This is the third in a series of interviews with international experts on North Korea to see how its nuclear issues will unfold down the road and seek ways to secure stability on the Korean Peninsula. ― ED.
By Kim Jae-kyoung
China's ambivalent attitude toward North Korea is undermining the Beijing-Pyonyang alliance that has lasted since the Korean War, according to a former special advisor to the U.S. State Department.
"North Korea already knows, and has accepted that the U.S. and Japan are hostile, and that China is under pressure to at least become less friendly with or accommodating to North Korea," Balbina Hwang, a visiting professor at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies, said in an interview.
"Moreover, I believe Kim Jong-un does not trust China, and so purposefully wants to distance North Korea from China because it views itself as too dependent solely on China for its economy," she added.
Against this backdrop, she said that for the Kim Jong-un regime, the only opportunity for gaining some leverage with any other actor is with the South, if the next South Korean leader has a more "open attitude" toward the North.
Hwang, who served as a special adviser on East Asian affairs in the George W. Bush administration, expects Pyongyang to postpone its nuclear or missile tests until after South Korea's presidential election slated for May 9.
"I do not believe Pyongyang will take any chances by taking a provocative action _ such as a nuclear test, or significant missile launch _ before May 9, as that action may sway the election away from candidate Moon Jae-in or any other possible progressive leader," she said.
In her view, the very last thing Kim wants is for South Koreans to elect a leader who will follow the very strong stance of the current administration.
"North Korea needs to have a compliant and less hostile South Korea," she said.
She expects that Pyongyang will conduct another nuclear test or launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) but these won't be determined by Trump's military threats.
"Kim Jong-un won't give up on his mission to develop and expand his nuclear arsenal, and the capabilities to deliver missiles."
"However, I am doubtful that its future tests are dependent on U.S. warnings," she added. "Rather, in the immediate short-term, I believe Pyongyang will restrain from either another nuclear test or long-range ballistic missile launch due to the timing of the upcoming election in South Korea."
In her view, for the Kim regime, pressure and increased "threats" or "warnings" from the U.S., China and Japan exist as a constant condition.
At this moment, she believes the single greatest calculation in the timing of the next provocation by the North is the determination of the future leader of South Korea.
"Who will lead South Korea for the next five years is the only, and single greatest possibility for the North to shape any different future for itself, in terms of isolation from the international community."
As for an ICBM test, she thought that Pyongyang may not even be able to "choose" to launch one soon because it does not want to risk another failure.
"I think we all assume that North Korea does not yet quite have the capability to test an ICBM, and it will refrain from launching one until it has a high level of confidence in the technology."
Pre-emptive strike unlikely
The Washington-based North Korea expert forecast that the U.S. government will not take pre-emptive action for the same calculations that it has never utilized such a strike on North Korea, not once since 1953.
Pre-emptive action in Hwang's words entails the high potential to trigger a devastating response from North Korea that would result in probably destroying South Korea, and harming U.S. forces.
"There has been no change to this calculation, and indeed, the factors increasing the potential damage and harm to the U.S. and allies have increased exponentially in recent years due to the diversification of North Korea's capabilities," she said.
She believes that Pyongyang has not just nuclear weapons and missiles, but large caches of biological and chemical weapons, as well traditional artillery.
Hwang said that any preemptive strike by Washington without full coordination with Seoul could damage the bilateral alliance.
She pointed out that this consultation and cooperation is required as part of the alliance structure under the existing Combined-Forces-Command (CFC).
"If the U.S. were ever to take a completely unilateral action, without any consultation or even against South Korea's explicit disapproval, then that would mean a complete end to the U.S.-South Korea alliance."
"And perhaps even the breakdown of the U.S. alliance structure throughout Asia, including the U.S.-Japan alliance," she added. ""Ironically, such an action then would benefit the North the most, and also greatly benefit China and Russia, because all would prefer a weakening if not total elimination of the U.S. alliance system in Asia and globally."
She said that the Trump administration's goal is not regime change in North Korea but to exert "maximum" pressure while also pursuing "engagement" to achieve denuclearization.
"Presumably, maximum pressure means to increase all areas of pressure on North Korea, including economic sanctions, increase the possibility or threat of using military action in the future, as well as expanding international pressure on the North, especially from China," she said.
China's bottom line
The former research fellow for the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul stressed that in order to come up with effective solutions, it is very important to understand China's bottom-line strategy on the Korean Peninsula.
She predicts that China will never change its ultimate strategic interests on the peninsula, which is to purposefully not pursue any action that will significantly weaken the North Korean regime, or pursue something that has the potential to alter the power structure there.
"I do not think this means that China is actively preventing unification of the Korean Peninsula, but that China will never take actions that will also cause or result in unification, either," she said.
"In other words, China will do the minimum required to restrain North Korea's behavior in the short-term, but will never pursue the maximum required to permanently alter its behavior, which really requires a complete collapse and elimination of its system."
One of her primary concern regarding U.S.'s North Korea policies is Trump's sole emphasis on China as the most important actor, which she believes raises the danger of marginalizing the role of South Korea.
"I think it is a mistake to think of South Korea as acting as a go between for the U.S. and China," she said.
"Rather, the U.S. should be mindful to treat the South as an equal partner in resolving any issues with the North, and in fact, the South should be the primary party," Hwang added. "The U.S. position should be to support Seoul's positions, obviously as long as they coincide with U.S. national strategic interests."