N Korea dangerous but not unpredictable, says US intelligence official

25-Jan-2021 Intellasia | Nknews | 6:02 AM Print This Post

North Korea is not the unpredictable mystery many consider it to be but it is more dangerous than some assume, especially some in South Korea, US intelligence official Sydney Seiler said Friday.

Seiler, who has over 37 years of experience related to Korean affairs, is the national intelligence officer for North Korea at the National Intelligence Council. Before that, he was a senior analyst at the US Forces Korea (USFK), the US special envoy for the Six-Party Talks and the director for Korea on the National Security Council (NSC).

“What I find with North Korea is strategic continuity, marked by tactical surprise,” Seiler said during an online event hosted by the centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Seiler added that we have now been observing North Korea for decades and Kim Jong Un for about 10 years and we can therefore draw some conclusions “based upon well-established patterns.”

“The types of provocations and types of engagement can change,” he said. “They’re well choreographed to maximise effect. But at the end of the day, the pursuit of this goal has been consistent for these decades. Every engagement in diplomacy has been designed to further the nuclear programme, not to find a way out of the nuclear programme.”

It is therefore important, he said, “not to let the tactical ambiguity obstruct the strategic clarity about North Korea.”

We should therefore not be overly optimistic if Kim proposes talks in the near future, he recommended, nor overly pessimistic if Kim tests an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

“The fundamentals of North Korea aren’t really changing,” Seiler said. “And that’s, again, not surprising.”

But, he added, it is a mistake to conclude that Pyongyang will never use its nuclear weapons simply because, as some suppose, “they know that if they use them, that’s the end of the regime.”

“I would challenge that,” Seiler said, “and say we have to begin to worry at a certain point.”

North Korea has amassed an impressive nuclear arsenal with an estimated stockpile of up to 60 nuclear warheads, an array of ICBMs including possibly the world’s largest, the Hwasong-16, which was unveiled during an October 10 military parade and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), among other military assets.

“This is a force far more formidable than one simply asking to be left alone,” said Seiler. “And that’s where the real risk of inaction comes in.”

This does not necessarily suggest North Korea will use its arsenal in a preemptive manner, though it may become a greater regional threat.

“There’s little worry North Korea would use nukes first or unprovoked,” Jenny Town, deputy director at 38 North and a fellow at the Stimson Centre, told NK News. “The bigger concern is whether their increased capabilities makes the more adventurous to do small scale activities like what we saw in 2010 against South Korea which could escalate quickly.”

Seiler focused on the direct threat to South Korea, saying that in some circles, the threat is underestimated or pushed off as being merely a US concern. But, he added, “It’s clear that as North Korea develops full-orb nuclear capabilities that any delusion in South Korea that the North Korean nuclear programme is a US-DPRK issue should be disappearing.”

Experts say this should come as no surprise since South Korea has always been under a more immediate threat by Pyongyang’s growing military might.

“North Korea’s nuclear-capable missiles ranged South Korea before they ranged the United States,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I think Seoul understands that it can’t sit on the sidelines. This is an issue that affects all three countries.” Panda added that it was the two Koreas that in 1992 first signed an agreement on denuclearisation.

But while inter-Korean talks have recently stalled, there is hope for the future. For one thing, Seiler said, Moon Jae-in has made real progress with the North by working to “prove to the South Korean people and the North Korean people that Seoul need not be seen by the North as a threat” and to demonstrate “that, fundamentally, permanent peace is the desire of all Korean people.”

This does not mean peace at all costs, however, because the two countries cannot fully move forward until the denuclearisation issue is resolved. To this end, Seiler said, North Korea must rethink its weapons programme. A lot of apparent progress with the North is often “rent-seeking” and “probing” progress, Seiler said, “from which they ultimately back down.” Therefore, “there can be no sustained improvement in North-South relations until North Korea gets serious about denuclearisation.”

But with the Biden administration signaling a return to multilateralism by the US, there is now a greater chance of achieving this end.

“Strength in numbers,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, professor of Korean studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, who notes that even the George W. Bush administration, which was heavily criticised for its purported unilateralism, avoided bilateral negotiations with North Korea and called instead for multilateralism with the Six-Party Talks.

“The US has learned much and South Korea’s role has grown markedly since,” Lee added, noting that there is still a risk of backsliding into old habits. “What will Biden do when Kim Jong Un proposes to send his sister to DC for a meeting with Biden or vice President Harris? Snub Kim? For how long? At the cost of coming across as the incalcitrant party? No, a return to bilateral talks is entirely possible.”

But if it can be avoided, Seiler said, and the current trajectory maintained, the chances for success will be far greater.

“A ‘re-multilateralism,’ if we can use that term,” Seiler said, “would allow us to really have greater trust and coordination on North Korea going forward.”



Category: Korea

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