Insight Into The Ongoing Korean Conflict

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks to Evans Revere, senior director of the Albright Stonebridge Group, about the ongoing conflict between North and South Korea. Revere is a former State Department analyst on North Korea, and former president of the Korea Society.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Today's hostilities complicate what's already a very daunting picture for U.S. officials trying to figure out how to deal with North Korea. That's been a challenge of generations of U.S. diplomats. And for many years it was Evans Revere's job. He's a long-time State Department diplomat, now a senior director at the Albright Stonebridge Group, and he joins us now on the line. Hello.

Mr. EVANS REVERE (Senior Director, Albright Stonebridge Group): Hello. It's good to be with you.

KELLY: And glad to have you with us. So, let me start with some perspective because if you're watching the headlines today, people are hearing things like crisis status on the Korean Peninsula, brink of war, that type of thing. Tell me, based on what's unfolded so far, how would you rank this situation in terms of seriousness?

Mr. REVERE: I'd say it's quite serious. As a matter of fact, in my recollection, I do not remember another incident in which there has been an actual exchange of artillery fire, particularly North Korean artillery fire directed at a land target since the Korean War.

And this is now the second virtually unprecedented military activity that we've seen in this area. The other, of course, being the sinking of the South Korean ship, the Cheonan, back on March 26th of this year.

KELLY: Well, and part of the backdrop to the situation now is, as we just heard from Duoaly in Seoul, that this comes at such a tense time, just days after the revelation that North Korea has built this secret new nuclear facility. And as everyone is watching to see how the transition of power that is apparently underway, from Kim Jong-Il to his son plays out, do those factors all combine to make the situation more dangerous than it might have been?

Mr. REVERE: Well, I think they combine in an interesting way and then perhaps the way to look at it is to ask the question as to whether this military incident is connected with a North Korean effort to ratchet up to the level of crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

KELLY: And do you think it is?

Mr. REVERE: I personally think it is. I think those things taken together suggest to me that the North Koreans are trying to ratchet up tensions and send a very clear message to the South Koreans, to the United States and to the international community that they need to be taken into account, that their position is going to be a strong one, if and, when talks begin.

And they intend to go into these talks with a strong hand and that they will expect the United States and South Korea to make some concessions. And I think these actions that we've seen are meant to tee up that sort of approach by the North Koreans.

KELLY: Well, which prompts the million dollar question, which is aside from condemning today's attack, which the White House has done, how should - how can the U.S. respond?

Mr. REVERE: I think the critical thing for the United States to do is to do something similar to what we did after the Cheonan incident, the sinking of the ship in March of this year. And that is, number one, to take the lead from our South Korean allies. We need to understand exactly what it is that South Korea needs and wants from us as its ally and major supporter.

Beyond that, getting into another level of granularity here, I suspect that the United States and the ROK will probably be thinking about sending some very strong messages in the form of additional military exercises and perhaps deployments. But I also think there needs to be a diplomatic component to this in the U.N. Security Council and I understand that that is being actively discussed.

KELLY: Evans Revere is someone who's had the change to watch a number of administrations grapple with the North Korea conundrum. How would you rate the Obama administration's efforts so far?

Mr. REVERE: I think they've done a very good and very effective job overall in dealing with this issue. The broader question, of course, is the same question that's faced every U.S. administration. There are no good options here. If this was an easy problem to solve, it would've been solved a long time ago.

North Korea clearly is on the path to developing a more sophisticated nuclear weapons capability. And that's the problem that landed in the lap of this administration, which wanted to rely on diplomacy, which still wants to rely on diplomacy. But the North Koreans have not been cooperative. And so that's a continuing conundrum for this and any future U.S. administration.

KELLY: Okay, thanks very much.

Mr. REVERE: You're quite welcome.

KELLY: That's Evans Revere, he's a career State Department diplomat, now a senior director at the Albright Stonebridge Group. And he's also at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

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