July 11, 2019

Victor Cha MIA ’86 has served in various positions, including director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, deputy head of the United States delegation at the Six Party Talks, Korean chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cha, who also earned his PhD and BA at Columbia, is currently a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University. He’s also a regular contributor to NBC News and MSNBC and the author of The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (HarperCollins 2018).

In March 2019, Cha returned to SIPA to discuss the growing dilemma the world faces following the summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam. (The conversation took place before Trump and Kim’s June 30 meeting in the Demilitarized Zone; Cha wrote about that meeting — at which they agreed to restart negotiations — in an online column for MSNBC.)

North Korea — Where History Stood Still


Why It Matters

Cha says the international community’s failure to stop North Korea’s nuclear program is significant—enough so that it could undermine the future of our current rules-based order.

“North Korea has been building its nuclear weapons program now for well over half a decade. It's significantly advanced, particularly in the last 10 years. This is not a small fledgling program like we saw in Libya.... [North Korea] would be the worst violator of the nonproliferation treaty regime to date.... It would set a very bad precedent if the international community accepted North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.”

North Korea—“Where History Stood Still”

“I guess one of the most intriguing things about the North Korean state is that, when the Berlin Wall fell and when communism collapsed, history moved on. But the only place where history stood still was in North Korea. This was a regime that was essentially abandoned at the end of the Cold War and yet managed to hermetically seal themselves off from the rest of the world and run a dictatorship that's still struggles on today, but manages to survive.

“The only reason we pay attention to it, unfortunately, is not because of the human rights abuses or the famine that happens in the country, but because of their nuclear weapons. That's the predicament that they're now in. They're a state that never really should have survived the end of the Cold War, and yet here they are. That's why we call them the impossible state.”

What’s Happening Now

The nuclear standoff has become even more complicated after the U.S. and North Korea failed to reach an agreement in Hanoi. However, Cha says there was an important lesson that has resulted from the summit.

“One of the things that we learned coming out of the Hanoi summit was that the sanctions that had been put on North Korea by the UN Security Council are having an impact. In fact, when the North Korea leader sat down with Trump, he did not ask for a peace regime, ending the Korean War, or liaisons offices as a first step to normalize relations between the United States and North Korea. He asked for only one thing and that was the lifting of sanctions.

“That I think, was a lesson for many, and is seen by many as a leverage point that the United States and the international community should continue to press on with regard to North Korea. That is international sanctions. However, the purpose of these sanctions is not to choke the regime and the people to death. The purpose of the sanctions, as was the case in the sanctions on Iran, is to set the table for a return to negotiation.”

What’s Next?

Cha thinks that the U.S. and UN should push for more sanctioning of third countries that are helping North Korea circumvent the sanctions already in place. On the other hand, he says, it’s even more difficult to predict what North Korea’s next step will be.

“The concern with North Korea is that they have retreated into a shell after the Hanoi summit. They're not responding to calls for diplomacy or talks by either the United States or South Korea. The concern is, once they emerge from that shell again are they going to be ready to talk or are they going to start doing more provocations as they have done in the past? That's the big question going forward.”

Kim Jong-un, Cha says, is facing a tough choice.

“I think it's pretty clear that the North Korean leader wants economic reform in North Korea. North Korean leaders are not term-limited. They don't expect to rule for five years; they expect to rule for 50 or 60 years. [But] with 11 UN security council sanctions on North Korea, the North Korean leader can't possibly imagine that he can survive for another 50 years. So, he does want economic reform.

“The real question is whether [Kim] is willing to exchange the opportunity for economic reform, trade with the outside world, entrance into international financial institutions, and normal political relations with most of the industrialized powers in return for giving up their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program.”

However, North Korea has continuously turned down the chances to join the international community, and chosen the path of escalations instead. Cha explains why:

“The problem right now, to put it very simply, is that North Korea would like to have its cookie and eat it too. In other words, now that it has achieved a nuclear weapons capability it is now ready to move on to economic reform but not necessarily ready to give up those nuclear weapons in return for economic reform. That is the crux of the problem and that is what the international community has to convince North Korea it needs to give up in order to go on a path and join the community of nations.”

What to Watch

Although international diplomatic efforts are at a stalemate, Cha points to a change quietly taking place within North Korea.

“I would say the most positive thing that's happening in North Korea today is the growth of markets. There are 436 official markets in North Korea today and exponentially more black markets. These are markets that grew out of the famine in the mid 1990s when North Koreans had to fend for themselves and they created markets.

“Today, North Koreans get 70 percent of their livelihood from the market rather than from the state—even though this is a state that still gives out rations to families. Both the best opportunity and the best future for North Korea is the continued proliferation of these markets, because it creates a civil society in North Korea that then seeks to do better for themselves despite a regime that continues to trample on their human rights.”

— Jeenho Hahm, MPA ’19