Home The Washington Diplomat March 2012

Cha Praises U.S. Pivot, But Urges Preparation for Pyongyang Implosion

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Don't say Victor Cha didn't warn us.

Cha, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) who served as former President George W. Bush's top advisor on Asia, recently told The Washington Diplomat that a major upheaval is brewing in North Korea — and the world should prepare to contain the fallout.

The recent death of longtime Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, coupled with the rushed succession of his son Kim Jong-un — whom most observers view as woefully unprepared for the job — is a recipe for instability in the isolated, economically ravaged, nuclear-armed nation, says Cha, a veteran Asia hand.

"It's my view that the next president, the 45th president of the United States, is going to have to deal with a major crisis in North Korea," he predicted, calling the dear leader's death "a watershed moment."

"The son is 27 years old and likes to play video games, has never worked a day in his life, and all of the sudden he's in charge?" Cha said. "And when they say he's in charge, I really believe he is in charge. It's not because he wants to be in charge, but because the North Koreans know no other system of government."

To that end, he discounts the notion of a "leadership-by-committee" system of ruling elites pulling the strings in a post-Jong Il government, pointing out that "never before in North Korea's history of totalitarian, personality-cult leadership has anything like this been attempted."

"There has always been the one guy at the top in North Korea who decides everything. Kim Jong-un is going to have to decide everything and he's not going to know what to do."

He adds, ominously: "I just don't see how they can hold this together."

Cha, relaxed and congenial during an hour-long interview with The Diplomat in his CSIS office overlooking K Street, explores the ins and outs of the closed-off communist regime in a new book titled "The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future" due out this spring.

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Photo: Center for Strategic and International Studies
Victor Cha

Cha is certainly qualified to hold forth on the subject. He holds the Korea Chair at CSIS and is director of Asian studies at Georgetown University, where he returned in 2007 after serving for three years as director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council. While at the White House, he was responsible for Japan, the Koreas, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific island nations. Cha also served as U.S. deputy head of delegation for the six-party nuclear talks with North Korea during Bush's second term.

In his Diplomat interview, Cha explored the so-called American "pivot" toward Asia as a primary new focus of U.S. foreign policy, as well as relations with China, North and South Korea, Burma and others in the region.

Cha said the term "pivot" rankles some in the American foreign policy establishment because it implies that the United States has essentially been ignoring Asia, even though he believes it simply means the country is paying more attention to the region than before.

"It fits well with U.S. domestic political and economic priorities," Cha said of the pivot. "This administration needs to get the economy going before next year, and a big part of their strategy has been to increase exports, creating jobs and trade. When you look around the world today, there aren't any other economies booming except Asia."

He said the shift in American policy is also a natural response to China's emergence as a global leader — and a regional hegemony.

"While it may not necessarily be an all-out competition, part of it is in response to China's rise and their pushing on the Southeast Asians and supporting the North Koreans," Cha said. "If you look around the world today, the primary potential great power that can arise in the international system in the future is China. The primary area of economic growth is going to be Asia. It's natural that you would focus on this area."

To that end, while the Pentagon and other federal agencies brace for big budget cuts in a severely constrained U.S. economy, programs aimed at improving Asian relations are likely to remain robust.

"The one place they're not going to cut is Asia," Cha said.

Indeed, the region has been spared from much of the proposed cuts to the 2013 Pentagon budget, which shifts resources and weaponry from places like Europe toward Asia and the Pacific.

Cha also believes that smaller Asian nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam, increasingly wary of China's growing influence and assertiveness, will continue to court U.S. sympathy and support — while also welcoming China's lucrative economic market.

"They don't want it to become a competition between the U.S. and Asia," Cha cautioned, noting that these countries are worried about being "crushed in the middle" of a U.S.-China power struggle in the region.

"They would like a strong political and strategic relationship with the United States, while having good economic relations with China," he explained. "Having the U.S. there politically or militarily keeps the Chinese honest, even as these countries' economic futures are all tied to the Chinese market."

Cha describes his political philosophy as somewhat right of center but not nearly as far right as neoconservatives such as former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton or former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Cha said he found great satisfaction working on Asia issues in the Bush White House because the administration was actively engaged in the region. He also says Bush "knew how to handle the Chinese."

"He had experience because his father was ambassador to China and had been to China many times," Cha said, adding that the Chinese respected the younger Bush's blunt approach to diplomacy.

"The Chinese didn't always like everything that he said or did, but they did respect him because he was very clear and consistent and he always stuck to his word," Cha said. "Sometimes the Chinese hated it — for example when the president met with the Dali Lama and attended the Congressional Medal of Honor ceremony. But he also decided to go to the Olympic Games in Beijing," despite exhortations to skip them on human rights grounds, Cha pointed out.

The Georgetown professor argues that Obama's position toward China has been more opaque, and that frustrates Beijing.

"The Obama administration started out very positive on China the first year and the press started talking about a G-2 with the Chinese and the Americans solving the world's problems," Cha recalled. "Then the Chinese didn't deliver. In year two of the administration, it was back to selling arms to Taiwan and meeting with the Dali Lama. In 2010, the Chinese became more assertive in the South China Sea and North Korea.

"Now we've got the pivot," Cha continued. "They see a lot of variation in our behavior and they're not sure what to make of it. With Bush, they knew what he was doing."

Yet other foreign policy experts praise Obama for that very reason: throwing the Chinese off kilter. In the beginning of his administration, for instance, Obama extended a hand to the Chinese but gradually escalated the rhetoric over human rights violations, currency manipulation and intellectual property rights. Many say he then shrewdly seized on Beijing's aggression and miscalculations with its neighbors to re-establish a U.S. presence in the Pacific — both militarily, deploying Marines to Australia, and economically, through the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

"On the accomplishment side of the ledger, credit Barack Obama with a very smart policy in Asia," Robert Kagan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in Foreign Policy recently. "By taking advantage of China overplaying its hand in the South China Sea and generally unnerving most of the region, the Obama administration has reconfirmed the central role of the United States in East Asia. The opening of a new base in Australia is a powerful symbol of America's enduring strategic presence in the region. The opening with Burma obviously has both strategic motives and strategic implications."

Burma, otherwise known as Myanmar, represents perhaps the most tangible achievement of Obama's carrot-stick approach to engagement while maintaining sanctions. Cha says the oppressive junta's landmark decision to release democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and allow her to run for parliament signaled that Burma was ready to deal more openly with the rest of the world. The decision also sent a clear message to China.

"It shows that military regimes have their problems but they can be willing to open up," Cha said. "I think military regimes like this come to a point in their own history where they understand if they do not reform they will die. It's also, interestingly, a quiet manifestation of how uncomfortable some of these countries are with China's growth.

"They understand they cannot simply become another province of China," he continued. "The Chinese are very interested in Burma's mineral resources and access to the Indian Ocean. For these two reasons, the Burmese are very interested in trying to improve their relationship with the outside world."

Cha notes that America's interest in Burma, while not critically important, is strategically vital nonetheless.

"It occupies a very important region of Southeast Asia," he told The Diplomat. "I don't think we're deeply, materially interested in all their resources. It's just a country that for a long time has been isolated and now it can be a country in which we could transform the relationship."

Yet Cha laments that the same can't be said of North Korea since Kim Jong-il's death, insisting that the United States missed an opportunity to make a bold, definitive statement about the country and its future.

"In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, how could we not do this bigger?" Cha asked. "I don't know how much of that we are doing. I get the sense we are doing less of it than I'd like to see.

"Ronald Reagan made a very clear statement about where the United States stood on the end of the Cold War," Cha added. "With the death of Kim Jong-il and potentially really big change in North Korea, we don't have that big statement."

When Cha worked for Bush, he advocated a fairly hard-line approach toward Pyongyang, often calling the strategy "coercive diplomacy."

"People always think diplomacy is just engagement — what can I give you to get you to do something," he said. "But ... diplomacy is actually a combination. What can I do to get you to do something and if you don't, here's the bad stuff coming down the pike."

Cha also contends that a single-pronged approach to dealing with the hermetically sealed, mercurial regime — dangling carrots — has never worked.

"You couldn't simply offer them things because their record with diplomacy is that they will take as much as you give them and ask for more," Cha said. "It's really a combination of the two. I give credit to Bush and to Obama for really staying tough on the sanctions part because that is sort of the backbone."

Cha said Bush tried to engage the North Koreans in his first few months in office, but soon thereafter declared the country part of his infamous "axis of evil" in 2002, along with Iran and Iraq. Four years later, Pyongyang tested an atomic device, becoming a rogue nuclear power.

Cha defends Bush's controversial "axis of evil" label, which critics argue sped up the North's desire for nukes to protect itself from an Iraq-style invasion. "It was informed by a visceral dislike not just of the regime but of the human rights disaster in North Korea," he said. "As a head of state, it was inconceivable to [Bush] that another head of state could allow his people to starve like that while they were building nuclear weapons."

A major factor in whether the United States talks to North Korea is, of course, South Korea. Like many Asia experts, Cha believes an eventual collapse of North Korea and reunification with the South is inevitable. He is quick to give Seoul credit for its relationship with the United States, calling the country of nearly 50 million people one of America's "most important allies in the world."

"They're a real standup ally in the sense that there are a lot of allies that free ride," Cha explained. "South Korea, when it became successful, really gave back. They participated in Iraq, participated in peacekeeping operations way outside their area — East Timor, Lebanon, all sorts of places."

However, Cha said the Bush administration viewed the so-called Sunshine Policy of President Kim Dae-jung as too lenient because it was willing to engage in unconditional talks with North Korea, which made it difficult to coordinate policy. Cha claims a "little tough love" from the Bush regime (suggested by him) helped to pressure the South Koreans into a closer alignment with U.S. policy, notably under current President Lee Myung-bak, who took a much tougher line against the North, tying aid to progress on the nuclear front.

Still, Cha argues that South Korea remains ill-prepared to deal with a North Korean collapse, although Lee has acknowledged a need to brace for the worst.

"I think to his credit the current president is the first president in over a decade that has said to his country we have to start thinking about this and preparing for it. It's not because he wants to collapse the regime; he just sees the futility," Cha said. "He's just very practical and sees that the regime is economically gone. It had a sick dictator and young, inexperienced successor. What idiot wouldn't want to prepare?"

So when will this collapse occur?

"It's certainly closer with the death of Kim Jong-il," Cha replied. "It is inevitable because in today's day and age, just look at all these dictatorships that are falling. The ones that aren't falling are opening up. There is no way they will be able to hold this together."

China, meanwhile, is assessing the situation in North Korea from its own unique set of interests, which go beyond merely wanting to avoid an influx of impoverished refugees flooding its borders should the North fall apart.

"China has two very core interests," Cha explained. "It doesn't want [North Korea] to collapse because it doesn't want a unified Korea as a military ally of the United States on its border. They also want to extract the mineral resources out of North Korea for their two poorer inland provinces that are right on the border.

"The strategic problem is how to convince China that reunification is not bad for their interests," Cha added. "I think that is objectively true. Economically, politically, China today does 100 times more business with South Korea than North Korea. The problem is that China just doesn't trust the United States, Korea or Japan when it comes to a reunified Korea. With this pivot to Asia, they probably trust us even less. We need to try and engage China in different ways."


About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 11, 2014