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Imagine walking on a beach in Japan with your girlfriend. Suddenly you’re being stuffed into a sack and taken to North Korea, where you’ll spend the next 25 years of your life completely cut off from the outside world. This actually happened. In the 1970s and ’80s, North Korean agents abducted dozens of people from Asia, Europe and the Middle East. A new book recounts the experiences of the few Japanese victims who were eventually allowed to return home. The bizarre but true story of North Korean abductions, and insights into the hermit kingdom today.
- Robert S. Boynton Author of "The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project" and director of New York University's Literary Reportage program
- Sheila Smith Senior fellow for Japan Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; author of "Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China"
- 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
Read An Exceprt
Excerpted from THE INVITATION-ONLY ZONE: THE TRUE STORY OF NORTH KOREA’S ABDUCTION PROJECT by Robert S. Boynton, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on Jan. 12, 2016. Copyright © by Robert S. Boynton. Reprinted by permission.
MR. DEREK MCGINTYThank you for joining us. I'm Derek McGinty sitting in for Diane Rehm. She is recovering from a voice treatment. North Korea, a dangerous nuclear-armed nation with a frightening disregard for international law or any Western efforts to enforce good behavior, yet with a leadership so bizarre, it's routinely the butt of jokes and Hollywood movies.
MR. DEREK MCGINTYWell, today's shows is unlikely to change perhaps either of those contrasting perceptions. You see, almost four decades ago, men, women, children began disappearing from coastal towns in Japan, dozens of them and it turns out, they had been kidnapped by North Korean agents for some pretty interesting reasons, which get into later. But the saddest thing may be that only five of them were ever returned home.
MR. DEREK MCGINTYMeantime, on the Korean peninsula, tensions continue to escalate following a disputed nuclear test by the north and now there's word of warning shots fired by South Korea at a drone of some sort right near the DMZ, all under the watchful eye of that massive U.S. military presence. Frankly, it is a bit of a mess and it could get messier. Joining me now to talk about that, Robert Boynton. He is author of "The Invitation Only Zone: The True Story Of North Korea's Abduction Project."
MR. DEREK MCGINTYSheila Smith with the Council on Foreign Relations and Victor Cha of Georgetown University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. I'm Derek McGinty in for Diane Rehm and our phone number is 800-433-8850. And we will take your phone calls and questions as the hour progresses. But I'll start with you, Sheila Smith. How bad is the situation in North Korea on the Korean peninsula right now, maybe scale of one to ten with ten being, I don't know, more hostilities resume?
MS. SHEILA SMITHOh, I think we're pretty close to nine. The provocations between the north and the south, of course, have been very hot since 2010. The North Koreans sank a South Korean naval vessel. They also shelled an island populated by civilians, South Korean civilians. So the provocation across the border is something we can't take our eye off of. But, of course, the north has always wanted nuclear weapons. The recent test just means that they're technologically getting a little bit closer to that goal.
MCGINTYAnd Victor Cha, a nine out of ten. That's pretty high.
MR. VICTOR CHAYeah, it's pretty high and I think -- I mean, the issue is not that we're gonna have another Korean war. It's not like the North Koreans are going to invade across the DMZ like they did in 1950. It's just that the nuclear tests and the chance for miscalculation and escalation is what I think many people worry about because this -- North Korea has always been unpredictable, but this leader, new leader, young leader, is quite inexperienced and we really don't know what makes his mind tick.
MR. VICTOR CHAAnd so I think people are quite worried about a lack of understanding of nuclear deterrents on his part, a willingness to try to push the South Koreans to try to get the food or fuel from them. And the problem is the South Koreans are going to respond, the South Koreans and the United States are going to respond to the next kinetic provocation by North Korea.
MCGINTYRobert Boynton, you wrote the book about "The Invitation Only Zone," this abduction project. You have some sense, at least in some way, as to the mindset of the leader, Kim Jung-Un. Do we not take him seriously enough because he seems to be such a character?
MR. ROBERT S. BOYNTONI think that's part of the problem is that he's so easy to make fun of and North Korea is so easy to stereotype that we fail to take them seriously enough, except when nuclear weapons are involved. And I think that, you know, the thing about the North Korean regime is that everything they do is done for a reason. It may not be a reason that we understand and it may not be a reason that's apparent, you know, even to help them internally or externally, but it's done for a reason and we dismiss them at our peril.
MCGINTYWe have also seem to dismiss this idea that they had a hydrogen bomb test. Can we say one way or the other that there was no hydrogen bomb test, that it was something that -- some other nuclear test, but not a hydrogen bomb?
CHAYeah, I think based on -- at least based on the seismic readings, the yield of the weapon doesn't seem large enough to be a successful thermal nuclear device. There are different theories about what they did explode. I mean, as Sheila said, the main thing is that this is their fourth test and they're advancing their capabilities. This test is probably been more powerful than the previous three so even if it wasn't a hydrogen bomb, their nuclear weapons are getting better and there's nothing stopping them.
BOYNTONAnd this is a perfect example of how there's an internal reason for these things. I mean, the North Korean population, internal North Korea, believes they set off a hydrogen bomb and it's a moment of great national pride for them. That was one of the goals of that test.
SMITHThere's another kind of capability that they've also been advancing, which is they've got increasing numbers and range of missile or in other words, delivery capability for a nuclear weapon or a conventional weapon, for that matter. So countries in the region that are right next door -- we're a little far away, over here across the Pacific, but for Japan, for example, that's right next door, the proliferation of shorter range missiles and also the testing of a longer range missile poses a real security concern.
MCGINTYAll of this flying in the face of every effort by the West to get them to disarm from sanctions to negotiations with the Bush administration several years ago. None of that was able to work out. Robert Boynton, we talk about this abduction project and what kind of insight does that give you in terms of how they think in North Korea or how the leadership thinks anyway?
BOYNTONWell, you know, the abduction issue, the abductions took place in the '70s and '80s. They had taken place in other forms earlier, but I think it gives you, one, a sense of the cast of mind of North Koreans looking out at the rest of the world, that this is a place that's difficult to connect with, they have difficulty creating fruitful discussions with outsiders, negotiations or any other sort. And I think a lot of these incursions, whether it's abduction or other things has to do with trying to reach out in some very odd, bizarre ways, but still have it reaching out from great isolation.
MCGINTYNow, the reality is, I think a lot of our listeners and me, too, included, had never heard of this. And before I read your book, I had no idea that this had ever happened, but you say these abductions were huge, front page stories in Japan for years.
BOYNTONIn 2002, as a result of negotiations between Prime Minister Koizumi and Kim Jung-Il, five of the abductees were returned to Japan. At that moment, the entire Japanese public was stunned to find that the thing about which there had been sort of these, you know, urban myths, rumors had actually happened. I always say it's akin to all of a sudden discovering that aliens have been actually abducting and taking people into their spacecraft. That was the reaction, that sort of head-snapping reaction of the Japanese public and it's continued to this day. It's front page news virtually every day.
MCGINTYGo over a little bit of what happened for us.
BOYNTONWell, in the late '70s, young couples, for the most part, couple who were isolated on beaches or walking along town lanes were set upon by crews of four or five of these North Korean commandos who would literally hit them over the head, gag them, bind their hands and feet, put them in bags, put them on small boats and then transfer them to larger boats and take them to North Korea where they stayed for 24 years.
MCGINTYAnd for what purpose?
BOYNTONYou know, the purposes are very unclear. It's -- one of the purposes was clearly that they wanted to use them for language and cultural training for North Korean spies who could then infiltrate South Korea and other countries as well. I think there was also some hope that they, themselves, would spy for the regime as incredible as that may sound to us.
MCGINTYYeah, it does sound incredible. And Sheila Smith, that, again, is why -- part of the reason that we look at this bizarre behavior and say, these people can't be serious.
SMITHThey can't be serious. And I think, for the Japanese public, too, and Bob's book is fantastic in the sense that it gives us a kind of first person narrative. You can sort of see what life was like for the abductees themselves. If you're sitting in Japan, though, this was all really about kind of an incredible story where these weird abductions took place and people thought they were kind of wacky stories. When it was determined that this was real and that these people actually came home, of course, the country kind of blew up.
SMITHThe prime minister of Japan today, Mr. Abe, was the man that really took on the cause of these abductees, advocating for current -- to continue to work on behalf of their families and to get the other abductees. Again, there's still people believed to still be in North Korea, to bring them home as well.
MCGINTYSo Victor, do you have any insights into Kim Jung-Il and his regime or his son's regime, as we're looking at it now that might help us understand what is going on, why they would do this.
CHAWell, it wasn't just Japanese that the North Koreans abducted, as Robert said, in the '70s. They abducted South Koreans. They abducted Europeans. And as Robert said, I think a lot of it was about bringing these people to the country for the purpose of training agents that could then infiltrate the South, right? This was the height of the Cold War. Their main competitor was the South Koreans. And on a couple of occasions, they tried to assassinate the South Korean president using help from the people who would infiltrate through Japan.
CHANorth Korean agents would infiltrate through Japan, posing as Japanese nationals to get into the country. So the current president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, her father was the victim of an assassination attempt in 1974 by a North Korean agent who posed as a Japanese national. Her father, the president, was not assassinated, but her mother was shot in the head with a bullet and so the current president of South Korea is even linked to, in her own way, to this abductions issue.
MCGINTYSo it had much more of an effect than I think the rest of the Western world has any clue.
CHAOh, absolutely. And as Sheila and Robert said, you cannot over emphasize how this changed an entire nation. I mean, this is an advanced industrial democracy, the third largest economy in the world, and overnight, their views on North Korea changed. Throughout a good part of the Cold War, there were actually quite open to trying to improve relations with North Korea because they were so close to Japan physically.
CHABut after this abductions, after the revelations in 2002, everything changed.
MCGINTYThat's Victor Cha, professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. Our other guests, Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and Robert S. Boynton, author of "The Invitation Only Zone: The True Story Of North Korea's Abduction Project." He's also director of New York University's Literary Reportage Program. I'm Derek McGinty in for Diane Rehm and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MCGINTYWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Derek McGinty sitting in for Diane. And we're discussing North Korea. They exploded something several days ago. Apparently not a hydrogen bomb. But they do have nuclear weapons and they're also guilty of abducting several dozen people under bizarre circumstances. And we're talking about what that means for their regime and what can be done about it. Our phone number here is 800-433-8850. And Jacob from Gainesville, Fla., you are on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JACOBAll right. Thank you for taking my call. I have a geopolitical question in regards to the area. You know, we always hear about China and the influence they have on the world. And I was just curious as to what incentive China might have to do something to address this international threat, something that a lot of Western nations, you know, we do take it very seriously. And I was just curious if there is anything that China could do feasibly that could address the situation with North Korea.
MCGINTYI think a lot of Americans wish China would do something about it, a lot of our political leaders certainly do. But it hasn't worked out so far. Is it likely to, Mr. Cha?
CHAWell, I think everybody's hopeful. I was in the U.S. government when North Korea did its first nuclear test in 2006. And at the time, everybody said, this is a game changer. It's going to change the way China views North Korea. It's going to change the way they view their relationship with South Korea, the United States. That lasted for about a week. And then, after that, China went back to the same plan to try to just muddle through, bring everybody back to negotiations, counsel patience. You know, that was not -- that was, you know, 10 years ago. And they're still doing the same thing.
CHAI mean, there are lots of reasons why. Probably the most important reason is that China doesn't want to see any instability in North Korea. They don't want to see the regime collapse because that would create all sorts of problems on China's border. And so for that reason they've kind of been held hostage to that concern.
MCGINTYBut we have had a sense that their patience has begun to wear thin, especially after this latest nuclear test. Could that bring some change, Sheila?
SMITHWe could hope, again, as Victor said. I don't think we should hold our breath that China can solve the problem. You know, if you look back at our dealings with North Korea, there have been several episodes, ways in which we've tried to approach the problem, to engage China. The Six Party Talks, which is a regional dialogue with Pyongyang, China took the lead in that and an organizational lead. It made some progress, not to where we wanted it to go. Today, China has signed on to the U.N. sanctions. And so we need China to sign on to tougher sanctions going forward.
MCGINTYIt feels like -- it feels as though North Korea doesn't care about sanctions or anything else, Robert Boynton.
BOYNTONI think that's a very accurate statement. I mean, there is a sense in which North Korea is operating as kind of a pre-modern state, in that it doesn't recognize, oftentimes, a lot of the mechanics of sort of modern state draft and that it's, you know, it feels it has more to gain by standing up and ignoring or rejecting them than it does by engaging in a conventional way.
MCGINTYYou know, there is also a sense that Kim Jung-un has learned the lesson -- what I call the lesson of Saddam Hussein, right? If you don't have nukes, they take you out. If you do have nukes, they're afraid of you.
MCGINTYIs that fair to say?
CHAOh, I think that they certainly believe that. I mean, I think they certainly believe that, you know, the United States attacked Afghanistan because they didn't have nuclear weapons and that they will -- they won't attack Iran and, in their own minds, they're not going to attack North Korea as long as they have nuclear weapons. I think that's certainly the way they feel. There are many dangers associated with that, not the least of which is the fact that they also proliferate. Every weapon system they've ever created they have sold. And so the notion of this opaque regime being the newest nuclear weapon state, then deciding to peddle their nuclear wares around the world is a big, big concern.
MCGINTYThat is very frightening.
SMITHAlso, remember, we have allies on the border of North Korea: South Korea and just across the sea there, Japan, that are non-nuclear states and that depend on the United States for an extended nuclear deterrent. North Korea has been very explicit. Every time the United States and South Korea have military exercises, they have a provocation. They respond. They say, this is the barrier to peace on the peninsula, so they want us to get our forces out of South Korea.
BOYNTONYeah. The North Koreans have a very different attitude that's been generated by these, you know, instances of nuclear proliferation. And the example they use constantly -- in fact, some of my sources -- North Korean sources, the person they always mention is Gadhafi.
BOYNTONAnd they say, you know, that was proof positive to the North Koreans that the moment you give up your nuclear weapons program, you are vulnerable to being dethroned.
MCGINTYAnd so the question is, at what point does the risk become great enough for the United States to up the ante in some significant way toward dealing with North Korea's leadership and its nukes? What we used to call a regime change. I know nobody wants to hear that anymore, but that's what we called it.
BOYNTONYou know, there was a point, under the Clinton administration where, you know, we were literally, you know, hours away from bombing North Korea. The F-15s were on the runway, you know, their engines running, waiting for the go-head when there was a certain point there. So, I mean, you know, these things do get (word?)
MCGINTYWhat called it off? Do you know?
BOYNTONWell, I think they finally realized that it was going to be a terrible idea. And then all of a sudden Jimmy Carter decided he would go to Pyongyang and try to work out some sort of an accord.
SMITHSeoul is 35 kilometers to the south. All right? You have millions of South Koreans on the peninsula. So it's not as if the United States has sole latitude to determine the terms of the interaction with the North.
CHARight. And then it is -- China's on the border, right?
CHAAnd so any sort of overt military action could easily spark a conflict that would then involve China, even if China was simply trying to protect its own border. So I think for every administration they have probably looked at this option at one point or another and, in the end, have decided that it's not worth the candle. But your point is a good one, which is, when do we get to the point where we think it might be worth the candle. And -- but we haven't reached that point yet, at least it's not clear.
MCGINTYI think there is also concern that the Chinese don't want to reunify Democratic Korea right next door. That would be destabilizing for their situation.
SMITHSo that balancing act between a North Korea that's happy to provoke but can be contained has always, I think, been what we understood to be China's preference -- a divided Korea, somewhat containment of the behavior of the North. And the question now though is whether China can actually influence North Korea's behavior.
MCGINTY800-433-8850. William from Phoenix, Ariz., you're on the air.
WILLIAMHello. I just wanted to make a quick comment. I think the concern over North Korea really is only because of nuclear weapons. There's lots of groups that have really radical ideologies -- none of them, I guess, are as isolationist as North Korea -- but some of the armed groups in Central Africa, obviously ISIS, Boko Haram. It's important to remember that North Korea's history is less than 100 years hold. It doesn't take a long time for a group of people to become extremely politically radicalized.
WILLIAMSo I think it just underscores the importance of, you know, nuclear disarmament as still relevant, even if it's maybe a pipedream to attain it. Because anywhere where nuclear weapons already exist, all it takes for a greater danger than, you know, a small, dysfunctional, extremely impoverished nation to present that kind of danger to the world. Imagine if Russia, or even the United States, became as radicalized to where they felt that it was reasonable to freely use nuclear weapons? So I just was interested in the panelists thoughts.
MCGINTYAll right. Thank you, William. Good comment.
CHASo, William's point about disarmament, nuclear disarmament, I think, is absolutely right. That's certainly the U.S. policy. There have been two agreements over the past 25 years negotiated between the United States and North Korea for the purpose of nuclear disarmament. Unfortunately, they have fallen apart. But there's clearly a deal that's been on the table for North Korea, in which they would get food, energy, political recognition, a peace treaty with the United States, political normalization with Japan, Japanese economic assistance, a whole bunch of things, if they were to give up their nuclear weapons.
MCGINTYAnd they've said no.
CHAAnd they've said no with their actions, for sure.
SMITHAnd the Kim regime or the Kim dynasty, as some people refer to it -- we're in the third Kim now...
CHA...in the post-War period. And it really is about regime survival for the Kims. This post-War state that they call, you know, whatever we call Juche philosophy. I'm not sure I'd call it a radical ideology but it's a sustaining set of ideas and repressive regime. And it sustains the Kims' reach for power.
MCGINTYThere was concern or thought at one point that Kim Jung-un was not going to be able to hold power, that he was not his father and that he was making mistakes and that his own generals might turn on him. What happened to that?
BOYNTONWell, that was certainly the conventional wisdom at that time. And like most predictions about North Korea, it was overturned and no one was the worse for it. But it's, you know, we, again, we make these assumptions that North Korean regime is working on a logic that we employ oftentimes. And, you know, one of the things I think it's important to underscore is frankly the bad faith on all sides, that we all benefit in some way from the status quo. The United States likes when North Korea rattles its saber once in a while, because it drives the South Koreans and the Japanese together. And then it drives them and makes them closer to us. So, you know, it plays out -- the status quo plays out favorably in a lot of ways for a lot of different interests.
MCGINTYYeah, but we would not be very happy if one of those nuclear weapons was sold to some group that had it out for us. That would be a much larger disaster than anybody wants to contemplate.
CHAYes. I think that's absolutely right. There's -- we know that the North Koreans tried to sell technology to Syria, among other countries. And so it's definitely one of the major national security issues. But unfortunately, given all else that's on the agenda, it doesn't get the sort of attention that I deserves.
MCGINTYHolly in Baltimore, Md., you're on the air.
HOLLYThank you. I'd like to turn back to the issue of the people who were abducted and wondering why there was so little awareness of that happening in this country, what -- considering, in Japan, they were really discussing it 14 years ago.
BOYNTONYou know, the -- I think that part of it was that in the decade after September 11, you know, America's journalism was focused to the degree which there's a robust international journalism still on countries having to do with the War on Terror. And all sorts of things were happening around the world that were under or uncovered and this was certainly one of them. I think also it didn't play into the calculus of American interests, in that the, you know, the mutual defense treaty between Japan and the United States was not going to be triggered by a bunch of abductions of individuals and therefore it didn't really register in a sort of geopolitical stage.
MCGINTYSheila, thoughts on that?
SMITHI think the, again, we talked earlier about why it was not well known in Japan. People just didn't believe it. It seemed absurd. But I think in terms of what's happened since Koizumi's visit in 2002, is what you see here is the Japanese public become very aware of the fact of their vulnerability. In Japan, the post-War period has committed itself to a limited military, a very kind of defense-oriented posture. And I think you've got -- you're seeing an increasingly rich debate in Japan about whether or not it's really prepared to deal with the threats, including this kind of threat.
MCGINTYWell, now, it's interesting, because the Japanese authorities have documented about 800 additional cases of missing persons, who just may have abducted by North Korea. What's the story with that?
CHAWell, I think there's -- I think it's one of these things where you peel the onion back, there are more and more layers to it. And these cases that Robert's written about are the most famous ones. They're the ones that are the most well known. But there are many cases. This was not just simply a small operation on the part of North Korea during the Cold War. They were in Europe. You know, they were all over the world trying to bring these people in to help them train their intelligence folks.
MCGINTYVictor Cha is professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Services. He is author of "The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future." Sheila Smith is a senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. And Robert S. Boynton is author of "The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project." I'm Derek McGinty in for Diane Rehm. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to our phones. Rick in St. Louis, Mo., you're on the air.
RICKHey. My question is really about more long-standing animosity in the region. I know for hundreds, if not, you know, a thousand years or so, there has been a problem between Korea and Japan. The Japanese at one point, I think, had a role in -- abducting is not quite the same word but slavery, I think, with the Koreans. And that I know that even today with such popular culture issues in even China, where we've got a, of course, a connection between China and North Korea, that when they sell products there, they are often making fun of Japan or outright, you know, being aggressive in their marketing. Thinks like fireworks are sort of using a lot of negative packaging labels.
RICKSo I guess my point is there's obviously a great deal of, you know, historical problems there. And we're backing -- not backing, but our connections to Japan and South Korea sort of set us up on the other side of where perhaps North Korea wants to be and, certainly, their connection to China's further complicates that relationship. So, you know, how is that being considered?
MCGINTYWho wants to take that? Victor, go ahead.
CHASo I'll take the first cut and I'm sure Sheila and Robert have other things to say. I mean, I think what Rick points to in terms of the region is what makes the region so interesting, at least for me as a scholar, to study. Right? Because, first of all, there is -- what he's describing in part is what some have called the Asian paradox, which is, you have a region of the world that is economically the most vibrant region of the world, where the level of intraregional trade and intraregional investment has just skyrocketed. And at the same time, this has not been accompanied by a level of region-wide political cooperation because of reasons of history, all these other sorts of things.
CHAOn top of that, on the security side you have these three big, unresolved issues. Right? One of them being, most importantly the rise of China in the international system. The other being the Taiwan Straits issue between China and Taiwan. And the last being them Korean Peninsula. So for all these reasons, everybody looks to Asia as the region of the future because of all its promise in economic growth. But at the same time there are many things about it that still leave it in the past.
SMITHMm-hmm. I think, too, we've understood the Asia-Pacific largely as an economically vibrant region, economically interdependent. We haven't often thought about it in terms of geostrategic rivalries. And I think what we're seeing today is some very serious cleavages, especially between Japan and China.
SMITHI just wrote a book about that myself on Japan's response to a rising China. But the Korea-Japan historical legacies, of course, date back to colonization. Japan colonized Korea in 1910. The Japanese administration of Korea was sufficiently -- it was economic, political cultural. And so you have, in the contemporary relationship between Japan and Korea, a very long, simmering resentment of that deep history of the Japanese attempt to make Korea part of its empire in the early 20th century.
MCGINTYAnd the Chinese have a beef with Japan as well, which perhaps makes them more likely to side with Korea.
SMITHAbsolutely. And the war in what we think of as World War II in Asia was really the Japanese invasion of China and the anti-imperial project of the Japanese in the early 20th century. So there's a lot of commonality in terms of the experience of imperial Japan.
BOYNTONI mean Northeast Asia is one of the most fascinating parts of the world for me as well because it's a place where history lives in a way that I don't experience anywhere else. It's a way -- a place that the Cold War is still very much going, that historical disputes of 50, 100, 200 years ago are not only unresolved, but people don't agree about what happened, you know? It's as if we were still battling about what happened during, you know, Antietam or something like that. And, you know, these are very open issues and they make their way into everyday life in a way that it's almost unconceivable for Americans to understand.
MCGINTYI'm Derek McGinty and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MCGINTYYou're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Derek McGinty, guest host for the week, and I'm joined here in the in the studio by Robert S. Boynton, author of "The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project," Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Victor Cha, professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Our subject matter is Korea, North Korea specifically. Where it goes from here, its bizarre activities, and why, despite the fact that it's a dangerous, nuclear armed nation, sometimes it seems we don't take it as seriously as perhaps we should.
MCGINTYLet's go back to the phones. David, Daniel, I should say, in Arlington, Virginia, you're on the air.
DANIELHi, all, how are you this morning?
MCGINTYJust fine, thanks. How are you?
DANIELDoing well, thank you for asking. So, I've always been curious about one particular dynamic between China and North Korea, given how China has a client state relationship with North Korea, but it almost seems to suit their interests more to pursue a policy of annexation. It's -- really fits their general attitudes toward the Philippines, towards Taiwan, towards Tibet, towards most of their neighbors, and additionally, it's such a low population in North Korea, where expansion would actually be relatively easy for them. And additionally, you have an entire population that's been indoctrinated around -- one leader. By removing the leader and destabilizing the region, it seems like annexation would be a very quick and simple solution for them to actually follow up the nuclear issue in the region.
MCGINTYCertainly Interesting. Sheila.
SMITHWell, you remember the Korean War ended with an armistice agreement, right, that the Chinese came in and helped defend their North Korean brothers. And when you talk to Chinese about the relationship historically, they talk about, it's a relationship like lips and teeth, right? They have this very odd way of expressing the relationship, but they're both Communist parties, Communist powers. The Communist Party has always seen themselves as being deeply responsible for the development of the Communism in North Korea. But I'm not sure annexation is the right way to think about China's current dilemma with the north. Xi Jinping, China's new leader, has refused to meet the young Kim. Has not had a personal meeting with him yet.
SMITHI think largely because he's young, inexperienced, and somewhat disobeying, the tenor and the tone of what I think the Chinese leadership would like to see in that relationship.
BOYNTONThat said, the economic relationship between China and North Korea on that border is one where China is, you know, harvesting all of the minerals and getting all the kinds of mineral, you know, things that it needs from North Korea. They are -- it's one of the things that got Kim Jung-un's uncle, Jang Song-thaek, perhaps killed, was making these very lucrative contracts with the Chinese. So, you know, political annexation is, I think I agree with Sheila, is unlikely and undesirable, but the Chinese are sort of getting what they want now without that.
MCGINTYWe do have an email here from John, who writes, "the novel, 'The Orphan Master's Son,' brilliantly portrays North Korea as a paranoid society. The abductions are in character with this psychosis. Have the leaflets and the broadcasting from South Korea had any affect?"
CHAWell, they've certainly gotten the regime quite upset. I think what "The Orphan Master's Son" and also Robert's book do, is they also open the American public to a different element of the North Korean problem, and that is the human rights problem in North Korea. We normally look at it largely as a national security problem, to the extent we pay attention to it at all, but really in the past two years, there's been much more interest in the human rights issue, in large part because the United Nations wrote a report two years ago in which they basically refer -- they called for the referral of the North Korean regime to the international criminal court for crimes against humanity.
CHANorth Korea is by far one of the worst human rights abusers in the world today, and "The Orphan Master's Son" as well as Robert's book, I think, both speak to this large problem of human rights in North Korea.
MCGINTYChris in Memphis, Tenn., you're on the air, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
CHRISThank you very much, everybody. My question kind of pertains to the tripwire type policy that we're operating in the South when it comes to military. We have a large contingent of soldiers, troops and equipment in South Korea, but we don't have enough first aid to completely fight off an invasion, and I know we would work with South Korea. If something were to happen in a small military engagement, let's say they were using artillery against each other, and some American soldiers, you know, were injured or killed in that type of engagement, what would the United States do, and how would we attempt to check that nuclear ability in North Korea, if we in fact had to retaliate?
CHASo, the border between North and South Korea is the most heavily militarized border in the world. And Chris is right, that basically the two militaries, the North Korean, 1.1 million man North Korean military on the northern side, and then the 25,000 US troops and the South Korean military are on basically a hair trigger response. So any time there's a crisis, whether it's shelling, as Sheila talked about earlier, or it's sinking boats, or it's firing on the loud speakers, propagating the loud speakers of the DMG, there's always a concern about escalation.
CHAThe United States and South Korea, they have developed what's called a counter provocations plan, which largely allows the two militaries to coordinate very closely, to ensure that you can respond to anything the North does, without it escalating out of control. To me, the biggest danger is North Korean miscalculation, which is their view that they have nuclear weapons, so nobody's gonna touch them, which I don't think is the view of the United States and South Korean military.
SMITHThey also share -- less well known, I think, is they share a maritime border, so in that armistice agreement, there's also what's called the northern limit line, which delineates a maritime boundary and there's islands in between. It's very complex, frankly, it's a negotiated line. And that's really where the North Korean provocations have been focused. Not on the very heavily armed DMZ, where you're looking out at each other, right? But in these little areas where there's fishermen, there's civilians, there's all kinds of populations, and isolated little islands, and it's a place where the North Koreans have a little bit more latitude to poke at the South.
BOYNTONAnd it's important to note that the North Koreans don't recognize the naval line that divides the, supposedly divides the different countries when it comes to the sea, and this played a very important role in the abductions that I wrote about in "The Invitation Only Zone," because in the '50s and '60s, South Korean fishermen, who would, pre-GPS era, would find themselves north of the line, were the ones who were being abducted by the thousands at that time.
MCGINTYI'm gonna read one more email here. It says, "North Korea is a bully, and until somebody punches a bully in the nose, they never stop. I would hope that if North Korea repeated those abductions here in the US, there would be military consequences. I know that Japan is averse to military activates, but were there not calls in Japan for military retaliation?"
BOYNTONThere were, by the right wing, there were many calls for military retaliation, knowing full well that that was all but impossible. The, in fact, one of the sort of conservative activist groups paid a former North Korean spy to go on a reconnaissance mission into North Korea to see if he could find more abductees or other abductees. But there is, there was this general...
MCGINTYDid that fellow come back?
BOYNTONHe did come back. He did come -- he didn't make it there, he did come back.
SMITHHe never got in.
BOYNTONAnd he didn't give back the money either.
MCGINTYVictor Cha, I was interested in something you said regarding North Korea's nuclear deterrents, as it were, it thinks that no one will mess with them because they have them. Is there a sense that the united States thinks we can engage them and not have them use their nuclear weapon?
CHAI think so. It's not, -- I mean, look, the United States is not looking to start a fight with North Korea. But it's been very clear that if North Korea takes any sort of actions that results in the loss of life, whether it's South Korean, US, civilian, or military, that there will be real repercussions for that. And that has always been the US policy, it's been the reason we believe we deterred North Korea successfully from a second Korean war. But again, the main problem on the peninsula is miscalculation. With the leadership, and especially young leadership, that doesn't really understand military strategy and thinks it's just a big video game.
MCGINTYLet's go to Chris in Memphis. You're on the air.
CHRISI already had my question asked.
MCGINTYI'm sorry, Chris, you absolutely did. I'm sorry about that. My mistake. Herman in Baltimore, you're on the air.
HERMANI have three brief items. Number one, Derek, it's good to hear your voice again. It's been a while.
MCGINTYYes it has. Thank you very much.
HERMANNumber two, I'm a Korean War vet. Number three, my theory is that North Korea is so paranoid towards the US because during the Korean War in the late '40s and early '50s, we bombed them back to the Stone Age, and they don't want to go back there again. And I'd like to hear your panel's comments on that.
CHAWell, sir, first, Herman, thank you for your service. South Korea, if you've been there since then, is just an incredible place because of people like you. so you deserve a lot of credit for that, and recognition. On the bombing, it's absolutely true, during the Korean War, the United States ran out of bombing targets because of the heavy bombing that we did in the north. And certainly that's had an impact on the regime. There's a vast underground network of tunnels in North Korea. Their subway system is like a mile underground, and it's all because of the bombing they experienced during the Korean War.
CHASo there certainly is truth to the argument that North Korea feels paranoid. But that paranoid feeling is in part because of history, but it's in part because of the nature of this regime. We're talking about an autocratic dictator who's running a personality cult leadership. Just by definition, that is a paranoid person. And so I've always said, you can surround North Korea with five Costa Ricas, right, a country that has no military, and it would still feel paranoid.
BOYNTONBut this is also a great example of the long reach of history. I mean, you cannot meet a North Korean and not at some point have the bombing of Pyongyang out of North Korea brought up as evidence of the kind of barbaric policies of the United States. This is something that impinges on everyday life and consciousness today.
MCGINTYIf, go ahead, Sheila.
SMITHI was gonna say, it's not just the North. It has also been the South, right? I mean, a demilitarized zone is really a demarcation of a ceasefire. It is not a peace treaty. So this is technically two countries that are still in a state of war, and it has been the organizing principle I think for governments on both sides. South Korea has gone through a massive democratization, transformation. It is a liberal economy, it's a free and open society today. but I wouldn't underestimate the -- there are a lot of Korean War vets on both sides, as well as here in the United States.
MCGINTYI think because of the fact that we've had that demilitarized zone and relative calm in the region, it's enabled leadership all over the world to sort of kick the can down the road on this thing. But does there come a time when it will have to be dealt with in some fashion or another?
SMITHWell, one of the factors is different, and we started off here, I think, talking about the military technology. I mean, this is a different era of warfare than the Korean War was, and the proliferation of both nuclear material and the missiles, right, by the North makes it a very different scenario if you're thinking about an actual armed conflict there.
MCGINTYBut it has to be dealt with.
CHAYes, it absolutely has to be dealt with. I mean, at the rate we're going now, this is going to be an exponentially worse problem for the next administration here in the United States, Because North Korea will continue to build its capabilities. I don't think it's interested right now in dialogue with the United States, it's putting its head down, its nose to the grindstone, trying to develop capabilities. And then they're gonna confront the next administration, you know, almost exactly one year from now with their capability.
MCGINTYAnd with no good choices, apparently.
BOYNTONExactly. I don't think there are gonna be any more choices, any better choices left for them. I mean, it was interesting when Obama came in, one of the first things he did was sort of extend a hand to all sorts of regimes, including North Korea, and the first thing they did was blow up another bomb. So, you know, that's the dynamic.
MCGINTYI'm Derek McGinty, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're continuing our conversation on North Korea. Let's go back to the phones. Anthony in Houston, TX. You're on the air. Go ahead.
ANTHONYYes, hi, thanks for taking my call. I have a question. Why are we so worried about other companies, other countries acquiring a nuclear weapon when we're the only country that had actually used a nuclear weapon against someone?
MCGINTYAll right, thoughts, anybody, on that one?
BOYNTONI think the great fear in, you know, contemporary, you know, terrorism studies, as it were, is that you know, there'll be some not fully formed bomb, but some version of a bomb that will get into the hands of some, you know, small cell somewhere. And that's really the great, I think there's less fear of countries attacking each other than there is that, so that's the reason.
MCGINTYI mean, I think we still go back to the old mutually assured destruction, right? I mean, if you use a nuclear weapon and you're a state, you know that if you use it against us or some other nation that has nukes, then you will face retaliation that will be more than what you want to bear. But does ISIS care? Maybe not.
SMITHBut even in the intermediary and the history, you know, you go from the US and Soviet mutually assured destruction, then you have the Chinese acquisition of the bomb, and then, you know, in the late 1980s and into the '90s you have South Asia proliferate. So you've had proliferation even by states, even before we get to this question of non-state actors. But clearly, we have a lot more nuclear powers today than we had in 1945.
MCGINTYEdward in Lynchburg, you're on the air.
EDWARDHi, thanks for taking my call.
EDWARDI made the statement to the gal that interviewed me before you let me on that last year, there was a statement made on the news way back in the beginning that the regime over there in North Korea made the statement, I heard it right on the Associated Press there, that we are going to fire bomb Washington, DC, and we're going to put a missile on a barge in the Pacific, and hit the west coast. Now you see with their aggressiveness, and it seems like when they want to have a treaty discussion with just us, nobody else, we refused, so they said, okay, we're gonna reactivate our nuclear program (unintelligible).
EDWARDSo now, they get all nervous and upset because after what I heard them say, you know, in World War II, we bombed them into Stone Age, and so now they're careful, they got underground facility and everything. So China said, if you bother North Korea militarily, you're gonna deal with us. So if they get to the point where they have a nuclear weapon, and they threaten us, or they actually use it, even if it's not a full nuclear weapon, and what are we gonna do? Are we gonna sit back and say, well, we better not touch them, because China will come after us and we'll have a full-scale war with China, when we know that whoever hits us is gonna get hit back and that's the end of part of the human race.
CHAYeah, I mean, I think that so they already have nuclear weapons, the general estimate is they probably have about a dozen now. They could have as many as 20 or more by the time President Obama leaves office. So this is not a hypothetical problem, it's a very real problem. Yes, I mean, this leadership, this young, inexperienced leadership has been making threats about firebombing Washington and drawing strike lines of missiles to different cities in the United States. Again, speaking to sort of his unpredictability, like, his father or his grandfather didn't do stuff like that. But I think it's fairly clear, regardless of the question of China, if North Korea were ever to carry out any sort of nuclear act against the United States, as President Clinton, I think said, that would basically be the end of the country as they knew it. And I think that's pretty certain.
MCGINTYAnd do you think that Kim Jung-un understands this?
CHAThat's what I hope, and I think we all hope he understands this. Look, we had to teach the Soviets about nuclear deterrents during the Cold War, and we're still teaching the Chinese about nuclear deterrents. And as you said, Derek, the whole question of mad, mutually assured destruction, so if we're not -- if we had to teach it to those people, you know, and the North Koreans are at a different level than the Soviet Union, it makes you a little bit worried.
MCGINTYWe're gonna have to hope that the lesson doesn't have to be taught the hard way.
MCGINTYBecause that would be bad news for everybody. I want to thank all of you for joining us. You just heard the voice of Victor Cha, professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and author of "The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future." Sheila Smith is here as well, she's senior fellow for Japan Studies on the Council on Foreign Relations, she is author of the book, "Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China." And Robert S. Boynton is author of "The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project." It's been a great conversation. I thank all the listeners who called in as well. I'm Derek McGinty, in for Diane Rehm. And you've been listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
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