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North Korea’s Kim Jong Il Vows to Continue Missile Testing

July 6, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: The isolated communist nation that President Bush once labeled part of the axis of evil is back at the center of the world’s attention. Despite warnings from the U.S. and neighbors China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, North Korea fired off several test missiles this week. They all landed harmlessly in the Sea of Japan.

But one, the long-range Taepodong-2 missile, is designed to be capable of reaching the United States. Today, in a televised statement, the Pyongyang regime threatened to launch more missiles, saying, “As a sovereign country, this is our legal right, and we are not bound by any agreements.”

Earlier this week, the regime vowed to respond to any U.S. strike against its missile sites by unleashing its own “mighty nuclear deterrent.”

With these defiant gestures and words, North Korea’s 64-year-old leader, Kim Jong Il, again underscored his reputation for unpredictability. He’s ruled North Korea since his father, Kim Il-Sung, died in 1994.

A show of force to the world

Chuck Downs
Former Pentagon Official
The Bush administration has refused to give in to a number of things that Kim Jong Il has wanted over the last few years. He has insisted on multilateral negotiations. Kim Jong Il wants one-on-one negotiations with the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: We get three views now on what's driving North Korea's actions.

Former State Department counselor Wendy Sherman met with Kim Jong Il when she was the Clinton administration's point person for North Korea. She is now a principal of the Albright Group, a global strategy firm in Washington. Kongdan "Katy" Oh is a Korea specialist at the Institute For Defense Analyses. She was born in South Korea, but is of North Korean descent. And Chuck Downs was deputy director of the Pentagon's Asia Policy Office from 1991 to '96. He is the author of "Over the line: North Korea's Negotiating Strategy." He's now a private consultant on North Korean issues.

And welcome to you all.

So, the big question, Wendy Sherman, why did the North Korean regime take these provocative steps this week?

WENDY SHERMAN, Former State Department Adviser: I think that Kim Jong Il and the North Koreans chose this week. I think they chose the Fourth of July to set off their own fireworks.

I think it was really a way to say to the world: We have to be taken into account. We are serious about what we're doing. We are a force to be reckoned with.

I think they will ultimately come back to a negotiating table, but they're going to come back to that table with more cards sitting in their hand, from their perspective, even though they were failed tests. And I also think that Kim Jong Il looked at what we were doing with Iran. Here, Iran had really behaved badly. And, for that bad behavior, they got a pretty good package that included a light-water reactor, the very reactor that the Bush administration denied North Korea.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Chuck Downs, that this is part of, in their mind, a negotiating ploy, rather than them seeking a real confrontation?

CHUCK DOWNS, Former Pentagon Official: Part of it is a negotiating ploy. I think that they are trying to break out of the box that Kim Jong Il finds himself in.

The Bush administration has refused to give in to a number of things that Kim Jong Il has wanted over the last few years. He has insisted on multilateral negotiations. Kim Jong Il wants one-on-one negotiations with the United States. The Bush administration has taken action against illicit North Korean activities and the funding of those illicit activities around the world. And it's begun to hurt the regime.

MARGARET WARNER: Squeezing...

CHUCK DOWNS: Kim Jong Il had to do something to break out of that pattern.

MARGARET WARNER: And, so -- but why does he think this is the way to do it?

KONGDAN OH, Institute For Defense Analyses: Well, first of all, I think the two speakers said all the things right on the money.

But one thing I would like to add is that July 8 is the anniversary death day of the founder and president of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung.

MARGARET WARNER: His father.

KONGDAN OH: That's right.

Kim Jong Il always tried to be kind of emulating his father's great charisma, foreign policy, strategic leadership. And I don't think he really fulfilled his dream. His father fought against Japanese and Americans, but Kim Jong Il seems to be -- to not get any respect from Japanese and Americans.

So, four days before his father's birthday, he already maybe had to show some kind of internal dynamics to his people that: I am in charge. I will not be bullied by Americans. And on the military force politics, let me tell you, we are nuclear power and we are missile power. So, let me shoot all those missiles to show the world that I am in charge.

I think that's one of the interesting things we have to note.

Juggling act of powers

Kongdan Oh
Institute for Defense Analysis
But if he supports [the] military too much, and the cabinet and party could not go ahead with economic reform. So, I think he's trapped between two very difficult positions.

MARGARET WARNER: Is he in charge, Chuck Downs?

CHUCK DOWNS: Well, he is certainly in charge. He can use all of the coercive power that any tyrant like Kim Jong Il needs to use to make sure that everyone pretends to agree with him.

Part of -- and I agree with what Katy said. He needs to prove that he is able to fill his father's shoes, even this many years after his father died. I think that he has internal problems that we don't fully understand and that we aren't really in a position to assess.

When you stop and look at the rapid-fire firings of Nodong missiles from different locations in North Korea, I think it's important to try to imagine what the local impact is. And the local impact is that the military is being asked to do something that's very difficult, that seems to have no real purpose, that the friends of North Korea in China, in Beijing -- some of these military people know people in Beijing, and they know that they are deifying Beijing. They know they're deifying the international community.

This is a loyalty test being forced on the military of North Korea by Kim Jong Il himself, because he is uncertain of his standing with the military.

MARGARET WARNER: How much...

WENDY SHERMAN: I...

MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead.

WENDY SHERMAN: I actually think it's a loyalty test in both directions.

I agree that there is some of what Chuck is describing, but I also think that the military has probably pressed Kim Jong Il to show that he is committed to them, that he is going to allow them to continue to build their missile capability, build their nuclear weapons, spend money on it, spend national prestige on it.

So, I think the loyalty goes in both directions, both Kim Jong Il doing a test of the military of their loyalty toward him, and the military demanding of Kim Jong Il that, if he wants that loyalty returned, he better pay attention to the military, and make sure that people understand it is military first as a policy in North Korea.

MARGARET WARNER: Katy, what's your view of is there a power struggle going on, and if so -- not a power struggle, but a...

KONGDAN OH: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Does Kim Jong Il have to pay -- have any constituency he really has to pay attention to?

KONGDAN OH: Kim Jong Il has to control so-called the three legs of his power.

One is the party. The other one is the military, and the third one is the so-called administrative council, which is the American version of the Cabinet.

During the Kim Il-Sung period, the party was the dominant power. Military and the cabinet, all other cadres were serving the party. And party was the mother lode of the institution.

But the -- Kim Jong Il discovered that party may be too powerful to be controlled by him. So, he found the military maybe to be the kind of, like a counterpart to suppress the party's power. So, he made the military to be much more powerful during his tenure. Right now, he's, I think, trapped between a hard place and a rock.

That is because he has to now support military, but the military has the real power. So, I think he's trapped. If he doesn't really show his support, military may be the angry one who will maybe try to do something against him. But if he supports military too much, and the cabinet and party could not go ahead with economic reform. So, I think he's trapped between two very difficult positions.

Diagnosing a dictator

Wendy Sherman
The Albright Group
He clearly has to be a bit of a megalomaniac, because the whole city, the whole culture, which Katy and Chuck know so well, is about Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il, as the Great Leader and the Dear Leader.

MARGARET WARNER: Wendy Sherman, let me go back to a question that people always ask, and which is, you know, is he crazy?

And one of your former colleagues who was on the National Security Council, P.J. Crowley, during the Clinton administration said just the other night, let's face it. You know, Kim Jong Il is crazy, and very unsophisticated when it comes to international relations.

Now, you have met with the man. I know you couldn't do an instant diagnosis, but what was your sense of him?

WENDY SHERMAN: I don't think he's crazy in the way that we use that word.

He clearly has to be a bit of a megalomaniac, because the whole city, the whole culture, which Katy and Chuck know so well, is about Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il, as the Great Leader and the Dear Leader.

When we went into that stadium performance that has been so on television, with hundreds of thousands of people, quite a Stalinist production, if there ever was one, his name was called for 10 minutes. People think that all good things they get come from the Dear Leader or in the star of his father, the Great Leader.

And, so, his sense of himself is a little warped. I think it is more like a cult than a country, in many ways. And he's unsophisticated, in the sense that he doesn't know all that is going on in the world. But people should not underestimate him.

He has used the very little leverage he has, which is his military, nuclear weapons, and missiles, because he has a failed economy and not much else. He's played that hand pretty well. Look at all of us talking about him endlessly this week. Look at all the attention he has gotten. He's not a bad negotiator.

Internal vs. external theatrics

Chuck Downs
Former Pentagon Official
Hwang Jang Yop has always refused to answer any American question, including those from the U.S. Congress a few years ago, about whether Kim Jong Il is insane. He said, this is the wrong question that Americans are always asking...

MARGARET WARNER: And yet, Katy Oh, he has now alienated his three neighbors, I mean, China, which gives him oil and food...

KONGDAN OH: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: ... South Korea, a lot of investment from there...

KONGDAN OH: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: ... Japan, certain remittances go back to from North Koreans in Japan to North Korea.

And Christopher Hill, the U.S. envoy on -- said on this program last night, they were -- he was going to get more. They were going to get more under this September agreement, which has never been fulfilled.

KONGDAN OH: That's right.

MARGARET WARNER: Does he think he just doesn't need his neighbors; he doesn't need anybody else?

KONGDAN OH: Well, he knows that he needs neighbors, and he has to depend on China and South Korea, particularly, but I think the main problem that the Western world sees and analyze in North Korea is that, we may be treating Kim Jong Il with too much questions and a kind of like mysterious aura behind him, as if he's like a different creature.

But his typical behavior is that he's a typical authoritarian dictator. For him, the most important thing is that to sustain his power.

WENDY SHERMAN: Absolutely.

KONGDAN OH: And, so, the -- I mean, in the international sense, he doesn't make any sense to do this kind of stupid stuff, because nobody will deal with him.

But, for internal, it's working, because precisely North Koreans were separated from the reality for one century. He basically saying: Look, I am in charge. I'm your leader. I have all the guts. And I'm godlike, great mind, strategic leadership. Why don't you worship me? I will deliver the goods.

I will give you one good example. American goods and South Korean goods arrive, they basically say: Look, they coddle me, because I show great leadership. They bring to me.

And that is the special internal memo to all the cadres.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Chuck Downs, when the president, as he did again today, offers the promise of more economic engagement -- he said, you know, there will be a better life than being isolated and a better life for your people than isolation will bring is Kim Jong Il just untouched by that?

CHUCK DOWNS: Well, I think my colleagues here have already pointed out that his primary concern is his own grasp on power.

He fears people in North Korea that he may not be able to trust. He is always uncertain about how effective his coercive policies towards them is. And that's always the first thing on his mind. He would rather be certain that he is in a position to control his people, than he would be interested in having some kind of buyout from the United States that could improve the lot of his people.

Sometimes, when there's starvation, he is able to take credit for passing out food only to loyalists, and to withhold food from people who are not loyal. And this is the kind of man that we're dealing with.

Hwang Jang Yop has always refused to answer any American question, including those from the U.S. Congress a few years ago, about whether Kim Jong Il is insane. He said, this is the wrong question that Americans are always asking...

WENDY SHERMAN: Yes.

CHUCK DOWNS: ... because he's a very clever tyrant. And you need to know how effective he really is.

MARGARET WARNER: Chuck Downs, Katy Oh, Wendy Sherman, thank you.

WENDY SHERMAN: Thank you.

KONGDAN OH: Thank you. Thank you.