Neither Trump nor Kim currently seeking war: ex-senior CIA official
Paul Pillar says North Korea is unlikely ever to give up nuclear weapons as a deterrent against armed attack
TEHRAN — A former senior U.S. intelligence official believes that neither U.S. President Donald Trump nor North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un are now looking for a war.
“Neither side currently is seeking a war” Paul R. Pillar tells the Tehran Times in an exclusive interview.
“Nonetheless, given the personalities of the two leaders involved, one cannot rule out that sheer personal pique could become a direct factor in triggering a war,” notes Pillar now at Georgetown University.
What follows is the full text of interview:
Tensions started rising between the U.S. and North Korea after Donald Trump came to power. What were the reasons for such an escalation?
A: The beginnings of the current spiral of tension can be found mainly on the North Korean side. The rapid series of missile tests, which have demonstrated increasing capability, together with the test of a nuclear device far more powerful than what North Korea had tested previously, would have produced a crisis no matter who was in charge on the U.S. side. Once begun, this spiral of tension has been worsened by the rhetoric of Donald Trump, rhetoric that has come to resemble to a remarkable degree the insulting invective we had grown accustomed to hearing from Kim Jong-un.
In his UN speech, Trump warned to “totally destroy North Korea” if it threatens U.S. or its allies. What message does this threatening language send to the world?
A: This was the line in the speech that probably got the most attention, and unsurprisingly so. Many listeners probably are still trying to figure out its significance. Many probably have concluded, I think correctly, that this is careless rhetoric of the sort that Trump often exhibits, and that it does not reflect operational policy or plans. But also unsurprisingly, many listeners worry that this phrase indicates a hotheadedness on the part of Trump that could lead to dangerous and destructive actions. Although the language may have been intended to deter, its deterrence value is diminished by the fact that, if the threat is taken literally, it would mean the death of millions of innocent people who are victims of the North Korean regime, not participants in it.
Can exchange of insults between the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea lead to a war?
A: Neither side currently is seeking a war. If war were to occur, it most likely would involve unintended escalation from an incident that spins out of control. The insults contribute to the tense environment that makes such escalation more likely, more so than being a direct cause of war. Nonetheless, given the personalities of the two leaders involved, one cannot rule out that sheer personal pique could become a direct factor in triggering a war.
Aren’t war of words in the 21st century alien to the modern world?
A: Unfortunately, wars of words are not hard to find, even if most of them do not get quite the attention that the U.S.-North Korea exchange does. Trading invective is all too common a feature of international conflicts. They do not help to resolve such conflicts, of course, but they are part of the international scene, even in the 21st century.
Some analysts believe the threat of regime change have prompted the North Korean leader to advance its nuclear weapons program and order nuclear tests. They argue the North Korean leader, through such behaviors, is seeking guarantee that his regime will remain intact. What is your analysis?
A: Survival of the regime is unquestionably Kim Jongun’s number one priority, and the nuclear weapons program derives directly from that priority. The program has some value to the regime domestically in terms of prestige, but mostly the nuclear weapons are intended to be the ultimate deterrent against any moves by outside powers to overthrow the regime.
Do you believe sanctions can cause a change in North Korea’s behavior? In other words, do you think North Korea leader Kim Jong-un will give in to pressure?
A: We have to be specific as to exactly what concessions we would want or expect Kim to make. He is unlikely ever to give up his nuclear weapons, no matter how much pressure is exerted. Indeed, threats to use military force only increase the regime’s incentive to retain the weapons as a deterrent against armed attack. More realistic would be getting Pyongyang’s agreement to limitations short of giving up the weapons, such as restrictions on nuclear and missile tests, or on the range of missiles.
Politicians and world leaders are insisting on diplomacy to resolve the dispute between the U.S. and North Korea; however politicians and analysts say North Korean cannot trust the U.S., especially as Trump is seeking to kill all his predecessor Barack Obama’s foreign policy achievements. What is your opinion?
A: Trump unfortunately has damaged U.S. credibility significantly by trying to undo everything Obama did. Other governments have been given ample reason to doubt whether any agreement they reach with Washington would survive the next U.S. election. Of particular relevance to the North Korean situation is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the agreement that restricts Iran’s nuclear activities. By undermining and trying to kill this agreement, Trump has made it significantly harder to reach any agreement with North Korea, and specifically any agreement having to do with nuclear weapons.
Do you also agree with this analysis that North Korea no longer can trust on China and Russia against the U.S. as it did in the past and therefore it feels obliged to strengthen its own power?
A: Self-reliance has long been a theme of the North Korean regime. That theme reflects the regime’s awareness that it cannot count on undiminished support even from its traditional allies. China is by far the most important outside player for North Korea, and Beijing has recently been increasingly open about its displeasure over North Korea’s actions. China still remains hesitant to pressure Pyongyang severely, for fear of touching off a sudden collapse of the regime and a huge flow of refugees into China, but it already has signaled its displeasure through lesser measures such as restrictions on the trade in coal.
What is your suggestion for resolution of the conflict between Pyongyang and Washington?
A: In the near term, cooling down the hostile rhetoric and reducing the chance of an unintended conflagration should have highest priority. Then over the somewhat longer term, we should use diplomacy aimed at increasing stability through, for example, the sorts of arms control measures I mentioned earlier. Over an even longer term, our strategy should be modeled after the containment strategy that was directed at the Soviet Union during the Cold War. A key principle of that strategy is that, while we keep a lid on things and contain any attempts by the adversary regime to expand its influence, ultimately the regime will die from its own internal weakness and contradictions. The USSR did not survive the 20th century, and the North Korean regime will die well before the end of the 21st century.
“Many listeners worry that this phrase (totally destroy north korea) indicates A hotheadedness on the part of trump that could lead to dangerous and destructive actions.”
“Trump unfortunately has damaged u.s. credibility significantly by trying to undo everything obama did.”
“Other governments have been given ample reason to doubt whether any agreement they reach with Washington would survive the next U.S. election.”
Paul R. Pillar