Glasser: Thank you. I’m Susan Glasser, welcome back to The Global POLITICO. I’m absolutely delighted to be joined this week by Suzanne DiMaggio, from the New America Foundation, and Joel Wit, who is founder of perhaps the leading North Korea watcher website, 38 North, and a scholar here at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. More importantly for the purposes of today’s conversation, both of them have been engaged for a long time in what we call “Track 2” conversations with North Koreans, and with this North Korea issue.
So, for folks in the foreign policy world, they know what I’m talking about when we say Track 2 negotiations, but for the rest of the world it just sort of adds to the secrecy and mystery. How do you talk to a country that’s isolated from the rest of the world? One of the ways you do that 2 conversations. Suzanne, can you tell us what that means to non-foreign policy wonks?
DiMaggio: Yes, it is very wonky, I know. I apologize for that. So Track 1 simply means government-to-government relations; those are normal interactions between governments. Track 2 is between usually nongovernmental individuals, and in this case there is no Track 1, and very little Track 1, as a matter of fact, so Track 2 can play an important role in being a bridge for communication. Track 2 is especially useful with those countries where we don’t have official relations, and North Korea would fall into that category.
Glasser: Probably the most pointed example of it. So, you two wrote a fascinating piece, giving us a little bit of a window into that. You’ve met with North Koreans over the last year in Geneva, in Pyongyang, in Oslo—this wasn’t part of it, but I saw, Suzanne, that you also tweeted about a recent meeting in Moscow where you were able to talk to North Koreans. I wonder if both you and Joel can just set the scene for us a little bit.
What does it mean to have these conversations? Who was in the room? How do you know whether they really represent the viewpoints of the government in North Korea? Tell us a little bit about what it’s actually like to sit down at these meetings.
Wit: That’s a really good question, and the way I like to think of it is, there are a number of essential ingredients for a good Track 2 meeting, and one of those ingredients is making sure you have the right North Koreans in the room, because every North Korean isn’t worth talking to, honestly. So, you need North Koreans in the room who work in the government, are involved in making policy on relations with the United States, and particularly, the whole issue of dealing with their WMD program. And also, most of them have years of experience. So, if you have them in the room, at least you’re able to conclude that you’re having a useful conversation.
Glasser: So, these were useful conversations, in your view, over the last year, even in the middle of this escalating rhetoric?
Wit: Oh, yeah. Well, in the room it’s not threat and counter-threat. In the room, what you do—and this is going to sound strange to people—is you can essentially brainstorm with the North Koreans. If they know you, if they’re comfortable with you, if you’re not trading threats, you can exchange ideas on how to move forward and away from the confrontation we’re in now, towards a more peaceful relationship, and to deal with the issues that separate us. So, it’s not threat and counter-threat; it’s not a clash of civilizations. It’s an exchange of ideas.
Glasser: What are the ideas that you are hearing from them this year in the context of a president who has taken a very different public approach to North Korea?
DiMaggio: Well, after Trump was elected president, of course, we received many questions from the North Korean side about what will his policy be, what direction will he likely go in, and that was something we explored with them. Of course, we didn’t have the answers, but we had some ideas.
But what’s interesting, as we wrote about recently, is very early on, the North Koreans conveyed that they saw a new administration as a potential fresh start. The relationship with the Obama administration had turned so sour, especially after the U.S. sanctioned Kim Jong Un personally. That really blew the relationship out of the water. So at that time, the North Koreans already had started looking ahead to the new administration. I think they and we assumed that that would be a Hillary Clinton administration, so I think they were equally surprised.
But, based on my conversations with them immediately after the inauguration, when I traveled to Pyongyang to meet them, they were very clear that this could be a new beginning. They certainly didn’t have any illusions that things would be easy, but I think they were willing at least to consider the idea of talks with the United States without preconditions at that time.
Glasser: But that’s changed now, do you believe, because of all the rhetoric?
DiMaggio: It’s unclear right now. My most recent interaction with the senior North Korean diplomat, which happened in Moscow just a few weeks ago—she left the door open to talks with the United States. She had some thoughts on what would need to happen in order for that to take place, but it was a narrow opening, and I think that’s the way we should interpret it. She made it very clear that they are on a mission to complete their nuclear program to the point where they have a reliable nuclear-tipped ICBM that can reach U.S. soil. They’re on their way to accomplishing that.
So, the real question is, will they wait until after they’re able to declare that they’ve achieved that, or demonstrate it to a point where they feel satisfaction that they’ve reached a satisfactory outcome? And will they return to the table at that time? That’s one of the things I think we should explore. And even if they’re waiting, we still should pursue talks with them in advance of that.
Glasser: Well, it’s interesting, Joel, you guys recount in your article an incident where a senior Trump official was able to actually interact on the sidelines of one of these meetings. What was that like, and what was the context for that?
DiMaggio: So, this had been something we were working on for quite some time. When I returned to Pyongyang, the message that I received there was that they were open to meeting with an official, and doing it on the sidelines in Track 2 discussions would be most convenient and easiest to do.
So, we had a meeting set up in Oslo, and Joe Yun, who is the State Department’s representative for North Korea, joined us very quietly. At the time it was completely secret. And during that period, over the course of two days he had two meetings with the senior diplomat on the North Korean side. I participated in one meeting, and then he had another meeting with her the following day.
It was those discussions that mainly focused on U.S. prisoners being held in North Korea, and that discussion then led to subsequent discussions, mostly through the New York channel, and that’s how Washington learned about the condition of the American university student, Otto Warmbier, who was being held in Pyongyang, and that he was in a comatose state.
Glasser: And who, of course, later tragically died after he was returned.
DiMaggio: Yes. So, at that point Ambassador Yun then traveled to Pyongyang to retrieve Mr. Warmbier, and unfortunately, very tragically, he died six days after returning to the United States.
Glasser: So, Joel, what have you learned the most as someone who’s avidly watching North Korea from a distance? What have you learned from the direct contacts with the North Koreans in these conversations that you weren’t able to glean from other methods?
Wit: Well, I think having face-to-face contacts with the right people really adds a layer of more information, critical information to your thinking about how to deal with North Korea. And one of the things that I think we see in Washington—whether it’s in the government or in the think tank community—is, most people have either have either a) never had contact with a North Korean, or b) think that just because they meet any North Korean, they’re going to reflect what the North Korean policy is, and what the sort of thinking of the North Koreans is on these key issues.
So, I think that having these kinds of meetings serves the purpose of, first, making whoever participates on the American side a better analyst of North Korea, but secondly, as Suzanne has said, sometimes it can lead to actual progress, and other times when it doesn’t, it still allows an exchange of information and ideas, which is very useful.
Glasser: How has the conversation changed this year as a result of Trump?
Wit: Well, you know, when I was meeting—I haven’t met with the North Koreans in a while, but when we met with them right after the election, there wasn’t really any change. And I guess that was before the escalation of rhetoric, the different military actions the United States has taken. So, I was very surprised that they were so open to reengaging the administration, whether it was Trump or Hillary Clinton.
I suspect since then, with all the threats that have been made and the military moves and the contradictory statements by the administration, the North Koreans are probably just as confused as many of the rest of us. And my concern is that because of all these contradictory statements and the threats, that the narrow window that is opened, I believe, for conducting talks is gradually closing, and won’t stay open forever.
Glasser: Well, it’s interesting. You wrote in the piece, “the North Koreans are bewildered by the lack of coherence in American policy and Trump’s threatening tweets and personal attacks on Kim Jong Un have only added to the risk of misinterpretation.”
Suzanne, you saw most recently, just a few weeks ago in Moscow, a senior North Korean official. How was what you were seeing different, or responding to in any way, the rhetoric coming from the president?
DiMaggio: Well, she said in front of the whole audience that when they describe their hostile policy, normally they talk about the fact that we do joint exercises with the South Koreans. They talk about our sanctions policies. But in Moscow, she added a third element, and that was Trump’s hostile rhetoric.
So, now they’ve come to see that as part of the U.S. hostile policy towards them. So, when I think about the conversations I’ve had with them over the past year under Trump, there are a few things that have made this kind of work more difficult than it normally is. And, it’s enormously difficult to try to convince the North Koreans to come to the table.
And what I see with Trump is he has made it even harder in a number of ways. One, I think you’ve mentioned it, is his rhetoric, the personalization of the insults towards Kim Jung Un; and then, his undermining of his own chief diplomat, when he told Rex Tillerson to stop wasting his time.
A second way he’s made it more difficult is he’s decertified the Iran deal, which has sent a clear signal to the North Koreans. Why should they enter a deal with us, if we’re not going to stick with it?
And then, finally, they question his erratic behavior, and also his mounting problems here at home, with the investigation being conducted by Robert Mueller, and they, I’m sure, are asking why should we begin negotiations with the Trump administration, when Donald Trump may not be president much longer?
Glasser: That’s so interesting. So, is that something they’re explicitly raising—the Mueller investigation—or, for example, the Iran deal?
DiMaggio: In my conversations it has come up, and it’s not surprising, because by reengaging they’re assessing right now the timing on when they’ll reengage. I think they’ve come to the conclusion that they have to at some point, because we are approaching a crisis. So, these are questions that are their minds. When is the best time for them to reengage, and under what circumstances?
Wit: Could I add just one point to that?
Wit: My experience has been over the years that everyone thinks the North Koreans are reckless, they’re erratic, they’re even crazy, when, in fact, they’re very careful about making these kinds of moves. So, it doesn’t surprise me at all that they’re being very careful about figuring out how to deal with President Trump, and in that context, they’re going to be very careful about figuring when or if they should reengage in talks with the United States.
So, it’s a fragile situation, and the idea that the administration has—and particularly President Trump—that escalating threats is going to make the North Koreans be more flexible, is wrong. Escalating threats only make North Koreans more inflexible.
Glasser: Joel, I’m glad you brought up this madman theory. President Trump repeated that in one of his early Twitter rants about Kim Jong Un, called him crazy and got a lot of heated rhetoric in response to that. But that’s been one of the enduring debates, is, did we misread Kim Jong Un? Did we not understand that he was as serious about the nuclear program as his father and grandfather before him?
You’ve watched the trajectory here. How has our assessment of the North Koreans changed, or have we gotten him wrong initially?
Wit: You know, Susan, I guess I’ve been doing this for a long time, because it feels like Groundhog Day, you know? When Kim Jong Il took over for his father, everyone thought he was crazy. And now, with Kim Jong Un taking over for his father, everyone initially thought he is crazy.
So, the point here is that we should have realized much sooner, maybe, than we have that he isn’t crazy, that these guys are practicing hardball power politics. They’re a small country; they’re surrounded by bigger powers; they’re threatened by the United States; and they’re going to take every move they need to take to protect themselves.
And that doesn’t only mean building nuclear weapons, but it could mean diplomacy, as well, because they’re playing balance of power politics. And I think in the back of their minds there’s a realization that, first of all, they’re too close to China now; and secondly, that the United States can ultimately play the role of a balancer in northeast Asia for the North Koreans to balance against China, Russia, and the other powers surrounding them. So, I’m sure that’s one thing that’s motivating their thinking about reengaging with the United States.
Glasser: Suzanne, as you’ve listened to them over the last year in these various meetings in Geneva, Pyongyang, Oslo, what are the questions that they’re even asking you about Trump? Was there anything that surprised you? How did they phrase it? And, do they speak in English, in Korean? How does that work?
DiMaggio: My interlocutors speak perfect English very well; we don’t have interpreters, which is great, because interpreters do get in the way of an informal, relaxed conversation. So, we speak in English, and that is going fine.
In terms of their questions about Trump, I think they really want to know what is his end game. They want to know if he’s crazy, or if this is just an act. Is this a good cop/bad cop that he’s doing with Tillerson? These are the sorts of questions that they have. They follow the news very closely; they watch CNN 24/7; they read his tweets and other things. So, they’re very much attuned to what he’s doing, what he’s saying. They’ve certainly been following what he’s doing in Asia. They’ll probably even have more questions after this Asia trip.
The other thing that they want to know is, who speaks for the president? Just as we have the same questions, who speaks for Kim Jong Un—it’s almost a mirror image, actually—they want to know who speaks for the president, who is the right negotiator. And that’s why it was such a big mistake for President Trump to really pull the rug out from under Secretary Tillerson, as Secretary of State, and tell him that he was wasting his time.
I think at this stage, the president needs to tone the rhetoric down, de-escalate, be very clear about U.S. policy, and empower the diplomats to get to work and try to work out an agreement.
Glasser: Well, Joel, I want to ask both of you about the diplomats. You guys have extensive contacts, obviously, in the small world of North Korea watchers inside the U.S. government, as well as outside the government. How have they responded? What are they telling you about what’s happening inside the State Department, as the president has questioned the value of diplomacy?
You pointed out that Joe Yun, the State Department’s envoy for North Korea, had had these meetings earlier this year with North Korea. Is this a body blow for our own government, to have the president criticizing them? And what’s going on with our actual diplomats?
Wit: Well, hey, you know I’m originally from New York, so I’m often very outspoken—but I think I’m going to revert back to my State Department training, when I was there for 15 years, and I’m just going to tell you that I think Ambassador Yun is a very capable, level-headed guy who understands the situation that’s going on very well. And he understands the dangers. And he’s looking for opportunities to find some peaceful solutions.
And so, I think he’s doing a really good job. I can’t speak for everyone else in the administration, and indeed, I don’t really know what else is going on inside the State Department.
Glasser: Suzanne, what’s your sense, as you talk to people about whether they feel undercut?
DiMaggio: I think if you look at the press over the recent weeks, we’ve heard, we’ve been reading more and more stories about Ambassador Yun being a “dreamer,” I think one publication called him, because he wants to pursue negotiations. I think it’s very tough to be a diplomat in Washington today. I think we all know that.
One of the things that worries me is, what if Pyongyang were to decide tomorrow that they were ready to enter into negotiations with the United States, or even just talks about talks before we get there? Besides Joe, there are other capable foreign service officers, but would we have the capacity to engage in such an intensive diplomatic effort with the North Koreans?
I think about the Iran deal and those negotiations, and what I would call the A Team of American diplomats that was put together to pull that very tough but landmark deal off—everyone from Secretary of State Kerry, to Bill Burns, Ernie Moniz, a scientist-diplomat, and then of course, all the nuclear technical experts involved.
I don’t see that capacity within the State Department and the administration right now. And that really concerns me.
Wit: Susan, I just want to echo that. That’s actually an extremely important point, because over the years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve noticed that the level of expertise on North Korea has gradually declined, to the point where I would say there are only two people now in the U.S. government who have ever even met a North Korean.
So, I think the analogy, the Iran analogy, is a very good one. If tomorrow negotiations started, I think we have a really thin bench, and it’s going to be a big problem, because trying to engage in a real negotiation with the North Koreans requires understanding what they’re saying, how they act, and how they negotiate, and I don’t think we have—we don’t have hardly any people who can do that.
Glasser: So, both of you, I’m sure, paid attention to and at least read accounts, or read the words of President Trump’s speech in Korea, aimed at the North Koreans, the other day. Did you hear anything new, or surprising in that? How do you think your interlocutors would respond to the tone coming out from the president on his trip?
DiMaggio: Well, I think the North Koreans themselves will take offense to that, especially what he said in Seoul at the National Assembly Hall, where he really spent a lot of time talking about the human rights abuses in North Korea. So, that’s not going to be well received. But overall, I think it could have been a lot worse, if I can put it that way. He really refrained from personalizing any direct insults to Kim Jong Un. He refrained from fiery threats. He did say he would like to make a deal with the North Koreans.
The problem for me was, he didn’t put any meat on the bones. He didn’t offer any direction of how to take any diplomatic engagement forward. Throughout his trip, I think he’s failed to do that; he really missed an opportunity to come out clearly in favor of diplomacy as his administration’s first choice to resolve these issues, or I should say manage these issues. I don’t think they can be fully solved.
And then, he also missed an opportunity to lay out a plan that would include our allies and our partners in getting a diplomatic effort off the ground.
Glasser: You know, Joel, the president would probably, if you sat down with him, he would say: Well, listen. How can you call the previous American policy of Democrats and Republicans a success? We’ve been talking about this for so long and it hasn’t produced a result that we’re happy with, that we have a rogue regime with nuclear weapons. And so, why are you so hostile towards me having a different approach, when the previous approach has failed? What’s the answer to that? I mean, it does appear that basically the North Koreans have sort of stymied administrations of both Democrats and Republicans for quite a long time on this issue.
Wit: Well, to characterize 20 years as failure is, I think, really a dramatic mistake. Yes, we’re in the wrong spot now, there’s no doubt about it. But at least the years I was in the U.S. government viewing this issue, which was from 1993 to 2002, we had a lot of success. And the story I tell people is that the 1994 U.S. North Korea Agreed Framework was actually a dramatic success, because our intelligence estimates were telling us that North Korea could have as many as a hundred nuclear weapons by the time the agreement collapsed in 2002.
And in fact, it only had less than—he had enough material for less than five nuclear weapons. So, to me, that was a big success. What’s come afterwards, of course, has been this slow-motion decline towards where we are now, and I would argue that afterwards there were some efforts to reengage the North Koreans, but I think we could have done a lot better. And quite frankly, under the Obama administration, I think those efforts were very weak.
Having said that, I don’t want to just say that the Obama administration was a big failure, because they had to confront the problem of the leadership transition in North Korea from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un, but I remember arguing very strongly at the end of 2008, the beginning of 2009, that we needed to move out quickly, because Kim Jong Il wasn’t going to live forever. And I think a lot of people decided, nah, we’re not going to move out really strongly; we’re going to take it slowly and carefully. And that was a big mistake.
Glasser: Wow, that’s a good point that you make. When I interviewed Tom Donilon for this podcast a few months ago over the summer, he acknowledged that he felt that that was one of the early Obama administration’s big mistakes.
Wit: Oh, that’s interesting to know. I have to talk to him about that.
Glasser: I was surprised by it, actually. In some ways, it was the most surprising aspect of our conversation.
So, if you both had the chance—which I’m not necessarily predicting that you will—to sit down and brief President Trump on North Korea and your exchanges with actual North Koreans over the years, what are a couple of things that you would tell him that he might be surprised to hear?
DiMaggio: Well, first of all, I’d keep it very short and bring some pictures.
Glasser: You got the memo on that?
DiMaggio: But, to be more serious, I think—based on our experience, one of the things I would tell him is that the notion that they do not want to try to find a way out of this mess is wrong. They’ve expressed an interest in finding a way to begin dialogue without preconditions, start discussion. They really only want to talk to the United States at this point; they don’t want to talk to any other government, because they see the main issues are with the United States.
It’s also a matter of prestige. They really want to see themselves going toe-to-toe with the U.S., being on equal footing, as they say. So that’s another thing.
In think at the end of the day, he would be quite surprised how willing they are to think through these things. But, I have to wonder—I mean, I know he’s receiving psychological profiles of Kim Jong Un, and I imagine that it’s written somewhere on the top of those profiles in red markers is, whatever you do, don’t personally insult this man. And yet he’s done it anyway.
So, I think what he probably needs to know is that a deal is possible, and I think that would get his attention.
Wit: Let me just add, I agree with all that, and just because we’re talking about the need for dialogue doesn’t mean that the United States shouldn’t be tough. Being tough is fine. We used to joke that the best negotiators with North Korea were from New York, because we’d have a tough exchange of ideas, but at the end of the day, you need to find ways out of the current crisis. And we could do that.
But, being gratuitously tough, I think is a big mistake, because the North Koreans can be tough as nails themselves, and for them, being weak is like committing suicide. They’ll tell you that if we’re weak, everyone’s going to take advantage of us. So, we have to understand their mentality in order to figure out a way out of these problems. And quite frankly, I agree with Suzanne, I don’t think we really do understand, and then it gets back to the problem of really not having enough people who actually have had contact with North Koreans, as opposed to just book learning.
Glasser: So, I want to end on this somewhat scarier note. You both wrote, “the possibility of a confrontation spiraling into a horrific full-scale war, either by design or by accident, has become increasingly likely.” How likely?
DiMaggio: Well, we’ve seen some of the experts and their figures—I think John Brennan put it at 25 percent I think Joel has put it at 40 percent. I’m not going to predict a percentage; I’m just going to look at what I see and hear, and I think all of us spend a lot of time in Washington, and we hear a growing chorus talking about the possibility of military options towards North Korea—whether it’s preemptive war, preventive war, preemptive strike, limited strike—and we all know that that is not a viable option, given the level of casualties and destruction that we should expect, especially when we haven’t even tried in earnest diplomatic outreach. So, that worries me.
The second thing is an accidental war, a miscalculation, and I think when you combine Trump’s harsh rhetoric, the threat that he’s going to destroy their country, et cetera, and combine that with the build-up of strategic assets of the U.S. in the region, military assets, we now have three carrier groups in Pacific waters—it’s certainly not unprecedented, but it’s rare—overflights of B-1 bombers, we have to take into account, because of the lack of communications channels to explain these things.
The North Koreans could be misinterpreting what’s happening; they may think some kind of strike is imminent, and that may cause them to act.
Wit: Yeah, the one factor—
Glasser: Joel, 40 percent is pretty scary.
Wit: I’m sorry, I was going to just add one brief comment, which is, yes, everyone’s concerned about a nuclear war, and I think there’s—some people feel that the North Koreans would back down in a confrontation, and may not use their nuclear weapons, because that would mean the end of their country.
But I don’t think that at all. I think that if the North Koreans thought their regime was going down because of military action by the United States, they would use their nuclear weapons. And they may not be able to hit the United States, but they certainly could kill millions of people in South Korea and Japan.
Glasser: Well, that’s a cheery note to end on.
Glasser: I really want to thank Suzanne DiMaggio and Joel Wit. This has been a really fascinating conversation. I hope that our listeners find it as illuminating as I have, as we consider every day the headlines about North Korea. I think you two have done something almost impossible, which is actually shed new insight on something that often is just the same things being talked about over and over again. So, I thank you both very much for joining me and joining the listeners of The Global POLITICO.
DiMaggio: Thanks so much, Susan.
Wit: Thanks, I enjoyed it.