North Korea Seeks U.S. Attention with Missile Tests

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Jim Walsh, an international security expert, talks with Lynn Neary about his trip last year to North Korea. He met with officials their to discuss their nuclear program. He says that North Korea is a proud country that wants to negotiate as an equal with the U.S.


Jim Walsh is an international security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Last year, he visited Pyongyang and spoke with North Korean government officials about the nation's nuclear program. Thanks for being with us.

Dr. JIM WALSH (International Security Expert, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Good morning, Lynn.

NEARY: Is North Korea just trying to draw attention to itself with this?

Dr. WALSH: I think that's likely to be the main reason. Often, countries have multiple reasons for doing something like this - to collect scientific data, what have you. But I think the main reason is political. This has political significance, not military significance. The irony here is that what North Korea really wants is a relationship with the U.S. It wants normalized relations, it wants economic trade, and they feel - in order to sort of prod that process along - they have to be provocative.

NEARY: Why would this be the way to get a relationship with the United States?

Dr. WALSH: Well, I know it sounds strange, but from where the North Koreans are sitting, they feel like they're being ignored. The international community and the United States in particular has been focused on Iraq and on Iran. Meanwhile, the six-party talk process drifts, and within the administration there is drift. The special envoy for North Korea, Ambassador DiTrani, left back in the fall. The president has not reappointed that position, and so there's really - hasn't been any action on the North Korean front, and this is an attempt by North Korea to get the parties - and particularly the United States - to refocus on what they think is most important.

NEARY: Now, you met with North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator a year ago today, as I understand it. Maybe you could give us a sense of the state of mind in North Korea at that time and whether it's the same now, do you think.

Dr. WALSH: Well, what a difference a year makes. I had just returned from North Korea about this time last year, and the North Koreans had announced that they were going to reenter the six-party talks. And we had, really, some great momentum into the fall. And there was an agreement of principles signed, and then, really, the train started to go off the tracks. For the North Koreans, I think they have issues both of interest - they have real concerns: the need for energy, the need for security. But there're also issues of pride here. They want to be treated like a regular country, and they don't want the U.S. to engage in name-calling. They don't want the U.S. to give, for example, a light-water reactor to Iran - which is part of the deal here - while at the same time they're saying that North Korea can't have nuclear energy. So, they're - again, issues of interest that they need address, but there's also some feelings that they need to be treated with respect and pride. And we aren't going to do it, then they're going to continue to ping(ph) us until we do.

NEARY: And in response, the U.S. and its allies need to show a united front?

Dr. WALSH: Well, I think two things going forward: one, today and in the next week, the U.S. really needs to stand tall with its ally, Japan. The political impact there will greatest on the domestic politics of Japan, where people will be quite nervous. And the U.S. needs to demonstrate and reassert that we are with the Japanese, we've got their back, and we will protect them and they - and sort of calm the waters there. The second thing is I think the U.S. has to take a look inside. This is a reminder that our North Korea policy isn't working. Six years ago, North Korea had not produced a single nuclear weapon, and had maintained this self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile tests. Today, it's built maybe four, maybe six, maybe eight nuclear weapons and has - as of yesterday - broken that moratorium. So, I think we're moving in the wrong direction. We're going to have to come up with a different game plan, because this one isn't working.

NEARY: Briefly, the role of China in all this. Pretty important.

Dr. WALSH: Yeah, Lynn, you've put your finger on what is probably the most important question here, and that is China. Interestingly, a mere four hours before these missile launches, the Chinese foreign ministry announces that there's going to be an exchange of visits between China and North Korea. That necessarily raises the question: did the Chinese know about this test in advance? It sure doesn't look like it, and certainly, the Chinese have to be worried. The six-party talks was their main policy instrument that they were pushing, and it's unclear where that's going right now. And frankly, again, a paradox - as is often the case with North Korea - if Korean/Chinese relations are deteriorating, if this is a sign of increased problems between the two, that does not bode well. They actually have to get along in order for us to try to resolve this problem.

NEARY: Thanks so much, Jim. Jim Walsh is an international security analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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