Peter Hayes Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Political Activism, NGOs and Globalization: Conversation with Peter Hayes, Executive Director, Nautilus Institute; April 18, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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U.S. Policy and North Korea

Building on this experience in this base of knowledge and the set of interactions, let's talk a little about U.S. interests in that region, in what is obviously a very great period of transition for U.S. foreign policy. Places like North Korea seem to be reaching out at a time when they're being labeled rogue states, and put in a category which they may or may not want. So, first, what are American interests today in that part of the world?

For many decades, American vital interests in the region have been well defined as being essentially stability, by which is meant not having a war, and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction. And then to foster inter-Korean reconciliation -- not reunification, but reconciliation. After September 11, these goals were surpassed by the war on terrorism, and, specifically, the link between the risks of WMD, or weapons of mass destruction, flowing into terrorist hands or the hands of a terrorist state. North Korea became very central to American foreign policy in this region, and that concern pole-vaulted over the other three objectives at the top.

So now, stability is subordinated to weapons of mass destruction, which is linked to the war on terrorism at the top. Way down at the bottom is inter-Korean reconciliation. So they're the fundamental hierarchy of American interests that are driving this administration.

And what about North Korea? What are their interests as they see it?

Their first and foremost interest is regime survival. Until about April of 2003, their second objective was to get an economy to sustain their conventional military. Their third objective was to obtain weapons of mass destruction. I think after the war with Iraq, that has now flipped, so it appears that weapons of mass destruction, specifically nuclear weapons, are now second place in their hierarchy because they're pretty sure a) they need those to stop the United States attacking North Korea; and b) they've recognized that under the Bush administration, there's almost a zero chance of striking a deal where they would get an economy in return for giving their nuclear weapons. So they've had to make a fundamental choice, and they appear to have made it. Although things are hanging in the balance as we speak, so that could change.

In following your work, one gets a sense that you believe that if you're going to change things without going to war, you have to follow this formula you mentioned before, namely, linking peace to security, and both to economic development. Now, how does that play in this context? How has the energy project that you and your institute have developed fit into this dynamic of working towards solutions in the context of a larger set of problems?

With that set of four strategic goals that the United States has, there are three basic strategies that it can adopt. One is it can engage an international strategy attempting to find ways of cooperating, especially economically, that enable the North Koreans to have an economy, recover economically, stabilize the situation in their country, and create all kinds of interdependencies and reciprocities, so that they have stake in the status quo. That would be the essence of an internationalist or engagement strategy.

The second basic strategy is militant containment. Basically, we attempt to deter them from attacking us, and we might do some other things to keep them at arm's length. We might talk to them just to keep things stable at a certain time or manage crises, but we're not attempting to really engage them.

The third is to just roll them back. Now, in American foreign policy, these elements are always present, especially in relation to Korea. We started with a rollback policy trying to destroy North Korea in the Korean War. We then were pushed back to a militant containment posture. We're still in a militant containment posture. We had an element of engagement injected in the nineties under the Clinton administration. That was pretty much demolished by the Bush administration. Now they're being forced to consider whether they, in fact, have to use engagement to solve this problem, because rollback looks too hard, and militant containment won't achieve their objective, because if the North Koreans get nukes, they might, in fact, export them. And in an era of global terrorism, that's not acceptable.

So where does the small NGO like us fit into this? Well, first of all, we can collect data on the ground, if we have access about what's really going on that you can't get from satellite photos and you can't get by just talking across the table in some third country.

You mean information about the economy?

Yes, sure. For example, we measure the electric power grid in our village. We do it continuously. We have records stored in a digital read-out system. So when policy-makers in Seoul, or in Washington or elsewhere, are thinking about their options, we can tell them the things about North Korea that they need to know. For example, there are actually two grids in North Korea operating on different frequencies. This has enormous implications for the light-water reactors that the United States and its coalition partners are building in North Korea, because it tells you that you can't operate those reactors in the North Korean grid. It's impossible from an engineering perspective. So either you're building something that will never operate -- you better know that because there's going to be a rude surprise when you hand over the key to the North Koreans -- or you better start building some regional tie-lines to give grid supplement from Russia or China or South Korea. So we've held two workshops already on that topic, brought that issue to the attention of policymakers. That workshop has enabled North and South Koreans to come together, so we're fostering the reconciliation/peacemaking process.

Meanwhile in the country, we have an open channel right under the radar screen. It's very difficult. We often talk about moving mountains when we're on the telephone, when they're in Beijing or we meet in a third country, like we met late last year in Como, Italy. We have to move mountains in Pyongyang, we have to move mountains in Washington, there may be time lags. But eventually we get things aligned, we get our permissions from our uppers -- that's what they call them in Pyongyang, the uppers -- and we're able to send a mission into North Korea, into this village to deliver new batteries to make the wind turbines work and deliver power to the village. Or they come to China for a study tour, or they come here.

That's really how it works. It's keeping open lines of communication and also helping them begin the very early tasks of creating their own civil society. That country has never intersected with the West. They don't know what the universal values of human rights are, what the norms are. There's no historical experience -- none. In 5,000 years, they've never intersected with it. So we're starting from scratch. Things like basic trainings in Geneva on human rights, basic trainings on the lingo of arms control -- What is this thing called arms control? And monitoring, what is monitoring? Transparency. Transparency? I mean, what is transparency to a North Korean? You have to explain all this from scratch. A lot of training; every step is training. And they, in turn, have to give access and information. There is a quid pro quo. It's explicit. And there are redlines. If we don't deliver on our commitments, they walk. If they don't deliver on their commitments, we walk. You have to be ready to confront that issue.

What is the greatest obstacle for moving from what you're achieving at the local level in the energy field to the more strategic level, while the two parties, North Korea and the United States, for whatever reason, are calling each other names and are essentially almost locked in their own silos that prevent this kind of communication?

The essence of our work in North Korea is to demonstrate the way that one can successfully jointly do business. There are certain lessons learned about that. One is that you have to understand their political culture. If you begin a negotiation by insulting their leader, it's unlikely that you'll be able to recover for some time, until you can have useful conversation. So, basic cultural attributes of the smaller scale projects have lessons for the big picture diplomacy.

Another would be if at the very outset you decide that you're going to build gargantuan projects based on intergovernmental instrumentalities; that you're going to rely on governments and huge bureaucracies to deliver, and undertake more than one project at a time, so there are lots of transaction costs between adversaries. Then, you can almost guarantee that there's going to be a lot of unpleasantness along the way, and you're never going to succeed. At the end of the day, you're going to have 20 million extremely frustrated and angry North Koreans, because you never delivered, and you're going to have hundreds of millions of frustrated Chinese, Americans, Japanese, South Koreans, etc., angry at the North Koreans.

So our simple lesson learned is if you're going to engage that country, do it right. Deliver lots of cheap things very quickly in lots of places at the same time, not so you overwhelm them, but so that people get tangible benefits quickly. And then they believe. Then you take the next step and maybe a bigger and a harder next step. But if you start at this huge project level as the governments did, you're almost doomed to failure.

Now, what is at the root, both historically and otherwise, in North Korea's misperceptions of the United States, and also on the other side, the misperceptions of the U.S. of North Korea?

There are certain perceptions and misperceptions that make it extremely difficult for the two sides to communicate. But, actually, I'm not so sure that it's a misperception that's the problem. I think they actually have their finger on our pulse quite well, they understand the United States quite well. At least, the people I've talked to have a much better understanding of the United States than American leaders do of North Korea. That's a bit of problem from a negotiating stance for the United States.

But there are deep-seated fears and insecurities that are grounded in history. I mean, the United States did nuke 70,000 Koreans at Hiroshima, of whom about 50,000 died and about 20,000 went back to the two Koreas. In the North, those survivors are a revered community. They aren't against those bombings. We talked to them and they say they wished the United States had used more nuclear weapons against Japan.

These were Korean prisoners?

These were Korean forced laborers in the Japanese war effort. They happened to be under the bomb when it exploded in Hiroshima, and they had no way to evacuate. So they were the most afflicted by the fallout at Hiroshima.

But the point I'm making is that from the beginning of the nuclear era, the Koreans, and especially the North Koreans, have had nuclear effects literally seared into their psyche. This was reinforced during the Korean War, and then through five decades of projected nuclear threat. And it was intended to have that effect; that's what "deterrence" meant at the time. "They'd better understand [that if] they put a toe over the line, they'll get nuked." But they understand that in a way that few people do.

So they've built an underground society. What is above ground is epiphenomenal in North Korea. It takes a while to actually even see the underground North Korea, because you're just not used to looking for the signs of an underground society. It's really the only one on the planet. But they have gone underground, as a result. So their way of viewing the world is totally alien to the American world view, and their concept of political power is so antithetical to ours. Their one person, the leader, has all power absolutely, and it's purely political. And here, power is impersonal. It's relative. It's divided constitutionally. It's legal and it's bureaucratic.

So how can these two political cultures communicate? Given how difficult that is at the best of times, let alone at times of fear and loathing like now, it's very crucial that we have on-the-ground projects where some understandings have been reached by people of goodwill on each side.

There is some communication. Up until 1989, it was actually regulated that no State Department diplomat would even talk to a North Korean. If they met at a reception in Stockholm or whatever, an American diplomat was instructed to turn their back and walk away from a North Korean diplomat. That's essentially the policy that the Bush administration has adopted. "We will not talk to these people unless they capitulate." And, of course, they're not capitulating. They're apparently putting a gun, a nuclear gun, to the American head and saying, "Talk, or we'll go nuclear."

Going back to what Holdren and your work here at Berkeley had taught you about working at the edge of policy versus transforming the structure or environment of policy, how do you make that breakthrough in a context where the insecurity on both sides is becoming greater because of their perceptions and misperceptions of each other?

You remember I began by saying that the essence of this work is to be fearless. One of the things you discover when you do deep research in nuclear weapons and you get to the inner sanctum, and you look inside the inner sanctum, is that there's no one there. There are, actually, no real answers to the hard metaphysical questions that are posed by nuclear weapons. Essentially, they exist and they're awesome. That's really all you need to know. You can figure out from there what should be policy. The problem is that there are people who occupy bureaucracies all over the planet with their hands on these weapons, who don't know the answers either. They're looking for guidance as to what to do. What we can do is come up, as independent thinkers and players, with innovative ideas that offer alternatives to these people who are often gridlocked and don't like being gridlocked in their own stereotypes, trapped in their own stereotypes.

For an organization like ours, that means that if you're dealing with an issue as we did recently -- we released the Pentagon study from 1966 on the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the Vietnam War ...

And this was by a group of scientists, the JASON group, who posed the question: "What would happen if you used nuclear weapons?"

Actually, the question was, "What could you actually use them for? Is there any utility in dealing with the National Liberation Front and the Vietcong, the war on the ground -- what's the military utility?"

And this was generated because there was discussion in the Pentagon to change the course of the Vietnam War by using nuclear weapons?

Yes. Specifically, what we discovered in doing the deep research to get at what was going on at that time, which was a long time ago, 1966, was the speculation that was going on in the Pentagon and the State Department about using nuclear weapons to shut down the Mu Gia Pass on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, because this is where the material was going south and was killing Americans. The guerrillas were getting stuff from the north and using it in the south, and we were getting very frustrated because the bombing had not shut down the pass, the B-52s and so forth had not shut down the pass.

That report -- we could have just published it, we got this using the Freedom of Information Act, and we could have just put it out and just let historians deal with it -- but we very explicitly set out to frame the release so that it would, first of all, be policy-salient. So what was the underlying conclusion of these authors? What was really remarkable was that the JASONs told McNamara in the summer of '66 -- to be precise, in August-September '66 -- that if the United States used nuclear weapons, not only would they not shut down the Mu Gia Pass, because that actually wouldn't work physically, but the Vietcong or some other insurgency was certain to get nuclear weapons one way or another, either in Vietnam or in some other war zone, and would use them against the United States. And the United States was reciprocally more vulnerable to their use. "This is a very bad idea," they suggested.

And that, in the current policy context of the war in Iraq, the pending war with North Korea, the situation with Syria, the situation in Pakistan and Kashmir, the situation with al Qaeda, is extremely relevant.

Now, we didn't then just set out to put out that message and highlight that note, although we did that. Rather, we set out to then engage analysts, both the original JASONs, all of whom are still alive, to speak with an authoritative voice, not just to have a little pip-squeak voice. One of them is now a Nobel Prize winner, Steven Weinberg; one is Freeman Dyson -- he's a bigwig in this world, at Princeton, a very highly respected philosopher and scientist. But we then set out to get a counterpoint analysis of the salience of this argument: "Have nuclear weapons changed? Are they more tactically useful now? Do the arguments about insurgency still compute?" Al Qaeda, the Mac-franchising, if you like, of terrorism, is not the National Liberation Front; they're completely different. So is the argument still salient? We went to very different political constituencies, sought analysts, solicited their input, and this was published along with our own views.

This meant that the policy spectrum saw us putting out the argument in a relatively objective fashion, so they could then consider this intellectually with some integrity, not just as a pre-digested, you know, "Here's our wheelbarrow, we're pushing it." So we've framed a space, an information space, where this kind of discussion happens, and now that's an expectation. People come to us expecting to get that kind of insight. So that makes it very policy-relevant, but it also doesn't prejudge the policy outcome.

Next page: Conclusions

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