Interview with Dr. John Merrill, former Chief, Northeast Asia Division, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, State Dept.
By Jemin Son, Washington D.C. Correspondent
Posted on : 2015-09-08, Kyunghyang Shinmun
“When a few submarines were missing, we got worried. What the heck are they doing?”
One of the daily tasks of Dr. John Merrill, who analyzed North Korean intelligence at the U.S. Department of State for nearly thirty years, was to identify the movements of the North Korean submarines. Last month when the North and South Korean military nearly clashed, he was surprised at the release of information that North Korea moved more than fifty of its submarines. He said mentioning a regime collapse before a military power armed with nuclear weapons and possessing the ability to simultaneously mobilize fifty submarines was not only unreasonable but also dangerous.
Dr. John Merrill, retired veteran North Korea intelligence analyst in the State Department said, in an interview with Kyunghyang Daily News, President Park had the third time’s the charm and hoped she and her counterpart in the North would take good advantage of the unexpected opportunity after a crisis. (Jemin Son/Washington, DC)
Merrill who retired from the State Department about a year ago met with a Kyunghyang Daily News reporter at the the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University on August 31, and said, “Collapse is a ludicrous thing to wish for. I know everyone wants the problems to go away, everyone is tired of them, but who would want the collapse of a nuclear weapon state?” “There’s only one situation in which North Korea would use nuclear weapons, leaving aside the possibility that someone attacks them. That possibility is, if it is pressed into a corner and thinks if it doesn’t use everything it has, it’s going to be destroyed. If North Korea sees the collapse coming, and it thinks the collapse has been brought about by somebody else, the chances of their resorting to nuclear weapons use rise astronomically. Do we really want to pressure the North in this situation?” he asked.
This is also why Merrill is relieved that the latest crisis, which is compared to the 1962 Cuba missile crisis, was settled through dialogue. He does not see the latest settlement as a victory of any one party. Instead, he said “third time‘s the charm,” referring to President Park Geun-hye, who was faced with this incident after suffering from the Sewol incident and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak.
Merrill said that with the latest incident, President Park unexpectedly got a chance to return to her ‘trustpolitik’ policy. He said, “Frankly, I’m not a big fan of the Dresden Declaration,” but also added that he did not want to criticize President Park. “Because I understand that the president has to think about her conservative base.” He said he wished President Park would put the Dresden Declaration of March 2014 aside, for it seems to assume a “reunification by absorption,” and return to trustpolitik.
Merrill said that what was necessary to keep this chance alive was for the two Koreas to move quickly. If North Korea launches a satellite around the time of North Korea‘s military parade commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the establishment of the Workers’ Party of Korea on October 10, it is highly likely for the latest agreement to end up in the trash can. We asked Merrill, who had analyzed North Korean intelligence for thirty years, whether or not North Korea would launch a satellite. He said, “There‘s still less than a 50% chance that the North will not launch the satellite.” Yet, he continued that before the latest agreement it was almost certain that Kim Jong Un would launch the satellite and said, “In the new atmosphere, if Kim Jong Un makes progress with South Korea and if he wants to show a good impression to the outside and obtain something, then I think it is conceivable that he might postpone that satellite launch.” He mentioned how First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea Kim Jong Un had publicly endorsed the latest agreement as the grounds of his prediction.
In 2012, the U.S. and the North had signed the Leap Day deal on February 29, but the agreement was soon destroyed after North Korea launched a satellite in less than two months after signing the agreement. When asked whether the current situation is similar to that in 2012, Merrill said things are different. “The Leap Day deal was one made by Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un only oversaw the agreement for a few months after Kim Jong Il‘s death. So he clearly had not, at that time, consolidated his control. And we know this, because on military side there’s been purge after purge after purge…. Now he seems to have consolidated his control over the military.” If the inter-Korean agreement is implemented smoothly and the two Koreas can discuss resuming tourism to Mount Kumgang, Kim Jong-Un may consider putting off the launch of the satellite so as not to destroy the pleasant relations with the South and no one in North Korea could dare criticize [such a decision]. But for things to turn out like that the Park Geun-Hye government will also have to respond to the North’s conciliatory gesture and make the North trust the South. A South Korean military official making remarks provoking the North will only pour cold water on the current atmosphere.
Merrill said the U.S. would not pull the brakes on the two Koreas talking of resuming tourism to Mount Kumgang. He quoted an English proverb, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” and said that if inter-Korean relations improve, this will provide an opportunity to improve North Korea-U.S. relations, and that Washington would also welcome this. President Park will meet President Obama at the White House on October 16 and Merrill said that if Park explained to Obama that she had thoughts to engage in economic activities with the North, that it would be difficult for anyone in Washington to oppose this.
However, recently, President Park received a warm welcome when she attended the military parade on the seventieth anniversary of China‘s victory in World War II, while North Korea’s envoy Choe Ryong Hae received a rather cold welcome and returned to the North without meeting any Chinese figures. When asked if this would act as a negative factor in the reconciliation of the two Koreas, Merrill said, “Choe Ryong Hae is not in the same as President Park Geun-hye, so it’s hard to make a comparison how China received them. But I do agree that pressure tactics can backfire. I don’t think Park’s visit by itself amounted to that, but Seoul needs to be sensitive to its multiple audiences, including North Korea.”
As for whether the South Korean government achieved the goal of gaining China‘s support for its North Korean policy with the president’s attendance at the military parade, Merrill said, “China was sending a signal to Pyongyang with Park’s warm and high-profile treatment. But North Korea remains important to China as a buffer state. It does not want to see American power on its doorstep or a North Korean collapse that could lead to regional conflict.”
John Merrill is a Harvard-trained Korean history major who married a South Korean woman, and joined the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) under the Reagan administration in the late 1980s and retired as the chief of its Northeast Asia Division. He is a critic of the Obama administration‘s policy of strategic patience toward North Korea and is almost the only figure in the U.S. government who claimed that the U.S. should continue engaging North Korea even after the Leap Day deal was breached by North Korea’s satellite launch.♦
[Minor edits/corrections by Dr. Barry.]
Korean version of original article.