TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) – Most policymakers agree on the need to resolve North Korean nuclear and missile issues peacefully via dialogue and pressure, but Pyongyang’s repeated military provocations are making it ever more urgent to wisely apply the existing paradigm. Wendy Sherman, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Obama administration, talked about the crisis in an interview with The Japan News on Wednesday.

The Japan News: How dangerous do you think the current North Korean situation is?

Sherman: I think everyone is quite concerned about the current situation. I don’t think it’s because we expect either North Korea or the United States with its allies to begin a nuclear war.

I think though, because we’re in an escalation cycle, there is concern about a miscalculation or things that just don’t go the way you would expect them to and all of a sudden we find ourselves at war.

[U.S.] Secretary [of Defence Jim] Mattis has said there are military options and of course there are, both conventional and nonconventional. They all come at a cost. I do not think we have used up all of our options so that we have to rush to war. I think a credible threat of force is critical in service of diplomacy, but I certainly believe that war is a last resort, and we are not there yet.

There is a reality, which is that we are in a very different time and place than we were in the year 2000. North Korea now has, by outside estimates, several bombs. By estimates, they are on their way to a long-range ballistic missile capability or have it already. The reentry and guidance systems that would be needed for such a missile may yet need to be developed and tested. But they aren’t far off from having both a bomb and a delivery system.

So I think it is much harder to find the situation ready for a productive negotiation. But we must try.

Q: China and Russia support a possible deal where Pyongyang freezes nuclear and missile tests in return for Washington and Seoul suspending military drills. What is your view on this “freeze for freeze” idea?

A: Bob Einhorn and Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution think tank in the United States suggested in a recent paper that we won’t give up doing our exercises [with South Korea], but maybe rather than 20,000 we have 10,000, maybe instead of several days we have a shorter time period, maybe we have military exercises in Australia rather than on the Korean Peninsula.

I don’t know whether that’s a viable option, but I do think that if we can get to a negotiating table, we have to be creative.

I absolutely believe that denuclearisation [of the Korean Peninsula] must remain the objective. That may not be achieved in any short period of time. It likely will not be, but I think it needs to remain the objective, and there may be some steps along the way to it. But if we took that away as the objective, we would send a signal to lots of other countries that it’s OK to go nuclear. We don’t want to send that signal.

Tweets not productive

Q: Has the Trump administration succeeded in taking back the initiative from North Korea?

A: I don’t think we know the answer to that yet. I think that some of what the Trump administration has done, like get two U.N. Security Council resolutions passed, to ratchet up sanctions and encourage countries to take unilateral actions, has been very positive.

I think the missed signals about dialogue and military pressure have been not always helpful. So I think it’s a mixed bag at best. I personally believe that the president’s tweets — although he likes to think that unpredictability is a useful negotiating tactic and it does have its place — but when it comes to nuclear weapons I believe that reliability and credibility matter more. So I don’t think that’s particularly productive.

[Former U.S.] President [Barack] Obama believed in pressure but more quietly. He sent teams around the world to get people to close down financial channels, but didn’t want to put countries in a publicly embarrassing situation.

The Obama administration might have used the words “strategic patience” [to describe its North Korea policy], but they also put on a fair amount of strategic pressure. I think that pressure has to be ratcheted up even further.

Q: How effective are economic sanctions against Pyongyang?

A: Sanctions take some time. You have to send teams out to enforce those sanctions. It does concern me a little bit in the United States that we don’t have all the personnel in place that we need to effectively enforce those sanctions.

I think that we have the beginnings of [effective sanctions], based on what President Obama did and what President Trump is doing through the U.N. Security Council and unilaterally; the sanctions that our Congress passed; action by China that seems to be a little bit more forceful than it’s been in the past but needs to be even more forceful yet. Japan has passed bilateral sanctions as well. I think they can begin to have an impact on North Korea.

But I want to emphasize that sanctions won’t stop North Korea’s actions. They didn’t stop Iran’s actions. What sanctions can do is get a party to the negotiating table in seriousness, because they want to improve their economic situation and they know negotiations are the path to doing so.

Q: Has China changed its cost-benefit calculation of protecting North Korea?

A: China has grown in its concern as all of us have, about North Korea. I think that what will be telling is what happens after the 19th [Communist] Party Congress. President Xi [Jinping] has tightened the sanctions [against Pyongyang], enforced them better, but there is more work to be done.

I think that he was being very careful leading up to the 19th Party Congress because harmony within his system was his uppermost priority. But we will see whether in fact more action can be taken after he is further consolidated in his position in his own country.

Secret channel helpful

Q: Do you expect so-called “Track 2” indirect unofficial talks between Washington and Pyongyang to play a role?

A: There are already 1.5 tracks [in the sense that they are official on Pyongyang’s side and unofficial on the U.S. side] that go on, largely in Sweden. Former officials in the U.S. government participate. I don’t, but some of my former colleagues do. The DPRK [North Korea] sends official representatives because they don’t have think tanks in the same way you do here in Japan and we do in the United States.

I think those are useful forums because that information is shared with whoever is the current administration in the United States, and North Korea understands that they are.

I also hope in addition to those 1.5 talks, there is a secret channel going on. I hope that there are communications that can help us ensure that there won’t be a miscalculation, and get us on a road to a serious negotiation.

Q: What are the implications of the recent U.S. decision to decertify the Iranian nuclear deal for the North Korean issues?

A: I think it is very concerning. I don’t think it helps us get to dialogue with North Korea, because North Korea will look at this and see that the United States won’t keep an agreement even when the party has complied.

The decertification does not take the United States out of the deal per se, but it’s a slow unraveling. We will see what the Congress chooses to do, but some of the things being discussed would, in essence, break the deal, because it would be an attempt to unilaterally renegotiate the terms of the deal, and that would break the deal.

I don’t understand why getting out of a deal that is keeping Iran from getting nuclear weapons would be in our national security interests.

Q: Would Tehran restart its nuclear program if the United States kills the deal? Would it have ripple effects in the Middle East?

A: Certainly if they did restart everything, it will have a ripple effect on everything else. I don’t know what decisions they will make. They have said that if we snap back sanctions they will restart their program.

Let me point out that after the decertification, our European allies said that they would stay in the deal and they did not think the president should decertify it.

The trans-Atlantic relationship, like the U.S.-Japan alliance, is one of the bedrocks of U.S. national security and foreign policy. Anything we might do to weaken that relationship is not a good thing.

Q: Is the reported uneasiness between President Trump and the State Department having an effect on Washington’s leadership in the world?

A: I can’t divine exactly what is going on inside the administration. At the end of the day, these are decisions that the president holds responsibility for. At the end of the day, he is the commander-in-chief. He is the person who is elected. 


This interview was conducted by Japan News Assistant Editor Michinobu Yanagisawa.

Wendy Sherman, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Obama administration, talked about the crisis in an interview with The Japan News on Wednesday, Oct. 18. (The Yomiuri Shimbun/The Japan News/ANN)

Wendy Sherman

Former U.S. undersecretary of state

In the Clinton administration, Sherman served as special advisor to President Clinton and policy coordinator on North Korea. During her term as the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2011 to 2015, she led the U.S. team that negotiated the Iran nuclear deal.

By the News Desk