by Charles Knight
I met Anastasia Barannikova this last December when I visited the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, Russia. I was there to participate in discussions with eight of the university’s regional security experts about the situation in Korea, only a few hundred kilometers distant from where we sat. In my notes I circled Anastasia Barannikova’s name. Her colleagues mentioned that she had the best set of contacts with North Koreans.
After I returned to my home in Boston, I contacted Barannikova and was able to arrange an interview. She is Russian, but her perspective should not be equated with that of the Kremlin. Rather it is an assessment from an informed young academic living 9,000 kilometers east of Moscow, active in international non-proliferation circles, and benefiting as a researcher from her hard-won independent relationships with North Koreans as primary sources.
We conducted the interview on February 18, and since then there have been many new and important developments in Korea. Nonetheless, what she has to say remains highly relevant to understanding and assessing the statements of officials and the reporting by the press regarding both diplomacy and war posturing in the coming months.
Charles Knight: Georgy Toloraya, perhaps Russia’s most senior North Korea expert, has recently written that “policymakers in Pyongyang believe the only purpose of U.S. policy is to liquidate the DPRK as a state or even ‘physically destroy’ the country and its leadership.” Do you agree that this is a deeply held belief in North Korea policy circles?
Anastasia Barannikova: I can only partially agree. Perhaps this is the external expression by diplomats and politicians. Among the North Korean leadership, there are smart people who understand that their country is a means, not a goal, for the United States. The U.S. military presence in the region is aimed at containing China and, to some extent, Russia. In the event of the destruction of the North Korean regime, the United States would lose most of the rationale for their military presence in South Korea. And, of course, they would be face to face with China. I think that the current regime in North Korea serves the interests of the U.S. and their forward military presence in the region, at least for now. Of course, a regime in the North that was friendly to the U.S. would be more convenient, but neither Russia nor China would allow this (not to mention North Korea itself). The North Korean regime is presently stable. The only means to force a regime change would be an external military intervention, which many countries would object to. Especially now that North Korea has become a de facto nuclear state, military intervention can lead to nuclear war!
Charles Knight: To generalize, you are saying that with no peace on the Korean peninsula the U.S. can keep its alliances with Japan and South Korea strong, and through the alliances, Washington maintains its influence on Japan and South Korea. Right?
Anastasia Barannikova: That’s it! I’m sure that in North Korea they understand their role assigned by the “big powers.” At the same time they have their own vision of their country’s role and place in the world that may conflict with those assigned by “big powers.” They assess all the risks accordingly.
Charles Knight: Have you been worried about a preventive war being launched by Trump? Or do you think Washington will be deterred from pursuing that option?
Anastasia Barannikova: I’ve heard opinions of many experts from different countries that Trump is more unpredictable than Kim Jong Un. Of course, I am worried about it, but I prefer to think that it is just the “madman tactic” of persuasion.
Charles Knight: I want to explore with you what seems like the most realistic arms limitation that could be achieved in the near future: North Korea suspending further development and testing of their inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Anastasia Barannikova: I think it is possible only if North Korea feels safe. They consider an ICBM equipped with a nuclear warhead as their main deterrent. It deters by way of its very existence. In order for it to be an effective deterrent, they see the need to demonstrate its abilities in the course of test firings.
Charles Knight: When I was in Vladivostok you said that North Korea might do an atmospheric nuclear test soon after the Olympics. Why do you think so? Why do they feel the need to do such a test? Other de facto nuclear powers such as Pakistan and India have not done so.
Anastasia Barannikova: As I have said, ICBMs serve in North Korea’s security calculus as a deterrent. It is extremely difficult to use them in practice given anti-ballistic missile systems and other factors. Consequently they consider the use of a high-atmospheric hydrogen bomb explosion that generates an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) as a defensive shield in the event of an attack by the U.S. North Korea needs to test this, making sure that they can deliver and explode a nuclear device at the necessary altitude. Such a demonstrative test would put the U.S. on notice that many of its long-range high-tech military assets could be made inoperable, at least temporarily, by North Korean defenses.
Charles Knight: Why wouldn’t other new nuclear states, for instance Pakistan or India, want to do high-atmospheric tests?
Anastasia Barannikova: They have different nuclear doctrines related to different potential enemies and different theatre conditions. Pakistan has more nuclear warheads than North Korea and can carry out “massive retaliation.” The very possibility of this retaliation is a deterrent factor for India, which shares a land border with Pakistan. North Korea’s enemy—the U.S.—is located very far away and these two countries do not have a common border. The difference in technological levels between North Korea and the U.S. is larger than that between Pakistan and India. The U.S. is very technologically advanced, but that makes its military dependent on its advanced electronic equipment. The best weapon to use against a large-scale U.S attack, the North Koreans believe, is an EMP generated by a thermonuclear device.
Charles Knight: How do you think North Korea will test and demonstrate this high-altitude nuclear capability?
Anastasia Barannikova: There are several options for the North Korea short of exploding a thermonuclear device over the Pacific. I believe they already have the capacity to miniaturize nuclear devices and mount them on ballistic missiles. They can perfect their devices using computer modeling and subcritical tests as other countries do. They just need to test and prove their ability to deliver a nuclear device to a certain altitude. Such a demonstration does not require the explosion of a hydrogen bomb in the atmosphere.
Charles Knight: Last year the Russian Foreign Ministry proposed a “double freeze”—suspension of this year’s joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises in exchange for the suspension by North Korea of new nuclear weapon tests and missile tests. A variation of this idea was also proposed by the Chinese government. The recent Olympic Truce resulted in a de facto freeze. That was followed by high-level talks between North and South and agreement by North Korea to continue their freeze on tests as long as there are direct talks with the United States addressing security guarantees and normalization of relations. The North Koreans appeared to be willing to put aside the issue of canceling this year’s joint military exercise, but we know they consider them to be provocative and threatening. What modifications in those exercises would address their legitimate security concerns and help the peace process?
Anastasia Barannikova: North Korea’s biggest concern about the exercises is the current Operation Plan which includes strikes on vital national assets in North Korea and a “decapitation strike” designed to take out top leadership. In addition, the exercises have involved nuclear aircraft carriers and bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons. North Korea perceives this as a serious offensive nuclear threat. But the most provocative is the decapitation strike. If we keep in mind the specific role of leadership in Korean society, it is no surprise that the notion of “decapitation strikes” produces outrage towards the U.S. even among ordinary people. If the U.S. and South Korea change the agenda of the exercises and move them away from the Korean peninsula, it will have a positive effect. [According to the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, on March 8 “a senior (ROK) Defense Ministry official” said that U.S. aircraft carriers will not be participating in this year’s joint exercises. The official added that there was no confirmation from the U.S. as to whether nuclear submarines would take part.]
Charles Knight: You have written that North Korea is especially offended when the U.S. includes nuclear bombers in their exercises. Correct?
Anastasia Barannikova: Yes, because it contradicts the calls of many countries including the U.S. to denuclearize the Korean peninsula—by bringing U.S. nukes to the peninsula while at the same time telling North Korea to give up its nukes.
Charles Knight: That is a perspective that is almost entirely missing here. By threatening nuclear strikes the U.S. is actually contributing to the nuclearization of North East Asia. Why is that so important to people in the region?
Anastasia Barannikova: Nobody in the region has ever wanted nuclear war. In the past periods of temporary normalization of relations, the two Koreas separately and jointly tried to promote denuclearization initiatives. Many people across the globe have mistakenly thought about denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as only pertaining to nuclear disarmament of North Korea. But what about U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea [withdrawn in 1991], the inclusion of nuclear weapons in joint exercises, and the nuclear umbrella guarantee extended to South Korea by the U.S. ever since the Korean War? A nation that enjoys (or suffers from) such nuclear-umbrella guarantees does not qualify as “non-nuclear.” From this perspective, South Korea has long been nuclear, and it was the U.S. that first made the Korean peninsula nuclear. As no country ever offered the same guarantees to North Korea, it decided to develop its own weapons. Facing hostility from the U.S. and absent a peace treaty, North Koreans have felt they had no better option. Given the fact that we cannot reverse the nuclear status of North Korea, we (Russia, the U.S., China, Japan, and both Korean states) should work on preventing further proliferation in northeast Asia.
Charles Knight: For a concluding question I ask you to suggest, based on your understanding of North Korean perspectives, steps that each of the countries with the greatest interests in the Korean situation (the U.S, China, Russia, Japan, and, of course, South Korea and North Korea) can do in the coming months to build toward a Korea that enjoys a peaceful future.
Anastasia Barannikova: The U.S. can reduce and/or modify its exercises in the region: changing their agenda, locating them away from the peninsula, and take other measures to persuade North Korea they are not directed against its sovereignty and top leadership. It would be a significant signal. And, of course, the U.S. needs to engage in direct talks with North Korea without any pre-conditions.
As for Russia, we should be more active in our relations to the Korean peninsula keeping in mind that historically we paid little attention to Korea before it was annexed by Japan and as a result, our interests in the region were seriously damaged. We can start by prioritizing our trans-Korean projects of economic cooperation.
China should recognize that its former “younger brother” has grown up and treat North Korea as an equal. It should support the further development of inter-Korean relations rather than interfering in Korean affairs for “divide and control.”
Japan should stop using the current situation in Korea to justify its current program of remilitarization and changes to its “peace constitution.”
As for the Koreas, it will be enough to keep the positive dynamics of negotiations going forward. Serious steps would be: reducing hostile rhetoric directed at each other and reopening trans-border economic zones. South Korea can also lift its own sanctions against North Korea. North Korea should be more flexible and open to different channels of diplomacy: for instance, Track II dialogue with the U.S.
All said, the above will contribute to stability in northeast Asia. Much depends on the Korean states. They are the driving force. As for Russia, China, the U.S., and Japan, our best contribution will be to avoid interference in the rapprochement of the Koreas.
Charles Knight is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, Washington, DC, New York City, NY, and Cambridge, MA. http://www.comw.org/pda/ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anastasia O. Barannikova is a research fellow at the Center for Maritime International Studies, Admiral Nevelskoy Maritime State University, Vladivostok, Russia. She is completing her PhD in history. Photo: North Korean ballistic missile (Wikimedia Commons).