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North Korea Defies Warning, Conducts Test

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North Korea Defies Warning, Conducts Test

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North Korea Defies Warning, Conducts Test

North Korea Defies Warning, Conducts Test

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North Korea's nuclear test has been condemned by the U.N. Security Council. Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University and the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, talks with David Greene about why North Korea is going ahead with tests despite world condemnation.

DAVID GREENE, host:

These actions by North Korea have been condemned by the United Nations Security Council, but the country doesn't appear to be listening. And to talk about that, we reached Victor Cha. He is a professor at Georgetown University, as well as the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He was also an Asia specialist in the Bush administration's National Security Council. We reached him in Geneva where he is delivering a lecture. Good morning.

Professor VICTOR CHA (Georgetown University): Good morning.

GREENE: I know this is not the easiest country to try and read, but can you talk a little about North Korea and why we are seeing these missile shots and another nuclear test?

Prof. CHA: Well, I think that are, you know, potentially couple of reasons why they are behaving this way. The first is that they clearly want to develop their ballistic missile and nuclear technology. The ballistic missile test last April, as well as the nuclear test yesterday, both represent improvements, at least in their demonstrative capabilities to launch a three stage missile as well as to do a nuclear test. The yield, based on seismic activity, of yesterday's nuclear test was much larger than the yield of the test that they did in October of 2006. So that's the very simple answer, they want to advance these technologies, regardless of what people tell them to do and not to do. The other reason is that, you know, there appears to clearly be some sort of leadership transition taking place in the North.

The North Korean leader is sick, he's lost a lot of weight - as we see from pictures. And there's some sort of transition taking place in which so-called hardliners from the military and from part of the Kim family are starting to rise to prominence within the system. And this appears to be externalized in terms of this provocative behavior.

GREENE: Well, let me take those two things separately: the technology and then the politics. When it comes to technology, China has always said that a lot of these tests, provocations, are really North Korea trying to get attention. But you're saying you get the sense they really do want to develop ballistic technology and also advance a nuclear program. Those are goals.

Prof. CHA: Yes. I think the problem with the argument that they are doing this just to get attention is that that is an argument that may have worked during the Bush administration. Because many believe the Bush administration was not really interested in negotiations with North Korea, and therefore the North had to provoke in order to get the attention of the Bush administration.

The problem now is that the Obama administration has been very clear about its willingness to negotiate with North Korea from the very beginning. And the North has responded with missile tests and then a nuclear test. So, nobody can really blame the current situation today on U.S. policy, as people had done in the past.

GREENE: The argument would be less need to get attention of the offer to negotiate is there.

Prof. CHA: Absolutely. They've been very - the Obama administration has been very clear through its envoy, Steven Bosworth, that it's willing to have negotiations with North Korea, to move forward the denuclearization agreements reached under the Bush administration.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you about the leadership transition. You mentioned Kim Jong-Il, North Korea's leader, his questionable health right now. What changes might we see in behavior if there is some sort of succession at some point soon?

Prof. CHA: Well, I think that while it's very difficult to know exactly what's going on inside of North Korea, they have just held something called the Supreme People's Assembly last April, in which there are a number of changes within the system in the top decision-making body, which is the National Defense Commission, in which new people have risen to the fore that appear to have more of a hard-line agenda. I think that what this means as we look to the future, is that there will be this period of transition as Kim Jong-Il starts to fade from the scene. Nobody knows exactly how long that's going to take.

And this process is going to be accompanied by continued tough external behavior. You know, in dictatorships like this, it's often the case that when you have a leadership that is faltering, it's not going to be externalized in terms of a more conciliatory policy. If anything, faltering dictatorships become tougher in terms of their external policy.

So, I don't expect to see any real changes in North Korean behavior, at least in the short term.

GREENE: We've been speaking with Victor Cha. He's a professor at Georgetown University, also the Korean chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Professor, thanks so much for joining us.

Prof. CHA: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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