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North Korea's Rhetoric And Nuclear Capabilities


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Late last week, North Korea responded to new U.N. sanctions with hyperbolic language. A statement described the new measures as a declaration of war. Pyongyang deserves special vitriol for the United States, our sworn enemy, it said. A new nuclear weapons test would target the United States, and it described its new long-range missile as designed to strike U.S. territory.

Rival South Korea and other neighbors were threatened with physical countermeasures if they help enforce the new sanctions. While the rhetoric sounds alarming, it's not all that unusual from North Korea. What is different is new leadership Kim Jong-un took over from his late father in North Korea about a year ago. South Korea's new president-elect, Park Geun-hye, takes office next month. And China installed its new leadership late last year.

Later in this program, temp workers on the Opinion Page this week. But first, North Korea's rhetoric and its capabilities. We begin with Charles Armstrong, professor of history and Korean studies at Columbia, where he directors the Center for Korean Studies at the School of International and Public Affairs. He joins us from a studio there on campus. And good to have you with us today.

CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Nice to be with you.

CONAN: After North Korea's missile test in December, new sanctions from the U.N. were widely expected. Is this response from North Korea just as predictable?

ARMSTRONG: It's fairly predictable. It has to be kept in mind that North Korea has been doing this for a long time. And even the words act of war were used first in 1994 when the Clinton administration threatened to take sanctions questions to the U.N. over its nuclear program.

So it's old news in a way, but what's different now is the capability of North Korea, which is much more advanced than it was even a few years ago.

CONAN: And we saw that in the missile test in December, the tests that prompted these sanctions.

ARMSTRONG: Yes, that's correct, and it seems that they are very likely to go forward with a third nuclear test.

CONAN: And the previous two were some years ago, and the third nuclear test, it was promised, would be of greater capacity.

ARMSTRONG: Yes, we're not quite sure what they mean by that, but the first one, 2006, was a bit of a dud. The second one, in 2009, was more successful. And the third one may be a demonstration of their enriched uranium program, which is very concerning to many people outside.

CONAN: And let's talk about that new leadership. There was hope when the new, younger Kim took power that there might be a change, that reform might in the wind.

ARMSTRONG: Yes, that's correct. I was in North Korea just after Kim Jong-un had come to power, and there was a lot of talk about rich or powerful and prosperous nation coming into being and some hints that Kim Jong-un was going to lead the country into a more modern period of economic reform.

But the bottom line for North Korea has long bend, including for Kim Jong-un, what they see as the absolute security of their country against hostile outside forces, meaning mainly the United States.

So at the moment, North Korea may be interested in reform, but they first want to make sure that they are secure, and that seems to include, now at least, nuclear weapons.

CONAN: And it's important to remember, of course the Korean War ended in 1953, but it ended in an armistice, not a peace agreement. There is technically still some level of hostility between the United States and North Korea. And as we look at the rhetoric that's come out over decades, it seems - and this statement, too, it seems to require the - a vigorous, terrible outside enemy, the United States, in order to justify the continued economic problems inside the country.

ARMSTRONG: Yes, it's hard to overstate how much North Korea inside the country feels like it's at a state of war. You see this propaganda constantly. We have to remain vigilant. We have to defend our country against hostile outside forces. And they mainly mean that the United States - North Korea, it feels like the Korean War never ended.

The whole country is mobilized for war at any moment. It's a very tense situation, and it doesn't take much to get this sort of rhetoric to ratchet up.

CONAN: Also with us is David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times. He joins us here in Studio 3A. David, good to see you again.

DAVID SANGER: Great to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And the Korean War for the North Koreans may seem as if it had never stopped. It's pretty well forgotten in this country.

SANGER: It is, but Charles is right, when you're in North Korea, and I was there I guess just about 20 years ago, they haven't let me back in since, I guess they didn't like what I wrote, but they very much feel like the preparations for war are a way of keeping the country together, keeping it unified and keeping it behind the Kim family.

Now the Kim dynasty in its third generation because they venerate Kim Il-sung, the country's founder, as the man who liberated Korea from the Japanese, and then of course took on the Americans.

CONAN: And it's the - the Obama administration seems to have greeted these latest statements from North Korea with, well, a measured response, certainly nothing alarmed.

SANGER: You know, if a - if government spokesman could yawn on camera about something, they would have done that. And this is part of a curious element of the Obama foreign policy in the first term. You know, when the president came to office, he talked about engagement with adversaries, he had North Korea in mind, and of course Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and so forth, but three months into the president's first term, in 2009, the North Koreans set off a nuclear test.

And this, as one of President Obama's former aides put it to me, turned everyone in the White House into a Korean hawk. Now, their conclusion was focus on Iran because Iran doesn't yet have a weapon and that North Korea essentially is in the rearview mirror in terms of going nuclear.

You know, for years we said as a country what the government now says about Iran, which is we will never tolerate them as a nuclear power. Well, they've been a nuclear power since their first nuclear test in 2006, probably before, and the fact of the matter is the U.S. has tolerated it.

What I found interesting in last week's statement was not all of the rhetoric about the state of war and so forth. We've heard all of that, as Charles has said, before. But they've also said that while they are happy to go in and have discussions with the United States, it will not be about the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Well, they signed an agreement 20 years ago with South Korea to de-nuclearize the peninsula. It was never enforced. But what that tells you is they're trying to become Pakistan. They're trying to go to the point where no one is talking about rolling back the nuclear program anymore.

CONAN: Charles Armstrong, as you looked at that statement there, there was another factor. The leader's name was attached to it in a way that was not the case during his father's rule.

ARMSTRONG: Yes, he has a very different leadership style from his father. Kim Jong-un is much more out there. He's a public figure. He's made several public speeches, something his father almost never did. And he has put a lot of investments himself into the policies that North Korea has produced.

I want to also underscore what David said. North Korea, and I've heard this explicitly stated by North Korean officials, wants to be recognized as a nuclear power like Pakistan, like India. They say if Pakistan and India can do it, why can't we. And that's something that's very difficult for the U.S. and other countries to swallow.

CONAN: David, the - North Korea is believed to have enough material for between four and eight nuclear devices. As you've said, they've exploded two already. They have a missile that has considerable range. Can they put a nuclear device on top of that missile?

SANGER: Not yet, most people believe. You know, it's one thing to explode a nuclear device, and we don't know very much about what happened in these underground tests. As Charles suggested, the first one in 2006 seems to have been a fizzle. 2009 was better. Presumably the next one will be better yet, and as he said...

CONAN: As their missile tests have gotten better.

SANGER: As their missile tests. And, you know, this is not an unusual pace. I mean, the early days of the U.S. missile program was nothing pretty. You know, there were a lot...

CONAN: We've all seen images of those Vanguard rockets blowing up on Cape Canaveral.

SANGER: That's right, and so that can happen. And it's difficult technology. The toughest technology in the nuclear world is to shrink a nuclear weapon down to something that is light enough to fit on a warhead and that can detonate at the right place and so forth. That's one of the reasons there's so much concern about R and D that may have happened in Iran. They have some documents leaked out about nobody's quite certain what the Iranians know there.

But there is every reason to believe that the North Koreans could get there over time and might get there with some outside help.

CONAN: And outside help from where, Charles Armstrong?

ARMSTRONG: Well, they have longstanding connections to a number of Middle Eastern countries. Syria, for better or for worse, has been one of their close allies for quite some time - Iran, of course. But they have a pretty sophisticated missile technology by third-world standards. In fact, that's been one of their major exports for quite a while.

The big question about their nuclear capability now is whether, as David said, they could miniaturize the technology enough to send a nuclear missile against the target. And that's very questionable, from what I understand.

The real purpose of this rhetoric is to serve as a deterrent. As they understand it, if they can convince Americans that they can reach American soil with their nuclear missiles, then that will guarantee that the U.S. will never attack them for any reason.

CONAN: David?

SANGER: Charles is right. I think this is part of their thinking, and in fact it was Secretary Bob Gates, former defense secretary, on his last trip to Beijing two years ago this month, I was with him on this trip, who said in five years North Korea likely would be able to reach the United States.

But at the same time, the North Koreans don't need to be able to reach the United States to have a credible deterrent. They've got enough artillery shells to destroy Seoul, the capital of one of the top 10 economies on Earth, without resort to nuclear weapons, and that is one of the reasons that the world has sort of danced around North Korea for so long.

And, you know, the North Koreans have used their nuclear program and the thought that they could lash out in an effort to try to get the world to bring them aid. They're sort of like, you know, the hermit at the end of the street in a really nice neighborhood that wires up the whole house with barbed wire and explosives and said, you know, if somebody doesn't bring me take-out food every night, I'm blowing the whole neighborhood up.

And that's - that worked for them for a while until the Obama administration came in and basically said we're not going to get into the game of negotiating again for something we negotiated before. In fact, Gates said I'm not going to buy the same old horse a third time.

And I think that the North Koreans are now trying to come up with some strategies to deal with this. As Charles suggested, the hole had been that Kim Jong-un would conclude that the old strategy wasn't working, why not try economic reform.

Instead, it looks like what he's doing is trying to come to the conclusion that he can up his credibility with the military.

CONAN: More on the nuclear saber-rattling from North Korea with David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, and Columbia professor Charles Armstrong after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. To review, just last month North Korea launched a long-range rocket from a site on its west coast in defiance of warnings from the U.N. and the U.S. NORAD confirmed the missile, quote, deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit. And the international community responded swiftly to the North Korean success.

Japan called the launch intolerable while the White House characterized it as a highly provocative act and a threat to regional security. The U.N. Security Council condemned the launch with new sanctions just last week and issued a stern warning to refrain from a nuclear test. In return, North Korea named the U.S. its sworn enemy. Kim Jong-un met with security and foreign affairs leaders of the weekend, fueling speculation Pyongyang may proceed with another launch of even another nuclear weapons test.

Charles Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Studies at Columbia University; and David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times are our guests. And let me turn to you again, to Charles Armstrong. There was - in addition to the rhetoric aimed at the United States there was a swipe at South Korea but also some language that might be interpreted as a disappointment with North Korea's chief ally, China.

ARMSTRONG: Yes, that's right. China has not been as unquestioningly supportive of North Korea as it has been in the past. It's made a number of statements that are critical, certainly of North Korea's nuclear program and also critical of the sorry state of the North Korean economy, which the North Koreans have taken to be rather insulting.

But the fact of the matter is China really keeps North Korea afloat economically, and they have up to this point never really been very serious about enforcing U.N. sanctions about - against North Korea. So as David pointed out, the Obama administration has more or less decided to keep North Korea on a low burner and not make a big issue of its nuclear program.

But on the other hand, there doesn't seem to be much hope that renewed sanctions or intensified sanctions are really going to get North Korea to back down, particularly since China doesn't seem willing to really get on board in any serious way with those sanctions.

CONAN: David Sanger, the new leadership in China has been I guess a little bit more lukewarm towards North Korea. Nevertheless, it props up that country economically, it tolerates its horrible human rights situation in North Korea.

SANGER: It does, and that's because the Chinese are weighing two unpleasant possibilities. So the Chinese don't want the North Koreans to go nuclear any more than we do. In fact, they're in the neighborhood, and one American negotiator told me that the one moment that they really got the Chinese attention years ago was when they brought a meteorologist with them and just showed them what would happen to the plume of a nuclear accident, forget a weapon going off, right over the Chinese border.

And the Chinese obviously were not happy with that thought. On the other hand, what is the price of North Korean collapse? It is probably South Korea taking over the north, putting an American ally right on China's border. The Americans probably would be smart enough not to come up with them, but...

CONAN: Last time we approached the Yalu River, it didn't work out so well.

SANGER: It didn't work out so hot. But, you know, buried in the WikiLeaks cables that we all worked on a few years ago is a fascinating exchange between the then-deputy foreign minister of South Korea and the then- U.N. ambassador about what the plans would be if North Korea collapsed, what the south would take over, how they would give some concessions, mostly economic concessions and commodities to the Chinese to keep them happy.

And so, you know, there's a lot of behind-the-scenes planning underway for a North Korean collapse that every American president has been waiting for since Harry Truman.

CONAN: And Charles Armstrong, may continue to wait for for a long time.

ARMSTRONG: Yes, that's right. North Korea seems to not show any sign of collapsing anytime soon. I would add that another thing that China fears even more than North Korea going nuclear, because it's not likely that North Korea is going to aim nuclear weapons at China, is this - is the reaction of other U.S. allies in the region, particularly Japan.

If Japan takes this opportunity of North Korea's threat to become itself a nuclear weapons power, that is one of China's real nightmare scenarios. So it has to balance the effects of North Korea's nuclear development with what it fears at the moment even more: the effects of a North Korean collapse or instability on its borders.

CONAN: We talked about the new leadership in North Korea, the new leadership in China. There's of course new leadership in South Korea and in Japan, as well.

ARMSTRONG: That's right. In South Korea, Mrs. Park who is taking over, is of course the daughter of one of South Korea's most famous dictators. And her sort of defining moment of her life was when she got noticed when she was studying abroad, that her mother had been killed in a failed assassination attempt on her father.

And she came back and essentially became, at a young age, the first lady of the country or standing in for the first lady. And now she's come back on a platform at the time she was running of beginning to open up to North Korea more, certainly more than the current or the outgoing president has.

She's been very quiet about that since getting elected, and my guess is that with all of these provocations, the U.S. is saying to her in back channels this is no time to begin cozying up.

CONAN: There may have been a security briefing or two, as well. Charles Armstrong, the new prime minister of Japan also conservative.

ARMSTRONG: Yes, that's right. He's been prime minister before, and he raised some hackles in the region by what were taken to be excessively nationalistic statements. And North Korea sees the U.S. as its sworn enemy but in some ways even more deeply Japan as its enemy. Japan was, after all, the colonial overlord of Korea from 1910 to 1935.

So far, Abe has proven to be more moderate than some people had expected, but the latest out of North Korea certainly emboldens conservative forces in Japan to heighten their defenses. And Japan, for example, has signed on very enthusiastically to the latest U.N. proposals for addressing the human rights violations in North Korea.

So we're looking forward to some pretty interesting and tense times in Northeast Asia in the near future.

CONAN: And David Sanger, the Obama administration looks at this, and there's the balance of power, there's the concerns about relationships with Japan and South Korea and China. There is also that moral quotient. North Korea is pretty much a slave state. Hundreds of thousands of people are in terrible circumstances there, not simply starvation but penal colonies, a gulag of the sort that Stalin would never have even approached.

SANGER: The gulags are pretty remarkable, and actually it's this issue that really set off President Bush, George W. Bush, about North Korea even more than the nuclear program itself. In fact, he frequently cited a book that was written by a survivor of the gulags he had into the White House at one point.

And President Obama, by all accounts, the North Koreans set him off pretty well, pretty much as well. But this administration has said very little on the human rights situation in North Korea, surprisingly little about it. But they've also said fairly little about the nuclear program.

And part of that comes to the calculation of how many nuclear fights can you have around the world at one time. And I think that they view a greater chance of progress in stopping Iran than changing North Korea's behavior. And while they will give you many explanations for their North Korea policy, essentially it is a wait-for-regime-change policy.

CONAN: And Charles Armstrong, you described in some of your articles North Korea in a, well, paradox. They can't see their future without that huge commitment to their army and their armed forces. Yet they can't reform without relaxations that would threaten the regime.

ARMSTRONG: Yes, that's the dilemma North Korea faces, and there's no easy way out. It doesn't appear that the regime is on the verge of collapse. Of course one never knows what will happen in the future. There are certainly elements within the leadership, including perhaps Kim Jong-un himself, who really would like to improve their economy and focus on the reform necessary to do that.

But the bottom line for them is to keep the regime in power, to keep the leadership in power and to do what they think is necessary to keep their country safe. And part of that hostility toward the outside, of course, helps to keep everything together. So it's a dilemma for which there doesn't seem to be any easy way out.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. This is David(ph), David on the line with us from Philadelphia.

DAVID: Hi, enjoying your show. Thanks a lot for having me on.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DAVID: I have a question. You guys were talking earlier about this proposed missile test and the question of whether North Korea could actually reach the U.S. I'm a retired Navy officer, and whenever I was getting out, I remember that the Navy's anti-ballistic missile capabilities, our Navy's, was pretty good.

And I've been wondering why we don't just shoot the thing down if they shoot it at us and perhaps even do that and not tell them. I mean, if they're trying to prove that they can reach the United States, might it not be just as useful to prove that it's not so easy?

CONAN: David Sanger?

SANGER: Well, the idea has come up, David, and in fact when there was a big missile test that was done in the middle of the Bush administration, Donald Rumsfeld was still defense secretary at that time, raced around to have a lot of anti-missile capability put in place so they could show the North Koreans, perhaps, test this thing live and take one out. Now that particular North Korean test self-destructed before it got anywhere near a moment where the U.S. could take it out.

But certainly, the - at least the stated reason for the U.S. anti-missile capability that's up in Alaska and then one that's in an air base in California is that they are directed at North Korea, not at China or any place else. And certainly, they would be overwhelmed by - I mean, more than just a few launches at one time. At some point, I suspect, it's probably going to - it's going to come to that. And you have seen a number of administrations take that issue on at various times, including the Clinton administration, which considered a recommendation to take out a launch before it even happened.

CONAN: Thanks, David.

DAVID: And that they haven't done it. Is it been they're afraid it'll escalate or why haven't they considered it?

SANGER: Escalation is one reason. And you don't want to take a shot at one of these things unless you're absolutely sure you're going to hit it.

CONAN: Don't want to miss.

DAVID: That makes sense. All right. Thanks so much.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the phone call. And, Charles Armstrong, so what happens when inevitably now North Korea has warned of it, and we can expect they're said to be pretty well ready for that next nuclear weapon's test, are there any sanctions left to impose especially if China would enforce them very much? What's the point?

ARMSTRONG: Well, the UN and the U.S. administration have talked about more targeted sanctions against elite, against specific bank accounts. And that there is some debate over whether having done that in the past particularly this issue of a bank in Macau, which they sanctioned in 2005 that had North Korean money, might actually have an effect. But so far, we haven't seen anything to give us much optimism about the effects of sanctions. And it seems hard to believe, particularly given the situation in Iran, that the U.S. will simply go along with a nuclear in North Korea indefinitely. But that, in fact, seems to be where we are right now and where it looks like we will be in the near future.

CONAN: And just wait and wait and wait until they collapse of those internal contradictions?

ARMSTRONG: Yes. But we've been waiting for a good 20 years, and we have yet to see that happening. North Korea has a remarkable capacity to muddle through at a very little economic level. The real test will be if they do, in fact, open up their country to information from the outside world and the invitation of Eric Schmidt of Google is at least partly a sign that they may be willing to do that. Can they maintain that system if they have even a crack of information opening up? And that remains to be seen. That could be a real problem.

CONAN: Charles Armstrong, thanks very much for your time today.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you.

CONAN: Charles Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Studies at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, a professor of history and Korean studies. He joined us from a studio on the campus there at Columbia. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times is still with us. We've been talking about Korea. Obviously, the United States and the Obama administration also have their eye on Iran. Last we checked, the five - P5 Plus One, that's the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, those sets of negotiations on hold over a seemingly shape-of-the-table issue. Where are we going to hold the next series of talks? In the meantime, there's lots of questions about what's going on with Iran's nuclear program.

SANGER: Well, there are. First on the talks. They were supposed to happen tomorrow. They're not going to happen tomorrow. There have not been talks between this group of the Western powers on Iran since June. And there's a lot of concern that time is running short on two fronts. First, the Iranians have elections coming up this coming June. And it's very difficult to get concessions out of a country at a moment that they're going through elections and need to sound tough and so forth.

And then the second question is, are the centrifuges spinning any faster than the diplomacy is going? So far, the evidence on that is mixed. The Iranians are certainly producing more nuclear material, but they have been careful not to go over that threshold that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made so clear with sort of a cartoon character that he held up, of a bomb.

CONAN: Boris and Natasha - a bomb, yeah.

SANGER: Yes, at the United Nations in September. And so we don't know whether or not this is political or - these delays - or whether it is technological. Of course, as you and I have discussed and I've wrote a lot about last year in some articles and a book, the U.S. and Israel targeted Iran with a very sophisticated cyber weapon, a program called Olympic Games, that went on for many years. And, presumably, the efforts to try to sabotage the - that are still ongoing.

CONAN: And there is that constant - well, we're in new territory here. At what point does cyber war - this is cyber war. What time - at what point does that spill over and become real war?

SANGER: Well, I think President Obama's hope with the Olympic Games was twofold. First, that if you do an attack that's not easily attributable, it's hard for the Iranians to strike out. Secondly, he wanted to demonstrate to the Israelis that there were ways to get at and slow the Iranian program without sending bombers overhead and risking an overall war. But you have seen a number of attacks that appear to be Iranian-led in recent times. You saw a cyber attack on the Saudi Aramco computer systems. There are lots of reports of the Quds Force, which is part of the Iranian military being very active in Syria, being active in other places where they could make life miserable for the United States. So there is this sort of low level of constant conflict that's underway.

CONAN: And that red line that both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama - it's not clear they have the same red line but, nevertheless, both have spoken of it. Where is it? How soon is it? When is it approaching?

SANGER: Well, the Israeli red line, which is basically that the Iranians couldn't have one bomb worth of material, had a certain level of purity that they could convert to weapons grade fairly quickly. That would run out at current production rates, and that's a big...

CONAN: Yeah.

SANGER: ...caveat there, late spring, early summer. But the history of these red lines is that they regularly get established by somebody and then put off either because the Iranians aren't moving as fast as people projected they were or because the Iranians have blown past one of those red lines and people are going to draw a new one.

CONAN: David Sanger, as always, thank you very much for you time. And I'm afraid we're going to have to rely on you more in the future.

SANGER: Well thank you very much. Good to be with you.

CONAN: David Sanger, the chief Washington corresponded of The New York Times here with us in Studio 3A. Coming up, we're going to be going to the Opinion Page and a history of temporary work in the United States from the Kelly Girls back in the 1950s to, well, a new kind of economy where temporary work is one of the most booming parts of the economy. If you've worked for one of these agencies for temporary jobs, how's that worked out for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.