North Korea's Threats Grow More Ominous

North Korea scrapped the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the Korean War, escalating fears of a preemptive nuclear attack on the U.S. Tuft University Korean studies professor Sung-Yoon Lee discusses this precarious moment for North Korea, its neighbors and the international community.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Over the past week, North Korea threatened a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the United States, scrapped the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War and cut off the hotline communication with the South. Now, reports from Seoul say the North Korean government has begun to evacuate civilians into tunnels and repaint city buses in camouflage. Many analysts worry the rhetoric may signal a provocation of some sort. If that happens, the new government in South Korea threatens a much more damaging response. If you have questions about the rising tension on the Korean peninsula, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Sung-Yoon Lee is a professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and joins us now by phone from his office there. Good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

SUNG-YOON LEE: Thank you for having me on.

CONAN: And these latest reports from Seoul - moving citizens into tunnels, putting camouflage on buses - some might take that as a sign of alarm.

LEE: Well, North Korea is used to conducting more drills, and even in South Korea, when I was growing up in South Korea in the '70s, we would have such exercises, as well. So it's not entirely routine, but it's not entirely out-of-the-ordinary, either. North Korea is carrying out its own psychological warfare in ratcheting up tension with South Korea and the United States, you know, in its bluster barrage in recent days, as you said, threatening to launch a precision nuclear strike against Washington, or to wipe out a South Korean island near the site of the two deadly attacks against the South in 2010. It creates the notion that things are spiraling out of control, that we are on the verge of war.

But I would say North Korea, the regime, is not suicidal. They are very calculating, and they are conducting a form of psychological warfare against South Korea and against the United States, putting pressure on the new government in Seoul, especially, to resolve the situation, to return to negotiations. And that means with bigger blandishments, concessions in tow.

CONAN: Well, it's interesting. You say - you mentioned the two incidents, and they were - 46 South Korean sailors killed when a ship was torpedoed, and then the shelling of an island. And every new South Korean leader seems to be tested, and we've just seeing a new South Korean leader installed.

LEE: Yes, indeed. And we've seen leadership transitions in all the major capitals of the North Pacific - the second Obama administration, of course, a new president elected in South Korea last December, a new Japanese prime minister, a new Chinese leadership. So this is a very appeasement-prone environment, and that is - by that, I mean that the new leaders have pressing domestic issues. They really don't want a foreign policy, a North Korea crisis on their hands. So after a decent interval, in the wake of a North Korean provocation, North Korea is calculating that these leaders will go back to negotiations. And in dealing with these elected leaders, leaders in democracies who face a term limit, who are accountable to the public, there's a systemic disadvantage that is - in countering a dictatorship for life, you know.

CONAN: Yeah. I understand. There are some, though, who question in - when Kim Jong Un - himself, a young and untested leader, just installed in power after the death of his father - when he first took power, the president of the United States, Barack Obama, offered, I think, 240 million tons of badly needed food in the hopes of generating goodwill. Before the food could even arrive, though, he launched a missile and, of course, the food shipments were cancelled. In other words, the blandishments were there, the - and he took a provocative act.

LEE: Yes. And in North Korean calculation, in terms of North Korea's strategic thinking, periodic provocations are essential to the continued preservation of the regime, because North Korea faces a far more immeasurably richer, freer Korean state, a more successful Korean state across the border. So whether South Korea means ill or well toward Pyongyang, the sheer existence of South Korea, the fact that we have a two-state formulation in a relatively small geographical arena called the Korean Peninsula, this poses a serious, long-term, existential threat to the North Korean regime.

If North Korea were unable to export insecurity, if you will, create security problems by conducting missile tests and nuclear tests and grab the attention of the world's greatest powers, why on Earth would these great powers go on subsidizing the North Korean regime, giving it aid?

CONAN: The only one that really does and that it depends on for its existence is China.

LEE: That's right. And, of course, different nations have different national interests, and the Chinese leadership see the continued existence of the political entity called the DPRK, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as in China's interest.

CONAN: Now, given the fact that there are two young - well, not young in South Korea's place, but new leaders, people fear that the next provocation may spiral out of control, that there would be some incident and South Korea would respond and - well, there you go.

LEE: If North Korea were to attack - and always, North Korea has attacked the South and the United States over the past 60 years, since the armistice, in a controlled manner, in a limited manner. So it's very calculating, very careful in what it does. It has done things, lethal attacks it has conducted against South Korea and has gotten away with it. There has been no military retaliation of any kind by South Korea or the United States.

If North Korea attacks, South Korea will shoot back, yes. But then they, too, North Korea will attack or threaten to attack again. At that point, this situation becomes a political liability for the South Korean government, and the public will not support continued escalation, escalating things indefinitely, because South Korea has grown rich. The people have too much to lose in the event of a war and will not support a belligerent policy towards North Korea.

CONAN: Yet, as you say, it may be controlled, and maybe one side or the other is forced to back down, and you seem to be saying the South Koreans would be forced to back down. But the - nevertheless, in the long run, this isn't stable.

LEE: No, it isn't stable. But, you know, we have had de facto peace since the armistice. Over the past 60 years, there has not been a general war in or around the Korean Peninsula, and that is the longest period of peace, de facto peace - unstable peace, yes, but real peace - that we've had in Korea since the mid or the late-19th century.

In the 60-year period leading up to the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, there were four wars in and around the Korean Peninsula. So, you know, this long stability or unstable peace has been enabled by the presence of the U.S. troops in South Korea, and there's been a balance of power achieved between the North and the South.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. We're speaking with Sung-Yoon Lee, the Koo-Korea Foundation professor on Korean studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. And let's go to Peter. Peter's on the line with us from Berkeley.

PETER: Hi, Neal. I guess as a U.S. and global citizen, I feel the need to have a review of the history and status quo of the U.S. and international efforts to negotiate with North Korea. What have we done? What could do we better? Where exactly is the impasse to establishing a more reasonable relationship?

LEE: Well, over the past 20 years, we've had on and off nuclear diplomacy. The U.S. has carried out nuclear negotiations with North Korea in concert with other powers in the region, namely China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

CONAN: These are the so-called six-party talks.

LEE: That's right, although we've not had a meeting within that multilateral framework for more than five years now. The result has been less than spectacular. We know that North Korea has continued to develop, to expand, enhance its nuclear and long-range missile capabilities. So I agree with Peter that we need a new approach. And I would suggest that North Korea enjoys strategic advantages, because it has a big conventional military, the capability to wreak havoc on South Korea and Japan. At the same time, North Korea has systemic weaknesses that we should exploit.

The regime depends on revenue from illicit activities, like the sale of drugs, fake pharmaceuticals, fake $100 U.S. bills and so forth - criminal activities for staying in power and appeasing the regime elite. That's what the United States should target. And we've done that before.

CONAN: We've done that before. But these are difficult things to stop.

LEE: It's very difficult to go after, you know, money laundering activities, all of those activities, yes. But if you are able to dam, block even a few streams of such revenue derived from illicit activities, then certainly, the United States - and perhaps only the United States - is in a position to be able to do that.

Then I think you would create, instill in the regime psychological fear of continued isolation from the international financial system and decrease in revenue, with which it would support the regime elite, and perhaps a rise in the number of disgruntled men in the North Korean military and the party, and that's not a good situation. That would be the real stick that's been missing in the proverbial carrot-and-stick metaphor.

CONAN: The United States policy, I think, in this administration and the previous one has been to try to get China to impose controls on its ally. China's not - recently, anyway - not entirely thrilled with North Korea's actions.

LEE: Indeed. Over the past 60 years, North Korea - although it's been heavily dependent on Chinese largesse for security, protection, economic aid and so forth. North Korea has never caved into Chinese pressure. So the Chinese have good reasons to be displeased. At the same time, the current risk or back-and-fourth exchange between Pyongyang and Beijing, this is nothing new. China will not initiate anything to destabilize the North Korean regime, unless its own interests are at stake.

CONAN: And that would require something much more drastic than even the hyperbolic rhetoric that we've been seeing out of Pyongyang these past several weeks.

LEE: That's right, a bigger crisis, an existential crisis or a regime instability situation in North Korea. China certainly doesn't want a chaotic, unstable situation in North Korea. And if we were to come to that stage, I think the Chinese would be prone to recalculate their interests in the Korean Peninsula. They have always had intense interest in Korea, but I would submit to you that their interest lies in the Korean Peninsula, not necessarily the political entity known as the DPRK.

CONAN: Then there is the moral equation. The people of North Korea suffer terribly.

LEE: Indeed. North Korea, the regime is, I would say, the world's leading candidate for indictment for crimes against humanity. You have gulags, vast towns where you have tens of thousands of political prisoners, you know, camps, in this day and age, and the horrific conditions of life in North Korea in those camps and outside those camps, as well. Really, North Korea fulfills all the conditions to be indicted for crimes against humanity: murder, enslavement, torture, disappearance of persons, sexual assault and so forth.

CONAN: One can only imagine what bellicose response they would make if they indicted and ordered to the Hague, but they wouldn't go.

LEE: They wouldn't. No.

CONAN: Sung-Yoon Lee, thank you very much for your time today.

LEE: Thank you for having me on.

CONAN: Sung-Yoon Lee is the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation professor in Korean studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts, and he joined us today by phone from his office there. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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