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North Korea Seeks Prestige Through Nukes

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North Korea Seeks Prestige Through Nukes


North Korea Seeks Prestige Through Nukes

North Korea Seeks Prestige Through Nukes

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Michael Green, of Georgetown University, talks about how North Korea's announced test of an atomic weapon will play out in the region. He tells Steve Inskeep that North Korea has long sought to make itself a nuclear power in an effort to increase its international importance.


Let's bring another voice into the conversation - he's Michael Green. He was among those who planned negotiations with the North Koreans for the current administration. Until last year, Mr. Green was director of Asian affairs for the National Security Council.

Good morning.

Professor MICHAEL GREEN (Professor, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University): Good morning.

INSKEEP: Put yourself in North Korea's shoes for a moment, if you would, which I'm sure you had to do when you think about negotiating with them. What do you think they are trying to accomplish?

Prof. GREEN: Well, I do not think that this is a negotiating ploy or a tactical reaction to the steps of the U.S. or other parties. I think this is the fruition of a long-term plan North Korea has had to confront the international community with nuclear weapons, in part because they're worried about the U.S., but also they're worried about their own people. They're worried about China. And they're very worried about the phenomenal success of their rival, South Korea. So this is what Kim Jong Il has to prove, as the North Koreans put it, that they're the greatest socialist state.

INSKEEP: Well, if you're in the prospective of the North Korean government then, do you have good reason then to want nuclear weapons?

Prof. GREEN: I think so. And I think it's something that Kim Jong Il's father Kim Il Sung saw with Mao Tse-Tung of China, and saw what this did for China. It's something that Kim Jong Il himself has pursued. In the six party talks, the North has been offered energy, they've been offered economic aid and they've not even sniffed at those incentives. They've instead gone down this path. So this is a very tough nut to crack because it is so central, it appears, to how Kim Jong Il thinks he's going to stay in power.

INSKEEP: Now after a failed missile test that North Korea had earlier this year, the writer Robert Kaplan wrote that he thought this was actually a sign of North Korea's weakness, not its strength. Is there any truth to that?

Prof. GREEN: I think that's probably right in many respects. The North Koreans have had opportunities through engagement with the South, through the six party talks to open up more to receive help from the outside world. And they appear to think that that is more frightening than choosing this path, which they know will bring pressure on them. And that does reflect some weakness in the system and some insecurity not only about the U.S. but about the durability of their system at home.

INSKEEP: The administration, as we've heard, tried to get tougher on North Korea. Did you think that that actually would modify North Korea's behavior in some way?

Prof. GREEN: Well, it was always a mix of sticks and carrots. The basic approach was to tell the North Koreans that they would be more isolated not only by the U.S. but by the other parties in the region, which is why the administration took this multi-lateral approach if they did not verifiably start giving up their nuclear weapons. But if they started to do that, they would have help from the entire region, and a lot was put on the table. It was a mix of tough and it was a mix of opportunities against the relentless North Korean pursuit of nuclear weapons. I think the six party talks now put the administration in a good position to mobilize the other countries to contain this problem and start trying to roll it back.

INSKEEP: Did you think that there was any hope that North Korea's government would change behavior, or was the goal just to wait until that government finally fell apart?

Prof. GREEN: You know, there was never an active policy of regime change, in my view - like there was with Iraq - because it's such a tough nut to crack. I do think, though, that up until September there was some hope that diplomacy would work. North Korea agreed in September of last year to a joint statement saying they would give up nuclear weapons and nuclear programs in exchange for help. And within about 48 hours they walked away from it and that's when the pessimism I think set in, with all the parties realizing that this was a regime that was really set on pursuing this kind of capability.

INSKEEP: Okay. Let's talk about the situation now. People are talking about imposing sanctions on North Korea. What happens if those sanctions are imposed?

Prof. GREEN: Well, I think there is a consensus emerging among the parties and the U.N. Security Council that sanctions are necessary. But China, in particular, will not agree to sanctions that are so all-encompassing that the regime might collapse. They fear that as much as nuclear weapons. So I think they'll probably agree on sanctions that have sting, that make the North Koreans think, but it is not, frankly, likely to get them to immediately change their mind. This is going to be a tough problem that's going to take work with the other parties, with the North Koreans, with the U.N., for weeks and months to come.

INSKEEP: You mentioned that China is actually more worried about North Korea collapsing, because that would mean refugees and any number of other problems for China.

Prof. GREEN: Right.

INSKEEP: Does the United States have to seriously worry about the possibility that North Korea would collapse?

Prof. GREEN: I think we do. The North Korean regime is a bit of an anomaly and an anachronism. It could survive for decades or two, or it could go belly-up next week. And if it does go belly-up, it's an enormous humanitarian and security problem. How do we control the nuclear and biological and chemical weapons they've had for a decade? How do we take care of all the refugees? It's one of the things we also need to be talking about with our friends and allies.

INSKEEP: Mr. Green, thanks for coming in this morning.

GARCIA: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Michael Green is the former director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council. He's now an associate professor at Georgetown University and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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