Tensions Build Between North And South Korea

Guest

Victor Cha, professor, Georgetown University, and co-author of Nuclear North Korea

An international investigation concluded that a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean naval ship in March. The incident killed 46 sailors in the South's worst military loss since the Korean War. The incident has raised already-high tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Today, Russian experts arrive in South Korea to review the conclusions of an international investigation which found North Korea responsible for the sinking of a South Korean navy ship in March and for the death of 46 sailors.

The incident is among the worst since the Korean War, and relations between the North and South may be as low as anytime since the armistice. There's real concern that another provocation, a miscalculation, even an accident could easily get out of hand.

If you have questions about the tense situation between the two Koreas, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Victor Cha is coauthor of "Nuclear North Korea," professor at Georgetown University, and joins us on the phone from his home in Washington. Nice to have you with us.

Professor VICTOR CHA (Georgetown University; Co-author, "Nuclear North Korea"): My pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: There have been many numbers of terrible incidents, provocations by the North over the years. Is this one different?

Prof. CHA: I think it is different, Neal, for two reasons: One is that it was a - it looks to be a premeditated attack by a submarine against a South Korean patrol vessel. And second, is it's, you know, the largest loss of life in the military on military interaction between the two countries, really, since the end of the Korean War. There have been other terrorist attacks that the North has propagated that have left more than 100 South Koreans dead, but this was a first military-on-military, large-scale attack since the end of the war.

FLATOW: Worse than the bombing that killed much of the South Korean Cabinet?

Prof. CHA: Yes. That was in 1983, and assassination attempts against the Chun Doo-hwan government that killed half of the Cabinet. President Chun escaped only because he was late for the ceremony during a state visit. But that was -I mean, you know, there's a difference there between terrorist attacks. And that and the one in 1987 where terrorist attacks, versus a premeditated military attack, which was what happened on March 26th.

CONAN: And it raises questions. North Korea is an economic basket case. It has difficulties feeding its own people. It relies heavily, and has in the last few years, on South Korean aid to help feed its people. And, of course, now all of that aid and almost all contact has been cut off, which raises questions about why.

Prof. CHA: Well, that is a very good question. Why would the North undertake such an action if it knew that it would somehow lead to sanctions by a South Korean government on which it has been the independent? I mean, one of the reasons is, of course, that the current government in South Korea is not nearly as unconditional in its willingness to engage with the North Koreans and give them food and energy and trade as the last two Korean governments, who more liberal. And for 10 years, the two countries operated under something called the "Sunshine Policy," which was basically unconditional engagement by the South Korean government in the hopes of long term reciprocity from the North.

A new, more conservative government came into power in South Korea and said that they were interested in engagement, but not so unconditionally, that they were willing to do things to really help the North. And the conservative president of South Korea set out benchmarks in terms of the things they would be willing to do. But in return, they wanted the North Koreans to denuclearize. And we haven't had much success on that front.

And therefore, the current government has not been as wiling to provide assistance to the North. And therefore, the North may be trying to coerce the South Korean government into giving them things, because they are trying to shake up the peace, a peace in which the South Koreans have much more invested than the North does.

CONAN: Another factor that it is new, of course, is what you just mentioned: nuclear. North Korea probably has - what? Five to eight nuclear devices?

Prof. CHA: Yeah. The sort of public estimate is they may have somewhere between five to eight nuclear devices based on plutonium that they have reprocessed from the reactor in Yongbyon, which has been the target for about 20 years of U.S. diplomacy - either bilaterally or through the Six Party talks - to try to get the North to give up their nuclear weapons.

So, you know, so another potential explanation for this is that the North Koreans are feeling increasingly confident. Rightly or wrongly, they are feeling increasingly confident that they are a nuclear weapon state. And, therefore, not vulnerable to retaliation by other parties precisely because of their potential for, you know, for a nuclear counterstrike.

Now, I think many people would think that's the wrong strategic logic, but it's entirely plausible that a North Korean regime, as isolated as it is, might believe that they hold that advantage now.

CONAN: Seoul, the South Korean capitol, its economic heart as well its political heart, is within range of North Korean artillery. It could be leveled within 30 minutes probably by the number of tubes, very conventional weapons pointed at it right now. Why does North Korea need a nonconventional deterrent? Isn't this deterrent enough?

Prof. CHA: Neal, that's a very - I mean, I think that's a very good observation. And I think you're absolutely right, that for - no, 60 years actually next month, you know, North Korea will have been able to maintain the peace through a very conventional deterrent on their part, which are thousands of artillery tubes that sit literally within 10 minutes of Seoul, South Korea, a population of 22 million with over 100,000 American expats living there. They basically can hold Seoul hostage. And that has been their deterrent which raises a question why they continue to pursue nuclear weapons.

If they and do feel - do indeed feel insecure and they still feel the need for nuclear weapons, that really says more about the regime and the sort of insecurities a regime of this nature faces than it does the external threat.

Nobody wants to attack North Korea. United States doesn't want to attack North Korea. The South Koreans dont want to attack North Korea. The Japanese don't want to. Nobody wants to attack North Korea. Yet, they feel the sense of insecurity in large part because of the type of leadership that you have in that country.

CONAN: And that gets to another point. There, we think, is a moment of succession about to happen in North Korea. The son of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, is believed to have had a stroke a couple of years ago and is grooming the path for his third son to succeed him in office.

Prof. CHA: That's right. That's what most experts believe, that they are in the process of some sort of transition. The North Korean leader, as you mentioned, is not healthy. And it looks like he has three sons, and the third of his sons, the youngest one, who is only in his late 20s, looks to be the one that's been anointed as the successor. So this - if it were to be successfully carried out, would be the third dynastic succession in North Korea. Something in terms of where we are in international relations and on politics is really quite anachronistic. And, yet, because of the nature of the regime, it derives its legitimacy from continuing the family line of succession, ruling over basically an impoverished and mismanaged country.

CONAN: And in the past, during succession, the new ruler took, well, provocative measures to prove to the military and to others, hey, I'm tough, I can stand up to our enemies.

Prof. CHA: That's right. You know, I think, you know, we've had two leaders in North Korea up until this date. You know, since the end of World War II, the beginning of the Cold War, we only had two leaders. The first one, Kim Il-sung had his so-called communist revolutionary credentials, largely because he fought against the Japanese during World War II when Japan occupied Korea and, therefore, he came into power already with revolutionary credentials. His son, the successor, the current leader, really didn't have those sorts of revolutionary credentials and, therefore, associated himself with various acts of belligerence - terrorist acts, the kidnapping of Japanese nationals, the kidnapping of South Korean nationals and others. That was part of his rise to power, if you will.

And it's potentially possible that the third son may be legitimizing his transition, acquiring his revolutionary credentials through the actions that we have just seen in terms of this submarine taking out the South Korean ship.

CONAN: We're talking with Victor Cha, professor at Georgetown, co-author of "Nuclear North Korea," senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

And let's get Sandra(ph) on the line. Sandra is with us from Easton in Connecticut.

SANDRA (Caller): Yeah. Hi. In the New York Times on Friday at the end of the article, there's a reference to the government - North Korean government elevated to hero status the six crewmen of the mini-submarine that sank the South Korean ship. So my question is, how can they both deny this and at the same time hand out medals for doing it?

Prof. CHA: Yeah. That's a very good point, caller. I think there had been -yeah, there'd been press reports that somebody had the information about these crewmen being given - you know, celebrated when they returned from this activity and, yet, the government continues to deny that they had anything to do with that. If, you know, if that press report is correct and, you know, probably - I mean, New York Times wouldn't publish it unless it was - they had...

CONAN: Unless it believed it to be, yes but...

Prof. CHA: Right. Then, you know, it just says more about the sort of regime that we're dealing with in the North. You know, one that clearly has - does not have peaceful intentions and it's really revisionist-oriented.

CONAN: Let's go to Randy(ph), Randy with us from Elkhart, Indiana.

RANDY (Caller): I heard a press release that said that North Korea said that if South Korea retaliated against North Korea, there would be an escalation. In my book, retaliation only happens when youve done something, along the same lines as the previous caller.

Prof. CHA: Right. Well, you know, thats what the North have said. And I think the South Korean government thus far has reacted in a very sort of moderated and careful fashion. I mean, you know, from a policy perspective, theyre really trying to thread a needle here because they want to be tough enough in terms of a response so that the North will be deterred from doing this again, yet they dont want to be too tough so that they provoke a war because nobody wants a war to start again.

So I think what the government has done in the South is responded with economic sanctions, calling for taking this issue to the U.N. Security Council as well as enhance U.S. and South Korean naval exercises in these areas that - where the submarine attack occurred.

So, yes, the North has claimed that they will retaliate against any retaliation by the South. But the Souths reaction thus far has been diplomatic. I mean, people forget sanctions, economic sanctions are a form of diplomacy, coercive diplomacy, but theyre still a foreign diplomacy. The South Koreans have not sought military actions in response.

CONAN: Randy, thanks very much.

RANDY: Thank you.

CONAN: And the key to all of this, a lot of people say, and this is the point we always get to with North Korea, is China.

Prof. CHA: Yes, I think thats right. The Chinese are the only ones that really have any material leverage over North Korea. And thus far, the Chinese reaction has been weak, I think, a little bit clumsy and completely out of line, out of step with the international community.

You know, while you have a five-nation investigation team basically concluding after nearly two months of investigations that its - theres no other plausible explanation for this sinking of the ship than a North Korean torpedo. And these werent just any countries. This is, you know, South Korea, United States, Britain, Australia, Sweden. I mean, these are countries that sent over 90 experts to try to figure out what happened. And yet the Chineses response thus far has been really anachronistic. Sort of out of the Cold War where they're still trying to protect this little communist country, you know, based on the history of the Cold War...

CONAN: Well, it...

Prof. CHA: ...which is really its really unfortunate.

CONAN: They have interest in preserving the regime as a buffer state to some degree. They have interest in no disaster in North Korea, because they dont want North Koreans flooding across the border. And, well, I guess were going to see eventually how they are forced to respond to this at the Security Council when it comes up for a vote.

Prof. CHA: Thats right. I think the South Koreans have made clear that they would like to take this issue to the Security Council, if anything, simply to get the council to acknowledge that this was a clear violation of the 1953 peace armistice that stopped the fighting in Korea at the end of the Korean War, so...

CONAN: As you mentioned 60...

Prof. CHA: ...(unintelligible) certainly yes?

CONAN: ...60 years ago.

Victor Cha, thank you very much for your time today.

Prof. CHA: Sure. My pleasure.

CONAN: Victor Cha, author of Nuclear North Korea, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He joined us on the line from Washington.

Tomorrow, well talk with Steve Clevenger about his book Americas First Warriors: Native Americans in Iraq. You can see some photographs from that book now. You can head over to the picture show at npr.org.

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