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North Korea situation may change; exit strategy needed: expert

Interview with Keio University Professor Emeritus Masao Okonogi by Keisuke Fukuda


How should we view the continuing tension over the North Korea situation? We interviewed the leading expert on Korean Peninsula affairs on his analysis of the situation and outlook for the future.


Q: North Korea is moving ahead with its development of nuclear arms and missiles.


Okonogi: North Korea’s nuclear arms are considered a more serious threat than China’s, for instance, because it is a divided state with a failed economy. There are fears about whether it would be resigned to breaking up in the face of pressure.


Q: Why has it been able to make so much progress in nuclear development?


Okonogi: This was due to the U.S.’s misconception that the North Korean regime would collapse at an early date. This notion has been the basis of U.S. policy since the Clinton administration.


Q: What is preventing a solution?


Okonogi: A solution is prevented by an “inconvenient truth” on the part of Japan, the U.S., and the ROK. While North Korea will not stop its nuclear development unless force is used against it, force would lead to serious damage to U.S. allies. In the event that a determination to use force is made, Japan must oppose this explicitly. What would happen to East Asia if Japan and the ROK suffered devastation? No one will take responsibility for this.


North Korea also has its own “inconvenient truth.” The nuclear deterrence that North Korea has acquired is rudimentary, so it is unclear if it can survive as a state in isolation and under an economic embargo. However, this concern is in the mid- or long-term.


Q: Are economic sanctions effective against North Korea?


Okonogi: The present economic sanctions are very effective. However, will these be able to stop its nuclear and missile development, which has entered the final phase? North Korea will probably complete the development even if it has to “eat weeds.”


Q: North Korea has been implying that it has already completed its nuclear and missile development.


Okonogi: There is no doubt that development is close to completion. However, North Korea may make a unilateral declaration of completion after conducting its final ICBM test and freeze further experiments. That will be its “exit” strategy and the first step in producing a fait accompli. In which case, North-South dialogue will probably begin.


Q: Can conflict be averted?


Okonogi: Even if Chairman Kim Jong Un fails to achieve his goal of making a “deal” with President Donald Trump, the completion of nuclear and missile development in itself means his brinksmanship policy was successful. An imminent crisis can probably be avoided. Even in such a situation, North Korea must not be recognized as a nuclear power and the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula must not be abandoned.


If negotiations are to take place, the U.S. must not make bilateral “deals.” If deals are made over the ROK’s head, this will give North Korea the unwarranted expectation that it can “call the shots on the Korean Peninsula.” Neighboring countries should probably continue their economic sanctions against North Korea and allow only exchanges between the two Koreas. North Korea will inevitably come to rely on South Korea, but this process will probably take a very long time.


Q: What is the most important thing in prodding North Korea to change?


Okonogi: Peace on the Korean Peninsula will require stable long-term coexistence between the North and the South. It is necessary to develop a comprehensive multilateral strategy to make this possible. Peaceful denuclearization will not be possible without such a strategy.



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