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North Korea's Threats: Predicable Pattern Or Provocation?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Tensions between North and South Korea show no sign of abatement. Today the North Korean government officially suspended operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex and withdrew all of its more than 50,000 workers. Many consider the complex the last remaining symbol of North and South Korean cooperation.

Some analysts believe it will reopen after U.S. and South Korean military exercises wind down and tensions ebb. Others worry the North Korean government may plan a military provocation of some sort, and the New York Times today reports that the U.S. and South Korea have worked out a range of retaliations if that happens, designed to be both immediate and proportional.

Later in the program on the Opinion Page, the case for revenge. But first Patrick Cronin is a senior adviser and senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He's participated in numerous official and unofficial discussions and tabletop exercise about the Korean Peninsula. He joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

PATRICK CRONIN: Thank you so much.

CONAN: And, well, we saw a couple of military provocations back in 2009: mini-submarine sank a patrol boat, causing a couple of dozen lives of South Korean sailors to be lost; a relatively sparsely inhabited island was shelled by North Korea. In one case there was no response at all and others just a little bit of response. What is likely to happen this time?

CRONIN: Well, those lethal uses of force in 2010, in fact, have now seeped over into the new South Korea government of Park Geun-hye, and she wants to make sure that there is no tepid response this time the way that her predecessor, although a conservative, was seen as very slow off the mark and was getting ready for a third strike and you're out. North Korea didn't provoke him. Instead they're waiting very much for Madam Park.

In fact, the three-stage missile launch in December that was successful occurred just days before the South Korean election and her election to the presidency. The nuclear test in February of this year happened just before she was installed in the Blue House, their White House. And the renunciation of the armistice happened just as she was convening her first Cabinet meeting.

So this time the speculation is that Madam Park, President Park, is ready to respond in kind plus a little bit extra pressure.

CONAN: And this would prompt, some fear, another retaliation from the North. This could spiral out of control.

CRONIN: Mostly likely it would prompt a response from North Korea because North Korea thinks it controls escalation because there's fear on the outside, not just from South Korea and the United States but fear from China and others, that if there were really a strong response to North Korea, it could lead to rampant, sudden collapse, instability or war.

CONAN: And it is interesting: China, during these exercises with South Korea, the United States has flown B-2 stealth bombers, F-22 stealth fighters. It has deployed anti-missile cruisers very close to North Korean waters. Not a peep from China, yet today the new Chinese president, that's Xi Jinping, said no Asian country should be allowed to throw a region into chaos. That is seen as a thinly veiled criticism of North Korea.

CRONIN: I think Park Geun-hye and President Xi have a special relationship going along with the United States right now that North Korea really needs to listen to this. Xi Jinping is sending a very clear signal to Pyongyang, its ally, that if it starts a conflict by another lethal act of force, China will not stand in the way of a response, and at the same time China has already indicated that it wants to go along with some of the economic, banking, financial sanctions.

Now mind you in the past, China's said some similar things, and then they haven't implemented. This time it could be different.

CONAN: And they have sent mixed messages, though. An editorial writer who suggested in a Western newspaper that China ought to abandon its ally in North Korea found himself out of a job.

CRONIN: That's true, but there's clearly a debate underway in China. This is a good thing from a U.S. perspective because it means China is reconsidering its policy of letting North Korea proliferate with abandon. Now the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles on the Korean Peninsula and potentially to the Middle East is seen as a bigger threat than just instability from putting too much pressure on North Korea.

We've got a moment of opportunity, a window of opportunity to cooperate with China.

CONAN: A window of opportunity to cooperate with China. That's interesting. Nicholas Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute, senior advisor to the National Bureau of Asian Research. And he's also with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on the program.

NICHOLAS EBERSTADT: Thanks for inviting me.

CONAN: And as we look at this situation, one thing back in 2009, Kaesong was closed but for three days. It's now been five days already. Workers have been withdrawn. This has already escalated beyond that point.

EBERSTADT: Sure, well, Kaesong was supposed to be South Korea's instrument for leveraging the North back in the sunshine era before the conservative new succession of presidents. The idea was that inter-Korean economic cooperation in this zone was going to create leverage for the South over the North to transform the North and to make the North more peaceable.

I mean, nothing worked the way it was supposed to. The only times we've ever seen difficulties for the Kaesong zone have either been because the South Korea taxpayer subsidies for it have seemed excessive or because the North has attempted to use it to leverage the South.

CONAN: And so its closure would barely cause a ripple to the South Korean economy; it would be quite a blow to North Korea, yet they seem to resent anybody who even mentions that.

EBERSTADT: Well, there never has been a businesslike economic relationship between the North and the South. There was a hope back in the day, in the sunshine era, that business and politics would be separated from one another, and a relationship economically like that between Taiwan and China might be able to grow. That's never happened.

CONAN: And as relations have deteriorated, and it has been historically, and yes we have a brand new leader in North Korea, too, but historically every new leader of South Korea has been tested by the North in their first year.

EBERSTADT: Oh absolutely, oh absolutely. I mean, it is remarkable the extent to which we are seeing a series of greatest hits reprised in this latest attention drama.

CONAN: The greatest hits: We will turn Seoul into a sea of fire is one of the favorites, yet Patrick Cronin not an idle threat. They could do it, and they don't need nuclear weapons to do it.

CRONIN: No, that's right. I think people could - even veterans who have served on the Korean Peninsula in years past might say ho hum, we've seen this movie before; we don't have to worry about this empty rhetoric. I think that would be a travesty, a tragic mistake. That's why General Thurmond, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, has canceled a trip to the United States this next couple of weeks, because he needs to stay there and make sure that there's not a miscalculation.

1950, Kim Il-sung, the grandfather, started war out of conscious choice. This time if a war erupts, it's most likely to happen out of miscalculation. But miscalculation is indeed possible. It's not an accident, but it's where you consciously are looking for leverage and superiority for North Korea, and you reach out, and you hit people across the Northern Limit Line, the maritime boundary, or cross the Demilitarized Zone, or you fire a missile that others shoot down. That triggers a counter-response from North Korea that is even greater in force, and then suddenly you trigger what you announced at the beginning of the program: the counter-provocation strategies for contingencies that have been worked out over the last couple of years between Seoul and Washington.

CONAN: And one would think, yes, these are procedures that have been put in place. One of the things they wanted to do was having something that would be immediate, it would take - be clear that it was a retaliation for this. Nevertheless, if these are all put into place, if these are all semi-automatic, this can easily spiral out of control.

CRONIN: It's not quite "The Guns of August," Margaret Tuchwell(ph), but...

CONAN: I think about 1914, the First World War.

CRONIN: Absolutely, and sort of the plans for intervention in arms-building go and carry their own inertial forces forward. But you do have similar things in place because there's - information media is instant. The systems that we're talking about, the missiles we're talking about, take minutes. And the aircraft we're talking about area ready. They're on alert.

So you could start getting a tit-for-tat reaction that quickly spirals out of control. I suggested in the recent article that there'll be confusion on the airways. People may think, if there's any attack in Seoul or on South Korean territory this time, what if there's a fear of biological weapons? What if there's a fear of nuclear attack?

And so this thing could spiral very quickly, and China is not going to be sitting there doing nothing, as well. It's going to be protecting its border and its interest very closely.

CONAN: And the United States, as we think about this Nicholas Eberstadt, it is - of course got troops in the area. They are a tripwire. The United States will be fully engaged in this from the beginning. And yet from our vantage point, what is there to gain here other than reassuring our allies?

EBERSTADT: Well, we've attempted to do a little bit of loud deterrence in the last few days with advertising our stealth bombers dropping dummy bombs and so forth in case the North Korea side didn't get the message already. This is - I mean, I do not want to minimize the risk of war in the Korean Peninsula. We've been a heartbeat away from a resumption of the Korean War since the ceasefire in '53.

We should also recognize the extent to which this is a very carefully choreographed and calibrated dance of death directed by the North Korea side. And we should give them the respect they are due in recognizing that they game these things through to the umpteenth degree before they spring them on us.

Yes, it is possible that things can spring out of control, spiral out of control. But if the dance goes according to the North Korea schedule, the outside world will be relieved sometime in the future when they have the chance to pull North Korea back from the brink and offer them financial concessions, diplomatic concessions and all the rest.

CONAN: Yet it appears, well, at some point people are going to be fed up with doing that, no?

EBERSTADT: At some point people will be fed up with this, and that's when the dance gets very, very tricky because un-teaching bad behavior is very, very difficult, and the North Korean regime has had, let's say, 60 years of learning that there are essentially no penalties for its aggression and provocation.

CONAN: And at some point yes, they think they control the escalation, but ultimately there's little in it for them. If it gets out of control, it is their existence which is at stake.

EBERSTADT: If it gets out of control, they lose. We lose an awful lot, but they lose.

CONAN: After a short break, we'll learn a little bit more about the man in charge in North Korea and continue our discussion about what's next on the Korean Peninsula. Stay with us, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Our guests are Patrick Cronin, a senior adviser and senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security; also with us, Nicholas Eberstadt, Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. With each new round of disturbing news from North Korea, we learn a little more about the man rattling the saber. Kim Jong Un has lead in Pyongyang for just over a year now, since the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. He's replaced his father's senior military advisors with his own, issued a series of unsettling threats meant to shake the international community and sent signals that his rule is unlikely to be less bellicose than his father's, though his motivations may be different.

Our guests, Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security and Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, two of the experts trying to divine the North Korean strategy and lay out its implications for the United States and the international community. Joining us now, Tong Kim, a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies and a former Korean interpreter for the U.S. State Department, where he interpreted for four American presidents in negotiations with Pyongyang and joins us by phone from his home in Seoul. Very good of you to be with us today.

TONG KIM: Thank you.

CONAN: And is the atmosphere in Seoul cognizant of a threat of war, or is it again, well, here goes the North one more time?

KIM: Well, the general mood of the public here in Korea, or Seoul, pretty much calm, and nobody is real fussing up the possible breakout of a war or anything. But nevertheless, they are concerned about the increasing level of bellicose rhetoric from the North.

CONAN: And is the closure of Kaesong, the joint industrial facility, is that a cause for alarm?

KIM: Well, that's cause of alarm, as you said, and people didn't think North Koreans would go as far as they have gone, but it is still not clear whether they're going to completely close it down, as they said, it will be depending upon the attitude of South Korea. So there is room for talk or possibly they're watching the attitude of the South Korean government, what they do.

But all this tough talk of war or retaliation or provocation from both sides has not been helpful at all.

CONAN: I understand that, and what is, though, the attitude of the new South Korean government? Are they ready to be, well, generous, or are they talking tough, too?

KIM: Well there have been - there are two-track approach, basically. One, they'll be very tough, and they would retaliate at any provocation tenfold if not more. But the trouble with deterrent to provocation, relying on the efficacy of scaled tactics to North Koreans, that has to be proven yet. So we don't know whether North Koreans would be (unintelligible) down to provoke another - to launch another military attack or provocation for that matter.

At the same time, this new government is trying to engage North Korea somehow under its policy of trust-building process. And there has not been - no promise has been made along this second tier of policy, but nevertheless the South Koreans are keeping the door open to possible resumption of dialogue with the North.

CONAN: And is there a role for diplomacy now, or is it a waiting game?

KIM: Yes. Well, they can't just open dialogue right away in the midst of this crisis atmosphere, and especially North Koreans keep threatening the South with all kinds of - some threats which they have not heard of before.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And Jim's(ph) on the line with us from Fort Collins in Colorado.

JIM: Yes hi, Neal, and thank you very much for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JIM: Yes, just a couple comments. I was an F-4 aircraft commander on the Korean Peninsula in the 1960s, late 1960s, and I saw two incidents occur there. One of your - one person was saying how - I guess maybe it was you - about how, well, we've seen this before, let's not worry about it. But my experience has been that these guys can't be trusted.

And I saw the Pueblo hijacked, and I was on alert there in Korea when that happened, and we almost went to war. And I also saw one of our intelligence aircraft shot down over the ocean, and we provided support for the recovery of the pieces of what was left of that airplane. And we had orders to shoot anything that came out of North Korea at the time.

So it's not very difficult to see how things could escalate very quickly if the North Koreans are allowed to have any, you know, incentive to do anything here.

CONAN: Yet the United States did not go to war after the Pueblo was captured back, what, 1968. And eventually that crew was, well after some considerable drama, returned home.

JIM: Yeah, what happened actually was - well, that's all true. What happened actually was there were two F-4s on alert at the time, and I was one of them. We had nuclear weapons on our airplanes. We were specifically told, of course download the nuclear weapons and upload 500-pound bombs. And we were going to go to war the next day. Our goal was to drop those weapons on the (unintelligible) at Wonsan.

And when I got up the next morning, the airplanes were ready to go, and we were alerted to the fact that the Pueblo had actually been put into port at that time, and therefore we weren't going to drop any bombs on the harbor because we didn't want, of course, to harm the Pueblo or its crew.

CONAN: Well, so it was that close?

JIM: It was that close. We actually had some missions planned.

KIM: There were some other instances of close calls, for example 1976 when North Koreans had killed two American officers at Panmunjom, (unintelligible) the security area, and then commander of U.S. forces in Korea, now they call it Combined Forces Command here in Korea, and he was ordered to take any action he would see fit to counter North Korean provocation at that point.

And that was a time the United States flew B-52 bombers, and that scared North Koreans to death, and finally Kim Il Sung, then leader of North Korea, signed a statement of regret, which we interpreted as an apology to the United States. That's the first time it did.

Speaking of the deployment of B-52 or B-2s or F-22 and other cutting-edge nuclear-capable weapons that the United States has demonstrated during the exercises for the past two weeks or so, really contribute to the tension in the Korean Peninsula because North Koreans reacted to that very strongly. They've been ratcheting up their level of bellicose threats.

Every time we show some - demonstrate a show of force, they respond with again more threats and so forth. So the tension that has been created for the past several weeks, the joint product of - it's just a combination of what both sides have been doing to each other.

And I mean, all your segment of the show, they talked about - it is not the question of who's going to win if war breaks out at the end. Of course North Korea would be defeated, and South Korea would win with the support of the United States. But that's not what it is all about. What it is, how much damage can South Korea or even the United States can take if that happens again?

So peace is more important at this point than - and I think there is a different way of interpreting what the true intent of North Korean rhetoric, bellicose threats, are all about. I mean, people usually say it's two, three different things. One, domestic, that is for the young leader of North Korea to strengthen his power base or to have a formal grip and control of North Korean military or to coerce some concession from the international community, such as lifting or easing on U.N. sanctions. Or they want to - looking for some kind of leverage in future dialogue and the resumption of negotiations and so forth.

But I think what really appears to me is like their strong will and willingness to do whatever they can to survive as they are, not as we want them to be. And that's the bottom line to their survival.

I don't think the North Koreans are ready to go to war at this time. They know they will be defeated if they started a full-scale war. But at the same time, what I'm mostly concerned about, what I usually call - I still call it the North Korean suicidal mentality. In other words, if time - I don't think they are going to start a war. I don't think they will use nuclear weapons until the point in time, if they have - or when they decide, determine that there's no other way out and they no longer can survive their system as they are, then that's the time they would start a war.

They would fire everything they've got not to win the war, but just to destroy and inflict as much damages as they can, and then die. And that's the - that is - and that kind of a suicidal mentality is rooted in traditional Korean culture, and that's what I'm most afraid of.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the phone call.

JIM: Yes. Thank you so much. Very interesting.

CONAN: And, Patrick Cronin, you've done some of those tabletop exercises. Worse comes to worse, what kind of damage can they inflict?

CRONIN: Well, they can inflict a lot of damage. It's one reason why former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry in the 1990s flinched at trying to take a preemptive strike out on the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, because not only of the nuclear fallout potential, but also because of the war could trigger the fact that Seoul was a sitting duck for all of the artillery, mortars and rockets that South Korea has plenty of. Risk is in the future, though. And the reason miscalculation can happen more tomorrow than it has than possible in the past, I would argue, is that North Korea has demonstrated that it's closing in on a nuclear-tipped missile capability.

We still don't know how many months or years they're away, but they're getting ever closer when you think about the December and February tests on the rocket and on the nuclear tests. So it is quite possible. U.S. and ROK have to come up with a strategy that is comprehensive. We don't want war. North Korea doesn't want war. But we have a reckless, young leader in charge. He's getting closer to a nuclear-tipped missile capability. We have to be willing to use pressure and find ways for pressure to work effectively and understand that North Korea's tactic here is to break the unity that might exist, including with China and with others on the outside of North Korea who want to rein in this dangerous proliferation.

CONAN: Yet, Nicholas...

KIM: I don't think it deters, or show of force or saber-rattling would rein in North Korean attitude, or the possibility of provoking another war.

CRONIN: No. And I didn't say that. What I said is that we need a comprehensive strategy. The reason you fly B-2 bombers over is to make sure this young leader understands that we can put a missile down his chimney stack if necessary just to make sure he doesn't miscalculate, and make sure he understands that.

KIM: There were other objectives that Washington must have had. As you may know, in the South, there are ideological divide and there are people who want to just to take out the North Korean regime and even go to war. There is a very, very strong conservative forces here in the south, and also they are ones who say they cannot depend on the credibility of U.S. commitment to provide an extended deterrent nuclear umbrella, therefore they are calling for their own development of a nuclear program. So United States would have to assure South Korea of U.S. resolve by showing the capability and willingness to use nuclear weapons if the south is attacked by the north.

CONAN: That is Tong Kim, a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies, on the line with us from Seoul. Also with us, Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, and Patrick Cronin, who's at the Center for a New American Security. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And Nicholas Eberstadt has mentioned the deployment of U.S. forces meant not just as a signal to Pyongyang, but as a signal to Beijing, as well. You - if you are not able to rein in your friends in North Korea, the very American presence - military presence, you do not wish will come upon you.

EBERSTADT: Well, the - as they say, there's a new sheriff in town in Beijing, and it's the Deng Xiaoping group that's just come to power. Over the previous 10 years, we saw a Chinese leadership that was pretty much in the tank for the DPRK, no matter what the (unintelligible).

CONAN: That's North Korea.

EBERSTADT: Yeah. For North Korea, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. One friend of both Patrick's and mine, Victor Cha, referred to China's approach as acting like a defense lawyer for the DPRK when the Cheonan was sunk and when Gangwon-do attacks happened on South Korea civilians during broad daylight. There seemed to be new calculations underway in China. And as Patrick said, we don't know where all of these are going to end up, but it was a very good thing in my view that the Obama government began the bidding with the new group by having our treasury secretary - not our State Department, not our Pentagon group, but our Treasury Department talk with the Chinese about North Korea. It raised the question: Do you have any idea how much economically the DPRK is putting your development plans at risk?

CONAN: Let's see we can get another caller in. This is Chris, and Chris with us from Ann Arbor.

CHRIS: Yes. My question was, given that North Korea seems almost hell-bent on either making a nuclear weapon or just continually being an antagonist, and also noting that they also have artillery pointed at Seoul, within an instant, can fire a ton of - a barrage. Under any sort of circumstances, would we preemptively strike them now, given that we're just waiting for them to pull the trigger, in essence?

CONAN: Patrick Cronin, the only circumstances I've read about - obviously, these things are not exactly spelled out specifically - is if they attempted to put a nuclear weapon atop a missile, or if they fired a missile and it seemed to be pointed at, well, South Korea, Japan or Guam.

CRONIN: I think that's right, Neal. I think the most likely scenario would be a missile test, where we might shoot down the missile. And then there's some action-reaction that leads to actually preempting the next set of missile tests. We actually take out the two major sites, where they have to launch missiles, or they're advancing their mobile missile capability. That's one of the threats in the future. So the risk for preemption may actually be declining in the next five years.

CONAN: As they develop mobile missiles.

CRONIN: Precisely. But I still think - I agree with the earlier comments of all the panelists here, that, you know, the U.S. is not looking to start a war. Nobody wins, and North Korea will punish - extremely punish both South Korea and the U.S. in the region and set back the region for decades. That's not what we want. What we want to do is we want to convince Pyongyang to come back to the bargaining table and get serious about it. We're dealing with something that may be closer to farce than tragedy here with Kim Jong Un.

CONAN: Yet, quickly, Nicholas Eberstadt, now they say Korea - nuclear weapons are the lifeblood of the nation (unintelligible).

EBERSTADT: They're never going to be - this existing, real government is never going to give up nuclear weapons. There is no diplomatic solution to this. We would be much, I think, better advised to think about threat reduction and threat management. As long as they're there, they're going to be a nuclear problem.

CONAN: Nicholas Eberstadt and Patrick Cronin, both here with us in Studio 3A, we thank them very much for their time. Our thanks as well to Tong Kim, a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies, with us from his office in Seoul. When we come back after a short break, we'll turn to The Opinion Page, where Thane Rosenbaum will make the case for revenge. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.