TOPICS > Politics

Korean Ship Sinking Controversy Could Derail Nuclear Progress

May 20, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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For more on the rising tensions over the naval explosion that killed 46 South Korean sailors near the disputed maritime border with the North, Judy Woodruff talks to two experts on Asian politics about the rising hostilities on the Korean Peninsula.


JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on all this, we get two views. Victor Cha is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former director for Asian affairs at the White House from 2004 to 2007. And Joel Wit is an adjunct senior researcher at Columbia University’s Institute of East Asian Studies. He had a 15-year career at the State Department, where he focused on North Korea.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

Victor Cha, to you first.

How serious is this incident?

VICTOR CHA, senior adviser, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, I think it is a very serious incident. It’s the largest loss of North Korean– South Korean military life at the hands of North Korea since the end of the Korean War.

As the White House statement said yesterday, it’s a violation of the armistice. And I think it is the sign of an increasingly desperate North Korean regime that is trying to force others to give them things to maintain the peaceful status quo.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joel Wit, any doubt that this was a deliberate act by the North Koreans?

JOEL WIT, adjunct senior researcher, Columbia University: Well, I don’t have any doubt about it. And I know there are some people who speculate about whether this was some sort of rogue operation, but I think we have to assume that this was a deliberate act by North Korea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just to stay with you, why is it — but why do you believe they did it? I mean, it’s pure speculation, but what — what is the educated guessing?

JOEL WIT: Well, the educated guess is there are two reasons. One is to humiliate the conservative South Korean regime, which basically has pulled back from the engagement policy of its two predecessors.

And the second reason is, the North Koreans were kind of looking for revenge for previous naval clashes in that — in that area where North Korean sailors were killed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would you add to that, Victor Cha?

VICTOR CHA: I mean, I agree with what Joel said. The only thing that I would add is that the current government in South Korea certainly is more conservative.

And they are not pursuing the same sorts of unconditional engagement policies of the previous two governments. But they also have said that they are willing to engage with the North, if the North is willing to reciprocate on denuclearization or conventional arms reductions or whatever the issue may be.

So, to say they are completely pulling back is — is — I don’t — I think a bit of an overstatement. But I do agree with Joel that they certainly are trying to humiliate this government in South Korea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joel Wit, back to you.

Secretary Gates said today that South Korea is going to take the lead on this, but what are the options now for the South and for the United States?

JOEL WIT: Well, there are a number of things we can do. And I think you have heard them in the news reports. One of them is, we can prepare for future incidents like this, because there is some evidence that suggests that this took the South Koreans somewhat by surprise.

There are other military programs that can be undertaken that step up our efforts to counter North Korea’s military. And, of course, at the U.N., we can seek international action, although there’s a question of how far to go there, whether to seek sanctions or just condemnation of this action by North Korea.

And, in that context, the attitude of China is going to be very important. So, there is a wide range of things can be done, but we also have to be very careful not to make a tense situation worse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, of those options, Victor Cha, is there a priority list? Which one is the — the wisest?

VICTOR CHA: I think — I mean, the broad template is, you want to do something tough enough so the North Koreans don’t do this again, but you don’t want to be too tough so that you start a war.

Clearly, the main near-term task is to fashion a response that shows the North Koreans there are real costs to doing what they did. And I think that means the South will do some things on their own, largely diplomatic, cutting off trade ties, which hurt the North Korean economy and the leadership quite a bit, as well as reinforcing the alliance with the United States, whether that is in terms of submarine detection capabilities, anti-submarine warfare capabilities, and naval exercises. I think these are important things to do.

The larger diplomatic path is to go to the U.N.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And accomplish what?

VICTOR CHA: Well, to get a Security Council resolution that, ideally, would tighten some of the sanctions that were a part of the previous revolution on North Korean for their second nuclear test.

But, as Joel said, the real problem is China. China’s behavior thus far in terms of this incident has been subpar, to — to be kind. They have been very clumsy, backward, and really out of step with the international community in terms of addressing this issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, given that, Joel Wit, is there some belief that the Chinese may have a different posture on — on this incident?

JOEL WIT: Well, I think I disagree with Victor a little bit here, because I don’t think the — the Chinese reaction has been surprising, subpar, or clumsy.

I think China has very different interests here than the United States and South Korea. China’s interests here are rapidly shifting towards emphasizing stability in the region. And that means doing nothing to force North Korea into a corner, where it might lash out at other countries, or to trigger the collapse of North Korea.

And the second objective here for China, quite frankly, is to increase its influence in North Korea. And, to serve that objective, we have seen China increase its assistance to North Korea over the six months, after North Korea conducted a nuclear test and missile test. So, I think we’re in a very tight spot here. And I’m not quite sure how to get out of it. But I know that China is not going to solve this problem for us.

VICTOR CHA: I mean, the only thing that I would say is, I think the Chinese, since 1992, have tried to maintain two policies on the Korean Peninsula, one with the North and one with the South, and tried to keep those separate.

But, when you have an event like this, where 46 sailors — easily 100 could have died if the entire ship, all the crew had died, make it very hard for the Chinese to separate out these two relationships. China does $200 billion worth of business a year with South Korea. They do $2 billion worth of business a year with North Korea.

So, it’s very clear where — where China’s future is on the peninsula, and it is with the South. And I think the government in South Korea, as well as the United States, are really going to try to push China to make a choice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, isn’t there a sense, Joel Wit, that the North Koreans have gotten away with a lot over the years? And what is to stop them from getting away with this?

JOEL WIT: Well, you know, that’s kind of a broad statement: They have gotten away with a lot.

Certainly, they have conducted a lot of actions that all of us find reprehensible. But the fact is, what we need to be thinking about is a strategy for the future. It’s one thing to react to this incident. And I totally agree that our reaction has to be strong.

But how will we deal with North Korea in the coming months and years? And, quite frankly, enacting tough measures, like we’re going to enact, is not enough. We need to think beyond them to, how do we deal with the real challenges that North Korea poses to our interests?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And engage them, as you suggested earlier, and…

JOEL WIT: Well, of course, that’s — of course, that’s my answer.

But I know Victor would probably have a different answer.


JOEL WIT: But what I would like to say is that the approach we’re taking now, which is essentially trying to contain North Korea, is not going to work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You get the last word.

VICTOR CHA: I think there is a time for diplomacy, and the 20 years of U.S. engagement with North Korea shows there is a time for diplomacy.

But the first step is, you really have to reestablish deterrents on the peninsula. And, then once you do that, then there is a path open for negotiations. The Obama administration has made clear they’re interested in negotiations and a broader relationship with the North Koreans. President Obama said it from the very beginning of the term.

So, I think there is a game plan there, but the first step is, we have to reestablish deterrents on the peninsula.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Gentlemen, we’re going to leave it there.

Victor Cha, Joel Wit, thank you.

JOEL WIT: Thank you.