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U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says North Korea is “skating very close to a dangerous line.” In the past few weeks, the North has nullified its armistice, severed its hotline and declared a state of war with South Korea. It has blocked access to a joint factory in Kaesong and vowed to restart a key nuclear complex. A medium-range missile launch is expected any day as a show of strength leading up to April 15, the 101st anniversary of state founder Kim Il-Sung’s birth. The risk of a small miscalculation or mistake sparking accidental conflict is growing. A panel of experts joins Diane to assess North Korea’s threats and how to defuse the situation.
- Robert Litwak Vice president and director of international security studies, Woodrow Wilson International Center National; former Director of Nonproliferation at the White House National Security Council in the Clinton administration and author of "Outlier States: American Strategies to Change, Contain or Engage Regime."
- Elise Labott CNN foreign affairs reporter.
- Victor Cha Professor, Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service; senior adviser for Asia, CSIS; author of "The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future" and former director of Asian Affairs at the White House National Security Council during the Bush administration.
- Kurt Campbell Chairman and CEO, The Asia Group; former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2009 to 2013.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. American and South Korean troops are on increased alert levels. South Korea's prime minister warned of a North Korean missile launch anytime from now. Joining me to talk about rising tensions on the Korean peninsula: Robert Litwak, vice president of the Wilson Center, Victor Cha, professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, Elise Labott of CNN and Kurt Campbell, chairman and CEO of The Asia Group.
MS. DIANE REHMI do invite you to join the conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And good morning and welcome to all of you.
MR. ROBERT LITWAKGood morning.
MS. ELISE LABOTTGood morning.
PROF. VICTOR CHAGood morning.
REHMAnd welcome. Elise Labott, give us a brief summary of the timeline, how we've gotten to where we are now.
LABOTTIt makes you wonder, Diane, how things ramped up so quickly. Well, in February, North Korea launched its third nuclear test, this latest round of provocations which was followed by discussions at the United Nations, a very tough resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council, tougher sanctions than we've really seen in the long time against North Korea.
LABOTTThen you started hearing a lot of sharp and fast rhetoric from the North Koreans threatening not just South Korea, which is typical, but the United States really harshly, going after Texas, going after the United States mainland. That was followed by the United States sending, really, it's most sophisticated weaponry to the Korean peninsula, stealth bombers, sending a missile defense system to Guam, I think, in a new show to North Korea that it is ready to defend the homeland, a more robust response that we've ever seen.
LABOTTNow we're expecting -- North Korea has been ramping it up. They're expecting some -- not only maybe one missile test, but maybe a spectacular show of missile test that we saw maybe back in 2010. So it's continuing the cycle of escalation, the rhetoric really meeting each other. And I think the big concern now is some kind of miscalculation where things could spiral out of control, not just for North Korea, but for South Korea to respond.
REHMRobert Litwak, we've seen North Korea ratchet up previously in the spring. Why now? Is it because of this new young leader?
LITWAKWell, North Korea is an opaque society. So whatever we think about what is unfolding there, it's largely surmise, but it's informed surmise based on past record. And North Korea has this established record of brinkmanship, usually tied to a return in negotiations to obtain some type of benefit the regime is seeking, whether it's shaking down the international community for additional aid or seeking confirmation of some status that it seeks. In the current -- it's declared itself to be a nuclear weapon state.
LITWAKThat's a status that the United States and the other members of the multilateral group that had been negotiating with North Korea will not accept. North Korea had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, so it's inside the treaty and has been cheating from within. And that's why it's treated in a different category than, say, Pakistan or Israel, which are outside the treaty.
REHMVictor Cha, has the U.S. played a role in the escalating tensions?
CHAWell, Diane, it's good to be with you.
CHAI think the primary role the U.S. has played is really not been to escalate the situation but to respond to it. I think the scale of rhetoric from North Korea has been -- it's just been unprecedented, way off the scale in both the positive and the negative sense, you know, threatening to hit Austin, Texas, but at the same time, sitting down with Dennis Rodman and saying all he wants is for President Obama to call him.
CHABut the U.S. has -- the Defense Department has rolled out a series of things in the past couple of weeks, all purely defensive in nature that have certainly been very strong signs of support for the alliance, as well as sending a very clear deterrence message to the North Korea leader. If this young, inexperienced guy doesn't know where the line is in terms of the behavior he's undertaking, these military measures are really going to show him where this line is. So I think it a response more than an escalation.
REHMKurt Campbell, I was interested to learn that Russia has aligned itself with the United States on this issue.
MR. KURT CAMPBELLYeah. I think what we've seen in terms of the surrounding states, what we always want is some unanimity of view among United States, South Korea, Japan and particularly China and Russia. Oftentimes, during these periods of ritual tensions, if you will, you have sort of divisions with China and Russia either sort of quietly taking North Korea's side or remaining on the sidelines.
MR. KURT CAMPBELLWhat's different this time is that, quietly, China is in a midst of a very carefully and probably modest re-evaluation of their relationship with North Korea because they realize that North Korea is not serving China's security interests. And Russia, who has real interests in some of the regimes associated with nuclear weapons and nuclear power, is quite angry at some of the steps that Pyongyang has taken.
MR. KURT CAMPBELLThe truth is -- I agree with everything my speakers have -- the other speakers have said so far. The interesting thing about Korea does many things well, but it is also the home of some of the most widely watched soap operas in Asia. They all follow a very predictable plotline, but still, people are mesmerized by them.
MR. KURT CAMPBELLThis is a very familiar pattern. The challenge is North Korea is finding it harder and harder to elevate anxiety. They have to do more and more to let people know that they're serious when, in fact, what they really want to do is not threaten a war because they know how that will end but, in fact, to try to find some way to leverage concessions out of South Korea or other countries involved.
REHMVictor Cha, Kurt Campbell called these ritual tensions. But is there any difference to what we're seeing now?
CHAYeah, I think there's a little bit of difference. I mean, the first, of course, is we have this new leader about who we know nothing. And then in addition, as I said before, the rhetoric is at a completely unprecedented level. I mean, I would -- I'd agree with Kurt that, you know, one of the things that we're not really thinking about that we should is, once we come out of this current cycle of this current ritual of a crisis, they have pushed the envelope so far that the next time they threaten or they bluster, they're going to have to take it to that same level.
CHAAnd so, you know, what effect will this have on markets? What effect will it have on the alliance system? They really sort of taken the whole game to a different level with the provocations and the rhetoric we've seen over the past few weeks.
REHMSo, Robert Litwak, what preparations, not only the U.S., South Korea and Japan, what are they doing?
LITWAKWell, in the near term they've taken the appropriate prudent steps. They've re-assured South Korea through the deployment of military forces. They've sent a deterrence message to North Korea. But I think the broader optic is that of the dynamics of the North Korean regime itself and the bind that it's in. How does it survive in the current context?
LITWAKIntegration into the international community is a threat. Autarchy or just relying on its own means or aid from China is not a real option. The Obama administration, I think, repositioned the debate on North Korea as well as Iran when it took office by referring to North Korea and Iran as outliers in a calculated departure from the Bush-era term of rogue state, which connoted that they were beyond the pale, irredeemable, they couldn't be brought back in.
LITWAKAnd the Obama administration set up a structured choice for North Korea, one that the North Koreans have rebuffed. And now, if -- the question for the United States was, would the United States take yes for an answer? The issue now is, would -- what does President Obama do when North Korea's saying no?
REHMRobert Litwak, he is with the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He's author of a new book titled "Outlier States: American Strategies to Change, Contain or Engage Regimes." You can join us, 800-433-8850. Elise, what type of missile is North Korea threatening or expected to test?
LABOTTWell, they're expected to -- what's been loaded -- it seems to be loaded on some missile launchers is the Musudan missile, which is believed to have a range as little as 2,500 yards to 4,000 -- kilometers to 20 -- to 4,000 kilometers. That could reach Japan. That could even reach the U.S. territory of Guam, which is why the U.S. launched a missile defense system there.
LABOTTI think the big concern is not just that they may launch these Musudan missiles, but as we said, some kind of -- they have -- North Korea has many missiles of various ranges. So what they're really expecting -- you have April 15 coming up, which is the anniversary of the birthday of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the country, and the North Koreans always like to do something special along the lines of July 4 here in the United States so...
REHMBut not just fireworks (unintelligible)...
LABOTTExactly. Well, so they're expecting some kind of firework of missiles. It could be various ranges. The North Koreans have a very robust short-range missile program, which they could lob off a couple of those. And I -- so I think they're thinking there is going to be something. The hope is that it won't be so dangerous that there won't be such loss of life that they can't get past this latest escalation and move some -- towards some kind of diplomatic way forward.
CHAYeah, I mean, I don't disagree with that at all. I mean, there has been a history of this in the sense that in July of 2006, in July of 2009, they've done what we would say as a volley of missile tests, sort of displaying their whole portfolio of missiles, everything from, you know, 100 kilometers to 3,000 kilometers, and it looks like they're preparing to do something like that again.
CHAThe thing I worry about is after they do this, you know, I think many will think we've sort of reached the climax and now we're going to de-escalate. Now, I'm kind of worried that we're not. I'm kind of worried that they're going to want to test the new South Korean president as well.
REHMVictor Cha, he is professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He is author of "The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future." Short break here and when we come back, your calls, your comments. Stay with us.
REHMAnd as we talk about North Korea, the threats it's making not only within North and South Korea but also threatening the United States, Guam and elsewhere, here in the studio, Kurt Campbell, chairman and CEO of The Asia Group, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2009 to 2013. Kurt Campbell, what happens if North Korea fires a missile and it hits South Korea?
CAMPBELLIf North Korea took a step that in any way threatened South Korean security, South Korea and the United States would respond and probably decisively, so there should be no question about that.
CAMPBELLAnd I think fundamentally, the North Koreans are starting to understand that what's happening domestically in South Korea is that the tolerance for these constant provocations, these attacks against outposts out in disputed areas, or a number of sinkings of vessels, that the South Korean public has reached a level in which I believe there will be enormous pressure for Madame Park, the new South Korean president, to respond and perhaps respond decisively.
CAMPBELLThat's what Elise is referring to, the potential for provocation. Along this line is worries about miscalculation and needing to respond to support domestic interests. We are fully supportive of South Korea, and they have responded very prudently in recent weeks. However, if under constant pressure and threats, it is natural in a democracy to be prepared to take actions.
REHMWhat about the North Korean people, Robert Litwak?
LITWAKWell, it's the most regimented society on the planet. In fact, other dictators like Romania's Ceausescu would visit North Korea, and they would envy the system of control that the Kim family had created. But what started the current kind of ratcheting up of tension in this round of brinkmanship was a nuclear test. And the nuclear issue, which has, for reason, dominated our tension, is an embedded issue.
LITWAKIt's a proxy for the type of relationship that North Korea is prepared to have with the outside world, and they've asserted that it's a deterrent, but it's also been used as a bargaining chip in negotiations. And the formulation in Washington on North Korea as well as Iran is all options are on the table, but none is good. I mean, basically, you have sort of bomb, negotiate or acquiesce and in a context where we can't bomb for the nuclear facility because of all the known constraints and how it could lead to a broader war.
LITWAKAnd there are limits on the possibilities for diplomacy backed by coercive sanctions to kind of bring about change within the North Korean regime on these issues. We could end up in this third box of, like, essentially acquiescing the bad things happening, and that would be kind of unfortunate. But that's been, you know, that's a reflection of the bad set of options we have.
REHMVictor Cha, here's an email from Anthony, who says, "North Korea is a very poor country. Please tell us how its rulers managed to get enough money and other resources both to pay off their elites and to purchase the expensive equipment needed for their nuclear and missile programs."
CHAWell, unfortunately, the answer to that is the regime essentially diverts all of the national resources that it has to development of their military and paying off this electorate, if you will, the elite generals' parties and other members who comprise the leadership in Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea. Some of this assistance comes through China and through both trade and aid with China.
CHAChina is the only country right now that is providing any substantial amount of assistance to North Korea. It also comes through a variety of activities, elicit activities they have undertaken currently and in the past that is used for proliferation financing. And this can range from things like counterfeit cigarettes, tobacco products, drugs, to counterfeit currency. And so this has also been one of the -- unfortunately, one of the ways in which the regime has financed its leadership.
CAMPBELLThat's true. That's accurate, Diane. But it's also the case that it has become much more difficult for North Korea to engage in some of those activities. They used to have a robust underground in Japan that is almost all suspended, very little actual direct interaction with South Korea through, I think, very effective steps. The once burgeoning relationship between North Korea and Burma on military and other things has been largely curtailed.
CAMPBELLThey don't have nearly the export markets for various systems, military and weapons and missile systems in the Middle East. So I actually think that they are starting to feel some strain in this regard, and the key is really what Victor said is the China dimension. China is basically the big player in this. And if they are unhappy, then you might find shortages, stoppages for periods of time of deliveries of oil. That's happened in the past.
REHMAnd are there any indications right now that China is getting worried about what they're seeing, Elise?
LABOTTWell, I was reading that you did see a dip off in Chinese trade with Korea over the last few months. And so China is never going to stop backing North Korea. They're really afraid. You know, we've talked before about an influx of refugees over their borders, but more importantly, a unified Korean Peninsula. You see this U.S. pivot to Asia, which Kurt was instrumental in helping develop. The U.S. is really starting to flex its muscle in East Asia. And that really upsets China.
LABOTTSo all of this -- this is -- China does not want the fall of the North Korean regime. And so you saw the Chinese president in recent days make a very stern warning saying that nation should not create chaos in the region for selfish gain. Not clear whether he was talking only about North Korea but maybe the United States. There is definitely, as Kurt was saying, a debate in China right now whether this relationship with North Korea is antithetical to its national security interest.
REHMAssuming the situation does not get out of hand and that there is no major miscalculation, what is it that North Korea wants now, Robert Litwak?
LITWAKI think you have to look at North Korea actions through the optic of maintaining kind of regime survival. And a lot of their activities sort of, you know, a reflection of that core interest.
REHMBut, I mean, do they want money? Do they want food? Do they want energy?
LITWAK...all of the above.
LITWAKYou know, it's a failed state with nuclear weapons. It's hard to get a number on the size of the North Korean economy. It's at $40 billion, which is probably smaller than the Washington metropolitan area. It's been called the Sopranos state because of its reliance on elicit activities that Kurt and Victor referred to. And I've seen estimates. They need about $1 billion a year to keep themselves, the elite, in kind of Mercedes and Remy and the things that they need to kind of keep that elite going.
LITWAKDuring the period I was in on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration, I recall a colleague saying North Korea does not respond to pressure. But without pressure, North Korea does not respond. And that really kind of captures sort of this tension there. And their bind is, you know, this -- back to this optic of kind of integration or isolation in which -- which will allow this regime to survive.
LITWAKAnd I think the view in Pyongyang is they could not survive the political consequences of real integration in the international community, this choice that the Obama administration, I think, really teed up very well to put the proposition to the test whether they would be prepared to come back in from the cold.
REHMSo you've got Secretary of State Kerry going to Seoul. You've got Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel saying this is getting dangerously close to the edge. What do you see as an outcome here, Victor Cha?
CHAWell, unfortunately, I do think we're going to see some provocations from North Korea in the coming weeks. And the real question is, where do we go from there? I mean, traditionally, we have eventually got -- we, meaning, the party surrounding North Korea, eventually got back to some sort of negotiation.
CHAWe actually did a study on this and found that actually going back for the past 30 years, on average, it takes about six months for the international community to get back to a negotiation with North Korea after they've done a provocation, largely to try to de-escalate the situation. Those negotiations have proven to be futile in the past. And as, you know, as Robert said, I mean, I think what they want, in the end, is they want all the things that people talk about. They want food. They want energy assistance.
CHAThey want a peace treaty with the United States. They want normal political relations with the United States. The problem, of course, is that they don't want to give up their nuclear weapons. They're really -- they're willing to maybe rent a freeze on their nuclear program, but they want to have their cake and eat it, too, and that's the big problem.
REHMIs there a back channel in operation now, Kurt?
CAMPBELLWell, I don't know about this exact minute, Diane, but I can assure you that the United States, over a series of administrations, has had the ability to have regular interaction with North Korea. So the idea that somehow there is no line of communication open, that's inaccurate. I think it's fair to say that all the key countries involved -- China, South Korea, Japan -- have the ability and have exercised that regularly to have interaction.
CAMPBELLSo this is not a lack of trying. We have been able to communicate very directly and very clearly with the North Koreans. The key here -- I like the way Vic -- in fact, everything we've heard today is, I think, very sensible. But what Victor said, the choice in the nuclear site is exactly right. But it's the other matter. What North Korea has basically said is that they're prepared to take some of the things that Rob mentioned -- food, energy and the like -- but they want it on their terms because they understand very clearly what true integration will mean.
CAMPBELLI remember a few months ago meeting with one of the great old deans of the Chinese foreign ministry who had worked with North Korea for decades. And after quite a few drinks one evening, he said to me, you know, North Korea is really like a can of dog food. And I was just shocked that he said that. And then he said, let me explain.
CAMPBELLHe said, a can of dog food, if you leave it on the shelf, unopened, you can keep it there for years, for decades, and it won't spoil. But the moment you open it up, it will spoil. And I thought that was a pretty profound and accurate observation with respect to what the current regime is facing. Any opening is going to subject this brutal, dictatory, ruthless regime to a kind of public scrutiny and international engagement that they will not be able to withstand.
LABOTTI think that there is a real disappointment in what has happened with Kim Jong Il. When he was first appointed, we heard that he was studied in Switzerland, spoke some English, liked Nike sneakers. There was a lot of anticipation that perhaps he could -- was somebody that would engage with the West, that would be able to negotiate, that could be an economic reformer to his country. But all of these analysts, including those at this table, have really said that this guy could be more dangerous than his father, Kim Jong Il.
REHMElise Labott of CNN, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850, first to Indianapolis. Good morning, Shane. You're on the air.
SHANEHello, Diane. Thank you. It's a pleasure.
SHANEI would like to offer what I think a useful analogy, and that -- when a person is threatening to commit suicide, it's often a desperate, desperate cry for help, and I think the North Korean regime going to war would be regime suicide and that from what we've seen of what little documentary has been done in the rural parts of North Korea recently, rural North Korea is at the most desperate state it's been at.
SHANESo I think that the North Korean regime is crying for help with the international sanctions and the lack of the six-party talks and on and on, that their people are more desperate than ever. And that's my comment.
CHAWell, I think the people are certainly desperate, and if they were -- if -- and they need help. I mean, there's no denying that. You know, as far as I can remember, the only time that the North Korean regime ever actually asked the international community for help was once in the mid-1990s when massive floods and a combination of other economic problems led them to suffer a famine in which millions of people died.
CHAAnd it was the only time they actually asked the international community for help. The World Food Programme then started doing annual appeals for North Korea. They were suffering a 1.1 million metric ton shortage every year of food. And the North Korean regime then took that food and took that assistance and basically used it as income. They used it -- they didn't use it as a way to try to reform or improve their agricultural system.
CHAThey basically relied on it as income for about eight years. But then everybody suffered donor fatigue, and they stopped giving, including Japan and the United States. So I would agree with the caller entirely that the people need a great deal of help. But the regime, by doing these things, I don't think is really asking for help. It's really more extortion than it is trying to ask for help.
CAMPBELLI have sympathy with the sentiment that Shane just expressed, but, in fact, I do not believe that there is any alignment between the leadership and the interests of the people. I do not see any sense that the North Korean leadership has any interest in what goes on. In fact, if you reflect on what's happened just in the last couple of months with this publication of the Google Earth map of North Korea, it reveals the largest and most intricate gulag system established basically since the time of Stalin.
CAMPBELLJust remarkable percentage of the North Korean people are living in prison camps. This is a reprehensible regime. And the idea that somehow that by supporting Kim Jong Un that it will then trickle down or somehow improve the lot of the North Korean people, it's just -- it's inaccurate.
LITWAKYeah. The regime is able to insulate itself from the consequences often of international pressures, and the targeted sanctions that were done in recent years at the U.N. and by the Obama administration have been trying to put the pressure where it should be on the core interest groups of the regime. But the broader optic in terms of framing policy and options is, you know, what do you premise -- what North Korean future do you premise U.S. policy on?
LITWAKI mean, there have been many predictions that -- of -- the regime was teetering, on the verge of collapse. In a perverse way, the North Korean regime has been kind of super stable. I mean, it's been able to withstand pressures that would have brought down, you know, many regimes. It's just testimony to the control that the regime has over the society and the tangible support, up to now, that China has been prepared to lend the North Korean regime to keep it in power for fear of an alternative.
REHMI don't understand the concept of the gulags and the extent to which the North Korean regime has been able to hold these people. What about their relatives? What about the people around them? Do they have no options?
LITWAKWell, Victor might be able to comment on this from the -- in terms of domestic politics.
REHMAnd we've got to take a short break here. I was expressing my own frustration and almost disbelief. Short break, right back.
REHMAnd here is something that was published in the People's Daily Online today from China, "On April 6, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed severe concern over the current tense situation on the Korean Peninsula to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon over the phone, and said Beijing 'does not allow troublemaking at the doorsteps of China.'" Kurt Campbell.
CAMPBELLYeah. I think this is the most important new dimension that's taking place in the last couple of months, a quiet reevaluation in Beijing about North Korea. Now, I like what the previous speakers have talked about, this traditional view that North Korea is somehow a buffer state. If this is a buffer state, I mean, my goodness. And so I think -- look, I think there are limits to how far this can go. But if China decides, trust me, I have seen China apply pressure to countries, they have not done so with North Korea. They...
CAMPBELLYou know, there's a solidarity with the Korean War, but they practice a gentle, polite and careful, quiet diplomacy with North Korea that they do not use in other parts of Asia. Trust me. If they used a different tone and more pressure, I think they would get better results, if you will, from Pyongyang.
CHAI think that's an accurate assessment. I do think that the Chinese do get angry with North Korea. It lasts several weeks, perhaps even a couple of months, but at least the history up until now shows that they don't really go in a different direction. I mean, we all know China's future on the peninsula is with South Korea. China does on an annual basis 100 times more business with South Korea than it does with North Korea.
CHABut for this very reason that they are worried about the whole thing coming apart in North Korea, they'll push, they'll pinch, they'll twist the arm a little bit. But whether they will go the full nine yards and really coerce North Korea the way they can coerce and have coerced others in the region, we just haven't seen it yet. So I remain hopeful, just as Kurt does, that this is really the time.
REHMHow does the example of Libya concern North Korea, Robert Litwak?
LITWAKWell, very much so. At the beginning of the Obama administration, Libya was held out as a potential model for North Korea and Iran. That is, the Libyan deal in 2003 was sealed by a tacit but clear assurance of regime security, that if they came into compliance with international norms with respect to proliferation that the United States would fall off of regime changes and objective. And that was part of the offer, so to speak, from the Obama administration to these two outlier states.
LITWAKThen came NATO's military intervention in Libya in 2011. And it was done under the rubric of humanitarian intervention, not for proliferation ends, but that's sort of an analytic distinction without political consequence in Pyongyang and Tehran. They declared a kind of -- that Libya had disarmed itself and lead itself open to outside attack. And the North Koreans have made a number of statements saying, we are not Serbia. We are not Iraq. We are not Libya. We're going to maintain our nuclear deterrent to force all external attack.
REHMTo Annandale, Va. Good morning, Connie.
CONNIEYes. Diane, at the beginning of the conversation, you asked the guests what had the United States done to provoke the response, and no one answered that. And what the United States did was, there was military maneuvers on the border, and the South Koreans participated in it. And if you think of the parallel, if there are group of people on the front of my property parading back and forth with weapons shooting them in the air, I feel that they are provoking me, that they are threatening me.
CONNIEAnd I have two choices: I can concede and say, OK. You have nuclear weapons, and I'll back off and do what you want, or I'll try and stand up and say I'm as good as you.
LABOTTWell, it's a very good question that the caller raises, and there is a -- everyone does wonder, is what's going on right now overkill? Now, the U.S. and South Korea do these annual exercises. It's every year. There's always a lot of heightened tensions from North Korea when they do these exercises, but this year, because North Korea ramped it up, the U.S. ramped it up and started introducing much more sophisticated and heavy weapons technology into the equation which, of course, North Korea took that to respond even further.
LABOTTI think the -- one of the problems is -- here in North Korea is that the U.S. is responding to everything Kim Jong-Il is doing. The U.S. is not kind of seizing or driving any of this. North Korea takes an action, so the U.S. takes an action, then North Korea has to take another action. I think the U.S. really has to get back on the diplomatic initiative of its own. That could be from China, as Kurt and the others have said. It could be another way, but the question is, how do you get out of the U.S. really being on the back foot here and having to respond to every North Korean move?
CHAElise is right. I mean, the U.S. and ROK are in the midst of annual military exercises. But we have to remember in December of 2012, North Korea launched a missile in the direction of the United States. They were able to put that payload vehicle into orbit which crossed a significant technological threshold. So they are a threat. And so the United States has to respond to that.
CHAIn February of 2013, on the eve of President Obama's State of the Union speech, North Korea did their third nuclear test in complete defiance of three U.N. Security Council resolutions and every country in the world telling them they don't need to do this. So, I mean, I understand the caller's question, but in terms of perspective, I really don't -- it's not the U.S. that's the aggressor here. It's North Korea.
REHMAll right. To Syracuse, N.Y. Richard, you're on the air.
RICHARDOh. Thank you for taking my question.
RICHARDI'm interested in someone's reaction in the panel to the following scenario. As you know, North Korea routinely test a missile and launches it in the direction to go into the sea over Japan in that direction. Suppose they do this and a missile inadvertently lands on the land mass of Japan, what would be the reaction, of course, of Japan and its allies?
CAMPBELLWell, not only do we have a very strong and robust security relationship with South Korea. Obviously, we have a similar dynamic security commitment to Japan. North Korea has, as the caller indicated, launched missiles that have flown over Japan in the past, in the 1990s and more regularly, and it's a constant worry that a fragment or a part of the missile or the nose cone would land and cause damage in Japan.
CAMPBELLIt would cause an immediate political crisis in Japan, a peaceful nation, a nation that has not fired a shot in anger in over 70 years. This is the fire, frankly, that North Korea is playing with, trying to do more and more to send a message that they are trying to get our attention through these sort of manufactured crises. To do something like this, with respect to Japan, would cause a crisis not just for South Korea and Japan but for the United States as well. It would implicate us fully in the next steps on the peninsula.
REHMTo Columbia, Mo. Good morning, Melissa.
MELISSAGood morning. I was intrigued by a passing comment made by one of the panelists that the -- part of the escalating rhetoric in North Korea has to do with the North Koreans being mesmerized by a soap opera. And I was just curious if the panelists would say a bit more about how that soap opera or series or soap operas would compare to dramas in the U.S., both day or primetime.
CAMPBELLI'm sorry. I probably -- I tried to use a metaphor here and, I think, probably misfired. What I was mentioning is that in Asia, one of the most widely watched sources of daytime entertainment are soap operas made in South Korea. They all follow a very familiar plot. And I was simply suggesting that's what -- what's playing out in North Korea follows a very familiar plot, but nevertheless, we're all mesmerized by it.
CHAWell, just picking up on the soap operas and relating it to your earlier question, Diane, on the people in North Korea, you know, one of the things that's interesting is as hard as the regime tries to maintain this hermetic seal on the society, stuff is getting in. And one of the things that's very popular among the North Korean average person are these South Korean soap operas because they see life outside of North Korea.
CHAThey see life in South Korea when all the time since they've been kids, they've been told it's a horrible place, you know, that American soldiers eat Korean babies. It's just -- and then -- and they see, you know, Starbucks, and they see all these beautiful cars and beautiful people...
CAMPBELLI mean, the North Koreans did a...
CHAYeah, Kangnam style.
CAMPBELL...kind of parody of "Gangnam Style," you know, and they are very -- the regime, Diane, is anxious that, you know, South Korean pop culture is all the rave in Asia. And they're worried about it seeping into North Korea.
REHMIs there any access to the Internet, Robert Litwak?
LITWAKIt's limited. And the dilemma in North Korea is similar to that in China and other authoritarian states of how, on the one hand, the Internet is part of the driving technology of our era, and that is necessary for kind of industrial advancement and, you know, the progress of the society.
CAMPBELLAnd yet that very connection to the grid, a tangible symbol, which relates to this broader theme or whether North Korea can integrate or not and survive it, I mean, that very much comes to a head because then they will realize that this propaganda that the standard of living in South Korea is lower than North Korea, et cetera, would be born -- shown to be kind of a lie.
LITWAKI recall a colleague in the '90s when the North Koreans participated in negotiations on the nuclear program coming to New York City, and he said that they're just -- their jaws dropped when they saw Manhattan. I mean, you know, they sort of seen the kind of the standard living and the level of technology.
REHMTo Fort Knox, Ky. Good morning, Paul.
PAULGood morning, Diane. I love your show.
PAULI've been listening for quite a while.
PAULAnd I'm in the military. I've been serving for roughly seven years now. And I was listening to one of your prior callers and she basically made a comparison to if you have people on your lawn firing or next door firing weapons that you would feel provoked. But I feel like, A, we've had a military force present in South Korea for quite some time.
PAULAnd we've been running regular military exercise and operations the same way we do here in the States. And I'm basically not understanding how when the North Koreans run their own exercises quite often and we run our own exercise quite often, then how is our -- one of our yearly force-on-force exercises considered a provocation?
REHMHow close do those troops come to one another, the North Koreans, South Koreans, the American is on this side, North Koreans on that side?
CHAI mean, this is -- Diane, this is the most heavily militarized border in the world. And North Koreans have a 1.1 million man army. Any objective military analyst that looked at the way the North Koreans position their military would say, this is a military that's about to attack. They're very forward deployed on the peninsula. And the distance we're talking about between the city of Seoul, a city of 22 million people, and a demilitarized zone is really like the distance from -- what is it -- so Washington to maybe just shy of New York, maybe Philadelphia. So it's not that far at all.
CAMPBELLActually, just slightly different there, from the suburbs of Seoul is a distance of between sort of downtown Washington, D.C. and Rockville. I mean, we're not -- this is a very short area. This is not great distances. And so the problem that we have is that the proximity is very near indeed, and the North Koreans have enormous military capabilities right on the border.
REHMKurt Campbell, chairman and CEO of The Asia Group, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go Kalamazoo, Mich. Hi, Brian.
BRIANHi. How are you? Thanks for taking my call.
REHMGood. Thanks. Surely.
BRIANI guess one of my -- just a simple question is that you see everything happening going on with the Arab Spring and everything. I mean, is it even fathomable, excuse me, to think that what these -- as you're speaker was saying, gulag system and these prisons camps, is it even possible to think that this people would uprise against, you know -- their system is so terrible there, and these people are -- I guess, I'm just wondering how much is it that these people can take, you know...
LITWAKWell, the -- it's a regimented society, and it's difficult to know what type of level of dissent, if any, is there. It's certainly not manifest (unintelligible) personality around the Kim family. But the key determinant of change and that was evidenced in the Arab Awakening was that you didn't have military -- the military cracking down on the uprisings there to maintain kind of the regimes in power.
LITWAKAs, you know, in Egypt, the military did not respond to maintain the rule of Mubarak, whereas in North Korea and, say, Iran with the Green Movement, the regime would just -- in the vernacular -- put the boot in and just crush it.
CAMPBELLYeah. I think, Diane, most people who've watched, you know, and kind of speculated about North Korea believe if there were any real change, it would much more likely come for -- from an internal coup or military coup as opposed to an uprising.
REHMAnd that's my question. Is the son truly the leader, or is it the generals who are pushing in?
CAMPBELLWell, as Victor underscored earlier, this is a person -- we know a little bit about his time in Switzerland. We've talked to some people who interacted with him when he was, you know, 14 or 15 years old. We don't know very much really about his relationship with the party and his relationship with the military.
CAMPBELLSome have speculated that one of the reasons why he's taking all these steps is to buttress his standing with a military that is still uncertain about his leadership. And we have seen a rather large number of retirements of some of the senior military and a new generation of generals take their place. I would say that there is -- there are some indications of some dissatisfactions and concern at the senior levels.
CHAWell, and I -- let me just focus on the society side. I mean, to me what is very interesting about North Korean society is it is changing. And it really started changing from the famine in the 1990s because people had to create markets. And so you have markets now in North Korea where people don't rely on the government for their livelihood. You have the Internet now, 14,000 users. You have cellphones in North Korea, upwards of 2 million registered users. The society is changing.
REHMVictor Cha, professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He's author of "The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future." Kurt Campbell, chairman and CEO of The Asia Group, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Robert Litwak of the Wilson International Center, he's author of "Outlier States: American Strategies to Change, Contain or Engage Regime," and Elise Labott of CNN, thank you all.
CAMPBELLThank you, Diane. It's great to be with you.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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