A conversation with Hoover Fellow Dr. Michael Auslin

North Korea’s test of an apparent hydrogen bomb on September 3rd sent shockwaves throughout the world, sparking a fresh round of UN sanctions and debate on future policy. On September 6th, I spoke to Asian geopolitics expert Dr. Michael Auslin to discuss North Korea’s nuclear program, US deterrence strategy, and the roles of other powers in the region.

Dr. Auslin is the inaugural Williams-Griffis Fellow in Contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution. He has also served as associate professor of history at Yale University, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a visiting professor at the University of Tokyo.

His latest book is The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region.

Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and length.


Jake Dow: One theory says the North Korean nuclear program is for regime preservation, that Kim Jong Un wants to avoid the fate of Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, etc., and the program is fundamentally defensive. Another line of thinking is that the nuclear program is for offensive purposes: to allow North Korea to perform “nuclear blackmail” in order to extract concessions and the freedom to act as they please on lower level issues. How do you see the motivations for North Korea’s nuclear weapons?

Michael Auslin: There’s no question that watching what happened to Saddam and Gaddafi further convinced the Kim family that it should never give up these weapons, but they’ve been doing this for decades prior. The nuclear program has everything to with survival on the peninsula and the concern that North Korea has about a South Korea-U.S. alliance, the distrust it ultimately has of patrons such as China and Russia, and fears that Japan itself could become more aggressive and even develop nuclear weapons at some point down the road.

The problem with threatening to use nuclear weapons is that you either do or you don’t. And no one has [since WWII]. Once you do, you know that you’re inviting upon yourself retaliation. The utility of nuclear weapons as an offensive strategy is extremely suspect. The utility of nuclear weapons as a defensive strategy is well attested.

As the North saw South Korea continue to develop its conventional military capabilities to the point where Pyongyang no longer could be confident of winning a conventional conflict with South Korea, nuclear weapons became a natural alternative. North Korea would want to have the upper hand in a conflict, and they want to deter South Korea from taking any type of step to reunify the Korean Peninsula on unacceptable terms to them. North Korea would potentially be able to deter other countries from getting involved, too.

JD: You’ve advocated for a three pronged approach of deterrence, containment, and defense. How does nuclear deterrence function in the current communication environment, where the United States has no direct communication with North Korea, and even the Chinese have very little dialogue with the DPRK?

MA: We’ve been deterring North Korea for 60 years. We don’t really talk about it as explicitly as we should, but the core of our policy towards North Korea has been deterrence. That assumes that North Korea actually wanted to invade South Korea, because if the North only wanted be left alone, we wouldn’t have needed a deterrent strategy. Of course, we had to assume that North Korea wanted to attack the South and therefore our response needed to be strong enough in a deterrent posture in our alliance that they would never consider crossing the 38th parallel.

Now, we must identify what deterrence looks like with a nuclear North Korea. It will be different from what it looked like with the Soviet Union. We’ve lost the idea of deterrence as an articulated approach. The core of that is dropping the fantasies of denuclearization and a freeze.

There is no real reason to expect Kim Jong Un to agree to a freeze. This is not 1994 and it’s not 2005.  If we persist in thinking that time has not moved, capabilities have not changed (the actors have not only changed but evolved), we’re always going to be less successful in assessing the reality of the situation. That’s why denuclearization is a fantasy. He’s certainly not going to give up these nukes, especially not when he’s on the threshold of achieving a three generation dream.

JD: There was the famous question during the Cold War about whether the US would risk New York to save Hamburg. With the developments in the North Korean ICBM program, this commitment dilemma has become “will the U.S. risk San Francisco to save Tokyo?” How do you avoid the risk of the ICBM program “decoupling” the US from its allies, given the “America First” tendencies of Trump, but also an American public that seems less willing to both pay and bear risk for traditional allies?

MA: This is not the Cold War. Pyongyang is not Moscow. This is not an existential political threat to our way of life. Pyongyang does not have an empire that it controls, it doesn’t have allies it’s trying to protect, it doesn’t have its armies far flung around the world. But even 20 bombs, which most people agree they have, but then the upper limit of as many as 60 bombs, actually is an existential threat to the United States. If North Korea successfully launched 60 nukes at the US and targeted 30 major cities with two each, that would pretty much end the United States. So it is an existential physical threat.

We accepted the risk of an existential physical threat against the Soviet Union because we knew that if we surrendered they were an existential political threat. The two were inextricable, the Soviet Union wanted to end our way of life, the liberal capitalist democratic system. That’s not North Korea. Their philosophy is not about taking over Japan or China or rest of Asia or the United States.

The question of accepting risk for something that is not an existential political threat is very problematic. The Soviet Union targeted us because we were an existential political enemy. The North Koreans target us because we give a security guarantee to the South Koreans. If we didn’t give the security guarantee to the South Koreans there’s every reason to believe that the North Koreans would not target us. And in fact it would be counter counterproductive and counterintuitive for them to do so. Let’s say we decide to drop the security guarantees to South Korea. If I’m the North Koreans, why would I do anything that would bring the United States back in once we basically said we’re out?

So now you come back to the question is that risk worth it? Of course it’s worth it if the alternative is a Soviet-controlled Europe and then the United States is completely isolated in the world. But is the risk worth it when it’s essentially an internal squabble between North and South Korea?

JD: You talk about how North Korea is not an ideologically expansionist state in the way that the Soviet Union was, so the DPRK doesn’t really want to proliferate technology for a political cause, but we know the regime has very limited financial resources and especially foreign currency. How do you prevent or deter North Korea from proliferating nuclear technology or expertise when there is such a strong financial incentive for them to do so.

MA: North Korea is a fairly isolated nation by sea, so you can stop quite a bit. If China or Russia opens up the land route, you have a much bigger problem. It’s not impossible. But in order to do that and do it successfully, you need to be very clear what you’re trying to do. If you want to defuse the nuclear proliferation threat, can you somehow make clear to the North Koreans that the United States’ containment is for weapons of mass destruction related material, not for the counterfeiting of U.S. Dollars, for example?

We haven’t thought through the different ways in which we signal to the North Koreans that we acknowledge them as a nuclear weapons capable state but that there’s no way in which they’re going to benefit from them other than as the ultimate guarantor of the survival of the regime, meaning if we invade, they’re going to nuke the South, nuke Japan, and one day nuke us. That’s where we haven’t gone because we continue to focus on denuclearization which takes us away from really thinking carefully about all of these options: containment, upholding sanctions, preventing proliferation and other things like that.

JD: National Security Advisor McMaster and others like Lindsay Graham have expressed that they don’t think North Korea is deterrable. However, other commentary has suggested that the United States didn’t think Mao’s China was deterrable when it developed nuclear weapons and deterrence worked there just as it did against the Soviets. As someone who has advocated for deterrence, what gives you confidence that the DPRK can indeed be deterred?

MA: Deterrence only works if you’re credible in the threat that you make. If we assume that what North Korea has wanted to do is invade and attack South Korea, then our deterrence has clearly been credible because it has stopped them. That doesn’t necessarily have to change in the nuclear era, but you have to adjust it to a nuclear North Korea, which means you need a very clear declaratory policy.

We had a very clear declaratory policy and nuclear use doctrines vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. We need to do the same thing with North Korea. To do that you have to acknowledge that they have nuclear capability and we’re presently not willing to acknowledge that. I think this whole concept of denuclearization is handcuffing us from realistically preparing a credible response to a North Korean nuclear threat.

We’ve not been able to engage [Kim Jong Un], we’ve not been able to bribe him, and we’ve not been able to coerce him. That leaves compulsion. We’re not going to compel him to give up these weapons. We’re not willing to accept those risks vis-a-vis Seoul, vis-a-vis Japan and possibly even vis-a-vis ourselves. We’re going to be maneuvered into a position of de facto accepting his nuclear weapons. We may publicly continue this fiction that he’s not a nuclear power, but the world knows he’s a nuclear power. This is why I am worried about the approach the administration has signaled so far. If our thinking remains tied to 1994 mindsets of denuclearization, we will not be able to get where we need to be with a whole-of-government, fully-thought-out approach to deterrence and containment.

JD: It seems that China likes having North Korea as buffer border state between itself and a US-friendly South Korea; it was willing to have hundreds of thousands of soldiers die in the 1950’s to preserve it. When do the risks to China from North Korean behavior and consequently, the costs from added U.S. engagement in a region where China wants to dominate, end up outweighing those aforementioned risks and the preference for a buffer state becomes secondary?

MA: If I’m Beijing, I’m concerned that all of this is causing the United States to double down on its commitments in the region and even build up its forces. You’ve seen a willingness on the part of the Trump administration to do things in the South China Sea — far from the Korean Peninsula — that also directly challenge Chinese preference to shape regional relations, meaning freedom of navigation operations and the like, unilaterally.

Beijing would like this problem to go away. That’s why they called for a dual freeze of the South Korean-US military exercises and of the North Korean nuclear program. It’s also why it’s called for going back to the table. If I’m China, I’m worried that I just don’t have as much influence as I used to in North Korea. There’s great potential economic influence because 90 percent of North Korean trade goes to China. However, political influence seems to be very limited. Kim Jong-Un since coming to power has reduced the role of China in North Korea as far as we can tell. He executed Jang Song-thaek, his uncle who was China’s man in in North Korea.

This really goes back to centuries of Northeast Asian geopolitics. No great power, whether the Russians, the Japanese, or the Chinese have been comfortable with another great power controlling the Korean Peninsula. All of them have sought dominance and influence or have invaded outright to prevent the dominance of other powers. We’re right back into that. It’s important to recognize that this is pure geopolitics being played out and is one reason why China is not nearly as cooperative in constraining North Korea as we would expect.

JD: You wrote in Foreign Affairs about how Japan is becoming more realist and muscular in its foreign policy. It’s been well-documented how Abe wants a strengthened Japan. Does the acceleration of the North Korean nuclear and missile programs hasten that process? What are the risks for Japanese nuclear proliferation?

MA: The North Korean nuclear program has really been the key catalyst in causing Japan’s military and security policy modernization since 1998, which is when the first missile was launched over Japanese territory. You’ve seen a measured, but steady Japanese program for the past twenty years to build up its capabilities in ways that even ten years ago would be absolutely shocking.

All of this pushes Japan towards modernizing the military and deepening the alliance with the United States. The real red line is the nuclear line. Japan doesn’t want to go there. But it’s also not willing to sit idly by, especially if South Korea decided that it had to develop nuclear weapons. I don’t think there’s any way Japan could live in a neighborhood where China, North Korea, South Korea, and Russia all have nuclear weapons and they don’t.

Jake Dow, a junior studying political science, is the interviews editor of Stanford Politics.