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As North Korea continues to raise the stakes in its daily threats against American military posts, the U.S. is taking preventative measures against a possible — yet unlikely — strike. Kojo finds out why North Korea is continuing its bellicose posturing, and examines the end game for both the Korean peninsula and the broader global community.
- Josh Rogin Senior Staff Writer, Foreign Policy magazine; author of the blog The Cable
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, the pitfalls of interpreting the Constitution literally. We'll talk about the concept of constitutional disobedience and why that seems to upset some people so much. But first, tensions between North Korea and its neighbors increase with the news that North Korea reportedly moved a missile to its east coast.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe move comes as the United States and South Korea conduct their annual military exercises. South Korea's defense minister says the weapon appears to be an intermediate range missile that could not reach the U.S. but could easily hit Japan. He said it may be intended for test firing or for drills. The missile placement follows other provocative acts by North Korea including the threat of a nuclear attack on the United States and the refusal to let South Korean workers enter an industrial park just across the border.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn response to the North Korean threats the United States is moving a missile defense system to Guam to protect its bases in the Pacific. Here in Washington officials are concerned that intensifying rhetoric could lead to miscalculations on both sides. And joining us by phone to discuss this is Josh Rogin, senior staff writer with Foreign Policy magazine and author of the blog The Cable. Josh, thank you for joining us.
MR. JOSH ROGINAlways great to be with you.
NNAMDIJosh, North Korea has reportedly moved an intermediate range missile to its east coast escalating tension with the U.S. and the west. How should we interpret this latest action and how is the United States responding?
ROGINSure. Well, this is a clear ratcheting up of the brigsmanship on the part of the North Koreans. What we had been hearing all this week from the Obama Administration was that North Korea's bellicose rhetoric had not been matched by actions on the ground that would suggest that they were planning to do something provocative once again. The administration can no longer say that because now there seem to be actions on the ground that indicate North Korea's planning to do something provocative. What it is, we don't know.
ROGINSo there's also a recognition in the U.S. government, as was reported by the Wall Street Journal this morning, that this tit for tat response between North Korea and the United States, which has included flying B-2 bombers and F-22 fighters in South Korea, moving missile defense assets, moving naval assets into the region. That this may be having a counterproductive effect in feeding and fueling the war words between the two sides. And there's now an impetus to ratchet down the rhetoric and deescalate at least on the U.S. side. We haven't seen that impetus on the North Korea side as of yet.
NNAMDIWell, because one can get the impression that the North Korean President Kim Jong-Un just woke up one morning and decided to start rattling sabers and be bellicose. What is it that we can discern that has been provoking him at this particular time?
ROGINSure. Well, there are certainly several things going on at once. Most analysts believe that in part Kim Jong-Un is doing this to address his domestic audience and consolidate power inside his own system. A relatively young, relatively weak, relatively new leader in North Korea may be seeking to consolidate his position and to align himself with more hawkish forces inside the North Korean elite system.
ROGINA second thing that's going on here is that North Korea has several things that it wants. Let's remember that it's basically a mafia state, a kleptocracy if you will. And their long standing pattern going back 20 years if not more is to increase rhetoric and increase tensions and to basically use extortion as a tool to press the International Community to provide them with things that they need on a practical basis. These include energy, food you know, fuel, whatever it is, cash money, whatever it is that they feel that they need to maintain their hold in their regime and their place.
ROGINSo this extortion has typically worked. And this time the International Community is less willing to bribe the North Korean regime by providing them things in exchange for them fulfilling what -- the international obligations they previously committed to. So North Korea has to go to increasingly drastic measures in order to make this extortion really hit home.
ROGINThe policy of the Obama Administration has been to avoid engaging with North Korea. It's called strategic patience. And the result of that policy has been that North Korea's doing increasingly antagonistic things in order to get our attention. And they just might have found a way to get it.
NNAMDIWell, you raised a number of questions there. I'll deal with the first, and that is the internal political situation in North Korea in which you say we may be looking at a young leader who may be weak, who may be attempting to consolidate power, who may be attempting to appease certain elements in North Korea. Which raises the question, exactly how reliable is our intelligence when it comes to the internal political machinations in North Korea?
ROGINRight. Typically our intelligence on internal politics inside North Korea is terrible. And now it's even -- these days it's even worse. The back channels that we've used to communicate with the North Koreans has been cut off. We had a couple of secret government delegations and a couple of not-so-secret what we call track 2 expert delegations to North Korea in 2012. But the last one of those was now several months ago.
ROGINSo it's largely speculation. A lot of it comes from South Korean intelligence, as you mentioned in your lead up, with the South Koreans who let us know that the missiles had been moved in the first place. So it's a lot of Kremlin-ology, it's a lot of speculation and not a lot of fact. And that's just the way it is.
NNAMDIAnd you mentioned how President Obama's approach to this may have the effect of emboldening the North Koreans. And one has to wonder what would happen if we were to ignore Kim Jong-Un completely?
ROGINWell, you know, on one hand that's essentially what we've been doing. And that has only provoked him a little bit more.
NNAMDIPay attention to me.
ROGINThe problem is that North Korea seeks to project the notion that America is preparing to attack it. So when we move assets and military equipment closer to North Korea, that feeds his narrative not ours. At the same time these are things that we have to do in order to reassure our allies, such as South Korea and Japan, that we're prepared for a North Korea contingency. So, you know, we're damned if we do and we're damned if we don't. So what...
NNAMDIWe're talking with Josh Rogin. He is senior staff writer with Foreign Policy magazine and author of the blog "The Cable." Josh, North Korea also blocked entry into an industrial park for South Koreans who regularly cross the border to work there. What's the significance of that?
ROGINRight. The Kaesong industrial complex is a joint project that allows South Korean workers to work inside North Korea, and actually provides a lot of benefits to North Korea economically in terms of hard currency and industrial development. This is a rare move. And even in past flare-ups, even when the North Koreans sunk a South Korean ship and bombed -- shelled the South Korean island, they did not take the step of closing access to this complex.
ROGINSo the fact that they've done this now is another signal that this is an unusual crisis. It's not your regular run of the mill North Korean provocation. This is something somewhat unprecedented and that's what we should take out of that move.
NNAMDINorth Korea repeated its threat that it's prepared to attack the United States with a nuclear weapon, but quote unquote "experts" say North Korea does not have the capability to reach the U.S. with a missile. What is the reliability of the information being provided by the quote unquote "experts?"
ROGINRight. Well, we actually have a pretty good idea of what North Korea has in its arsenal. And let's remember that they've been testing the types of long range missiles that could reach the U.S. And none of those tests have been successful. Of course it takes several tries to test these missile before they would be successful, so you never know if the next one will be the successful one. But as of right now, they do not have the capability to strike the Continental U.S., as far as we know.
ROGINWhat they do have are some medium range ballistic missiles. The range is somewhere around 1800 miles. That could strike all of Japan, South Korea, perhaps reach Guam. And that means that many U.S. citizens and U.S. troops and U.S. allies are in their range. What we saw on the North Korean propaganda videos is that they were planning to attack places like Austin, Texas. That was probably more bluster than reality.
NNAMDIIs there a face-saving way to deescalate the situation?
ROGINAt this moment, no, but ultimately there will have to be some sort of diplomacy with North Korea in order to settle this and deescalate this. It's impossible for the Obama Administration both politically and diplomatically to do that in the middle of being threatened with nuclear annihilation. The conditions are not right at this moment. In the end there will have to be some sort of face-to-face meeting and there will have to be some sort of deal struck, which the environment is just not right for that at this moment.
NNAMDIWhat do you think is going on behind the scenes now in the U.S. at the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department?
ROGINRight. So the -- you know, all of the parts of our government are working on this in different ways. As I mentioned before, the White House is seeking to deescalate and risk -- and to decrease the risk of miscalculation. They're afraid that contingency plans that are already in place may force or may trigger a reaction by one or both sides that would lead to violence, a violence that maybe neither leadership structure really wants.
ROGINThe Pentagon, on the other hand, they're focused on hedging and preparing for a contingency that may come. And this means being ready in assuring their allies and their partners in the region that those allies and partners don't have to act unilaterally, because the United States is prepared to respond. The State Department is in relationship management mode. They want to make sure the messages are the same. They want to make sure that everyone's reading off the same page of paper, that the intelligence that they're all sharing matches. And that when they talk to the public that the ally front remains united.
NNAMDIWhat is China's role?
ROGINWell, China is largely assumed to be the only country that can exert influence over North Korean leadership. But nobody knows exactly how much influence that is. And the Chinese, of course, are very reluctant to use that influence less they reveal its limits and reveal their impotence in pressuring -- their ability to pressure North Korea to do things that they want. China's priority here is stability.
ROGINTheir priority here is to enable the North Korean regime to continue going on doing what it's doing, but without -- but they're also behind the scenes believed to be pressuring North Korea to stop escalating and stop provoking the International Community. And so far those efforts have been entirely unsuccessful.
NNAMDIWell, North Korea has certainly made military threats before and even taken nonnuclear action. What are the variables here?
ROGINRight. So there are a host of things that could happen that are not as dire as a nuclear strike by North Korea and not as passive as simply advancing bellicose rhetoric. And what we've seen in the past are limited uses of North Korean military force. So at the very least they could shoot off missiles. Another step they could take would be to do a limited attack on South Korean assets as they did two years ago when they sunk the South Korean ship or shelled the South Korean island. Or they could, you know, attempt to detonate another nuclear device. They have a whole range of options that they could do.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time quickly, Josh. Most experts don't think North Korea will actually wage war but the worry is that as tensions rise there's a greater chance of miscalculation on both sides that could have dire consequences. What's going to happen next?
ROGINWell, that's the unanswerable question, is what's going to happen next.
NNAMDIThe military exercises -- when do the military exercises end?
ROGINSure, sure. So U.S. and South Korea are engaged in extensive military exercises right now. They will end in a few days actually. And at that point North Korea has a binary choice. They can either declare victory and tell their people that they've successfully repelled the U.S./South Korean invasion. And that could be the beginning of the end of this conflict. Or they can decide that that's the perfect time to do something provocative because that's when the U.S. forces that have amassed in the region will have dialed it back.
ROGINThat's their choices. It's not clear that they've decided what they're going to do but the ball is in their court in that regard.
NNAMDIJosh Rogin is senior staff writer with Foreign Policy magazine and author of the blog The Cable. Josh Rogin, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we explore the concept of constitutional disobedience and why that seems to anger so many people. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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