November 8, 2006: A moment with...

Aaron Friedberg

(Photo by Jon Roemer, courtesy Woodrow Wilson School)

Aaron Friedberg

Professor Aaron Friedberg has returned to the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs after spending two years as a deputy national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. Friedberg, a specialist in East Asian affairs, recently discussed current events in that region with PAW’s Mark F. Bernstein ’83. They spoke shortly after North Korea had conducted a nuclear test Oct. 9.

What is the next step for the United States now that North Korea has successfully conducted a nuclear test?

[North Korean leader] Kim Jong-Il needs hard currency to pay for his nuclear program and also for luxuries he uses for his own comfort and to pay off the people around him. If we could squeeze that, we could endanger his grip on power and make him feel insecure. But to do that we really need help from China and South Korea, which we have not gotten so far. One of the problems with our diplomacy in the past is that it has seemed at times to be based on the assumption that if we’re really nice to Kim and offer him goodies for his people, he’ll see the light. I think all Kim cares about is himself, so we have to get at that.

If North Korea can acquire nuclear weapons, is the very idea of nonproliferation dead?

It’s not dead, but it’s on life support. The nonproliferation treaty still exists, and North Korea was a signatory to it. If North Korea can violate the treaty, get a bomb, and get away with it, that will be a real blow. It shows that others can do the same thing, and it suggests that the will of other countries to uphold the treaty is wavering.

Why does North Korea want nuclear weapons?

Kim Jong-Il sees them as the ultimate guarantor of his safety. It makes it more difficult for anyone to overthrow him from outside. He also is aggressive and sees them as useful in his efforts to extract rewards and benefits from other countries. He has gotten a lot of payoffs over the years, and he may believe that he is even better situated to do that now that he is more menacing. Kim ultimately hopes to reunify the Korean peninsula on his terms, and he believes a nuclear capacity will help him do that.

Is there a way for the United States to stop North Korea’s nuclear program militarily?

We might use our armed forces to impose some sort of blockade to make sure that the North Koreans don’t smuggle nuclear weapons or materials to other countries or to terrorist groups. But as far as destroying the North Korean nuclear program, I don’t think there is a good military option. Still, this situation could get worse. The North Koreans have two large unfinished nuclear reactors that they have said they intend to build. If this crisis drags on, we could face a situation in which they are moving toward a capacity to mass-produce nuclear weapons. We then might face the question of whether it is better to use force and deal with the consequences than not.

Why hasn’t China influenced North Korea?

I think the Chinese have a lot of potential influence with the North Koreans that they have not exercised. They could apply economic pressure by cutting off oil and food, for example. China also still is a treaty ally of North Korea and has a commitment to help North Korea defend itself if it’s attacked. China could abrogate that commitment. Why haven’t the Chinese used their influence? Some people say China doesn’t want to try [to stop the nuclear program] and fail. Others say they don’t want to increase the risk that North Korea might collapse, which could create a refugee problem for them. I think the Chinese simply don’t see it as being in their interest to apply pressure.

Should the United States be concerned about China’s military buildup?

I think we have to be. I don’t think China is an imminent threat to us. But its military buildup certainly increases China’s options for using force in its own neighborhood against Taiwan, as well as bullying Japan.

Is conflict between the United States and China inevitable?

I don’t think it is inevitable, but it’s not impossible, either. We’re gambling that by trading and engaging with the Chinese — which makes them richer and more powerful — we’re also helping a process of domestic reform that’s going to make them more democratic and easier to deal with. That part has not happened yet. We could end up facing a China that’s richer and stronger and still an authoritarian one-party state that has objectives that are very different from ours. One thing that might come out of the current North Korean situation is that people will begin to look at whether China is, in fact, becoming a responsible international stakeholder. I think there’s going to be a new debate about that. end of article


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