae also has pretty strong opinions about the 1994 Agreed Framework (the “Agreement”) between the U.S. and North Korea. According to him, it was a “sham agreement” from the beginning: “The 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework was fraudulent. This was really a fraudulent pact entered into by North Korea and Bill Clinton.”
That’s because the Agreement was premised on flawed assumptions. For example, it called for the U.S. to provide heating oil and subsidize the construction of power plants to supply North Korea with electricity. But North Korea lacked the means of transporting electricity even if the power plants were to be built: “At the time, North Korea’s grid line would melt if electricity exceeded 100 megawatts (MW). So those working in power generation in North Korea urged amending the Agreement to include upgrading the grid lines to handle 600 MW. However, the foreign ministry told them not to bother.” North Korea had no intention of complying with the Agreement anyway and knew it would have to be abandoned.
Thae: Kim Jong-il knew in advance the 1994 Agreed Framework would fail.
Thae explains why from the perspective of Kim Jong-il: “At the time, Kim Il-sung had just passed away and the Soviet Union had dissolved. What Kim Jong-il was trying to do was to ‘buy time’ in case the U.S. decides to bomb North Korea [that is, Yongbyon].
Meanwhile, the intelligence gathered by North Korea’s foreign ministry indicated that Bill Clinton had signed the Agreement thinking that North Korea would not last very long and soon disintegrate. [At the time, North Korea was undergoing what would turn out to be the great famine and the Arduous March was on its way]. Clinton thought he would just “manage North Korea” until it imploded on its own.” According to Thae, the Agreement resulted from these calculations and neither party had entered into it in good faith, though it was North Korea that never intended to adhere to it from the get-go.
Thae was stationed at the North Korean embassy in Copenhagen, Denmark at the time. He remembers, “There was no one working in the North Korean foreign ministry who thought the Agreement would last.” The Agreement was essentially dead on arrival, though it officially lasted until 2003.
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On January 17th, Thae visited the National Assembly and engaged in a discussion sponsored by the Bareun Party (this is the party that split from the Saenuri Party). Some of the issues he brought up are pretty obscure but important. For example, he mentioned that right under Kim Jong-un, there is something called the “3rd Floor Bureau” which gathers information and implements all directives. It is actually above the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), which acts as the hidden, inner organ of the Workers Party. The two are designed to be functional organs so that North Korea remains operational even if public (but ceremonial) figures like Hwang Pyong-so and Choe Ryong-hae are eliminated.
With regard to who is number 2 behind Kim Jong-un: “There is no number two that the South Korean media is always looking for. You can’t have one in North Korea. It’s like looking for a smaller god under an all-powerful god that is Kim Jong-un.” North Korea doesn’t believe in polytheism, Thae seems to be saying. Will have more translation of discussions with Thae.