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Last week, North Korea declared its 1953 armistice agreement with South Korea invalid. While the North has a long history of provocative and sometimes erratic behavior towards its Southern neighbor, Pyongyang’s latest moves — coming on the heels of a third nuclear test last month — have alarmed long-time Korea-watchers. We get an update on the latest crisis on the Korean peninsula.
- Victor Cha Director of Asian Studies and D.S. Song Chair, Georgetown University; Director for Asian Affairs, National Security Council (2004-2007); and author "Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport"(Columbia University Press)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, austerity measures in Europe and in the U.S. Who's zooming who?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first North Korea has declared an armistice agreement that signaled a truce in the Korean War in 1953 null and void, a response to tougher U.N. Security Council sanctions that followed a nuclear test conducted by the North last month and joint U.S. and South Korea military drills now underway, all of which comes on the heels of several attention-grabbing visits to the country by high profile Americans, including a Google executive and Dennis Rodman.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to help us make sense of it all is Victor Cha. He is a professor at Georgetown University and senior advisor for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's also an author whose latest book is "The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Future." He joins us by phone. Victor Cha, thank you for joining us.
MR. VICTOR CHAHi Kojo, good to be with you.
NNAMDINice talking to you, Victor. At the start of the New Year, North Korea made what were seen as friendly overtures to the South where a new president was readying to take office. Why have things taken such a turn so fast?
CHAWell, Kojo, I think the unpredictable is really the new normal in relations with North Korea. The previous leader of North Korea, though he was a bit eccentric, we kind of knew how he worked. And the one thing that has become clear with this new fellow, since he took office about a year ago, is that, you know, he's very wildly swinging in terms of his behavior.
CHAOn the one hand, he wants to reach out. On the other hand, he wants to do nuclear tests, you know, end the armistice a week after he met with Dennis Rodman. So he really is quite an unpredictable figure, and that's about the only way you can explain it.
NNAMDIWell, none of this is exactly happening in a vacuum. Where does this conflict fit in with the broader power shifts and dynamics we're seeing play out of Asia right now?
CHAWell, I think, on the one hand, a very important part of all this has to do with China in the sense that, for 25 years, the United States has been trying to deal with this problem of nuclear weapons in the small country of North Korea, whose main patron is China.
CHAAnd in the broader scheme of things, I think many countries are looking to China, as it grows and becomes a major power in the international system, to behave like a responsible stake holder and contribute to the public goods of the international system in East Asia by helping to deal with this problem, in particular, working harder to bring the North Koreans back into compliance with agreements that they had made in 2005 and 2007 and, if necessary, using some of its substantially economic leverage to get the North Koreans to be more serious about denuclearization.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're talking about North Korea with Victor Cha. He's a professor at Georgetown University and senior advisor for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His latest book is called "The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Future." 800-433-8850 for your comments or questions, you can also send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet, @kojoshow.
NNAMDILast summer there was some speculation, Victor, that perhaps a kinder, gentler Kim was taking the reins in North Korea. You, for one, were not buying it. Have we underestimated Kim Jong-un?
CHAWell, I think everybody is hopeful that a new younger leader like Kim Jong-un who had spent some time being educated outside of the country would be looking to reform and try to integrate the society and the economy with, you know, the vibrant economic part of the world today. Everybody was hopeful of that and there was some initial signs, things that he did that other previous leaders did not do, very down-to-earth things like going to amusement parks and playing with children in public. And people were hopeful that this would mean we had an enlightened leader here.
NNAMDIWell, allow me to quote what you told "Foreign Policy" last August because, well, it's such a good quote. "The North Korea regime will not change because little Kim studied in Switzerland, likes Mickey Mouse and has a hot wife."
CHARight, that -- yes, very quotable Kojo.
NNAMDIYes, I had to quote it.
CHARight, I think that, you know, everybody was hopeful, but the problem is that the behavior that we've seen since then, I think, shows that he is interested in opening up and accepting some of these Western accouchements of life. But what he's not willing to do is give up his weapons program in exchange for that.
CHAAnd that has essentially been the West's negotiating position for the past 25 years which is, we welcome you, we want a peace treaty, we want to bring you into the international system, but the price for that is to give up your ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, which you are building outside any sort of arms control regime in the world today. And it seems that this new leader wants both of these things at the same time.
NNAMDINorth Korea has hosted some high profile American guests lately. The administration has distanced itself from them. But is there something that we can learn from that, from those visits?
CHAI think there certainly is and I don't know if we have or not, but we should certainly use the opportunity of Rodman's trip, for example...
NNAMDIAmb. Rodman you mean?
CHAAmb. Rodman, to talk to him because he is the only American that we know of that has actually met Kim Jong-un. I mean, Kojo, just, you know, just like two years ago, we knew absolutely nothing about this fellow. I mean, we didn't have a picture. The only picture of him we had was when he was in third grade.
CHAAnd it was only after he became the leader that we started to learn more about him, but still very little compared to what we knew about Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden or, you know, any other leader in the world today. So why not take advantage of this fact and meet with Dennis Rodman and learn what he has learned about the North Korea leadership. I think anything that he would, he could say could be helpful.
NNAMDIWell, there have also been a few literary accounts of life in North Korea in recent months, the nonfiction "Escape from Camp 14" and the novel "The Orphan Master's Son." Do you think those help in understanding our knowledge of North Korea or just in terms of increasing the spotlight on that country?
CHAI think it is helpful, I mean, I think in recent years we've seen a whole genre of literature now come out both, as you said, fiction and nonfiction on life in North Korea. And I think what it's done is it's opened the eyes of the general public with regard to, you know, the human rights problems and how difficult life is inside of this country.
CHAThe general story we hear about North Korea is about the missiles and the military and the nuclear programs, and yet there's a terrible, terrible human rights problem there. And these works, I think, have done a great service in terms of getting the general audience to understand the human story of North Korea.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number if you have comments or questions about North Korea in general or the U.S. relationship with North Korea in particular. 800-433-8850. Here is Antoine in Leesburg, Va. You're on the air. Go ahead please.
ANTOINEYes. So the United States has recently changed its posture, strategic posture in Asia to be much more aggressive in its stance against China and, you know, with military arrangements there and expressing wars or approving of wars in maybe 50 countries. How does that affect the relations with North Korea?
CHAWell, I think North Korea, as a small isolated country, certainly does perceive security threats. I think that's undeniable especially after the Soviet Union collapsed and China normalized relations with South Korea in 1992. And this may in part explain their belligerent behavior.
CHABut at the same time I think that countries like the United States and China, the major powers in the region, have also made very clear to North Korea through the six party talks that nobody is seeking to undermine the regime and, if they would be willing to enter into serious denuclearization agreements, there'd be a lot that they'd get in return, including security assurances.
CHAPresident Obama, as well as President Bush, have all given very clear cut security assurances and statements of nonaggression, no intent to attack North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons. So I think in terms of signaling, we've been pretty clear about where we stand on this, as have the Chinese.
NNAMDIAntoine, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Victor, threats from North Korea aimed at the South or at the U.S. are nothing new. The problem, it seems, is knowing whether or not they can make good on those threats. Should we take those threats with a grain of salt or is there cause for concern?
CHAKojo, you know, I think there's a natural tendency to take it with a little bit of a grain of salt because North Korea has a history of bluster, but the thing that concerns me about the current situation, as I mentioned before, one the leadership. We really don't know how the leadership operates, and it has been quite unpredictable. And, secondly, that the sorts of provocations that we've seen from North Korea, missile tests, nuclear tests over the last two years have really occurred in a much more concentrated grade of time. We've seen a lot more in a short period of time and that's quite worrying.
CHAThe other thing is that in South Korea they just inaugurated their new president Feb. 25, Madam Park, and she -- the history on the peninsula has been the North Koreans tend to do a provocation after the inauguration of a South Korean president. I don't know if they're trying to welcome the new South Korean president in their own way or they're trying to gain some bargaining leverage. But there's a clear pattern there, and so that also concerns me because if history's any indicator they're likely to do something along the lines of the military provocation.
NNAMDIWell, "The New York Times" is reporting today that two-thirds of South Koreans are in favor of rebuilding that country's nuclear capabilities. How seriously should we take that?
CHAWell, you know, I don't know. I mean, I think there's certainly a fringe political element in South Korea that has called for either the return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula or South Korea's own nuclear capabilities. It's -- I don't think it's a serious political option in Korea because if anything they want to try to maintain their place in the NPT the Nonproliferation Treaty regime, not lose their place in it. And, so I think it's an emotionally action but politically I don't think it's a real option.
NNAMDIHere is James in Falls Church, Va. James, you're on the air, go ahead please.
JAMESThank you, thank you for taking my call. I just had a quick question related to your point on we've offered security guarantees to North Korea. It's sort of the talk is cheap because we did after all have an arrangement with Libya who'd gotten rid of its chemical and weapons and, I guess, its nuclear infrastructure. And then we brought it down when the first opportunity came along. I was wondering if North Korea doesn't feel the, our offers of security as somewhat maybe not reliable and if that's not a factor in their calculations.
NNAMDIThinking that what we are in fact looking for is regime change, Victor Cha.
CHAWell, I think anytime you have two countries that have had the adversarial relationship that North Korea and the United States have had, you know, since the Korean War in 1950, there's going to be a huge element of distrust. But the security guarantees that were given to North Korea by the United States across administrations were given at the request -- in fact, at the demand of the North Koreans themselves.
CHAThey were the ones who wanted these things as a condition for denuclearization. So we gave them what they wanted. Now, of course, certainly they may not believe those things, but part of -- I think part of that may be their own paranoia being a small country. But part of it also, I think, inheres in the nature of this regime.
CHAI mean, when you have a small autocratic country, you know, with a leadership like you have in North Korea, there's naturally going to be a tendency to be paranoid. I mean, if you look at the way the country controls its population, they're in constant fear of some sort of subversive threat. So, you know, I won't disagree with you. I think some of it certainly comes from their concern about the outside...
NNAMDIWell, the New York Times reported, I guess, back in 2011, that North Korea's statement that Libya's dismantling of its nuclear weapons program had made it vulnerable to military intervention by the West. Well, analysts see that it was -- some analysts -- as an ominous reinforcement of the North's refusal to end its own nuclear program. Do you make that connection?
CHAI could certainly see why North Korean leadership would make that connection, absolutely.
CHABut on the other hand, you have -- you know, that's one case. You have other cases like Burma where there's been a complete change in the U.S. relationship with that country in part because the generals there decided that they were going to make that strategic decision. And so I think, you know, you have a case, you know, like Libya, but you also have a case like Burma where the situation turned out quite differently.
NNAMDICould you talk a little bit, Victor Cha, about the history of the U.S. attempting to make, if you will, back channel communications with North Korea and the extent to which that has been successful or not?
CHAGenerally, the sort of back channel, or what we call track two sorts of contacts, occurs at times when the official dialogue is going nowhere or there is no official dialogue. And so you have folks like Gov. Bill Richardson who's been a big proponent of that.
CHAAnd now more recent cases, like Google's Eric Schmidt, Dennis Rodman and others, these sorts of things, I think, help to maintain some sort of dialogue, but -- and that's helpful when there's nothing going on or there's no discussion. But I don't think it really pushes forward the initial...
NNAMDIAnd all -- and of those three people you mentioned, only one of them, Dennis Rodman, seems to have spent any significant time with Kim Jong-un.
CHAThat's absolutely right. And we've had former presidents -- President Carter and President Clinton have both been to North Korea, Google's Eric Schmidt and others, the New York Philharmonic. All sorts of groups have gone in, but the only one who has spent any time with the new North Korean leader is the former Chicago Bulls star.
NNAMDIWell, Victor Cha, we'll have to see how or where this goes from here. Victor Cha, thank you for joining us.
CHAIt's always a pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIVictor Cha is a professor at Georgetown University and senior advisor for Asia, the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's also an author whose latest book is called "The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, austerity measures in Europe and the U.S. What's working, what's not? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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