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The U.S. has sent an aircraft carrier to Korea to take part in naval drills to begin this weekend in response to an attack against South Korea by the North. Four South Koreans – including two civilians – were killed when North Korea fired a barrage of artillery on an island in disputed maritime waters. The attack has provoked the gravest escalation of tensions between the two countries in decades. The conflict comes on the heels of worrisome revelations about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. What options the U.S. has to deal with the crisis and what’s behind North Korea’s actions.
- Kenneth Lieberthal senior fellow and director of the John L. Thornton China Center at The Brookings Institution; former senior director for Asia at the National Security Council under President Clinton.
- Michael Green former special assistant to the president for national security affairs (2004-2005) and director, Asian affairs at the National Security Council (2001-2005). Currently he is the Japan chair and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is also an associate professor of international relations at Georgetown University.
- David Sanger chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, author of "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Tensions on the Korean peninsula have escalated greatly since North Korea fired a barrage of artillery on a South Korean island. President Obama said the U.S. would stand together with South Korea. As a first response, he dispatched an aircraft carrier to participate in exercises off the Korean peninsula. A number of world leaders strongly condemn North Korea's aggression. China expressed concern but has not indicated how or if it might try to rein in its ally. Joining me in the studio to talk about the crisis, Ken Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution, David Sanger of The New York Times, Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Throughout the hour, we'll invite your calls, questions, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, gentlemen.
MR. KENNETH LIEBERTHALGood morning.
MR. DAVID SANGERGood morning.
MR. MICHAEL GREENGood morning.
REHMThanks for being here. David Sanger, I know tensions in the area have been high since way back in March, but explain what happened to begin this latest conflict.
SANGERWell, there are sort of two elements to the current problem -- the current problem being of the past week -- and I'm sure we'll be reaching back further. About 10 days ago, the North Koreans invited in Siegfried Hecker, who is a professor at Stanford, but more importantly the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, and showed him a centrifuge facility made to help the North Koreans enrich uranium that no one had really thought the North Koreans were quite ready to build yet or at least at this level of sophistication.
SANGERPardon me. So that suggested immediately that they were trying to ramp up at least the perception that they would increase their arsenal. On top of that came this barrage yesterday, which happened after some South Korean exercises, but it happened four hours after these exercises were over. So, clearly, it was pretty premeditated on the part of the North Koreans.
REHMNow, as I understand it, those exercises, Kenneth Lieberthal, on the part of the South Koreans, had been done annually. The North Koreans had been notified that they were going to occur. So why should those exercises have provoked the kind of reaction from North Korea?
LIEBERTHALI think there are two reasons. One is these exercises are done in waters claimed by South Korea, but North Korea disputes that claim. And so when South Korea fires artillery shells as part of these exercises there, the North Koreans claim that South Korea is attacking North Korean seas. I think, though, there's a much more fundamental issue here. None of us knows to a certainty what's happening in North Korea, but, I think, very likely a key element in all of this is the succession going on in North Korea.
LIEBERTHALYou have the younger Kim trying to bolster his credentials for taking over senior leadership position presumably fairly soon. This is someone with no appropriate background. He's a young guy, and this is a system that respects strength and toughness. When Kim Jong-il -- the current leader of North Korea -- back in the 1980s was in roughly the same position, he was the guy in waiting, had to show his stuff. He took charge of several terrorist acts against South Korea, one which brought down a South Korean airline, another which killed a number of South Korean cabinet members.
REHMHe also wiped out -- I was about to say -- cabinet members on the other side.
LIEBERTHALAbsolutely. This was in Myanmar. And so this is a rather strange system where evidently to get the stature necessary to assume top leadership, you have to show that you're prepared to kill South Koreans.
REHMBut, Michael Greene, surely at this point in our history, North Korea doesn't want to provoke a war to create an atmosphere for succession of a young man.
GREENThey want to drive right up to the brink of war because it is a regime that thrives on the kind of crisis and fear that we see today. And they use it internally to mobilize society behind this, in this case, succession to the younger Kim, and they use it externally. And I think one other factor -- which David briefly touched on which explains this -- is when they showed Sieg Hecker, our nuclear expert, their uranium facility, they must have known that the international response would be more pressure and possibly sanctions. And I think that's another dimension. They're showing us that whatever we do, they're tougher, so we'd better deal with them, negotiate, give them what they want.
REHMSo what do you make of the Obama administration's response thus far?
GREENWell, Ken and I have both been there. And the problem with North Korea is they manufacture tension and crisis because that's their only source of leverage. So on the one hand, you don't want to sound so panicked that you feed in to the crisis. But on the other hand, you have to show firmness because you need to detour them from escalating. So what they've done by sending the George Washington -- an aircraft carrier battle group -- it was pre-planned exercises. You know, it was right in that middle ground. I wouldn't be surprised if they also send bombers to our air force bases in Guam or other steps related to that, but they've got to find that middle ground where they're deterring but not increasing the danger of war.
REHMOne other factor that none of you has mentioned is the fact of starvation in North Korea and what that may -- or how that might be figuring into this entire crisis. David Sanger.
SANGERWell, certainly they've had a very rough economic year, including problems they brought on themselves when they re-valued their currency in a way that basically wiped out the savings -- few savings that most North Koreans had. It went so badly that the financial engineer behind it was taken out and shot, which is probably not a precedent that most finance ministries in this time of deep economic turmoil around the world would want to see established. But it gives you a sense of just how badly they realize that they handled that. The starvation issues have gone on for a long time in North Korea, and I'm not sure how related they are to this specific set of incidents.
SANGERI think it is probably much more related, as Ken suggested, to succession and also, as Mike said, to going up to the brink of war. But it does raise the question of whether or not President Obama's new approach -- where the approach he has discussed since he came in office -- can work. And that approach -- which they've called strategic patience and others might call sort of ignoring the activities of the North -- is to break the cycle. Break the cycle under which the North builds a new nuclear facility, creates an incident and gets bought off. And the upside of that is if they really can break the cycle, they might actually make some progress. The downside is if the North Koreans don't get the message, they just keep pulling off these incidents and pay very little price.
REHMAnd who is likely to give them the message that, presumably, they're not really interested in hearing, Ken Lieberthal?
LIEBERTHALOh, I think, inevitably, this has to be primarily China. China provides a lot of aid to North Korea. It's its major trading partner. It provides security assistance to North Korea. The Chinese, like we, have no really good options here. The North Koreans generally don't do what the Chinese ask them to do. The Chinese, frankly, I think, are very chagrined over a whole series of things North Korea has done in recent years that undermine Chinese diplomacy in the area. But at the end of the day, the Chinese are very cautious. They really don't want to see instability in North Korea, and they have opted on balance to adopting a position that effectively defends North Korea and mitigates the pressures that it feels from the international community. We have to get at China to take a much tougher stance on this now.
REHMAnd this morning, I understand that Chinese have called for dialogue between the two sides but have not condemned North Korea for its actions.
GREENWell, the running joke among North Korea experts over the past few years has been that PRC stands not for the Peoples Republic of China but please remain calm. And the default position for Beijing has been get everyone back to the table, talk and, essentially, do nothing. And I just -- that is just not credible anymore. And Beijing is in a really difficult spot, frankly, because they are losing South Korea. They are losing Japan. Their default position of, as Ken said, basically defending North Korea is costing them enormously in diplomatic terms and increasingly in security terms as Japan and Korea move closer to the U.S. That is the one thing that, in the end, may start to change China's calculation about how much pressure they can afford to bring to bear.
REHMOf course, North Korea is also close to Iran, is it not politically, David Sanger?
SANGERWell, certainly, commercially, they are. North Korea has supplied, over the years, much of the missile technology that Iran uses today. There have been North Korean engineers that spent a lot of time in Iran putting those together. The link that has been much harder to establish and may not be there -- but certainly the suspicion is there -- is some level of cooperation on the nuclear side. And one possible explanation -- and there are many -- for why the North Koreans would do this very calculated display of their new centrifuges, is to show that they built in 16 or 18 months a full facility of a fairly advanced centrifuge, a technology that has been driving the Iranians crazy.
SANGERAnd it's possible that what was going on here was basically a little pre-Christmas advertising to their potential clients that there could be some centrifuge technology for sale here. After all, the North Koreans have sold everything they've ever built.
REHMDavid Sanger, he is chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, author of "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power." We'll take a short break here. When we come back, we'll talk about options the U.S. may have.
REHMWelcome back. We are talking about the latest tensions between North and South Korea, the involvement of the U.S., the sort of distant involvement of the People's Republic of China. Here in the studio, David Sanger of The New York Times, Michael Green, he is at the -- he was Asian affairs at the National Security Council. Currently, he is Japan chair, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Kenneth Lieberthal is at the John Thornton China Center at The Brookings Institution.
REHMI know we have callers waiting, and we'll get to you in just a moment. Here's an e-mail from Seoul, Korea. "Ask the experts what can be done in retaliation by the South when the North could just as easily shell Seoul with those same guns. More than 30,000 big guns capable of decimating Seoul really limits the response unless you're willing to accept huge collateral damage -- if you consider 10 million people collateral." Ken Lieberthal.
LIEBERTHALWell, I think the questioner has an excellent point. The big hammer that North Korea has always had has been this huge array of artillery within range of Seoul. So before that artillery could be suppressed, Seoul could be effectively leveled with enormous loss of life. So I think that on the military side, South Korea's response, inevitably, will be limited to direct return of fire when incidents like this occur, and that's what happened in this most recent incident -- demonstrations of military capability through things like exercises with the United States to reaffirm the alliance and show what kind of capability we have.
LIEBERTHALAnd then there are some things in the economic and aid area that they can do. But that, in the past, has not, frankly, changed North Korean behavior. And, unfortunately, the North Korean government is very good at making the poorest and most vulnerable people in North Korea suffer the consequences of cutoff in food aid, for example, from the South. So the options here are really pretty limited. But the great fear has to be a major escalation and the damage that that would cause.
REHMHow fearful are you, Michael Green, of major escalation?
GREENWell, at the end of the day, Seoul -- and, by the way, Japan, which is in missile range -- would suffer damage, and that is why North Korea has, essentially, these two country civilian populations hostage. But a war would end in the destruction of North Korea. So they have every reason to push this crisis as far as they can to get leverage, but they know that if they push too far, it's the end of their regime. That's an important deterrent. That means there are a lot of downward pressures preventing this from going on to war.
GREENWhat's worrisome this time is that Kim Jong-un, the son who's taking over, is doing so in a different context from when Kim Jong-il took over in the '80s and did similar destructive acts. And that is that the fabric within North Korea is much more frayed today. The economy is an absolute wreck. The legitimacy of the regime is ruined. Tens of thousands of North Koreans now travel to China and learn more about what the outside world really is like. And so there may be a level of desperation that was not there in the past. Again, we don't know exactly what happens in the system, but that aspect makes this current escalation a little more -- if not significantly more -- worrisome than past episodes.
REHMAnd, of course, China would be particularly concerned about an influx of refugees from North Korea.
GREENChina -- and we've all heard this from the Chinese -- they worry about refugees. North Korea has 1.2 million men under arms. Them crossing the Yalu would be disastrous for China. And, I think, China, in the longer term, worries about a unified peninsula, democratic and aligned with the U.S., which, for strategic reasons, is, from their perspective, a loser as well.
SANGERYou know, I think Mike's touched on a very important point because while they are certainly concerned about refugees -- and we do hear this in the Chinese all the time -- they are also interested in the status quo on the Korean Peninsula because North Korea remains this buffer between them, the 28,000 U.S. forces that are in South Korea, the South Korean forces. And their nightmare is -- since North Korea clearly is never going to be in a position to control the Korean Peninsula and barely can control their own territory right now -- that the South would build right up to their border. And so managing that has become a very major task for the United States, for South Korea and for Japan.
REHMBut is management the key word here when, as I hear Mike Green say, it would -- if North Korea continues to escalate and really creates destructive actions, that North Korea would be destroyed? You say that after we have just learned that North Korea has these powerful centrifuges.
SANGERYou know, we're in a race here between implosion and explosion. You know, what the United States, what South Korea, what many in Asia would like to see is a gradual crumbling of the North Korean state. Every American president since Harry Truman has expected that to happen on their watch. And every one of them has been disappointed, and it's very possible that President Obama will be disappointed as well. The other option, though, which is a North Korea that strikes out with either the kind of artillery fire we saw yesterday or something far worse, is the event everybody wants to avoid.
LIEBERTHALI would just add two things to that. One is China is very much in the camp of people who want to see the North Korean regime evolve -- evolve more rapidly rather than less rapidly. Their fear is that instead of evolving, it will collapse, and they don't want it to collapse. So they are kind of caught in a bind. The second point I would make is that one of the things that Kim Jong-il -- for all of his fault -- has, in fact, done very well has been to calculate how far he can go without losing control of the situation. During a succession, and with a younger guy with, really, no experience and assuming more responsibility and the politics around that, one of my big concerns is that while they will want to remain in control -- escalate but not too far -- they may misjudge on that. And so I think that the danger of this current period is actually greater than what we're accustomed to from the past.
REHMWe have heard that Kim Jong-il is not well, that his son is preparing to take over. Who would be at the helm right now? Is it the son? Is it the elder, who is at least informing or trying to inform the situation? Or is it the military leadership behind him? Ken.
LIEBERTHALWell, I think it's supposed to be Kim Jong-il's sister and brother-in-law, who are supposed to form a kind of regency to help tutor the son and work along with him. And there is also a key military commander who has been brought in as a military tutor to the son. The reality is, when a central figure like Kim Jong-il ceases to be effective, it's very hard to anticipate, for any of the players themselves, exactly what the dynamics will be.
REHMBut has he ceased to be effective? That's...
LIEBERTHALNo, not yet. He is still active. He still gives directions. He still does inspection tours. He still appears in public. He clearly is diminished, but he is not yet ineffective.
REHMBut then why is this playing, so far, close to the edge, Mike?
GREENWell, because that's, as Ken pointed out earlier, how North Korea does these successions. I mean, you had a spate of violence in the '80s when Kim Jong-il came to power. Part of it's succession, mobilizing society behind this 27-year-old who is now a four-star general, and the North Koreans have put out propaganda this week saying, this shows that Kim Jong-un is prepared to go to war and is not afraid. That's part of it. And as I suggested earlier, I think part of it is, you know, the consistent pattern through all of this is that North Korea is working for nuclear weapons capability that they can mount on a missile and threaten us, and, of course, Japan and South Korea. And they've signaled to us they're at a new level of nuclear capability, and all of these provocations are to keep us off guard so we don't try to pressure them or sanction them from going to the next stage.
REHMDavid Sanger, what is the status of the six-party talks that were going on?
SANGERThe six-party talks last met in December of 2008, I think, the end of the Bush administration. They have never convened under the Obama administration. And while that sounds strange for a president who came to office promising engagement around the world with Iran and many other countries, it's been very calculated on the American part because the six-party talks, as they began to unfold...
REHMIncluding Russia, China, Japan, the U.S. and both Koreas.
SANGERAnd south -- and both Koreas. That's right, and so think of that. You've got six countries. Each one would send a delegation of 15 or 20 people, so you rapidly had more than 100 people around the table or in the room in some way, talking into -- as Chris Hill, the former diplomat who handled all of these talks during the Bush administration used to say -- talking into microphones that look like giant flowers that were sprouting out of the middle of the conference room. Not a whole lot happened when you had that many people on the table. Sometimes things happened in side groups.
SANGERWhat really happened was that the process got dragged out -- which is exactly what China wanted -- and very little got resolved. People would reach broad conclusions about the need for denuclearization and then go on doing just what they have done before. The one exception to this was that at the end of the Bush administration, President Bush, over the objections of his vice president, took North Korea off of the list of states that sponsor terrorism, and the North Koreans blew up the cooling tower of their nuclear reactor. Now, that reactor was so decrepit, it was probably a bigger threat to North Korea than it was to us.
SANGERBut it also explains why they were interested in these new centrifuges. Because once that reactor started -- stopped operating, they had no new source of nuclear fuel, so the eight to 12 weapons they got out of the old reactor are all they're getting. And if you want to establish a threat that you can go out and sell this material around the world, that you can build new and smaller weapons, that you could combine your plutonium and your uranium to make hydrogen bombs or other much more powerful weapons, then you need this capability.
GREENIt's important also to remind viewers that this new...
GREENExcuse me, listeners.
GREENThis -- thank you -- that this centrifuge, the uranium capability is not something they just dreamed up. The evidence was pretty strong. I think the Obama administration stands by it, as the Bush administration did, that they began working on this in the late '90s. So it's another indicator that they have intended to blast right through every promise they have made and continue building multiple pads to perfect their nuclear weapons capability.
REHMMichael Green, he's associate professor of international relations at Georgetown University. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And we'll open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First, let's go to Winston-Salem, N.C. Good morning, Michael. You're on the air.
MICHAELGood morning, Diane.
REHMGood morning, sir.
MICHAELIt's a pleasure to be on your show.
MICHAELHow could the United States assuage China's worries of a united Korea with substantial U.S. support behind that and make more -- China more open to pressuring North Korea?
LIEBERTHALI think that a key to that will be a clear understanding that U.S. forces will not move north of the 38th parallel, in other words, that U.S. forces would, at most, remain in what is now South Korea, even under a unified Korea. But I think even that is going to leave the Chinese discomfited. And the reason is that if you unify Korea, that Korean nation is now a big powerful actor in Northeast Asia, and there's no reason the Chinese should think that that's going to improve things strategically from their point of view.
GREENThat's absolutely right. I mean, we're talking about a unified Korea that would be about 75 million people -- almost certainly democratic and in some form aligned with the U.S. -- so strategically for China, that's a problem. You know, part of the larger problem we have here is that, while we do cooperate with China on a lot of issues and we have huge economic interdependence, structurally, we are still competitors at a strategic level. And there's a deficit of trust there that gets in the way of all this.
REHMAll right. To Chicago, Ill. Good morning, Bill. Thanks for joining us.
BILLYeah, good morning, everyone -- two questions. First of all, is there now, technically, a state of war between the U.S. and North Korea since, I would presume, this violates the terms of the ceasefire? And then, secondly, could this theoretically destabilize relations between us and South Korea 'cause I'm not sure what our treaty obligations are to South Korea? But if we do not defend them, could this actually destabilize relations between us and South Korea if South Korea starts to feel that we're not going to defend them at all?
SANGERWell, first, on the state of war question, the state of war never really ended. There's never been a peace treaty. All there was was an armistice in 1953. And, in fact, one of the sort of inducements that the Obama administration has held out for North Korea -- if it did denuclearize -- is to complete the peace treaty. Now, when you ask the North Koreans, what would that involve, the first thing they say is it would involve having all American forces leave the Korean Peninsula.
SANGERIt's not likely to happen anytime soon. To the second question of whether or not this could destabilize the alliance with South Korea, I think that's why you saw President Obama move so quickly last night. He had been out in Indiana visiting a car plant, flies back, comes into the situation room, meets with his advisors, immediately calls the South Korean president and announces these exercises. It's to show that the two are sewn up together.
REHMAnd to a caller here in Washington, D.C. Good morning, Jeff. You're on the air.
JEFFGood morning. I hoped your guests could talk a little bit about the U.S.-China component of this in the sense that, you know, when the Cheonan incident happened earlier this year, there was a big controversy over whether or not the U.S. would send the George Washington aircraft carrier group into the Yellow Sea. And there were statements by South Korean and U.S. officials first that it would, and then we backed off and said we wouldn't after China raised the big protest. And, you know, is the carrier group now going into the Yellow Sea? And what does that mean for the U.S.-China power dynamic in East Asia?
LIEBERTHALI understand that the carrier group, or at least the George Washington itself with some complimentary ships, is now going into the Yellow Sea. I think this is, in part, a signal to China that if it sits back and just defends North Korea and not pressure North Korea, it's going to have consequences that China is uncomfortable with. China has made very clear it doesn't want the George Washington in the Yellow Sea, so we're putting it there. We're doing it in international waters. We aren't violating Chinese territorial waters at all. But, I think, it is part of an effort to get the Chinese to appreciate that there are consequences for what North Korea is doing.
REHMWhat a complicated situation. Kenneth Lieberthal is at the Brookings Institution, David Sanger is with The New York Times, Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. We'll take more questions when we come back.
REHMWelcome back as we talk about the increasing tensions between North and South Korea, China's role, the role of the U.S. and what's next. Here we go to Palmyra, Va. Good morning, Bob. You're on the air.
BOBGood morning. My question is this. Since North Korea is one of the most technologically backward and poorest countries in the world, where have they been getting the technology, the materials, the knowledge to continue to develop these nuclear weapons? Is China playing a double game here, and they are providing it? Or is it by espionage or what?
SANGERWell, they've gotten them from a number of different places. The North Koreans have been working on a nuclear weapon, really, since the late 1950s, having come out of the searing experience of watching General McArthur suggest to President Truman that it really would be good to use a nuclear weapon for a second time in Korea. Never happened, obviously, but it made a deep impression on the country's founder, Kim Il-Sung.
SANGERThe uranium enrichment technology that we've been discussing earlier on the show was first obtained from A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani rogue scientist that we've discussed often on this show, Diane. And he apparently made this delivery, including some prototype centrifuges, to them between 1998 and the early 2000s before he was put under house arrest. In fact, some shipments up to North Korea went on a Pakistani Air Force plane, which is one of the reasons that some of us have had some skepticism that the rest of the Pakistani establishment had no idea what was going on. So they've done that, but they've also been very successful at buying components in the international market, as has Iran. And in some cases, we believe they have some common suppliers.
REHMI guess the part that's hardest for me to understand, Ken Lieberthal, is why? Why does North Korea keep pushing, pushing, pushing this envelope? What is the ultimate goal?
LIEBERTHALI think Kim Jong-Il has a very clear calculus. His ultimate goal is regime survival. He feels he's surrounded by fundamentally hostile countries that are enormously stronger than he is -- and also the United States with the huge presence in the region. He feels if he shows weakness through compromise, and once he begins to go down that route, the demands for additional compromise would be unceasing. Ultimately, we and others want a different regime there, and his situation will unravel. So his way of handling problems is to escalate, demonstrating that he is prepared, if necessary, to go further than the issue is worth to the U.S., Japan, South Korea or China.
REHMBut what I don't get is how many of the people of North Korea are in good shape as opposed to those who are totally impoverished, who are hungry, who are without work. Is it this small cadre of leadership at the very, very top who is advantaged and leaving the rest out on the loop?
GREENThe short answer is yes. And we know that the North Koreans have internally stratified their society. There are about 24 million people in North Korea. There are perhaps a few thousand who are in the elite, who have access to, you know...
REHMA few thousand.
GREENA few thousand who have access to, you know, cognac, Mercedes Benz and so forth. Then there are perhaps another several hundred thousand who are in the leadership, the military and so forth or local party officials. But there are millions, who the North Korean leadership are very happy to have at starvation level. I mean, there's no revolution in history where starving people actually overthrew a government as powerful as North Korea. And you know, a docile, desperate, starving population serves their internal security interest. By the way, they're afraid -- Kim Jong-Il is afraid, not only as Ken rightly points out, of a powerful China and a powerful South Korea and Japan, they are terrified of their own people. And they've got nothing to point to, except nuclear weapons, compared with their cousins to the South.
REHMTo Framingham, Mass. Good morning, Jeffrey.
JEFFREYGood morning, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
JEFFREYI would like to offer an alternate suggestion, and that is based on the idea that the North responded with a battery of guns to war games in -- by South Korea -- even though they do it every year -- it was a threat to the North. What about changing the game entirely? And instead of having it on a war basis, have it on a peace basis? You asked about why does the North -- why do North Korea -- is it in the way that it is now, with starving people and a war economy? We here are doing the same thing. We are having the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while our own country has economic deprivation with people really suffering here.
LIEBERTHALWell, on the issue of whether a change in approach would produce a different response from North Korea, it's been tried. The previous two heads of South Korea believed in a policy of building bridges to the North, almost preemptive concessions to build confidence in order to get a positive dynamic going with the North. They had some ups and downs, but on balance, they were not able to resolve the situation. So I think that this is an approach that's been tried. It's been left wanting. The current leader of the South, Lee Myung-bak, came in, in part, on the basis that we've had enough of this approach. We have to get a little tougher. These guys respect strength. No one has found the key, but I don't think it's for want to try it.
REHMIf the North and South proceeded to an all-out escalation, what would China do? David Sanger.
SANGERIt's a great question. Because part of the North's calculation, presumably until recently, has been that the Chinese were always their ultimate backup and that our uncertainty about whether China would intervene again, replaying what happened in 1950, would keep the United States, would keep South Korea from doing very much. I'm not certain at this point that the Chinese are so committed to the North that they would risk a confrontation with the United States over their (unintelligible) future.
SANGERBecause they clearly have their own frustrations with North Korea. The ideological link that was there in the 1950s is not there today. Their main interest in the status quo in North Korea is for exactly the reason we discussed before, having a buffer state in place. But we wouldn't know until that happened. The other thing is that if there was a conflict with North Korea, it would probably be a pretty brief one. It could be a very, very brutal one, as we discussed before when your first caller raised the point that Seoul could be easily destroyed from artillery that's on the North Korean side.
SANGERRemember, Seoul is fairly close to the border. It's a pretty short drive. The South Koreans had been so confident of their eventual victory that they have built condos right up to the borderline between Seoul and the DMZ. I mean, it used to be you'd drive up to there, and there was nothing there. Now, you drive up there, and there are very expensive housing communities there.
SANGERAnd they go for a lot of money, which tells you that somebody's betting that this is all going to end peacefully.
REHMYou know, it's interesting you're all talking about the geopolitical factors. But there's also money involved -- money that China owns, money that the U.S. borrows from China, money that the U.S. infuses in China by its debt. That does change this thinking, doesn't it?
LIEBERTHALWell, I think the financial side highlights a much broader issue which is to say that the U.S. and China are really deeply interdependent, as David mentioned earlier.
LIEBERTHALI don't think, frankly, that that is shaping the responses to the North Korean situation. I think it affects a lot of other things, and if anything, it increases our communication and our ease of communication on an issue like North Korea. We obviously have not reached agreement on how to handle North Korea, except in a very limited way. But I don't see -- you know, China's holding our debt and that kind of thing as somehow affecting our strategic approach to North Korea -- either ours or theirs.
REHMAll right. To Dan in Bay City, Mich. Hi there. Thanks for joining us.
DANHi. It's great to be on the show, but, first of all, I'd like to know if the guests think that we could afford to go to war. This country has over a million pretty well-trained troops -- 100,000 of them are very special trained, and them -- the military being the only part of the country that actually has something to fight for because they are pretty well taken care of. Could we afford it at this time to send a million people over there that we don't have? We don't...
GREENThis would be an incredibly costly war in many respects. I mean, 11,000 North Korean artillery troops opening up on Seoul, even if we take them out within 24 hours, it would do enormous damage -- 200 missiles that range Japan. And then...
REHMI've heard the 24-hour scenario previously -- doesn't make much sense to me. We heard that in regard almost to Iraq, it'll be a cakewalk.
GREENOh, no. I'm -- yeah, I know. I'm talking about the artillery exchange. So the North Koreans would open up in any war scenario with a massive artillery and missile rocket.
GREENThe technology has advanced to the point where it's very likely that the U.S. and South Korean forces would be able to identify exactly where the shots came from and fire right back. The actual war -- who knows? And in particular, when the war ends, how do you disarm and stabilize a nation of 24 million people who are -- who know nothing about the outside world, who have been involved by the way in international criminal syndicate? So it would be extremely expensive and costly, and this...
SANGERAnd who have eight to 12 nuclear weapons sitting around some place.
GREENAnd who have nuclear weapons.
GREENAnd the other thing we haven't talked about is, you know, North Korea has flirted with and threatened to transfer this capability. They've cooperated with Syria, and now we know with Burma. But they haven't transferred actual fissile material to make a bomb. If they're falling apart or collapsing, would that be their last desperate act? So in terms of U.S. Homeland Security, there's a whole dimension to this that makes -- you know, it's costly. The monetary aspect of the cost of the wars is -- would be nothing compared to the potential human cost.
REHMAll right. Let's talk about how we back away from this kind of confrontation. What would it take, Ken?
LIEBERTHALI think we are embarked now on demonstrating to North Korea that we remain committed to the area. One thing that has not been highlighted, but that's very important here, is that the Obama administration has also made very clear from the very start that it wants to reengage with North Korea. But it's made a condition of that -- be that North Korea start from where it left off when it reached its last set of agreements so that we aren't going to renegotiate what North Korea agreed to before. But the Obama administration has said let's move forward, and if there is serious evidence that you're prepared to move forward, we are. And I think we are going to see a combination of demonstrating resolve, but keeping an option for negotiation out there. I personally don't think North Korea is going to meet the test necessary to have an active negotiation anytime in the near future.
REHMSo what does that mean, David Sanger?
SANGERWell, if you've got a succession struggle underway and a young leader who's trying to prove himself, strikes me that the last thing you're likely to see them do is do anything that shows weakness to the United States. And going back to that last set of agreements -- which Ken has accurately identified as the key test for the Obama administration -- doesn't strike me as the next North Korean move. If they want to establish the young leader in their own mindset, the only way to do this is to stage more incidents like this. And the risk of under-reacting is that the North Koreans conclude that these are free shots.
REHMAnd the risk of overreacting...
SANGERIs all the awful things we've discussed today about what could happen to Seoul.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Tony.
TONYGood day. Two questions. First, relative to the artillery systems, you know, why would we, who lost tens of thousands of troops, et cetera, killed a million Chinese troops in Korea, why would we allow half the population of South Korea, the capital and the capital city to be built within artillery range of the North? South Korea is the size of South Carolina -- well, it's larger than South Carolina. Second question, this morning, BBC interviewed the Los Alamos doc who saw the centrifuges. That doc noted that North Korea has, in the 40's, dozens of plutonium bombs. So why do we care if they have fission bombs, uranium bombs? It's -- there's a big game going on here, folks.
GREENWe care if they have uranium bombs for two reasons. One is they may have six to nine plutonium weapons. That's probably what they would hold on to try to weaponize and create a deterrent to counterbalance our nuclear weapons. If they have a uranium facility, it allows them to create, eventually, more powerful bombs -- which is dangerous, of course -- but also the uranium, unlike the plutonium, is in effect self-generating. It's -- it just keeps cranking these things out. Then you have an increased danger that North Korea feels it has the room to start threatening to sell these elsewhere. So it's very bad. And on the -- why would we allow Seoul to be built? We didn't. I mean, that Seoul has been there for a millennium.
GREENThe problem was the North Koreans rolled down to the Pusan perimeters, the southern tip of the Peninsula in the Korean War. We pushed them back up to the Yalu. The Chinese intervened, and the war fought along this line. And that's where the ceasefire was signed. Now, briefly on what we do about it, we don't want escalation because the war scenario is so horrific. I think we need to do two things we haven't done as well in the past. And one is we need to really pick up our efforts to interdict and pressure the shipment of materials in and out of North Korea. Again, China is critical, but China is not the only angle. That won't stop the program, but it will impose a cost and slow it down. And, second, we need to increase the consequences to North Korea when they take these acts.
GREENWell, you know, the George Washington maneuvering in the West Coast is something, as Ken said, China doesn't like. It changes their calculations. And North Korea doesn't like it. If the U.S. and Korea are increasing our military readiness and capability, that's a net loss for them. Because in the past, the U.S. has not been as present on the West Coast, so if the military footing is changing as a consequence, if China's actions are changing as a consequence, we have a better chance North Korea will think twice before the next one of these incidents.
LIEBERTHALThere's an additional set of things we could do, which is to, say, fly airplanes toward North Korea, have them veer off at the last minute forcing North Korea to scramble its air fleet repeatedly. They are very short at petroleum, oil and lubrication supplies. This could draw them down pretty quickly. So we can ratchet up the pressure without actually attacking North Korea.
REHMKen Lieberthal, David Sanger, Michael Green, thank you all so much.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Andrew Chadwick. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales.
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