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Nuclear armed North Korea has a new leader, Kim Jong Eun, and most of the world knows almost nothing about him. He’s the third and youngest son of Kim Jong Il who died Saturday. Kim Jong Eun was his father’s choice to succeed him and in recent months had made a number of public appearances,but preparations for his succession were not at all complete. No one knows what kind of leader he’ll be, and perhaps more crucially, whether he’ll able to win the support of his father’s inner circle: Join us for a conversation on the new regime in North Korea.
- Sarah Yun director of public affairs and regional issues, Korean Economic Institute
- Evan Ramstad reporter, Wall Street Journal
- Jonathan Pollack senior fellow, foreign policy, John L. Thornton China Center, The Brookings Institution
- Doug Paal vice president for studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
- Robert Gallucci president, MacArthur Foundation former dean of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and assistant Secretary of State and lead negotiator in the Clinton Administration's 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. North Korea's ruling dynasty is preparing for transition after the death of Kim Jong Il. In accordance with his father's succession plan, his third and youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, is the new leader of North Korea. Joining me to talk about what this news means from nuclear-armed North Korea may -- and what it may mean for the region and the world: Doug Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Sarah Yun of the Korean Economic Institute, Jonathan Pollack of the Brookings Institution.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd joining us from Minneapolis, Evan Ramstad, he's a reporter with The Wall Street Journal. And, of course, we do invite you to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. And good morning to all of you.
MR. DOUG PAALGood morning.
MS. SARAH YUNGood morning.
REHMAnd, Evan, I'm going to start with you. Since we know so little about what goes on in North Korea, do you have any questions about how Kim Jong Il died or even when he died?
MR. EVAN RAMSTADWell, I guess I would say that I sort of take the North Korean regime at their word at the details of this. Of course, I guess we could always have some suspicion. It is a government-run, state-run, you know, very tightly controlled news organization. And they're -- you know, they don't ask questions. There's not going to be any kind of inquiry about an autopsy or inquest or anything like that.
MR. EVAN RAMSTADBut, you know, they did come out and say that he died of a heart attack. He was on a train. You know, they didn't say where he was going or anything like that because they just said he was out of the capital. It's always typical that they release his schedule or say where he's been a few days after he's been some place. And so on Friday or Saturday, the state media there issued the statement that he had been at some events on Thursday in the capital.
MR. EVAN RAMSTADSo it does sort of fit. I mean, it's not inconsistent, in other words, that he was traveling because, you know, there was no inconsistency in the other reporting that was done.
REHMAnd, Evan, I know you left South Korea just prior to that time. You missed quite a story.
RAMSTADI've been based in South Korea for five years, and I have to say this is a story I've been waiting for. And I flew out for the holidays. Our plan was for me to have the holiday this week and for my assistant to have the holiday next week, and I would be back next Monday. But it just worked out that I happened to miss the biggest story. But it worked out actually quite well because I was able to work with my editors on U.S. hours very well and do things like this.
REHMSo how much do we know about the succession of Kim Jong Il's son? What do we know about him, and had he actually been named by his father to succeed him?
RAMSTADWell, there's no sort of formal name. There's no sort of formal inauguration. This is something that came up with my editors is, will there be some kind of formal event like a coronation or some kind of thing like that? Instead, what it is is kind of the bestowing of title at certain moments. And the big moment, in his case, came in late September last year when there was a big political conference organized, and it was pretty much organized for this purpose.
RAMSTADHe was given a military title first and then a political title a day or two later, which kind of shows you the order of priority is there. And at the same time, there were similar titles bestowed on Kim Jong Il's sister, her husband and a general who has been considered close to the family and now has really emerged as, you know, quite super close to the family. And he's been in a lot of pictures of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Eun together in the past year or so.
RAMSTADSo we really see this as kind of a, now, maybe a collective or a little protectorate around Kim Jong Eun. But what we don't know at all is -- we know this organization, but we don't really know what they think or what their ideas are or where they might be headed right now, maybe nowhere in the immediate short term. But, you know, for the next few weeks after the mourning period, you know, we're going to be watching very closely what they say and do.
REHMAnd that is the voice of Evan Ramstad. He's a reporter with The Wall Street Journal. I want to ask you, Evan, how you have, over the five years you've been there, gotten your information about what's happening in North Korea while you were based in South Korea.
RAMSTADI always say that it's kind of like the way we cover business anyway. It is, you know, businesses put out statements every day, and then you also call businesses and talk to, first, PR people and then executives. In North Korea's case, you do watch a steady stream of announcement by the state media, and then you sort of mix that in with reporting that comes from informal sources, a lot of them having to do with, you know, Web -- I should say Web-based newspapers that are run by the sector groups or NGOs or organizations that do some dealings with North Korea.
RAMSTADAnd some of the dealings have to do with economic exchange, but a lot of them have to do with, like, humanitarian kind of stuff. There's been (word?) a very reputable organization, sort of Buddhist-oriented called Good Friends, and they get a lot of these little reports out. And so you sort of look at all these, and some of them, of course, you have to just throw out 'cause they sort of seem very extreme. But it's all good to sort of study, and you start to see patterns, I mean, like this. And you start to see, you know, just what seems worthy and what doesn't seem worthy.
REHMAll right. And turning to you now, Sarah Yun, we've heard reports about demonstrations in South Korea. What does this change in regime mean for South Koreans?
MR. SARAH YUNI think that's a very important question. The reaction in South Korea has been, to me, personally, surprising. There are demonstrations, and there are oppositions, a little bit of chaos. But surprisingly, in my opinion, the South Korean government and the Korean people have handled it very well, with a lot of calmness and a lot of caution. So, for example, as soon as the South Korean government learned of the news of Kim Jong Il's death, they called emergency meetings on cabinet level, ministry levels all throughout the government and decided on next steps.
MR. SARAH YUNNow, granted that some of them may have been blindsided but given that the fact that they may have been blindsided, they were still very quick to act. And Lee Myung-bak -- President Lee Myung-bak was very -- he emphasized a lot and the importance of stability and peace and the importance of the South Korean economy to continue to go and continue to grow in the midst of this chaos and this shock.
REHMAnd it's interesting that Sarah uses the word blindsided. Even the United States, Jonathan Pollack, seemed to have been blindsided about Kim Jong Il's death.
MR. JONATHAN POLLACKI'm always reminded of Amb. Baldwin's admonition when Churchill talked about the Soviet Union being a mystery inside an enigma and so forth. He always said it's not a mystery. It's just a secret. This is perhaps the most controlled system on Earth. It excludes of the outside world. There is a minimal diplomatic presence in North Korea, especially of western embassies. We don't have any of the standard channels and means by which we illicit information, and that's what we're struggling against, this -- not for the first time.
REHMAnd, Doug Paal, what do we know about Kim Jong Eun?
PAALWell, we know precious little. The U.S. government, after he ascended to his new title 15 months ago, went out to try to find the students who knew him at the Swiss boarding school and interviewed every single one of them. And they came back with sparse information about him being a bit tyrannical, difficult, but also being a fan of sports and other things you've seen reported.
REHMHow old is he?
PAALApproximately 28, but no one's really in a position to say for sure. Kim Jong Il, who just passed away, is also said to have been 69, but probably 70.
REHMYeah. And with that kind of schooling in Switzerland, how do you believe -- I mean, that's part of the Western world. How might that have shaped his approach to the world in general?
PAALWell, I think it may have shaped it a lot. He may also be one of the most plugged in people in North Korea to what's happening in the outside world through the Internet, through access to international telecommunications of various sorts. We just don't know what he has, and we'll have to watch it unfold going forward. I think a more relevant concern is what are the fissures in society and how do they get stressed as we go forward with this new untested leader, trying to prove himself to those other factions of the government?
REHMAnd most especially to the military.
PAALMilitary and the security forces. There's the bodyguard forces, a party elite and governmental elite. But they -- I would say the military -- since the father had emphasized the military first, the military would come first in the ranking order of those elites.
POLLACKI was going to say that a lot of North Korean politics at a presentational level is very, very symbolic. I would not preclude a scenario where Kim Jong Eun is the nominal leader, but that there are other powers that are much more influential behind this.
REHMInteresting. Jonathan Pollack. He's at The Brookings Institution. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, we'll talk further and take your calls.
REHMAnd we're back, talking about North Korea, the death of Kim Jong Il, his apparent successor, Kim Jong Eun. However, as we have said in the first part of this program, knowing as little as we do about what goes on inside North Korea, much is yet to be revealed. We're joined now by Robert Gallucci. He's president of the MacArthur Foundation. As assistant secretary of state, he was the lead negotiator in the Clinton administration's 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea. Good morning to you, sir. It's good to have you with us.
MR. ROBERT GALLUCCIGood morning, Diane. It's a pleasure to be with you.
REHMThank you. To what extent do you believe that this succession offers the U.S. an opportunity?
GALLUCCII think it might well be an opportunity that we continue, as we seem to have been before Kim Jong Il's death, to head in the direction of some bilateral talks once again aimed at North Korea nuclear weapons program. I think we should stand ready to proceed with those talks if the North is still up for them, still interested. As I understand, at least what's been reported in the press about the terms of those talks, they sounded reasonable to me.
GALLUCCIThere'd be a freeze in the North Korean enrichment program, in the activity here and beyond, and we would meet and talk about the -- among other things, how we would get to a point of dismantlement and the end of that nuclear weapons program, so that is of -- should be essential focus of ours in this, as well as the stability of the peninsula and the concerns of our allies in Tokyo and Seoul.
REHMHow does our position today compare to what it was back in 1994 vis-à-vis the North Koreans?
GALLUCCIWell, interestingly we were in the midst of the negotiations. I was in Geneva when Kim Il Sung died, and a South Korean foreign minister woke me up and told me that that had happened -- it was something of a surprise -- and that there was Kim Jong Il. At the time, we weren't exactly sure what role the son was playing. But there was a theory that he was actually quite important and had been for some time the driver behind those talks. And I think that is the conventionalism now. This is not like that.
GALLUCCIThis young man has not been enclosed to power for that long. He is substantially younger obviously and untested, so I think there is lots more indeterminate about the current situation than there was then. Though I would remind everyone that there was a pretty good debate that raged for months as Kim Jong Il took his time in taking on the positions of power, and some argue that that meant that there was going to be much more of a corporate leadership.
GALLUCCIOthers pointed out that in Korean society, there was great respect for the father when he dies, and waiting a year would be quite reasonable. The second seemed to, I think, was more nearly correct than the first.
REHMSo how would you currently describe our strategic objective with North Korea?
GALLUCCIRight. I think our first interest really needs to be that -- to stabilize -- the situation on the peninsula remains stable, that whatever -- and the number of people pointing out that the son may be looking for opportunities to demonstrate his strength domestically, internally, as well as for foreign policy audience. And we shouldn't overreact, but we shouldn't be passive either if there is any acting out by the North Koreans. Our hope is there won't be. (unintelligible)
REHMWhat kind of acting out are you talking about?
GALLUCCIWell, we've witnessed -- remember, we are now in the wake of the sinking of a South Korean ship, of the shelling of a South Korean island. Both of these caused deaths to South Koreans, and I don't think, domestically, South Korean population is in a very tolerant mood with respect to North Korea. So we really want to avoid a near-term conventional crisis of some kind that turns into a military crisis.
GALLUCCIThat -- I think an immediate concern is that we are interested in stability and working with the Chinese, maybe isn't the first instance, but also with our allies in Seoul and Tokyo. Our core interest here, in addition to stability in the peninsula and avoiding war, is to manage that nuclear weapons program and ultimately manage it into nonexistence. That's not an easy thing, and some would argue it's not even a plausible thing.
GALLUCCIBut I think that has to be the goal. If there were instability of some kind, then what would happen to those nuclear weapons? Who would control (unintelligible) ? All those questions would be extremely important because our vulnerability as a nation is not so much from a direct threat of North Korea mating weapons with missiles, but the availability of nuclear material to terrorist groups and a possibility of a terrorist detonation of a device in the United States. So transfer, leakage, all those kind of words that go to that -- this material and these weapons have to be our central focus.
REHMAnd, finally, what about the role of China in this sort of midway point as the young man is trying to establish himself, not only with the military but security forces?
GALLUCCII think the Chinese role is key here. How much the Chinese want to coordinate with us, I think, will be an open question. Certainly, they have intersecting interest with us. I wouldn't call them congruent interest but intersecting. They do not wish to see an increase in American political and military presence in Northeast Asia, so they don't want an instability that would bring us in.
GALLUCCISo we share the objective of making sure that we don't end up in any kind of crisis on the peninsula. But how exactly the Chinese will manage all the uncertainties, which I suspect they see in the North as we do -- I think they have a much better window into the dynamics of the politics in the North than we do, but they can't be too settled about the outcomes either. So I'd -- I would say a close coordination with Beijing to the extent that the Chinese are interested in that would be in our best interest.
REHMAnd the final thing that probably might be in our best interest from your prospective for the U.S. to play it cool?
GALLUCCII think that we should be stand ready to continue those negotiations or to continue the effort to establish the negotiations with the North. We should be prepared if it turns out that we were going to a large negotiating context, the so-called six parties. But the real work for us is going to be done on a bilateral level, and it'll be very important that the Chinese support this.
GALLUCCIThe Chinese, more than anyone else, have had influence in the North, the Chinese military, the party. And if -- whatever the leadership is with Kim Jong Eun and the family, they will all be very sensitive to the Chinese perspective, and we must be as well.
REHMRobert Gallucci is president of the MacArthur Foundation. Thank you so much for joining us.
REHMAnd turning to you, Doug Paal, how has, in your view, the United States handled this passing, this transition thus far?
PAALIt's been a study in cool approach to it. It's the right approach in my view. The administration will find a way to express condolences for the loss of leader and stay in touch with them to the limited extent we have with head of state contacts from time to time. And we also ought to do as Bob Gallucci just suggested-- keep our negotiators talking to their counterparts to the extent that they're willing to talk. But we have a little more to do than that, I think.
PAALBehind the scenes over the last -- more than a decade, the U.S. and the ROK governments and institutions in those countries have repeatedly done games on different scenarios for just this kind of eventuality. And some of these games have shown the situation deteriorates very rapidly. So we have to be standing on our toes. We want not to give military signals through -- on -- a sort of surprising pre-positioning of forces and things like that that might send the wrong message. On the other hand, we have to be ready to respond to crisis as they erupt.
REHMAnd, of course, we have, what, 50,000 troops along the border? Am I stating that incorrectly, Jonathan?
POLLACKOur troop presence is a little under 30,000.
POLLACKIt's still very significant.
REHMI should say. And what would you say about that troop presence in this interim period?
POLLACKWell, in fact, what we have been doing is repositioning our forces, deploying them farther south on the peninsula, not making them disappear by any means. We hold all kinds of exercises where we bring in additional forces at various times of the year. But I think we're -- what we've been trying to do is to prepare much more fully for contingencies that don't fit in the standard playbook, if you will, precisely because of the uncertainties and unknowns about what North Korea might do under various circumstances, their use of special forces and so forth.
REHMAnd it has been said that Kim Jong Il left a significant unfinished agenda. Tell us about that, Jonathan Pollack.
POLLACKWell, following up on what Bob Gallucci said before, one other big difference from 1994 is North Korea is now a state in explicit possession of nuclear weapons. They are the only state to renege on their commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and they claim equal standing as a nuclear state. And they may now have two separate means by which they can enrich -- either enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium for their nuclear weapons program. So the difficulties there are compounded hugely.
POLLACKKim seemed to be seeking toward the end of his life, yet again, some kind of a door to Washington, some kind of a means by which there would be direct contact. But he dies with that obviously very, very incomplete. Indeed, I'd say his whole legacy is one of just trying to keep the system afloat with real uncertainty and indecision on his part about how to proceed in any particular area. That's what we are stuck with or left with, if you will, and we have to decide whether or not and how we might quietly signal some kind of an interest in renewed contact with the North.
REHMAnd what about the South, Sarah, if we proceed in that way very quietly, how would you see the South reacting?
YUNWell, I think the South Korean government is going to take a two-track approach, building up the military -- and on high alert without high publicity, not to create -- to avoid tension or visible tension on the peninsula, but at the same time trying to have reform strategy, reformed relations with North Korea, given the situation. So I think that's the approach that the South Korean government will try to take.
YUNNow, it's going to be difficult because North Korea is going to be looking internally most likely for the next year because of the succession process and the transition process, and also next year, 2012, being their achievement for strong and prosperous nation. So South Korea is really going to have to try an outlet or an opening or a gap to engage with North Korea without compromising any of those previous situations such as the Cheonan incident, the Yeonpyeong incidents that happened.
REHMSarah Yun, she is with the Korean Economic Institute. And you're listening to, "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's open the phones at this point, 800-433-8850. First to Inverness, Fla. Good morning, Pete. Thanks for joining us.
PETEThank you. This is really a privilege. I think the administration has shown remarkable restraint by resisting the temptation to gloat over the death of a man who was, you know, frankly speaking, a brutal dictator. And I think this leaves the door open for a new relationship with his son and the other members of the new regime. Rather than calling North Korea an evil empire, we've been quiet, and we pay our proper respects as we would with the passing of any head of state.
PETEAnd I think the only thing I would say in disagreement with the panel, I think, this would give us a better opportunity for six-party talks and avoid a bilateral situation because maybe the new regime would be more open to including China, Russia and South Korea, et cetera. And thank you very much, Diane.
REHMThank you. Doug Paal.
PAALWell, on the speaker -- the question we were just asked about the bilateral path as opposed to six-party talks, actually, bilateral talks are always necessary to get results of these frameworks. And the current instance, the bilateral talks are to get us back to preexisting commitments in order to resume the six-party talks.
PAALAnd there's -- there was an expectation as late as last week within high ranks of the administration that perhaps in February or March of next year, we would be ready for a return to six-party talks. Now, that's an open question. Whether that can be achieved on a timetable, I can't rule it out. I can't say it's like -- more likely either.
REHMAnd what about his comments regarding the Obama administration's handling its remarks, its approach to reaction to the leader's death?
PAALWell, everybody today has talked about the need for stability. Our first responsibility as a government is to our own people in South Korea and to the people of South Korea who are our allies. And provocative gestures of seeing this as a moment to exploit, to bring down the regime, could rain artillery down on the 20 million people who live in Seoul, and that would be our responsibility if we were to have done that.
REHMSo you would agree then with the caller, that thus far the United States has dealt with this well?
PAALYes, I agree.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Allan in Annapolis, Md. Good morning to you.
ALLANGood morning, Diane. It's a pleasure to talk on your show. I've been listening for many, many, many years.
ALLANI have more of a practical question. I'm wondering, as I listen to the events since the death the leader of North Korea, why is that the military and the educated class of people in North Korea stand by and allow this Kim family to rule the country for so many years as if they had some kind of God-given right to do that?
REHMIt's an interesting question. Jonathan Pollack, how would you respond?
POLLACKI think it reflects the remarkable, if improbable, history of this system going back to Kim Il Sung, who ruled the North for almost a half century. He acquired a capacity to, if you will, brand the system well before we talked about branding. A man of charisma, keen intelligence, capacity for manipulation, but with -- he built a system around small cadre of loyal lieutenants, many of them related by blood, and sustained it for a very, very long time. I know it seems improbable, but this is an extraordinarily controlled system.
REHMJonathan Pollack. He is senior fellow on foreign policy the Brookings Institution. Short break and when we come back, more of your comments and questions. Stay with us.
REHMAnd as we continue our discussion about the succession in North Korea, Evan, I'd be interested in your reaction to our caller's question about why the North Koreans tolerate this kind of handoff to a relative, or do they? No...
RAMSTAD...and everything that we were expecting, you know, that we saw in the Middle East this year. But the -- Jonathan is exactly right about what his father did. But I think, more practically, what we see has developed there is, first of all, the use of threat, the fear that if you get out of line with the regime, you will get tossed into a labor camp or something like that. A kind of a two-tier economy has developed.
RAMSTADThe remnants of the old centralized distribution has now kind of morphed into what we would call like the royal economy or kind of the court economy. This is what the elites have. And they get sort of patronage, and they get gifts and everything. But they also get to do the things like make deals with the Chinese and run the import/export companies to make the basic things run. Meanwhile, there's the kind of general economy which the masses have to subsist through.
RAMSTADAnd this is -- you know, works because a lot of people outside of Pyongyang just sort of subsists on food that is grown, either in farms that they are associated with, their relatives are associated with, their friends are associated with. They have a very poor existence, but they can survive. And so that is kind of the overall mix of things.
REHMAnd the question of just how much poverty, how much hunger actually exists in North Korea, is that something we can know, Doug Paal?
PAALWell, we've recently had a survey done by the World Food Programme to investigate some of the provincial conditions, and they do find a general lack of nutrition. It's endemic with this -- with North Korea. It's never going to produce the food it needs. The food used to come from South Korea when it was a unified peninsula. And they need to have an effective economy so they can buy the food they need. And, periodically, of course, they're also experiencing disastrous floods and droughts that reduce their limited capacity to produce grain and other foods anyway.
REHMSo would you say that there is a sufficient amount of food to go around for the population of North Korea, and is it fairly distributed?
PAALI would say, in answer to both questions, no. They make sure they take care of the 600-or-so-thousand people in the elite, as Evan just mentioned. And then if there's more leftover for the others, that's a good thing. In the year when you want to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung, you'd like to have more. So they're looking for food from outside right now, but they don't really work to make that a steady -- they don't make the reforms necessary to have a steady supply of good food.
REHMAll right. To West Newbury, Vt. Good morning, Anita.
ANITAGood morning, Diane. I have a comment on some aspect which hasn't really been mentioned very much. One talks about the DPRK as being totally closed off. However, there is, I believe, a relatively large elite which has had contact with the outside. I personally have been to North Korea five times, working with the Korean Democratic Women's Union, which is a governmental organization, and have had two delegations of Korean women, North Korean women in Switzerland.
ANITAI feel that there are a lot more people in the elite who know the situation outside North Korea than one really thinks. And a side comment, one group as a delegation that was with me for 10 days in Switzerland in September did mention, for me for the first time, Kim Jong Eun as being the successor...
REHMAnita, I'd be interested in your view as to just how powerful or not the women of North Korea actually are.
ANITAI'm sorry. I didn't understand the question.
REHMI'm interested in just how powerful you believe the women of North Korea are.
ANITAI don't think they're very powerful. I think that the people in power are the men. The head of the Democratic -- Korean Democratic Women's Union is automatically a member of the Supreme People's Council, but I don't think any of those people have much power at all.
REHMWould you agree with that, Sarah?
YUNI would generally agree. One indicator of that is a lot of defectors, North Korean defectors, have been around 70 percent women. And that is an indication that men and women are both starting to work. So, in that sense, they are both in the workforce. But the reason that women are working is because of poverty, because of lack of food, so they are having to -- they're forced to go out and find work. And oftentimes they're forced to go out and find work across the border in China. So they defect and then, in return, send money back to China. So they are facing difficult circumstances.
POLLACKYes. Yes. The paradox, if you will, raised by our caller from Vermont is apt. But in an ironic way, it may -- if anything, the knowledge of some within the elites of the outside world may be precisely what inhibits their efforts to open up the system more, to keep it as channeled as possible because, I think, within the elite, there is probably a keen recognition that if the doors truly open, if information spreads, if individuals spread, if the mythology that has been built up around this regime now for more than 60 years erodes significantly within the population as a whole, then the future of the system would be in grave jeopardy.
REHMEvan Ramstad, how much of a purge are we likely to see with the transition?
RAMSTADWell, it's tough to say. Already, we've seen some. You know, as I mentioned at the start, we've discussed Kim Jong Eun became public, was sort of formally revealed to the North Korean public in September last year at this big political conference. After that, there was this -- a series of sort of forced resignations of high-level military people on both the National Defense Commission, which is the top sort of organ of all, and a couple of other sort of lower level military groups.
RAMSTADAnd that is sort of recognized as kind of a start of this, you know, shaking up of the -- you know, the elites and the people that kind of form the inner circle. So it's really hard, though, from outside to know exactly...
RAMSTAD...you know, how extensive this could get now.
PAALWell, he's right. The big divisions in the society probably are generational between the army and the party and between the elites around the Kim family and the broader elite. And if large groups of these people start to see their self-preservation under threat, they'll do what they need to do. So it's really important for someone like this new leader to pick his fights carefully and not to take on large swaths of personnel in his system, or he could find the system come back after him.
REHMHow carefully do you mean?
PAALI mean, for example, Evan just mentioned the removal of several of the military senior commanders. If he were to take a whole class of commanders out or take out a whole generation of them, then I would see them banding together to protect themselves.
REHMInteresting. All right. To Oklahoma City, good morning, Mark.
MARKI think I'm correct in understanding that one of the Republican presidential candidates, Ron Paul, should he be elected and become commander in chief, would remove all of our forces, including all of our troops, from the Korean peninsula. And in a highly unlikely scenario that that would happen -- or what would be the most likely response of not only in the North Korean government to our removing all our forces but also the South Korean government and for that matter Japan?
REHMWhat do you think, Jonathan Pollack?
POLLACKWell, I think the odds of there being a President Paul are pretty small. This kind of an issue has reared its head form time to time -- people wondering, South Korea is perhaps the 12th biggest economy in the world, can't they defend themselves and so forth. We have long-term commitments to South Korea. These date, of course, from the Korean War itself when the United States seemed to declare South Korea outside the U.S. defense periphery and we saw what happened.
POLLACKI think under the existing circumstances, there have been some changes and modifications in the U.S. presence. But the fundamental reality of having North Korea as the world's most militarized system deployed very far forward with ballistic missiles, with long-range artillery is that prudence alone does not dictate or permit the withdrawal of American forces under any circumstances as obtained at present.
REHMAnd, Evan, I know you'd like to add.
RAMSTADI'd just like to add that the true presence of the United States in South Korea is half borne by the South Koreans. And, you know, that cost is shared. And so, you know, the generals in -- who are there for the U.S. always talk about this moment every year when South Korea makes a big payment to the United States.
PAALWell, you know, we did try this once. When Jimmy Carter was elected, he had promised in his campaign to remove the troops from South Korea and had upset things back politically in South Korea, caused the dictator, at that time, to really claw people in. And the administration's internal intelligence and military analysts had to carefully and persistently persuade the president that what he was trying to do would be unwise and dangerous.
REHMJonathan Pollack, what do we know for certain about North Korea's nuclear capability?
POLLACKWell, the best we can say is we can estimate that probably they have an existing inventory of four to eight nuclear devices. Whether they can actually mount any of these devices, hypothetically, on a missile and deliver them, whether to Japan or elsewhere, we can't really know for certain. But we do know that, over the course of persistent negotiation and so forth, North Korea has never yielded any of its nuclear assets.
POLLACKIt's that very uncertainty for reasons, in part, related to what Bob Gallucci said before -- fears about that there might be transfer of some of these technologies or materials, but more generally the fact that they do indeed, over time, have a capacity to build up some kind of a capability. Whether it is a true operational capability or simply more a symbolic or political force, I think, it's still an open question. But some of the trends are worrisome. They retain options and they continue to pursue them, many of them utterly unverifiable, and it really ought to cost us great concern.
REHMSarah, I want to turn for a moment to North Korea's relationship with China and their commercial dealings. Can you talk about that?
YUNSure. China and North Korea has had a steady flow of trade relations in the past many years, but -- especially in 2010, after the Cheonan -- the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, the South Korean government almost entirely stopped any aid or trade relations with North Korea. Therefore, China has filled in that gap. And China is using this as an advantage and a leverage point to have more of a footprint in the borders and within North Korea.
YUNAnd I think China's first move since Kim Jong Il died is very interesting because they were the first ones to come out. They were the first movers to say -- express official condolences and also recognize Kim Jong Eun as a future leader. And in that, they're trying to be the most influential and be -- continue to have economic and strategic and people-to-people relations with North Korea. And I think this is an interesting and an important challenge for the South Korean government as well as the U.S., how they are going to deal with this Chinese increasing imprint in North Korea.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What is it that China provides to North Korea?
YUNWell, they are the biggest provider of fuel and food, mostly. And as a trade-off, North Korea gives them a lot of natural resources, such as iron and coal. And also China, as -- in return, has received the warm water port, and that's where they're developing the Rason District right now, and also some of the port areas and the borderline areas. So it's a mutual relationship.
REHMDoug Paal, at this point, what do you believe that the U.S. should be doing?
PAALWell, this is something I've been urging for quite a long time, and I think it's more urgent now than ever. At the very highest level, we need to have our leader contact the Chinese leader and appoint people who can get together and talk in great confidence, away from any cameras or microphones, about what we would do and what we would not do in the event of certain contingencies in North Korea. We need to give each other reassurances about our future behavior because these are now matters of potentially pressing concern.
REHMAnd do you believe that that should be the secretary of state?
PAALIf I were doing it, it would probably the head of CIA on the American side and a counterpart from the Chinese side, people who have a known habit of keeping themselves out of the limelight.
REHMJonathan Pollack, what about you? What should the U.S. do now?
POLLACKWell, there -- it's both a list of what to do and what not to do, as one of the callers noted. We need to be very, very mindful of what we don't understand fully. I do think it does call for some kind of a measured public statement that leaves the door open to an extent. But I agree with Doug. We should try, but, frankly, the record with China and China's own willingness to engage in any private discussions, perhaps in part because they figure that sooner or later any American who's going to leak or disclose what goes on, is something that they are unprepared to deal with.
POLLACKI must say that the North Koreans follow what the Chinese do with incredible closeness. This is a deeply suspicious system. And when -- we know from statements, comments from Chinese officials that the North Koreans do complain about statements, even when Chinese say things that they deem politically incorrect.
REHMAnd, Evan Ramstad, last word from you.
RAMSTADJust to add very quickly that it's significant and overnight tonight over the past 12 hours, China did make a statement acknowledging that they have talked at the foreign ministry -- foreign minister-secretary of state level, that they held talks with Secretary of State Clinton. That's significant, and that it sends a signal to North Korea that, you know, there is a dialogue going on. It wasn't just the U.S. saying we talked to China. China actually said, hey, we talked to the U.S.
REHMEvan Ramstad, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. And Jonathan Pollack of the Brookings Institution, he's the author of the book titled "No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security." Sarah Yun, she's at the Korean Economic Institute, and Doug Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thank you all so much. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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