What is North Korea's Leader After?

Why would North Korea launch a long-range missile in the face of international opposition? In part, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il may want to impress his own people with a technical achievement. Daniel Pinkston, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, discusses developments with Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The standoff continues over North Korea's apparent preparations to test launch a ballistic missile capable of reaching Alaska. President Bush and European leaders this week warned North Korea not to proceed with the test. Japan said it would react severely to a launch and signed on to a joint effort with the U.S. to improve missile defense, and South Korea and China are also urging North Korea to stand down.

Daniel Pinkston is director of the East Asian Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He joins us from member station KEZU in Pacific Grove, California.

Mr. Pinkston, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. DANIEL PINKSTON (Director of the East Asian Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies): It's my pleasure.

SIMON: What's your reading of why North Korea would go ahead with this test right now?

Mr. PINKSTON: Well, this issue is very complicated. But I think in the West we tend to under estimate or fail to see the domestic benefits that might come to Kim Jong-Il. If in fact they do carry out a test, I believe it would configured as a satellite launch and this would enable the leadership to shore up his domestic support in North Korean society.

SIMON: You mean North Korean civilians would be impressed by being able to launch a satellite.

Mr. PINKSTON: Yes, absolutely. For years now, since Kim Jong-Il officially took the reigns of government in 1998, he has been promoting himself, or at least North Korean media depict him as a tech-savvy guy to lead them out of backwardness and all of these things. And I don't think there's any greater symbol of technical and scientific capability than a satellite launch.

SIMON: But maybe we need a refresher. What weaponry does North Korea have? What is it rumored to have? What is it developing at what state? Does it just lack a delivery system?

Mr. PINKSTON: Well, we don't know if they have a bomb or not. Their foreign ministry issued a statement in February of 2005 where they declared they possess nuclear weapons. Personally, I'm skeptical. There are a lot of engineering steps you have to take. It requires a lot of testing and so forth. And they have not conducted some of these tests. Now, there's even speculation that Pakistan tested a plutonium bomb for them in 1998, but we don't know that for sure. At least I don't.

But I do think we have to take them at their word for that.

SIMON: This week President Clinton's former defense secretary, William Perry, and the assistant secretary in that department, Ashton Carter, wrote an opinion piece that gathered a lot of attention, opinion that former Vice President and Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale shares, where they say diplomacy has failed, this missile is a fact, and they call for the United States to launch a preemptory strike against North Korea's missile center. Now, you have argued against any kind of military strike against North Korea now. What do you think the affect of that kind of preemptive strike would be?

Mr. PINKSTON: I have a lot respect for Dr. Perry and Dr. Carter. But I think it would be extremely difficult for North Korea just to sit by and do nothing. I think they would have to retaliate in some way and it would be very risky. And another thing. I think China would be extremely upset about this, and it would damage our relations with China. And I think it would also end the U.S.-South Korean Alliance, and that would be extremely costly. And I don't see how the U.S. would be more secure from that.

SIMON: You know, Mr. Pinkston, I think the impression a lot of people have from the little bit that we are able to glean from North Korea is that this is, and forgive me for putting it in its bluntest terms, but that this a nation run by a fruitcake or the son of a fruitcake, one of the cruel despots of the world in this regime.

Mr. PINKSTON: I think the debate surrounding whether or not Kim Jong-Il and the senior leaders are rational or not was put to rest a long time ago. They are very rational and people have goals and they act purposefully to achieve those goals. You might disagree with their objectives, but nevertheless they are not crazy. And in fact I would argue to work your way to the top, to the senior leadership levels of the Korean Workers Party, you would have to be extremely rationale, because if you make a mistake, your second chances in that society are pretty slim. They're not very good.

SIMON: Mr. Pinkston, thank you so much.

Mr. PINKSTON: It's my pleasure.

SIMON: Daniel Pinkston is director of the East Asian Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey, California.

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