North Korea Tests Nuclear Weapons North Korea has conducted underground nuclear tests, frustrating allies. The tests included detonation of an atomic bomb and test firings of missiles. David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute, has ideas about what's behind the country's show of strength.
NPR logo

North Korea Tests Nuclear Weapons

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
North Korea Tests Nuclear Weapons

North Korea Tests Nuclear Weapons

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


On Monday, North Korea tested a nuclear bomb and followed up with a series of apparent missile tests as well. The news provoked anxious reactions in South Korea, Japan, and here in the United States, and condemnation from Russia and from North Korea's most important ally, China.

The crisis tests the Obama administration's effort to engage Pyongyang and raises questions about why, why now, to what purpose, and how will North Korea's neighbors, the U.S., and the U.N., respond. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. David Kang is director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California and co-author of '"Nuclear North Korea" a debate on engagement strategies, and he joins us today from the studio of NPR West. Nice to have you on the program today.

Dr. DAVID KANG (Director of Korean Studies, University of Southern California): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And Secretary of State Clinton warned today that the U.N. is unhappy about these tests and North Korea will face consequences. North Korea has to have seen that coming. So what kind of message are they trying to send here?

Dr. KANG: Well, I think partially they are sending a message to the outside world not to try and take advantage of the instability that's going on inside of North Korea because it's not very clear who is going to succeed the current leader, Kim Jong-Il, and so there's a lot of instability and insecurity within North Korea.

CONAN: Kim Jong-Il suffered a stroke, apparently, and, well, he looks terrible.

Dr. KANG: Yes. He does look terrible. He's gaunt. He used to be a sort of pudgy guy and now he's got hollow cheeks and he's aged about 20 years. And so while he was firmly in power you had a sort of clear strategy and the internal factions all basically got behind what he wanted to do. Now that it's not clear how long he's going to rule and particularly who's going to take over, I think there is an increasing incentive inside North Korea for people to show their loyalty as they compete, as they jockey for position, and this is not the time you're going to see a sort of open North Korea.

CONAN: So is this is a particularly dangerous moment?

Dr. KANG: I'd say it's getting more dangerous, and in fact the prognosis for the immediate future actually isn't that good. What we have right now is in some ways a sort of accelerating set of provocative actions by North Korea and threatening to abandon the 1953 Armistice, these missile launches. And that actually to me indicates that they're not as focused on what's happening externally and they're more focused on internal moves, because they're not spacing these things out. They don't seem to be even waiting for reaction.

CONAN: Yet North Korea's neighbors, we know that they have obviously missiles certainly capable of reaching almost every part of Japan. Now that they've detonated a second nuclear device, this one far more successfully than the first, should Japan, South Korea, Russia, China, should they assume that North Korea can now fire nuclear missiles at them?

Dr. KANG: That's a long way off. In fact, that's years off. They have a bomb, they've got a missile, but they haven't shown that they can capably put the bomb on the missile and get it to blow up. That's one reason that there is a sort of technological incentive to continue testing these things. So they don't have a demonstrated delivery capability yet, but certainly they can still do a lot of damage.

CONAN: And North Korea in the past has proliferated its missile technology. It has also helped in the proliferation of nuclear technology as well. Should we assume that these weapons might be for sale?

Dr. KANG: In the longer run, there's a proliferation concern, no question about it. North Korea has been shown, as you said, to sell their missiles and their know-how to anyone who's got enough money. In the short run, North Korea isn't making any more Plutonium. We know that they had enough for between, say, eight and 12 nuclear bombs. They have detonated two, so they've only got enough for six or 10 left, and so it's highly unlikely that Kim is going to be selling the actual bombs until they make more, but the know-how and the technology they certainly might sell.

CONAN: And they have restarted their production plant, so they can make more plutonium and of course they may have highly enriched uranium too.

Dr. KANG: Yeah. I mean both of those are a long way off in terms of years. The Yongbyon plant which was the main source of their plutonium, they actually dismantled that last year. There was sort of dramatic footage of them blowing up the cooling tower. And so while they can restart to build that, it's not gone to - it's not like they can just turn a switch and start making more plutonium. The highly enriched uranium, which is the other program that they had going was only in its initial stages. And so even that's a couple of years off, which doesn't mean that the threat's not there, but it certainly isn't an imminent threat.

CONAN: We're talking with David Kang who is the director of the Korean Studies Institute at USC. If you'd like to join the conversation about North Korea, 800-989-8255. Email: And Jeff(ph) is calling from Boise.

JEFF: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JEFF: If I remember correctly, a few years ago when North Korea did another nuclear test, China got upset and started turning off some of the power and the fuel that they were sending to North Korea. And I was wondering if that would be an option, if China would be willing to do - something kind of maybe a little heavier handed this time.

Dr. KANG: Well, certainly everyone thinks that China has the most influence over North Korea. The thing we also have to remember is that still is very limited influence over North Korea. North Korea is extremely dependent on China for economic aid, for its trade - over 50 percent of its trade goes to China. So yes, if they decide to pull out a sledgehammer, they could probably cause North Korea to collapse or certainly give it extreme pain right away. But that's a huge step to take.

And China's been very cautious about ratcheting up the pressure in a way sort of North Korea's dependence on China is its strength. Because China would have to risk actually causing the regime to collapse. And so they're very cautious about actually ratcheting up the pressure because neither China nor South Korea really wants to deal with the consequences of a collapsed North Korean regime. Just to take a second to talk about that, not only would you have potentially hundreds of thousands of refugees going over the border, you'd have a military that may not voluntarily disarm - could start shooting at each other.

And of course loose and unaccounted nukes running around the country. So this is some - you know, too much pressure or something China's going to be very cautious about applying.

CONAN: And are we going to see that at the United Nations where they are, even as we speak, discussing a resolution in response to this missile test and the nuclear test as well/

Dr. KANG: Yeah. I mean China went along with the sanctions in 2006 because this is in many ways this - the first test and the second test is sort of an insult to Chinese diplomacy. I mean China has been the country that's been trying hardest to get the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, Japan, to the bargaining table. So this is, in many ways, a sort of direct slap to China. And they're quite annoyed. And there's a lot of debate within China about what to do. Ultimately how they come out, nobody knows. My sense is that they're still going to be very cautious about applying too harsh of sanctions.

CONAN: Thanks for the call Jeff.

JEFF: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye, bye. Let me ask you also about reactions by some of the other neighbors of North Korea. We saw a quote from a former minister of defense in Japan saying today that given the situation in North Korea, Japan would be well advised to develop the capabilities to make a preemptive strike if that should be necessary.

Dr. KANG: Yeah. I mean the debate in Japan over North Korea has been essentially a debate about not only a North Korean threat, but also how to deal with the 13 or 18 Japanese who were abducted by North Korea during the 1970s. This came out a couple of years ago and up until that time, into the early 2000s, Japanese policy making in the public was basically in favor of an engagement strategy. When they actually found that North Korea had kidnapped a couple of dozen of their own citizens, public opinion and particularly foreign policy opinion turned very harshly negative towards North Korea.

And so Japan right now has actually fairly harsh sanctions on North Korea. And there's a lot of debate about what to do. My sense about the nuclear option is that that's more rhetorical than realistic and that it would take a lot more threat for Japan to actually cross that barrier.

CONAN: And as you look at South Korea, the present government there has been much harder lined against North Korea than the previous regime there in Seoul. And typically in the past, the North Koreans, when the government in Seoul was hard lined against them, they tried to appeal to the United States and when the government in Seoul was in favor of engagement, they were very hard lined against the United States. And now they're just seemingly provoking everybody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KANG: Yeah, that's true. The current South Korean government under President Lee Myung-bak took power with the claim to have engagement with reciprocity, meaning that the were - that the South Korean government is happy to expand economic ties with North Korea but they're going to make sure that North Korea gives something in return. That policy has led to a decrease in economic trade between North and South Korea, the closing of some of the tourism that had been going back and forth and a lot of rhetorical conflict on both sides. Right now, I think the Lee Myung-bak government is actually considering what they can do. But again I think that there will be a sort of more measured and a more calm response rather than an over-reaction.

CONAN: Just update us too, there were a couple of journalists, TV journalists, who work for - making a film for Al Gore's TV channel, who were arrested in North Korea for filming illegally. What's their status?

Dr. KANG: Well, they're going to trial right now. They were arrested about two months ago. And this has actually happened to U.S. citizens before: 1989 and actually in 1994, I think it was, or 1995, some American servicemen were in a helicopter that got lost, got shot down. The North Koreans were going to put them on trial for spying, etc. And in both previous cases, the solution was a diplomatic solution where a high-level U.S. envoy went to Pyongyang, negotiated the release and eventually came back with them. Right now, the U.S. is considering doing that. And probably that's the only solution to getting the two journalists back.

CONAN: We are talking with David Kang, professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California, director of the Korean Studies Institute at USC. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go to Ross(ph). Ross calling from Minneapolis.

ROSS (Caller): Yes. In all the discussion about North Korea, I rarely hear the discussion about long-term plans for the west to (unintelligible) North Korea come out of their isolationist cocoon. How do we do this long-term?

Dr. KANG: Well, that in part was the original South Korean policy started under a president about 10 years ago, Kim Dae-Jung, who called it the Sunshine Policy based on the old, I guess, the fable about the man taking his coat off if there is enough sun and the only way to get them to open up is by engaging. That policy led to an increase of trade between South Korea and North Korea. There are many who still think that ultimately the only way to get North Korea to change its ways is to meet them halfway and to try and get more trade and more travel into North Korea.

That's on hold right now though, partially because of a new South Korean government, that thought there should be more reciprocity. And partially because I don't think any country, certainly not the United States, Japan or South Korea, is going to move too far down that path with a nuclear-armed North Korea. The issue is always, North Korea says they're willing to give up nuclear weapons for normalization and open trade relations, particularly with the United States. The U.S. says, we're also willing to do that but you to disarm first. And North Korea says, well, you have to normalize relations first. And so we have a stalemate.

And certainly the climate right now is that the U.S. government is not going to press forward very eagerly with engagement or expansion of trade ties until there's been some progress on the nuclear front.

CONAN: Ross, thank you. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Todd(ph). Todd with us from Cincinnati.

TODD (Caller): Thanks. Thanks for taking my call. My question is pretty brief but - what is North Korea's goal, what are they trying to get out of doing this in the face of the world community…

CONAN: Is it…

TODD: …any thoughts on that?

CONAN: Is it as simple as their regime's survival?

Dr. KANG: Yeah. I mean most likely, North Korean leadership is like any other dictator, they want to stay in power. The question is how best to do that. We use to think or there was a fair amount of debate about what whether there was a fair amount of debate about whether there was actually a chance for North Korea to negotiate away its nuclear weapons or whether they fully intended to keep them no matter what. This debate was a lot more lively 10 years ago. I think there's an increasing belief that North Korea's made a strategic decision that they need their nuclear weapons. So (unintelligible) regime survival. As a bargaining chip, they are - you know, do they really just want a relationship with United States? It's not quite clear beyond regime survival what they're actually trying to get.

CONAN: Thanks Todd. And let's go next to Chris(ph). Chris in Minneapolis.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi, yeah. Thanks for the moment here. I - my question is simple. It's why we as Americans care about what is going on over there? I mean obviously there's the humanist angle, we don't want to see things like this going on, but if there's like a bully in Los Angeles, why - if I live in New York City, why should I care about a serial killer on the lose or a criminal in Los Angeles? I guess, why we should care about what's going on in North Korea?

Dr. KANG: Sure. Now that's a great question. And in some degree, we care not because North Korea can hit us with a missile because they can't yet. They don't have the capability. The U.S. is primarily concerned with the proliferation possibility. Now, as we mentioned a little bit earlier, North Korea has been known to sell it's missiles and it's weapons technology to the highest bidder. And so our concern is that North Korea will sell nuclear weapons to some terrorist group that will then turn around and use it against us.

CONAN: There is also a concern - Secretary of State Clinton said today, the United States is reaffirming it's treaty obligations to Japan and to South Korea. And I guess the phrase nuclear umbrella has to be used there.

Dr. KANG: Well, absolutely right. And that's the second major reason that we care about this is because for the U.S. to sort of idly sit by and let any country proliferate nuclear weapons, it's probably not good in the long run. And that's certainly a consensus in the U.S. policymaking establishment. Finally, and just as important as any of these other reasons is that, northeast Asia is incredibly important to United States. Not only do we have two very long time allies, Japan and South Korea.

China is one of the biggest most important countries in the world. And Russia of course shares the land border with the Korean peninsula. And so events that happen in that region have a direct effect on the United States economically, politically and diplomatically. So we can't really just ignore it.

CONAN: And Chris thanks very much for the call. We're getting another question. I'm not going to take the call but I'll ask the question. Are there any military options?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KANG: There always are options. Are we realistically going to use them? Almost for sure, not. Ever since the first nuclear crisis back in 1994 - '93, '94, - the U.S. has considered, could we do a preemptive strike, could we do a surgical strike, what would be the possibilities of this. And that actually -ultimately every U.S. administration Republican or Democrat has decided that military force is - the costs are too high. Seoul is less than 30 minutes from the border. The amount of devastation would just be unbelievable. So nobody really thinks about it.

CONAN: David Kang, thanks you for your time today.

Dr. KANG: My pleasure.

CONAN: David Kang joined us today from the studios at NPR West. He is a professor at the University of Southern California and directs the Korean Studies Institute. This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.