Excerpts of an interview with Sue Mi Terry, a former senior CIA analyst and senior fellow for Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
Background: When President Trump first came into the office, President Obama first told Trump that North Korea is going to be the number one security issue. And it turned out to be true. In 2017, North Korea conducted many tests, including three ICBM tests, intercontinental ballistic missile tests, which the United States, from the US’s perspective, used to always say that’s the threshold because now they have a missile that can reach New York or Washington. They also conducted nuclear tests with a hydrogen bomb test. And so if you remember in 2017, the Trump administration was pursuing what they called a maximum pressure policy, along with a fire and fury rhetoric and calling Kim a rocket man on a suicide mission.
On prospects for a nuclear deal: “Despite President Trump saying right after the Singapore Summit that the North Korean threat is over, we are at a stalemate. The North Korean threat is not over. They have not taken a single step towards denuclearization. […] Most fundamentally, I don’t think Kim Jong Un has made the strategic decision to give up his nuclear weapons program.”
Kim’s domestic political prospects: “Kim Jong Un] has consolidated power […] We don’t see any kind of potential challengers to Kim because Kim got rid of them.”
On human rights in North Korea: “I don’t think it has gotten any better. […] When President Trump first came into office in 2017 he did at least appear that he cared about North Korea’s human rights issue: The State of the Union Address. He brought Otto Warmbier’s family to the State of the Union Address. He invited a North Korean defector. He hosted several meetings with North Korean defectors. When he went to South Korea, he gave this big speech in front of the National Assembly addressing North Korean human rights. But all of that sort of got thrown out just because he wanted to now not annoy Kim. [So] the human rights situation has not gotten better.”
Q: In 2018, Kim Jong Un’s new year editorial indicated maybe North Korea was shifting. North Korea basically said, “We’re done with our testing. We’re going to now try to focus on economic development.” Why do you think Kim Jong Un made that shift in that new year speech?
A: Kim is a very shrewd guy. He was about 90-95% done with North Korea’s nuclear program. […] I think he felt comfortable in terms of where they were in their nuclear missile program. And that he didn’t feel the need to go all the way to show 100% capability in terms of being able to strike New York City with a nuclear weapon.
He pivoted to a charm offensive: Sending the North Korean athletes to the South Korean Olympics, and then proposing meeting with Trump.
But ever since the Singapore Summit, the North Koreans have continually worked on their nuclear missile program. They’ve conducted dozens of short range missiles this year. And each time it, of course, improves their capability.
Q: Would you say the threat has gotten worse as they make these advances?
A: It certainly has not improved. I would say it’s worse because they’re improving their missile program. It feels like it’s not worse because the scary intercontinental ballistic missile tests are not happening in front of our eyes. But […] unless we can resolve the North Korean crisis, the threat has not gone away at all.