Sunday, December 4, 2022

The threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons — Markus Garlauskas on “Intelligence Matters”

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This week on “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell sits down with Markus Garlauskas, who formerly led the U.S. intelligence community’s strategic analysis on North Korea issues. Garlauskas shares his assessment of North Korea’s missile tests and the threat of nuclear weapons under Kim Jong Un’s regime. Garlauskas also lays out how the U.S. can deter North Korea, even as China works as an enabler for the regime. 

Highlights: 

North Korea and use of nuclear weapons: “North Korea is not claiming their weapons are just for deterrent purposes, as they have on occasion. Now, they’re saying that they’ll be used for operational missions to repulse hostile forces, aggression and attack, and to achieve decisive victory in war if deterrence fails. They say that they’re going to retaliate with a nuclear strike if their command and control system and their state leadership is put under threat. That they can be justified in using nuclear weapons if they’ve come under a nuclear or non-nuclear attack on important strategic targets and even if such an attack is on the horizon. So they’re saying that they could use them preemptively.”

How U.S. should deter North Korea: “The typical approach of trying to prevent, deter the use of a nuclear weapon is the traditional Cold War thinking of mutually assured destruction, or in this case, a variation. Not mutually assured, because North Korea can’t destroy us, but basically assuring them that if they use a nuclear weapon, that’s going to lead to the destruction of the regime. And that’s actually been the declared policy of the United States, essentially put out in public in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the idea that essentially if the North Korean regime were to use a nuclear weapon, then that would lead to the end of the regime. That’s paraphrasing the statement that’s been our policy. But I would argue that that’s going to be a harder statement to remain credible as North Korea considers these different limited options and capabilities. And then also because of the concern about how China might react if we were to go after the North Korean regime in such a scenario.”

China as North Korea enabler: “China has been an enabler of North Korea’s bad behavior for a very long time. And it’s not because the Chinese necessarily are out there to see North Korea engage in aggression or that they’re particularly happy about North Korea’s nuclear program, but that ultimately their goal of avoiding a war or chaos on their doorstep means that they’re very sensitive to the potential of backing North Korea into the corner or causing the collapse of the North Korean regime. And so when they look at how can they restrain the situation from spiraling into conflict, how can they restrain the situation from getting to the point where the North Korean regime’s control collapses, it’s ultimately easier to try and restrain South Korea and the United States.”

HIGHLIGHTS

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS WITH MARKUS GARLAUSKAS

PRODUCER: PAULINA SMOLINSKI

MICHAEL MORELL: Marcus, welcome to the show. Welcome to Intelligence Matters. It’s very nice to have you with us.

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS: Michael, thank you so much for this opportunity.

MICHAEL MORELL: Markus, I want to certainly get to North Korea and to your insights on everything that has been going on there recently. But I actually want to start with a little bit about your career. And the question I want to ask you is what got you interested in North Korea and what was your path to becoming the intelligence community’s top analyst on North Korea?

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS: I definitely did not plan to be the NIO for North Korea early in my career. I actually started with a regional focus more on Europe when I was an undergraduate, and it wasn’t until later on when I was in the Security Studies program at Georgetown getting my master’s that I did my pivot to Asia long before Kurt Campbell ever coined that term, to focus on on East Asia, because I realized that the role that East Asia would play for the future of American security in the 21st century be very similar to the importance of Europe for U.S. national security in the 20th. And then I specifically started to zero in on Korea, because even back then over two decades ago, I saw Korea as being the central nexus point in the coming competition with China and really a key both metaphorical and literal potential battleground in East Asia. So that’s what led me to focus on Korea. And thenI really got bit by the Korea bug, so to speak, when I was first stationed there in 2002. That was in the intelligence estimate shop in the the G2 in U.S. forces Korea and the combined command there. And that really got me even more interested in focusing on Korea. And that was where I really learned a lot about estimative,  forward looking intelligence. And that’s where I learned about the history of national intelligence officers in the National Intelligence Council. 

That’s when I made up my mind. I wanted to be a national intelligence officer someday, if I could. But back then, they didn’t even have a national intelligence officer for North Korea, it was the national intelligence officer for East Asia. That was where it started. I spent 12 years at the USFK and my last five years there, I wasn’t even in the intelligence community. I had left the IC to become the the chief of the the strategy division and focusing on not so much just understanding the challenges posed by North Korea and in the region, but coming up with the the strategic approaches and the recommendations for how to deal with them for the four star there and for the for the policy and strategy community in Washington, and then working a lot with our allies. And so I never thought I would go back into intelligence. But as it turned out, it was the perfect preparation for me to be able to be the national intelligence officer. So when I was offered the opportunity then at the end of my time there in Korea, bringing an end to my time there in Korea in 2014, I jumped at the chance.

MICHAEL MORELL:  I want to get a baseline from you on North Korea’s strategic weapons programs. And let’s start with nuclear weapons. What types do they have? Roughly how many? I know you’re constrained somewhat on how you can talk about that. And how well do they work?

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS: Overall, the start, it’s important to note that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program began as a plutonium program, and it was very limited by the fact that they can only produce the fissile material at the Yongbyon reactor. And so relatively small amounts of this fissile material it could be used for nuclear warheads was really where the program started. And that was the initial focus of our negotiations to try and halt and roll back North Korea’s nuclear program, the plutonium program. But then over time, they also developed a uranium based program, enriched uranium based weapons. And so that’s added tremendously to North Korea’s ability to continue to grow their stockpile. So I’m not going to get into the numbers, but the typical estimate is that they can produce somewhere between five or six of these a year when you look at what a lot of these institutions that study this are saying. 

The stockpile continues to grow, particularly again because of the uranium enrichment program that North Korea has. 

Now, as far as the types of weapons, we’ve seen them do six nuclear tests and one of those tests was claimed to be with a 2 stage hydrogen weapon. What’s known as an H-bomb, a fusion weapon. What’s been put out there by the U.S. government is that the yield of this this weapon or this test was large enough to be consistent with with the hydrogen bomb. So you’ve got that. And that’s referred to colloquially as the peanut. It’s this big silver peanut shaped thing that looks like it could fit onto the end of North Korea’s ICBMs and even their intermediate range missile. And then you’ve got a smaller device, a fusion implosion device that is spherical. It’s dubbed the disco ball. And that one, again, looks like it can fit on a whole range of different missiles from North Korea. You’ve got here at least two different types of warhead that look like they could be used on missiles. One that has a much higher yield that could basically- we’re talking about destroying cities, not just a limited use. And then we see the approach. There’s a lot of talk about the potential for North Korea to conduct a seventh nuclear test. And much of the discussion that you see on this is the concern that it will be a tactical, much smaller device that could fit on a on a smaller missile and that would have a lower yield, but that would make it much more useful for a limited strike or for battlefield use, what they would call a tactical nuclear weapon. We don’t know how big the arsenal is, but it’s growing, it’s diversifying. It’s becoming more sophisticated over time. There’s this concern about an imminent seventh nuclear test. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but I’m certainly expecting that it’s going to come soon.

MICHAEL MORELL: Let’s do exactly the same thing with ICBMs capable of hitting the United States. What’s the story there?

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS: For the longest time, the concern about ICBMs for North Korea was that they were going to use this large, cumbersome, essentially space launch vehicle,the Taepodong, as an ICBM. For so much of the time that there was focus on North Korea’s missile program that was the concern. That all started to rapidly change in 2017 when you saw that North Korea was testing mobile ICBMs, what they called the Hwasong-14 and then later 15. And this marked a fundamental change in the nature of the ICBM threat. So you saw instead of a notional system that based on a space launch vehicle, that would take a long time to stack up and be very visible out in the open. Now, you had a system that could really have military utility that was being tested in such a way that it was not just a notional ICBM capability, but that showed the potential to be able to lift a payload consistent with the size of what you’d expect from a North Korean nuclear weapon to be able to reach the United States. 

The only thing that left some ambiguity was the fact that they were launching these things on a very high trajectory. So they weren’t imitating the pathway that they would take to get to the United States. And so the conditions for which the reentry vehicle will be going through the atmosphere are not the same as they would be fired on a flatter trajectory. There’s still some debate and some question about what the reliability and capability there is to really strike the United States. But I think I would air on the side of caution and say that they’ve established that capability to some degree. And then they had this pause in an ICBM testing associated with the negotiations in 2018 and 2019. But then they resumed their ICBM testing earlier this year with an even larger mobile ICBM system. So they’ve continued to make progress. But I think that progress has been accelerating. And the testing program has really shown that North Korea is willing to take some risks and push the envelope. But at the end of the day, we’re talking about a technology that was developed in the 1960s and had really become mature by the seventies or eighties. So the fact that North Korea is making all this progress in ICBMs, given how long these technologies have been out there and how much progress there’s been made in things like material science and how much the North Koreans can learn from the other’s missile programs. It shouldn’t be a surprise that they’ve made this much progress.

MICHAEL MORELL: Right. You mentioned earlier the idea that these weapons can fit on top of these missiles. But they’ve never actually tested that. Is that correct? And so what’s our confidence level that they can actually make a nuclear device to a missile and deliver it where they want and make it work? What’s your sense on that question?

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS: This question of confidence levels is really tough. And a lot of it’s a matter of personal opinion. I’m just speaking for myself here. But I would say, just my personal assessment, is that we have to make the assumption that they have that capability. And so my confidence level would still be relatively low but confident enough to be able to make the call that that’s what we should be basing our thinking on. That’s what I’ve written on, what I published on since I’ve left the government. But I think there’s always going to be skepticism until North Korea conducts a full end to end test with a missile, and then there is a nuclear yield detonation at the other end of that launch. But I’d like to point out, this is not a typical test profile. This is something that’s been very rare in the history of nuclear weapons testing and for other countries, the bar has not really been set that high, that you have to have a fully realistic end to end test with a nuclear detonation at the end to consider that country to be nuclear armed. And so I don’t think we should apply that standard to North Korea either. We can really delude ourselves into a sort of false sense of security if that’s the standard we’re going to hold them to.

MICHAEL MORELL: You mentioned tactical nuclear weapons earlier. How long have they been working on those and what kind of weapons are those? Are those mines or those warheads for very short range rockets? What do those actually look like?

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS: I couldn’t tell you exactly when they started it, but it’s very clear that North Korea has been looking at the potential for battlefield use of weapons for a long time. And in particular, when you look at what Kim Jong-un had to say in his remarks in the party Congress in 2021, he had said that North Korea had actually successfully developed nuclear weapons and turned them into tactical ones. And so I think we can say that the North Koreans have been doing this effort for a while. If you take Kim Jong-Un at his word. I think this is a concern not just because they’ve been working on warheads and potentially you could see a smaller warhead tested, but also because they’ve been working on delivery systems that they’re billing as providing a tactical nuclear capability. So we’re talking about shorter range missiles, solid fuel missiles, very mobile, very hard to track, and very much of battlefield utility, not these big cumbersome things. So shorter range, yes, but there are a lot of potential options for North Korea to put this on a range of different weapons systems. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s a concern. Because in that case, you might not be able to distinguish a particular missile system from carrying a nuclear weapon or not?

MICHAEL MORELL: Let’s switch to maybe the hardest question, which is doctrine and use. And I’m wondering in your mind, under what circumstances do you think Kim Jong-un would actually consider using nuclear weapons, either strategic or those tactical battlefield weapons?

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS: So actually, Kim Jong-un has been kind enough to actually give us a bit of a sense of the conditions for nuclear weapons use. They just promulgated a new law from North Korea very publicly on the conditions for use of nuclear weapons, and overall, on the role of nuclear weapons in North Korea’s security. And so I think you can take from this some very important conclusions. One is that North Korea is not claiming their weapons are just for deterrent purposes, as they have on occasion. Now, they’re saying that they’ll be used for operational missions to repulse hostile forces, aggression and attack, and to achieve decisive victory in war if deterrence fails. They say that they’re going to retaliate with a nuclear strike if their command and control system and their state leadership is put under threat. That they can be justified in using nuclear weapons if they’ve come under a nuclear or non-nuclear attack on important strategic targets and even if such an attack on the horizon. So they’re saying that they could use them preemptively. 

They’re also saying in this document that they could use nuclear weapons to prevent the expansion and protection of a war and to retake the initiative. And then, of course, they have an open ended any number of other other situations. And the emphasis in this document is that they’re going to be able to use them on very short notice. There’s not a lengthy preparation period. The military units are being directed in this document. If they receive the order, they need to be able to be ready for action to use them. And so I’ve done some analysis and some work since leaving the government on this question of the mindsets that North Korea could have in mind that would lead to nuclear use. And you could see it in a circumstance, maybe in a limited way that’s very opportunistic at the start of a conflict. But I think it’s more likely, as you get to the point where the regime is losing the initiative or as the document says, where you see North Korea’s regime is under threat, then to retake the initiative and to try and bring the conflict to a conclusion on favorable terms for North Korea. I could definitely see the potential for them to use weapons to both operationally blunt alliance counterattack against North Korean aggression, but also for the strategic purpose of forcing the U.S. to think very carefully about going any further at risk of other nuclear escalation, going beyond just a tactical use. So it’s a way for North Korea to achieve some practical effects, but also strategically put us back on our heels and make us concerned about further nuclear escalation.

MICHAEL MORELL: You were the strategy guy at USFK so if you think about what you just said in terms of how Kim Jong-un might be thinking about this, what should our response be? What should we signal to them in terms of how we would deal with such a situation in order to deter them?

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS: I think what’s called for is a much greater focus on what we call deterrence by denial, deterrence by punishment. So the typical approach of trying to prevent, deter the use of a nuclear weapon is the traditional Cold War sort of thinking of mutually assured destruction, or in this case, a variation. Not mutually assured, because North Korea can’t destroy us, but basically assuring them that if they use a nuclear weapon, that’s going to lead to the destruction of the regime. And that’s actually been the declared policy of the United States, essentially put out in public in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the idea that essentially if the North Korean regime were to use a nuclear weapon, then that would lead to the end of the regime. That’s paraphrasing the statement that’s been our policy. But I would argue that that’s going to be a harder statement to remain credible as North Korea considers these different limited options and capabilities. And then also because of the concern about how China might react if we were to go after the North Korean regime in such a scenario. And so focusing on deterrence by denial, essentially denying them success or advantage from being able to use nuclear weapons, I think is really key. 

So things like making our missile defenses better, making our forces more resilient and basically coming to grips with the idea that North Korea may use a nuclear weapon in the event of a conflict. And being prepared to, as the saying goes, fight through and still achieve victory, that North Korea can’t gain any advantage by limited nuclear use. That is just going to make the situation worse for them. It’s not going to get them an advantage. Those are some of the military things that I would consider. And then also, I think another big element is to really emphasize alliance, cohesion and coordination, to make it clear that we will have a unified alliance response and there won’t be a break in the alliance if North Korea engages in nuclear escalation, that that will push the ROK and the U.S. together and the U.S. and Japan together. It won’t really create a dilemma that North Korea might be hoping for by using such a weapon.

MICHAEL MORELL: And what’s the state of the alliance today? How healthy is it?

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS: I think it’s on the mend. But there certainly were some rough spots in the last few years, some pretty significant differences of focus and some very public disagreements. But I still think it can’t be taken for granted. I think there’s a lot of work to be done all the time in an alliance like the important one that we have with the Republic of Korea. And so even though things I think are improving and certainly the overall relationship between the ROK and the US is good, we have to very carefully work with what the South Koreans to reassure them and recognize that more than just providing military support to each other and the U.S. providing its so-called nuclear umbrella to South Korea, that political, economic informational coordination between the ROK and the U.S. is is important as well. And so when I see things like friction over trade issues or I see different messages to North Korea and to Beijing coming from Seoul and Washington, that tells me that we have some more work to do to get the alliance more closely aligned.

MICHAEL MORELL: Let me ask about all the recent activity we’ve seen in the last several months, the missile tests. You talked about a coming possible nuclear test. How much of this is actually driven by military necessity in terms of testing? How much is driven by domestic politics in North Korea? How much is coercive diplomacy? And to the extent that it’s the latter, what do they want?

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS: I think it’s a great question. And the bottom line answer that is often the case with analysts, I’m sure you’ve heard it many times before. It’s complicated and it depends. So it’s a bit of each. But let me say first, I’m really glad that you didn’t include the hypothesis of they’re just doing it to get attention because that’s the I think, the most mistaken case that we often see. But looking at some of these other possibilities, I do think it’s a combination. And I think some of it depends on the individual profile. But overall, I think you’ve seen a fundamental change from the era of Kim Jong-il, where he was really testing weapons for political signaling and the actual progress of the weapons systems was a secondary or maybe even an irrelevant component in some cases. 

Whereas Kim Jong-un, I think we have very good reason to believe that he’s genuinely trying to advance not just the credibility of his nuclear and missile arsenal, but also its actual capability, qualitative improvements in the arsenal. I think that’s a big part of it. And certainly, is there political signaling involved there, other domestic political considerations? Sure. But I think a lot of times those things come into play in terms of the messaging and the timing of these particular launches as opposed to really completely driving and dictating what’s going to be tested or what sort of weapons are going to be pursued. Because to have an effective weapons program, you need to do testing. To have an operationally effective military. You need to do training, and you need to ensure that you can operationally employ these systems. And so I think I would weight this much more toward the advancement of the programs. To some degree, yes, coercion and messaging involved. But overall that’s more related to how it’s messaged and the timing more so than the big picture of the direction where those tests and demonstrations are headed.

MICHAEL MORELL: And then back to your strategy hat, how should we respond to all of this? And particularly if there’s another nuclear test. How do you think about that?

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS: This is a real challenge to be quite blunt,  there’s really no good option that’s really going to put us in a really great place after North Korea conducts a weapons test, in part because China has been so uncooperative in holding North Korea accountable. And ultimately, if China is not fully on board in holding North Korea accountable and applying economic sanctions on North Korea and making sure the international community is united, not to forget Russia who is also pretty uncooperative, but ultimately much less economically and politically important to North Korea than China.

 I think that the focus really needs to be on improving the deterrence capability of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, even more so than focusing on trying to apply some sort of economic pressure or punishment after launches. I think it should be part of the equation. We can do a lot more to tighten up enforcement of sanctions. I think we should be doing more to go after different institutions that are doing business with North Korea in violation of sanctions. I think we should be willing to go after a broad range of Chinese companies that are doing business with North Korea in violation of sanctions or other other different means that we can use to hold North Korea accountable to inflict some economic punishment, particularly as it relates to the currency generation for the regime. 

But ultimately, we have to recognize that each time North Korea moves forward with demonstrating and improving its capabilities, that we have to be sure we’re doing the right things on the military side, the defense side, to make sure that we’re ready to be able to counter that. And we can be often very risk averse, both in terms of how we approach sanctions and how we approach military readiness. And I think the key is not to feel like you have to make a public demonstration every time North Korea fires a weapon, tests a weapon. But you do have to think through how we can improve the posture of our forces? How can we improve their readiness level? What changes do we need to make that we’ve been reluctant to make because they might be considered provocative that ultimately are necessary to shore up deterrence as North Korea’s capabilities improve and ultimately may be the thing that gets China’s attention. Because if China sees that the military posture on the peninsula is changing, like for example, the deployment of the fad missile defense battery a few years ago in response to North Korean missile tests. That might be the very thing that actually gets the Chinese to do more to actually put some pressure on North Korea. But at the end of the day, I think it’s tightening the sanctions enforcement as best we can on  those really key areas where we’ve been reluctant to accept risk and then being willing to to improve the posture of the U.S.-South Korea alliance to be able to to to deal with aggression by North Korea.

MICHAEL MORELL: And to do those things that you talked about earlier in terms of our strategic response to what they’re doing overall. It sounds like that’s a whole package. 

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS: Absolutely. Yes. So it all fits within how do we improve the deterrence by denial.

MICHAEL MORELL: You just mentioned China, which I think is a great place to pivot here to China. What’s China’s role in North Korea’s behavior and could they be more helpful? Would the North Koreans be responsive? How do you think about that whole question?

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS: China has been an enabler of North Korea’s bad behavior for a very long time. And it’s not because the Chinese necessarily are out there to see North Korea engage in aggression or that they’re particularly happy about North Korea’s nuclear program, but that ultimately their goal of avoiding a war or chaos on their doorstep means that they’re very sensitive to the potential of backing North Korea into the corner or causing the collapse of the North Korean regime. And so when they look at how can they restrain the situation from spiraling into conflict, how can they restrain the situation from getting to the point where the North Korean regime’s control collapses, it’s ultimately easier to to try and restrain South Korea and the United States. So when you look at the situation now, the added factor is the strategic competition, strategic rivalry between Beijing and Washington is really affecting China’s thinking as well. I think the level of cooperation that we can expect from China going forward is definitely going to be even less than it was before. And so I do see the potential, even if the Chinese are not actually going to encourage intentionally North Korea to escalate. That’s always a possibility, right. If there’s a U.S.-China conflict going on over Taiwan. Who knows? They might actually want the North Koreans to escalate to tie down our forces and maybe even open a second front. 

But even if China is not intentionally encouraging the North Koreans to escalate, that push back against ROK and U.S. military activities, that constant shielding of Pyongyang from the consequences of its actions, I think unintentionally encourages North Korea to believe that it can escalate further and essentially has a lot more space to do to continue to conduct not just testing in demonstrations of weapons, but even in the future to conduct some limited aggression against South Korea like it has in the past, and really push the envelope of its coercive approach against South Korea and its push back against the United States. And so I really think the prospects for close cooperation with China on North Korea were never really that great as it appeared. But they’re getting worse. And I think ultimately it’s more about making it in China’s interest to restrain North Korea, to pressure North Korea into trying to try to pull it back from aggression, to make it in China’s interest rather than expecting through open cooperation and trust that that’s going to happen. And to be fair, there’s limits to probably how far China actually can go to restrain North Korea without putting itself in the situation where it does destabilize North Korea or it does push North Korea into a position where it decides that it’s worth the risk to go against what China is looking for. I think there are practical limits to what China can accomplish, even if we could get them to be more in line with our approach of restraining and pressuring North Korea.

MICHAEL MORELL: It also seems that we have more room today to bring some pain to China with regard to its behavior vis-a-vis North Korea, because the relationship is in this strategic rivalry point. And we’re not having to worry about undermining the US-China relationship the way we used to.

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS: Michael, I think you’re right. And it’s my personal view that we do need to do a lot more to hold Chinese individuals and institutions, businesses accountable for their role in aiding and abetting North Korean sanctions evasion.

MICHAEL MORELL: And do you have any sense what the relationship is like between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping? I know it’s a tough question.

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS:Certainly it’s something that’s evolved. When Kim Jong-un came into power, you really had no relationship between him and Xi Jinping. And it took years before they met in their status as leaders. And then you saw this very rapid shift into a much more positive relationship after the North Koreans paused their weapons testing for a while. And then you had these summits with Xi. Remember, the summit with Xi took place before the first summit with President Trump. And so Kim was in some ways, I think, setting conditions to make sure that Xi Jinping was in his corner and that he had Xi’s view on how to approach this. And so I think that that has shown in a much more positive relationship with North Korea. Even though it’s resumed the weapons testing, that hasn’t resulted in a setback in the relationship at the national level. 

I can imagine maybe Xi Jinping might be a little bit irritated with Kim Jong-un in some ways. But more broadly, they seem to have a much more positive relationship, certainly than earlier in Kim Jong-un’s tenure. But as far as the level of personal warmth or that sort of thing between the two, I just couldn’t say. But certainly I think you see some positive body language in Kim Jong-un being willing to show deference to Xi Jinping, which I imagine makes a positive impression on Xi. 

MICHAEL MORELL: Two more questions. One is, you frequently hear, how do the Chinese look at the Russia-Ukraine war and what are the lessons they might be learning from it? Have you given any thought to how the North Koreans might be looking at it and what lessons they might be drawing from it?

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS: I think that’s a great question. And I have thought about that. And there’s a whole range of different theories about what North Korea could be learning. But the thing that concerns me the most is the potential for North Korea to take the lesson that nuclear threats and nuclear coercion will lead to restraint on the part of the U.S. and its allies. And certainly that’s the impression I think a lot of people have about how the United States and NATO are reacting to Putin’s nuclear threats, that it is giving us pause that we might be doing more if it were not for that, we might be doing more to support Ukraine. So I hope that’s not the lesson that the North Koreans take away at the end of the day. I hope the North Koreans pay close attention to the fact that simply bombarding a democratic society with missiles is not going to lead them to surrender. And then certainly conducting an offensive with ground forces against a determined opposition, particularly armed with anti-tank missiles and in urbanized terrain is not going to be very, very successful. It’s going to be very hard. So it could go either way. And I think it will probably take years for all of this to play out to the point where you can really see how it’s affected North Korean thinking. Because I think we need to watch changes in force structure, changes in doctrine, bigger picture things. And we can focus a lot on what the North Koreans are saying in public about this. But that might not give us really deep insights into what they’re really learning.

MICHAEL MORELL: I guess the other thing is the war is not over yet and we don’t know the result. So that’s important here in terms of the lessons learned. Last question, I worked on North Korea 25 years ago. And at that time, we in the  intelligence community would say this regime can’t last. This is not possible.  This runs against the currents of history. What’s your reaction to the possibility of regime change there, or a collapse of the regime? What would that take? Is that even possible?

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS: I certainly think it’s possible. And I think any system that’s based around one man rule and it’s important to keep in mind it’s even more stark than that is that Kim Jong-un has no clearly defined successor at this point. They’ve got this publicly announced position, essentially, that would allow for a successor, but they haven’t announced anybody that’s in it. And so I think that the sudden death of Kim Jong-un from an accident, say from a lone assassin, someone who’s wronged by Kim Jong-un, who decides to go out fighting. I think those are possibilities that could very easily lead to disruption with the North Korean system to the point where it could collapse. But these are not black swans, but the term gray rhino is right. These are low probability, high impact events. 

 I think the more likely scenario is that a future generation, that the succession of Kim Jong-un to another leader, maybe even if it’s prepared over time, doesn’t go well. And that’s what causes the system to finally collapse. And certainly we’ve seen a lot of change internally in North Korea in the last 20 years. The access to information, the changes in attitudes, the really entrenchment of the markets into North Korea, despite the regime’s efforts to constrain them and roll them back. And so I am cautiously optimistic that over time, particularly if the international community really with South Korea and the United States in the lead, encourage those bottom up changes in North Korea, do more to get information into North Korean society, do more to to shape attitudes that I could see some some change over time and ultimately leading to to building pressure that fundamentally changes the system. Again, particularly if there is a key moment like, say, the sudden death of Kim Jong-un or a generation from now a gradual change of successor. So I wouldn’t rule it out. But I think the system is so artificially imposed against human nature on the North Korean people that eventually that regime is going to fall. But it could take a very long time.

MICHAEL MORELL: Thank you so much for joining us and thank you for the conversation. It’s been terrific.

MARKUS GARLAUSKAS: Thank you, Michael. I appreciate the opportunity.

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