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Trump and North Korea: Expert at Naval War College in Newport Weighs In

Monday, March 20, 2017


President Donald Trump Tweeted Friday that North Korea is "behaving badly" -- and GoLocal spoke with an expert at the Naval War College in Newport on the current state of affairs between the two countries. 

NWC Professor of National Security Affairs Dr. Terence Roehrig, who is the author of the forthcoming book entitled Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. Nuclear Umbrella: Extended Deterrence and Nuclear Weapons in the Post-Cold War World, spoke with GoLocal on Friday.

"Well it is certainly a concern, but we've been in these situations before and seem to make it through," Roehrig said of heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. "The problem is there are just no easy solutions. My take is we're going to have to get ready to live with continued deterrence."

"It's when we get to these crisis situations that I get nervous. We're getting close, this is eerily similar to last spring and 2015. We seem to go to certain limits and things calm down," said Roehrig. "The big difference is that North Korea gets closer to having nuclear capabilities that will reach the U.S."

Roehrig talked to posturing by North Korea, the role of China, Trump's statements -- and how the political future of South Korea could be a major factor. 

Spring Exercises, Regional Stability

"Tensions have historically coincided with 'spring exercises,' in terms of North Korea's missile tests -- and their continued development of having nuclear weapon capability and a missile that could reach the U.S.," said Roehrig. 

"We've had an alliance with South Korea since 1953. Over the years we have conducted exercises with the South Korean military to rehearse the fact that we can come and defend them with whatever troops we may have on ground, and practice flying-in to come to their defense," said Roehrig. "They also provide an important statement of US determination to be involved to deter any invasion in the first place."

"The likelihood that North Korea is going to invade [South Korea] is very small, but nonetheless these exercises show our defense," added Roehrig.  "But when North makes claims about mercilessly destroying Washington, DC or LA which they did in 2013 and last year, they don't have those capabilities yet -- but they're clearly working on them."

Roehrig spoke however to the possibility of action in the region. 

"I think you would truthfully find debate among folks on North Korea, but it's not certain. My view is that North Korea understands that if they take action to the degree of launching missiles -- and they have conventional missiles that would reach South Korea and Japan -- they would be in great trouble and the U.S. and South Korea would respond," said Roehrig. 

"Would North believe however that because they have a nuclear shield they could do things at lower levels knowing they have a nuclear response? There are kinetic actions that folks are worried they might try and do more of once they have a nuclear shield, but I think North Korea understands there are serious consequences," said Roehrig. 

Regime Change, Trump, and More

"I think the number one goal of the North Korean regime is regime survival, and that's the Kim family regime," said Roehrig. "There's clearly willingness on their part to impose a great deal of suffering on people to do so. Some people talk about ending the [Kim] regime and paying the price and the security problem is done -- but what happens after doing that could be tremendously violent."

"Half of the population lives in Seoul and could pay a huge price. You could have a re-unified Korea which would be very costly -- some ask why don't elites take Kim out, there's a good chance what comes in wake is not a reunified Korea, but a military led or pari-military regime like a Burma or Myanmar. There's a lot of unnerving possibilities, plus, Kim's got another brother," said Roehrig. 

Roehrig spoke to how the Trump Administration has handled North Korea so far -- and what to possibly expect. 

"They're in the midst of a high level North Korea policy review, which we heard from Tillerson. In many respects what he said is not far off the norm of what's been said to date. You look at the various options, and I think military action is unlikely and dangerous," said Roehrig 

"What's on the table is secondary sanctions, when we impose them and China is reluctant," said Roehrig. "So there's the talk about sanctions on China for not enforcing North Korean sanctions. Many believe that China is the key to resolving the North Korean problem, but a great deal of it rests on how far China is willing to go to turn the screws on North Korea."

"Meanwhile, Trump suggested during the campaign that that Japan and South Korea have not paid fair share in alliance, and that's a bone of contention. There's a misunderstanding by many that if they don't pay more we'll bring troops home. Japan and South Korea do pay a great deal for our presence," said Roehrig.

"And there was a suggestion if they didn't pay enough we should just go home and they should just go nuclear. I think Trump said there's likely to be nuclear proliferation [in the region]," said Roehrig. "I was very concerned. I do not favor having allies, or anyone acquiring nuclear weapons beyond those who already have it."

"However, the Trump administration has since said many of the right things about the support of our allies, and many in our country and abroad are seriously breathing sighs of relief," said Roehrig.

Eye on South Korea

Roehrig spoke to the political future of South Korea, following the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye 

"All polls indicate that progressive [Moon Jae-in] is going to be elected, and this candidate has expressed the likelihood that he'll reach out to North in ways that's much different than past administrations," said Roehrig. "And that might be at odds with Japan and the U.S.'


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