After the historic summit between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, there has been a flurry of media coverage attempting to peer into the depths of the delicate balance between peace and global thermonuclear war. Coverage during the immediate aftermath ranged from elation to the usual histrionics. It has almost been a month since the summit took place. It would be wise to reevaluate the dynamics between our two nations as the subject is less charged. However, being somewhat detached does not lessen its relevance. Over the past few days, there have been reports of North Korean ill will, but also legitimate progress. How do we reevaluate the merits, as well as the drawbacks, of this new path forward with North Korea?
To that end, I sought the opinion of a well-established expert on the subject of North Korea.
I first heard of Professor Morse Tan when I was a sophomore in college. He spoke at a summer seminar on the Anglo-American legal heritage. While he focused on law and bioethics, I discovered that North Korea was an area of particular interest to him. The following year, Morse again spoke at the same seminar, but this time, his emphasis was on human rights in North Korea.
Through mutual professional connections, I was able to connect with Professor Tan in order to share his thoughts with the Resurgent.
Morse Tan is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. He has written more law review articles than anyone else on the subject of North Korea. Most recently, he wrote the lead article for the Cornell International Law Journal issue on North Korea, which is forthcoming soon. He has written book chapters as well as the entire book: “North Korea, International Law, and the Dual Crises: Narrative and Constructive Engagement” (Routledge), published in paperback, electronic and hardcover formats. The book reposes in libraries of some 15 countries. Morse has spoken regarding North Korea in many contexts, such as the U.S. State Department, Cornell Law School and the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Media engagements have included: UPI, the National Law Journal, Voice of America and many others. Professor Tan taught the only North Korea seminar in an American law school. He has also taught courses such as: International Criminal Law, International Human Rights, and Public International Law. He served as a founding professor of the 1st American JD program in Asia and has visited Korea around a baker’s dozen number of times, including a research trip regarding North Korea with leading scholars and activists.
Here is the exchange:
Jake: When we think about North Korea, we see an oppressed and isolated populace. Is the populace of North Korea redeemable in the political sense? I’ll premise that by saying that some dictatorships repress genuinely pro-western dissidents, is the isolation in North Korea so severe so as to preclude the hope of political redemption?
Morse: The North Koreans can experience a political turnaround. There has been generally increasing streams of information that have entered North Korea. Free North Korea Radio has been effectively sending information into North Korea, so much so that the head of it, a North Korean defector, is number one on Kim Jong UN’s public assassination list. I talked with a refugee, who very matter-of-factly, told me that it was common for North Koreans to access illegal information in North Korea even though there are severe punishments attached with being caught doing so. One example is how the movie Titanic has had a large impact on the North Koreans. What astonishes them is that someone would lay down his life for someone else. Yet accessing such materials is completely illegal. (Only elites have authorized access to information. Outside information is illegal. They have one nationwide intranet controlled by the government). The South Korean government has therefore made major mistakes in closing their North Korean Human Rights office, the South Korean office legislatively mandated to address human rights issues and preventing groups like Voice of the Martyrs from sending information into North Korea. Addressing human rights together with security increases the chances of solving both. That is an important lesson from Reagan’s negotiations with Gorbachev. Reagan included human rights throughout his negotiations with Gorbachev. It actually increased leverage for Reagan and provided a major purpose for a new society in the former Soviet Union. If we were trying to get the Soviet Union to change in major ways, if they only reduced their military forces, you would still have an oppressive, unjust society where the people are crushed. Reagan was admirably idealistic along these lines and it was part of the attraction of what he offered the people in the now former Soviet Union, such as in his speech to Moscow State University. It has the collateral benefit of improving the position, stance, and overall power of his negotiation. This should be also applied to Kim Jong Un. In the press conference after the summit, Trump said that human rights in North Korea was the topic he spoke about second most after denuclearization: this fact was glossed over by much of the media.
Jake: Is reunification possible?
Morse: Yes! I think with North Korea, we have already entered the track toward reunification. North Korea as it stands, is not sustainable. Kim Jong Un seems to recognize that. There have already been steps taken along these lines to lay a foundation for reunification. The communication between North Korea and South Korea is one of the ways this foundation is being laid. The Departments of Defense of the two Koreas have been interacting. President Moon has publicly stated that reunification is a goal of his. And President Trump has blessed efforts towards reunification. Public opinion in South Korea is mixed. Those from the Korean War generation are generally supportive as they never wanted it divided. Stalin insisted on the division, to which the US acquiesced. The younger generation is more mixed, in part due to the anticipated burden. However, I do think that there would be substantial international support for reunification. Also, there would be decreased defense burdens if reunification were to happen. North Korea is more resource rich than South Korea, including trillions upon trillions of dollars worth of rare earth minerals. Furthermore, an extensive trans-Siberian railroad network as well as gas pipeline could greatly bolster the economies of a united Korea as well as regional partners. So it could be a long term boon for the Koreas to reunite. There would be challenges no doubt, but these challenges can be surmounted over time.
Jake: What costs or benefits would there be to South Korea if reunification were to happen?
Morse: It would eliminate the most militarized border on Earth i.e the 38th parallel—the so-called De-Militarized Zone (DMZ). More to the point of your question, North Korea has vast needs for developing infrastructure. Remember though that South Korea, after the Korean War, was the second poorest country on the planet, and has been built up into the 12th largest economy, with more internet bandwidth per capita, the best subway system, and the highest percentage of college grads in the world. South Korea makes major contributions in the auto industry, in computer chips, in ships, as well as the largest steel company in the world. By historical standards, this happened in a stunningly short amount of time. Why should that not be the case as South Korea’s advancements spread to the whole peninsula? This is the future that President Trump showed to Kim Jong Un. President Trump is effectively sharpening this crossroads to Chairman Kim, which is very effective negotiation. After highlighting the negative possibilities, President Trump has given Kim a way out through an emphasis on the positive side. It is textbook coercive diplomacy.
Jake: Are there signs that Kim Jong Un is different than his father or grandfather, in a positive way?
Morse: A different and more potentially effective approach from the U.S. has brought us to this point.
Jake: Is Kim Jong Un capable of rational thought?
Morse: Yes, he is capable because he came to the table. He stopped firing missiles, he has even stopped the anti-US propaganda, and sent back three U.S. citizens who were being held.
Jake: In your assessment, is Trump’s dismissal of Kim Jong Un’s brutality predicated on a valid negotiating strategy? I’ll premise that by saying that many in the media have been harsh toward Trump, some say rightly so, for his nonchalant view of Kim Jong Un’s human rights abuses. I can’t help but think that the President of the United States has to be aware of the veracity of the claims and would not dismiss them without purpose.
Morse: Trump has been masterfully using coercive diplomacy. In coercive diplomacy, after increasing the heat and pressure to a high degree, one gives a way out to the target of the coercive diplomacy. That is exactly what Trump has started to do. It also seems like Trump was sensitive to the importance culturally of saving face for Kim Jong Un. I don’t think Trump’s assessment of human rights abuses in North Korea has changed; however, this was a face-saving way to try to improve the prospect for successful negotiations. Trump has proved himself to be a master negotiator for decades. It should not be taken as a reversal of all President Trump knows about the human rights violations. Human rights groups that complain about Trump’s comments neglect the diplomatic/negotiation strategy aspects of his approach. It should not be seen as sudden amnesia about the human rights side of matters. If that were to happen moving forward, it would be a strategic mistake and a neglecting of justice, which is necessary for a true, enduring, and deep peace.
Jake: What is your assessment of the document that was signed by Trump and Kim? And how is it different than previous attempts?
Morse: It’s a great start, an indication of a potential inflection point. The return of the remains of American veterans was a wonderful addition to the document. The Kims have promised to denuclearize before, such as in 1994. But I think the big difference will be the follow through that is happening. Note that no military asset has been removed, no sanction has decreased. President Trump said there are over 300 sanctions ready to add. The decision to cancel the military exercises can be reversed at any time. Some media sources have dismissed it for being too broad. It was never intended to be a comprehensive document, just a broad outline of the new direction. Frankly, given the history of breaking every agreement that it has ever been a part of, the most important aspect is follow through.
Jake: Previous attempts failed to prevent a nuclear North Korea. What is a suitable process for verification of compliance, and what should be done in the event of violation? Does Kim Jong Un or the North Koreans grasp the possibility of real consequences for failure?
Morse: Kim Jong knows he cannot win against the United States in a military conflict. It is even questionable whether he could win against South Korea alone. North Korea reportedly has scant fuel supplies. With sanctions, it could be even less. Three quarters of North Korea is food insecure--even soldiers are starving. What sustained will to fight is there when they are struggling to barely survive?
Jake: Should there be more sanctions? How much more can we sanction?
Morse: President Trump said that there are more than 300 sanctions ready to go. While China is trying to roll back UN sanctions, it would be a major mistake to decrease these prior to major action by North Korea--whether to denuclearize, eliminate chemical and biological stockpiles, or close concentration camps, there must be verified actions. The IAEA can verify, the US can also verify. There is more than enough technical expertise. The IAEA has demonstrated the technology to monitor and detect nuclear activity by North Korea even when it has tried to hide them in the past. I make an argument elsewhere that North Korea did not meet the requirements for leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). For the sake of argument, even if one claims that North Korea did successfully leave the NPT, they may still be held accountable for their breaches of the safeguard provisions of the NPT that they violated while under the treaty.
Jake: How feasible are military strikes? Can we have limited strikes without putting South Korea at risk?
Morse: There are many defensive technologies that exist to protect South Korea and Japan, should military conflict ensue. Iron dome, Iron Beam, the development of the latest Patriot Missile system (PAC-4), LaW, land based and sea based Aegis systems, high-velocity projectiles (HVP), THAAD, cyber-electronic defenses, etc. South Korea can be more protected than many realize if they avail themselves to these defenses to a sufficient extent. The US military has the ability to destroy North Korean assets as they are firing their first shots. Taking shelter in the subway system can protect South Korean residents from attacks. North Korea does not possess high tech military equipment. Much like the Iraqis during Desert Storm, the North Koreans are using outdated Soviet Era equipment. Their artillery are limited in range and accuracy, unable to hit the southern side of Seoul. The U.S. military also has the ability to send microwaves via missiles that would fry North Korean electronics without damaging buildings or people.
Jake: If Kim Jong Un liberalizes after denuclearization, would there be a flood of refugees out of North Korea?
Morse: It depends on a number of factors. It is currently high treason to leave North Korea, and deserters are shot on sight, including children. North Korea controls movement even within the country. It would depend on the conditions, such as respect for the rights of the people and whether their basic needs are being met. People have a desire to be where their primary relationships are. So that could be in favor of staying or leaving together.
Jake: Is denuclearization attainable?
Morse: Yes. For the assortment of reasons mentioned above.
Jake: Would it be militarily acceptable to remove US troops from South Korea?
Morse: It would not be advisable to remove assets at this time. In a post-reunification scenario, it may be a negotiation factor with China, especially to potentially draw down the military presence on the peninsula. The US would presumably retain bases in Japan. The 7th fleet, the largest in the Navy, would remain in the region. A united Korea however may want an ongoing US military presence out of fear of China. China’s commitment to North Korea has been weakened. China has much to lose from the US such as around 20% of their exports, and from the fact that China is the largest foreign holder of US debt. Intellectual property issues and its manipulation of its currency to bolster their exports are additional points of leverage for the U.S. in relation to China. China needs to reconfigure its view of its interests regarding North Korea. China has positive interests in a peacefully reunified Korea and much to lose by propping up a failed regime.
Jake: What hope is there for Christians and Christianity in North Korea? How does the cult of personality impact efforts for evangelization?
Morse: Pyongyang was called the Jerusalem of the East before the division. Now there is genocidal persecutions against Christians and those who are not completely ethnically Korean. Those who do not renounce the name of Jesus Christ are murdered. North Korea has consistently ranked as the worst persecutor of Christians in the world. At the same time, there are many South Korean Christians who pray daily for North Korea. A unified Korea could become an even more major sending outpost for the Kingdom of God. South Korea alone sends out more missionaries per capita than any other nation. If one flies into Inchon International Airport at night, one can see the skyline lit up with red crosses. So I have great hope for Christians in North Korea. Kim Il Sung’s mother was reportedly a Christian, which is where he got the idea to rip off aspects of Christianity to appropriate to his criminal cult. The cult of the Kims has the ten principles instead of the Ten Commandments, the triad of the three Kims (the first two Kims are dubbed Eternal Presidents) instead of the Trinity, etc.
Jake: There are reports that North Korea is upgrading their nuclear facilities, does this change the landscape of diplomacy?
Morse: North Korea will not willingly or eagerly denuclearize, which is why a strongly coercive approach needs to continue until actual major actions take place. There are past instances of North Korea destroying a cooling tower only to rebuild it days later, and more recently, destroying an already useless nuclear test site. These show that the North Koreans are apt to create a façade of compliance while attempting to hide their ongoing actions to further develop their nuclear program. This needs to be stopped. Secretary Pompeo made his first overnight stay in North Korea in early July. He first visited during Easter before his confirmation as Secretary of State. He has been given the lead position to continue seeking a resolution to the North Korean crises.
If there is any take away from this interview, it’s that the situation is not as dire as we are led to believe. There is hope that this longstanding conflict will end. There is hope that a divided people can be restored. There is hope that international relations with adversarial nations will ease. And most importantly, there is hope that the Gospel will be preached freely to a lost people.
Thanks again to Professor Morse Tan for agreeing to this interview.