Week In News: Korean Tension, Terror Threats

This week North Korea fired artillery shells at a South Korean island, setting off a diplomatic crisis. James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, joins guest host Audie Cornish to talk about how China's role in North Korea will complicate the diplomatic picture. They also talk about this week's decision by the Department of Homeland Security to do away with color-coded terror threats.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

President BARACK OBAMA: South Korea is our ally. It has been since the Korean War. And we strongly affirm our commitment to defend South Korea as part of that alliance.

CORNISH: President Obama talking with ABC's Barbara Walters about the shelling of a South Korean island by the North, and what role the United States may play there.

James Fallows is national correspondent for The Atlantic and he joins us most Saturdays.

Jim, it's good to talk with you.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (National Correspondent, The Atlantic): Greetings, Audie. Nice to talk to you.

CORNISH: Let's talk more about the U.S. role here. The president made it sound pretty clear when talking about the U.S.-South Korea alliance. But there's also China is a big part of this as well.

Mr. FALLOWS: One of the few things that is clear here is the U.S.-South Korean tie, because for reasons of history and treaty, the U.S. is certainly committed to South Korea's defense. Beyond that, almost everything that matters in this situation is very difficult to understand at the moment. The fundamental question, of course, is what is going on in North Korea and what next step the regime there might take.

Beyond that is the very, very important question of what China will decide to do and will be able to do. China is the one foreign government that's thought to have any insight at all into what's going on in North Korea or any influence over North Korea. And the rest of the world is expecting China, as part of its new great power status, to be able to play a placating role or a stabilizing role here. But it's not entirely clear the Chinese will be able to do that or would be able to have any influence if they did.

And beyond that is the question of how the Chinese will respond if the U.S. continues, as it says it's going to, to reinsert its naval presence all around the Korean Peninsula. All the other countries in the area welcome this as a stabilizing force, but the Chinese have sent mixed signals about whether they welcome this or resent it.

CORNISH: And we're going to hear more about South Korea from one of our foreign reporters in a minute, but I wanted to turn to a different national security situation. News this week that here, the Department of Homeland Security is going to be doing away with the color-coded threat chart.

Mr. FALLOWS: I view this as welcome news. And the whole question of how the United States can deal with the ongoing real threat of a terrorist attack without entirely distorting its national politics or its economy or its civil liberties toward that end. There was almost nobody left to speak in favor of the color-coded chart anymore. It hasn't changed in about four years. It's always been at orange.

A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department said a couple of days ago that it outlived its usefulness. But nonetheless, it lived on. So the fact that something that even its originators thought no longer had any real utility was still there illustrated the phenomenon I think of as security theater ratchet effect, where these things that look as if they're protecting people in one way or another are easy to add but very difficult to take away.

So if the color chart is finally being removed, that is one step against the ratchet, one step in the right direction.

CORNISH: And these aren't easy questions to answer. I mean, this news was pretty much overshadowed by the whole airport TSA pat-down debate that seemed to have taken over the news over the last week.

Mr. FALLOWS: It sure was. And that I think is a debate we're going to have for years and years. The news just today of the would-be bomber who was arrested in the northwest for a planned Christmas festival bombing may be an illustration once again that the main breakthroughs that have happened so far in thwarting terrorist attacks have been through intelligence operations and old-style police work type stings as opposed to these screening measures that get so much of our attention and require so much cost and inconvenience.

CORNISH: James Fallows is national correspondent with The Atlantic, and he joins us here most Saturdays. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.

Jim, thanks.

Mr. FALLOWS: My pleasure. Thank you, Audie.

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