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Questions about North Korea’s leadership and their intentions always swirl, but have been amplified and multiplied of late. Leader Kim Jong Un hasn’t been seen in public for over a month, American detainees have been spotlighted, and North and South Korea exchanged fire days after delegations from the two nations met. We sort through the rumors and consider if what we know might signal major change on the horizon.
- Bruce Bennett Senior defense analyst, RAND Corporation
- 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, why the gap between the candidates for Governor of Maryland seems to be closing. But first, questions about North Korea's leadership and the intentions of those at the top are nothing new. Rumors always swirl about the secretive, so-called hermit kingdom. But recently, they seem to be amplified and multiplied.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAfter over a month with no sightings of leader Kim Jong Un in public, recent sentencing of American detainees and North and South Korean ships exchanging fire, days after delegations from the two nations met. Here to help us determine whether this all means something big is on the horizon, or if it's well, business as unusual, is Victor Cha. He is a professor at Georgetown University and senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's the author of "The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Future." Victor Cha, good to see you again.
MR. VICTOR CHAGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso joining us from studios in Santa Monica is Bruce Bennett. He's a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation who works primarily on research topics, including strategy, force planning and counter proliferation within the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center. Bruce Bennett, thank you for joining us.
MR. BRUCE BENNETTThank you. My privilege, Kojo.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. If you've been following the news and the rumors out of North Korea, call us with your questions. 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. You can shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Victor, let's begin within North Korea's borders. Leader Kim Jong Un has not been seen publicly in over a month with rumors swirling around reasons why not, ranging from a bout of gout to an ouster. What do we actually know and what can we learn from these rumors?
CHAWell Kojo, like you said in the opening piece, we really don't have a lot of facts about what's going on inside of North Korea. We do know that he has been missing for well over a month. This is the longest period that he's been out of public view. He's missed some very important meetings related to the party and governing of the country as well as celebratory festivities having to do with the party and the family's relationship, the Kim family's relationship with the party.
CHASo, that's for certain. We haven't seen him. Now, what's the reason? It could be health related. There are a lot of stories about bad feet, bad ankles, bad knees. But it could be something worse, because they pay a lot of attention, the North Koreans do, to the western media and what they say about the leadership. And the fact that there are so many rumors swirling, you would think would lead them to want to try to do something to present their leadership. But they haven't done so thus far. And it does raise questions about whether it's just health or something else.
NNAMDIIn the leader's absence, his sister has stepped up. What do we know about Kim Yo-jong and is there any substance to rumors that she's now running the country?
CHAWell, we know very little about her. We know less about her than we do about Kim Jong Un himself. And we knew very, very little about him when he took over for his father, who died of a sudden heart attack a couple of years ago. She's in her mid-20s, she's had some smaller roles in the party. A lot of it has to with public appearances and she has been seen a few times recently with her brother and her sister-in-law at different events. But, you know, the reality is, if it is true that she is now playing a role in running the country, that only underlines the mystery behind why the leader is missing.
CHAAnd now the affairs of state are in the hands of a mid, someone in their mid-20s who's never run a country, let alone anything else before.
NNAMDINext question's for both of you, but I'll start with you, Bruce Bennett. Early this month, North Korea's purported second in command led a delegation to a sporting event in South Korea where he met with the latter country's unification minister. But just days later, ships from each nation exchanged warning shots after a North Korean patrol boat allegedly crossed a disputed maritime border, according to reports from the south. Is this more business as usual between the neighboring nations, or are we seeing anything new here?
BENNETTWell, we have to remember that the North Korean navy does not have precision navigation systems the same way the South Korean navy does. They don't have a lot of money to invest in their military, don't have a very large gross domestic product either. So, that ship should -- the North Korean ship could simply have gotten lost, or it could have been a purposeful action. We really don't know. If it was purposeful, they've done purposeful things before. They may have been testing to see how South Korea would react in the aftermath of the visit.
BENNETTWe don't know for sure. Certainly, South Korea made it very clear in their response that if a ship crosses the border, they plan to respond, and that this is -- they're not going to take any nonsense from the north.
NNAMDIWould you, how do you interpret this, Victor Cha?
CHAI mean, I think what Bruce says makes a lot of sense. The thing that worries me, Kojo, is that we expect certain types of behavior from North Korea, so when they start doing a bunch of provocations and the rhetoric gets really fiery, we're kind of used to that. We know how to deal with that. If they go into an engagement mode, you know, trying to make up with countries, whether it's South Korea, the United States or Japan, we kind of know how to deal with that, too. But when you see this wide variation in behavior, you know, the leader's missing.
CHAThey send a high level delegation to South Korea, you know, less than 48 hours later, there are shots fired between the two sides. When you have that sort of wide variations in behavior over a short period of time, that's when you get worried that something's not right inside the system.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're discussing North Korea with Victor Cha. He's a professor at Georgetown University and senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The author of "The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Future." Bruce Bennett joins us from studios in Santa Monica. He's a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think the US role should be in the event of a regime collapse in North Korea?
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Bruce, given your experience in asymmetric threats and how little information we have about what's actually happening in North Korea, how therefore do we go about defining and contextualizing the threat that the nation poses?
BENNETTWe know that North Korea has done a considerable amount of work on weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear, chemical and biological, all three. We don't know exactly what capabilities they have. Probably at least several nuclear weapons, maybe 20 or 30. It's reported in the South Korean Defense Ministry White Paper that they may have 2500 to 5,000 tons of chemical weapons. Those are huge, huge quantities that could kill millions of people. We don't know for sure, though, whether they have them, whether they're ready to use them.
BENNETTAnd what it says though is we better hedge. I buy fire insurance for my house every year, because even though I think it's a very, very low probability that I'm going to have a fire, I want to cover that possibility. We also have a low probability of a war with North Korea, but we need to hedge against it and be prepared to deal with a north that behaves irrationally. Because just exactly as Victor says, we don't know for sure what's going on and we don't know what moves they plan next.
NNAMDIBruce, you find, nevertheless, that there's reasonable probability that the North Korean totalitarian regime, as it has stood recently, will likely come to an end soon. What factors lead you to that conclusion and why now?
BENNETTWell, the regime has considerable difficulties in many dimensions. The economy is not in great shape. They're not feeding their people very well. Their infrastructure, industrial infrastructure is in serious difficulty. It's old, it needs replacement. Electrical power is questionable at times. So, they have many problems, and they blame those problems on the outside. But as more information gets into North Korea, and especially the balloons like we saw this last week, they help people understand in the north, that despite all the propaganda the north has put together, there really are problems with the regime.
BENNETTThe regime really is a major cause of the difficulties of the north instead of the US and South Korea being the cause of the problems, as the north blames us. So, yeah, there could be a difficulty. There could even have been some form of partial or full coup against Kim Jong Un. We really don't know, and we wouldn't know necessarily. Lots of reporters are saying, well, we don't see any evidence right now. If I were leading a coup in North Korea, I would want to make it look like things were perfectly normal right now.
NNAMDIWhat do you think about Bruce's assessment, Victor?
CHAI don't disagree with it. A couple of points. The first is that this speculation about whether there's something more serious going on inside of North Korea. Some people don't like it. They say, you know, it's sort of wishing for North Korean collapse. I think anybody who cares about national security -- you have to think about this. Because as Bruce said a minute ago, North Korea's not going to do a second North Korean invasion of the south. They're deterred from that.
CHABut what you worry about is something like this, where internally, things break down. And then all of a sudden, you have a country with the largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction in the world now without a leader. Right? And we know that they don't like the United States. They try to test missiles, they try to test nuclear weapons, so it's a real concern. And it's perfectly responsible to worry and think about whether, you know, there is a leader there or there isn't a leader there.
NNAMDIHere is Ken in Gaithersburg, Maryland, who I think wants to pose the question directly. Ken, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KENWell, actually, the question's a little bit more nuanced. The upper echelons of the Korean military owe their very expensive lifestyles to, essentially, how much they can skim off the military budget. But they also consider themselves professional soldiers. And it's my understanding that they held the younger Kim in great disdain. So, the question is, how much was in he in control before? You know, was he simply an amusing figure to be held out publicly, and have they simply lost their patience with him?
KENThe other thing I would like to note is that the Chinese have, in recent months, been moving their military closer to the Korean border to discourage the outpouring of refugees.
BENNETTWell, we don't know for sure the situation. You know, there is some possibility that Kim Jong Un hasn't had full control and full say in the country for some time. We just don't know. The military, certainly, has continued to act, but he has clearly constrained the military power from what his father had allowed, in terms of the military. Probably he has had major degree of control up until recently. But North Korea is not at all an open state. We really don't know what goes on and who holds what power and who is making what decisions.
BENNETTThe military is dissatisfied. The other group we know that's very dissatisfied is the younger generation of the elites in the north. While they appreciate all the benefits that they get from being in the elites, they had hoped that Kim Jong Un would be able to do something more, and he hasn't been able to do that. So, it's just not clear.
NNAMDIVictor, if, or perhaps when, the North Korean regime collapses, what kinds of moves do you anticipate from its nearest neighbors? And let's consider China first. Where do relations between those two countries stand, and how might China react to a power vacuum next door?
CHAWell, historically, China has been the closest thing to an ally for North Korea. For decades it provided energy and food, all at, if not free, at very low prices so that the North Korean system could continue to operate. Recently, really since the third nuclear tests by North Korea and the ascensions of power of this young fellow, the Chinese have been much more distant in terms of their relationship with the North. They're not happy with this leader. The Chinese have met five times with the South Korean leader. They haven't met once yet with the North Korean leader. And so I think there clearly is a sense of disgust, distrust that the Chinese have towards the North Koreans under this leader Kim Jong-un.
CHAIf something were to happen in North Korea, regardless of whether it was Kim Jong-un or anybody else who was leading the country that fell from power, my guess is the primary Chinese concern would be the border. North Korea and China share a fairly long border and a river that bisects the border that is not very deep in certain parts. And there's a concern about lots of North Korean refugees coming across that border carrying with them, you know, disease and other things since they're a malnutrition population. There's a lot of disease in the country.
CHASo I think that would be their main concern. Obviously the United States and the Chinese would also be concerned about who had control of the weapons, the missiles, the nuclear weapons, the artillery. And I think that would be a major issue for both sides. But, you know, if there is a power vacuum or this thing starts to fall apart, it's not a pretty picture at all.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation on North Korea and take your calls at 800-433-8850. Are you following the news, are you following the rumors out of North Korea? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing North Korea with Victor Cha. He's a professor at Georgetown University and senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, author of the book "The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Future." He joins us in studio. Joining us from studios in Santa Monica is Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation. Bruce works primarily on research topics including strategy, force planning and counter proliferation within the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center.
NNAMDIBruce, because the U.S. is an ally of South Korea, you stress the importance of U.S. preparation in the event of a collapse in the DPRK. What do we need to be prepared for as part of a potential partnership with the South and how prepared do you think the U.S. is at this moment for that possibility?
BENNETTWell, you think about a country that has potentially even a couple of dozen nuclear weapons, thousands of tons of chemical weapons, as Victor said, if the government starts to fail to lose -- to maintain control, those weapons could be used against their neighbors. They could be sold to third parties, to terrorist groups and so forth. And if terrorists get a hold of them, they will clearly be interested in targeting the United States.
BENNETTSo if there is a collapse in North Korea, there is a strong U.S. interest to get those weapons under control quickly. While one could in theory bomb locations where we think those weapons might be, that's not necessarily a way to control them. You bomb a chemical weapon site and more often than not you spread the weapon rather than destroy it.
BENNETTAnd so we potentially need to have the so-called boots on the ground, ground forces who can go in and police these things up. The difficulty is the United States has only one brigade combat team of about 4,000 personnel in Korea. We have a division there but it is not a full division. And it would take some time to get a substantial U.S. force to Korea to deal with these weapons.
NNAMDIVictor, U.S. interest in North Korea includes concern over the fate of several Americans being detained in the country's labor camps and continue unease over North Korea's human rights record more broadly. In an exchange of emails with the BBC, North Korean Ambassador Hyon Hak Bong defended North Korea's human rights record. Let's take a listen to BBC's Steve Evans' report from Seoul.
MR. STEVE EVANSThe North Korean ambassador told the BBC that charges of human rights violations were false and driven by the United States. He said North Korea was prepared to discuss human rights with the European Union, which has been considering having the country's leader Kim Jong-un indicted in the international criminal courts. Let me make it clear, the North Korean ambassador said, we do not have political prisons or political camps. There were, what he calls, reform institutions where reform was conducted through labor but these were not labor camps.
MR. STEVE EVANSThe American missionary Kenneth Bae, for example, was being held in a reform institution and not a labor camp. And on the puzzle over the missing leader, the ambassador said only, our respected leader Comrade Kim Jong-un is healthy and no doubt about it.
NNAMDIThat was Steve Evans' report. He's of the BBC reporting from Seoul. Victor Cha, what is being done and what more might be done to retrieve these Americans?
CHAWell, there are three right now that are being held. I think two of them have been sentenced and already are serving in a labor camp. In the past, the North Koreans have done this and the answer has been to send over a high-level American official or a formal official to get them. Probably the most well-known case to the American public is when two journalists, American journalists who work for a current TV were taken. And President Clinton went to bring them back. Kenneth Bae, the one who's been held now for quite some time, has been the object or topic of discussions I think between the United States and the DPRK but there still hasn't been a solution.
CHAI just would say that for most of these folks maybe there must've been some reason why they're in North Korea but whatever they did, even if they did anything, is not the sort of thing that would allow a country to suddenly seize them, put them on trial without legal representation and then throw them into a labor camp. That's just not acceptable, and yet the North Koreans do this without any hesitance.
NNAMDIOnto the phones. Here is V. J. in Ashburn, Va. V. J., you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
V. J.Okay. Thank you for taking my call. I have this question for the experts. Does any one of you think that because of the way Kim treated his uncle and removed him from power structure, there is a family backlash going on and that could be the reason of his disappearance? And I'll take my answer off then. Thank you.
NNAMDIWell, you know, the North Koreans news agency announced that Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of Kim had been executed, didn't provide any details about the manner of the execution but Stellar (sp?) also emails, "I seem to remember Kim had his uncle executed. Is there a sense of whether he's experiencing some fallout from that," Bruce Bennett?
BENNETTWell, I think the kind of fallout one would expect may be just a little bit different. As I understand it, Kim's father Kim Jong-il, had protected a group of senior members of the North Korean regime and told them that if they fell from power they still wouldn't be executed. And this happened with his uncle Jang twice previously. He had fallen from power. He was returned to power eventually.
BENNETTBut then under Kim Jong-un he gets executed. The message to anybody in that second tier of leadership is a pretty serious message because it says, you succeed or potentially you and your family members are dead. And that's particularly true if there is any kind of overthrow in the North. That second tier is unlikely to think that they're safe if they don't take control. Each member may well be vying for control. So what Kim Jong-un has done is convince people that they shouldn't want to rebel against him. But if they do, it could be a very divisive thing.
NNAMDIOn, therefore, to Douglas in McLean, Va. Douglas, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DOUGLASYes. I wanted to say what I would do if I were president and the North Korean government fell apart and started shooting or there was utter chaos there. And the first thing I would do is to tell the Chinese, stay out. The last time you got involved it ended, you know, a horrible war that went on for several years. We are going to handle this. We are going to reunite the Koreas and you are going to have nothing to do with this.
NNAMDIIs that a realistic request and expectation, Victor Cha? After all...
DOUGLASThat's my question.
NNAMDI...this is their backyard.
CHAYeah, it is. I mean, it is their backyard and frankly it'd be hard for me to imagine that the Chinese would not want to play a role, not because they're seeking domination of the peninsula just because I'm sure that they would see their vital interest at stake. It would be as if something major were to happen in Canada and someone were to tell us, no, don't get involved. We're going to handle this.
CHASo I think it would be all three parties. I mean, the United States would clearly be involved. The South Koreans would be very much involved since it's their country and the Chinese would be quite involved as well. And then I think a lot of international institutions, whether it's the World Bank, the IMF, others would be involved too because this would be -- you know, there's nothing bigger in international relations than when sovereign borders change or when a state collapses. So this would be a project that the world would be involved in.
CHAAnd the problem right now, I think, is that there's not enough discussions or planning taking place among some of the key parties, particularly the United States and South Korea with China about this problem because if they plan it out, they can come up with a solution that would work well for everyone. But if they don't plant it out then you get a lot of misperception. You get a lot of second guessing. And that's when you get mistakes, problems, escalations and potentially even war.
NNAMDIBruce Bennett, your response to Douglas' suggestion that the U.S. tells China hands off?
BENNETTYeah, my expectation would be that china would reverse it and tell the United States, look, you have no role here. This is our ally. We're going to go in and support some faction in the North and they're the legitimate government. We're going to put down the insurgency against them and return control. And don't cross the border. It could mean war. So I think Victor is exactly right. We need to be doing more talking with the Chinese and discussing it.
BENNETTThe challenge we face though are really twofold. First, the Chinese think they have significant equities and they don't really want U.S. forces up on their border, even as far north as Yongbyon, the main nuclear plant. That's a key target which we would like to get to to resolve the WMD threat. But that's probably too far north for the Chinese to us go.
BENNETTSo you've got that problem. You've also got major concerns among the Chinese about exactly how we would handle things in the North. And in particular with the South Koreans, we think of the South Koreans having a very large military and yet they have horrendous demographic problems. The South Koreans are only getting 1.2 births per woman per lifetime. The size of their draft age corp., the young men going into the military is falling precipitously. And so they're going to have a much smaller military over time. There really may not be much of a choice but to make it a mutual intervention in order to handle the situation in the North.
NNAMDIGiven our involvement elsewhere, Bruce and Victor, is this something that we are really prepared to do? What is the possibility or likelihood that the United States, China and South Korea could get together to try to work out a solution about this? Are we prepared for that kind of thing? First you, Victor.
CHAWell, I think the last thing the administration probably needs is a nuclear crisis, loose nooks crisis in North Korea on top of everything else.
NNAMDIThat would get our attention, yes.
CHAYeah, the -- you know, I think the U.S. and South Korea are much better prepared today than they were five or ten years ago. And I think it's in part because there's an understanding that the situation in the North is quite unstable after the death of Kim Jong-il, the last leader. And at the same time, the nuclear weapons problem is just getting worse and worse. It's a runaway problem right now.
CHASo I think the U.S. and South Korea are better prepared than they were in the past. And the South Koreans are trying to talk to the Chinese more about this issue, obviously not in the open but quietly. And I think the difficulty is that there isn't really an acknowledgement on all sides that this is something that we need to work on together. People are too concerned about upsetting the North Koreans, about giving diplomacy one more chance, although that is not likely to be successful. And there needs to really be an acknowledgment on all three sides that this is something where they have to get operational. They have to really start talking about planning because the North Korean leader's been missing for over a month.
NNAMDIBruce Bennett, are we there yet?
BENNETTNo. We aren’t at the point, just as Victor says, We have not gotten to a point where we're carrying out the kind of dialogue with -- well, we do with South Korea though there are still many points of disagreement with regard to a collapse. But if you turn to China, the ability to talk to China has not been great. The Chinese have generally rebuffed the discussion so they did not appear disloyal to the North Koreans and thereby lose what little leverage they had over the North.
BENNETTSo we're at a point in time where though the Chinese are more prepared to talk, I believe, in my discussions with Chinese individuals, and it really is a time to begin the process of discussing possibilities and how we would handle such a situation. I would note that key issue is, how do we convince the North Koreans that there really is a future after a collapse that the net result of unification will be something they can live with because if we don’t, they may well fight against it.
NNAMDIAs we continue to watch from the outside, what are you keeping an eye out for next from North Korea, Victor Cha?
CHASo well, a sighting of the leader would be nice to see if he is in fact healthy and okay. I guess the other would be you'd want to track whether there is significant movement of military forces inside the country. That would be a sign that things aren't going very well. And then also what is happening on the borders and then what people are hearing in China from North Koreans who move across that relatively poorest border with China. Those would probably be the three things that I'd be looking at.
NNAMDIBruce Bennett, what are you keeping an eye for?
BENNETTWell, North Korea traditionally, when they have faced internal challenges and potential instability, have turned to major provocations as a way of demonstrating the empowerment of the government, the strength of the leader. So I worry in the immediate future about some kind of major provocation, another long-range missile test, another nuclear test, maybe even a limited attack on South Korea.
BENNETTAnd the problem with any of those, but especially of a limited attack on South Korea, is the South Koreans have now taken a bigger role in deterrence. And if indeed the North takes a major attack like the shelling of the island they did in 2010, the South Korean reaction could be so escalatory that the North would escalate in response and we could get stuck in an escalation spiral. So these provocations are very slippery ground and we need to be concerned about any North Korean preparation for such.
NNAMDIAnd finally, Victor, there's this by way of email from Jonathan. "Since we're playing the North Korean equivalent of where is Waldo, has anyone floated the possibility that Kim Jong-un has undergone gastric bypass surgery and is planning an upcoming debut of a leaner, meaner and buffed up Kim to lead the country?" It seems like a particularly western cultural expectation, isn't it?
CHAYeah, I think that's probably the case. But, I mean, speaking to the health issue, which the questioner is getting at, I mean, it's very clear that this fellow is not healthy. I mean, he is 30 years old. Western diplomats that have seen him, largely Europeans, say he's quite obese, chain smoker, drinks a lot. Even if you're Kim Jong-un, running a country is very stressful. So, you know, for all these reasons there could very well be legitimate health problems that are debilitating him that don't just have to do with an ankle or a foot, but could be something related to his heart or anything else. The history of the Kim family -- there's -- they have heart disease in the family. The last two leaders died of massive heart attacks.
NNAMDIVictor Cha is a professor at Georgetown University and senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, author of the book, "The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future." Victor, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIBruce Bennett is a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation. He works primarily on research topics, including strategy, force planning and counter-proliferation within the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center. Bruce, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, why the gap between the candidates running for Governor of Maryland seems to be closing. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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