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Will North Korea’s Pattern of Provocation, Concession Continue After Shellings?

November 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong island killed two South Korean marines and led to an exchange of fire between the two countries. Jim Lehrer gets more on the tense standoff from Victor Cha, former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, and professor Sung-Yoon Lee of Tufts University.

JIM LEHRER: For more, we go to Victor Cha, who served on the National Security Council staff during the second George W. Bush term. He is now at Georgetown University. And Sung-Yoon Lee, an adjunct professor at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Victor Cha, it was said today that this could be the start of something worse. Do you see it that way?

VICTOR CHA, senior adviser, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, I do think that there is the potential for escalation.

North Korean activities over the past year, year-and-a-half have followed a very steady train of provocations, in April of 2009, a ballistic missile test, in May, a nuclear test, the sinking of the Cheonan last March, and now this event. And these are, I think, at a degree much higher than previous provocations we have seen from the North, I mean, really, for 50 years. So, I think there is a potential for things to get worse before they get better.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Professor Lee?

SUNG-YOON LEE, Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University: Yes, there’s always that possibility.

But in the grand scheme of North Korean strategy, we have seen this pattern over the past several decades. North Korea has a very potent formula, that is, to provoke and then make a mini-concession and return to the negotiating table to reap concessions, economic compensation, and political compensation. That’s been an effective policy for North Korea, unfortunately.

JIM LEHRER: So, it could be just another one of those small things aimed to get more attention, is that correct, and aimed at getting people back at the table for nuclear negotiation?

SUNG-YOON LEE: Well, I think one may be forgiven if one were to draw the conclusion.

Looking at past events, past provocations by North Korea, even in the case in the aftermath of serious provocations with broad strategic implications, like firing a missile over Japan, as North Korea did in 1998, and last year as well, or conducting two nuclear tests, North Korea has been rather even more vigorously courted, engaged by South Korea and the United States.

And both countries have pledged bigger blandishments just for returning to the negotiating table. So, this strategy, North Korea is banking on the fact that, the more it provokes, the more likely it may be for the United States and South Korea to resort to crisis management or damage control diplomacy.

There will be greater political pressure to contain the situation in Washington and Seoul.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Cha, you see that as a possibility as well?

VICTOR CHA: Well, I think that the sort of normal response to this sort of behavior and analysis is to say that, well, they just want to get back to the negotiations, and they want a higher price for these negotiations.

I think the problem this time is that it’s been made very clear by both the South Korean government and the U.S. administration that they’re willing to come back to talks, and that there are now established channels through which the North Koreans can say, we want to come back to talks and these are our conditions.

I think, in previous administrations, during the Bush administration, for example, the complaint was that the United States wasn’t ready to engage in talks, and that’s why the North Koreans were provoking.

I really don’t think you can make that criticism of the Obama administration. They were very clear about their interest in engaging very early on in the administration.

JIM LEHRER: So, then, if it is not aimed at getting people back at a table, what is it — what is North Korea up to?

VICTOR CHA: I think that we have to sort of think about what’s going on internally in the North.

And as your lead piece said, there is a leadership transition that is in progress. We don’t know if it is at the end of the leadership transition or at the beginning. We do know it’s an accelerated process, because the North Korean leader is quite ill.

And, in North Korea, when you have a new leader — it’s only their third leader — you have to build a myth and an ideology around this leader based on the strength of the state. And, in that sense, I think a lot of these provocations, and in particular the last one, could be seen not as tit for tat for South Korean exercises or a negotiating ploy.

It’s part of establishing the new mythology around this young potential leader for the country.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Lee, how do you see that as a possible motive here?

SUNG-YOON LEE: North Korea does have a great incentive to build up the heir apparent, the 26-year-old, Jong-un, who has no credentials. He was appointed four-star general, yes, recently, but he has no achievements under his belt.

So, North Korea faces a great challenge of power succession, an inherently difficult task, especially for a regime beset by severe economic stresses. So, North Korea does have a need to build him up, yes. And on the eve, in the days and weeks and months leading up to Kim Jong-un’s birthday, which is January 8 — in North Korea, the birthdays of the founding dictator, April 15, and the current leader, February 16, are the biggest national holidays.

So, in the weeks leading up to early January, North Korea will have even a greater incentive to raise the stakes. Conventionally, one would think that resorting to provocative acts, attacking South Korea and so forth, wouldn’t be indicative of North Korea’s will to return to negotiations.

In the case of North Korea, perversely, this has been an effective way of really painting Washington and Seoul into a corner and driving them to engage North Korea once again.

JIM LEHRER: But you think that it is also possible — you agree with Victor Cha that it’s also possible they may be just trying to show how tough the son is going to be as well?

SUNG-YOON LEE: Yes, but in the long term. You know, North Korea does enjoy some strategic advantages. It lies very close to Seoul. And it has the capability to wreak havoc on Seoul.

So, in a way, North Korea remains somewhat impervious to external use of force, due to its capability to damage Seoul, South Korea, and even Japan. North Korea does have the most perfected advanced totalitarian system we have ever seen in world history. And North Korea, well, has a big conventional military as well.

Yet, these are strategic strengths born of systemic contradictions. In the long term, the fact that North Korea lies right next to South Korea, which is incomparably freer and richer, a far more attractive Korean nation for the North Korean people, this presents North Korea with a long-term existential threat.

And the strategy of provocation and reaping rewards in the long term is not really a sustainable strategy. And by long term, I mean 20 years from now, 50 years from now. So, the prospects for the young man for maintaining regime control are rather gloomy, even in terms of competing with South Korea.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Victor Cha, what about South Korea? There was a statement late today that the South Korean government and the Pentagon and the United States government are in sync. Whatever happens, whatever the reaction is going to be, they are going to do it together. Does that make sense? And, so far, how do you think South Korea has handled this?

VICTOR CHA: Well, I think — I mean, it does make sense. I mean, the U.S. and South Korea are allies. They’re bound by a mutual defense treaty. So, it does make sense that they consult closely on how to respond.

The South Korean response thus far has been very measured. They did respond. And they may have more follow-up measures, but it has been measured, because the South Koreans, you know, this attack, they cannot look at this attack simply as an attack. They have to consider the broader consequences, the effect on stock markets, you know, the fact that they had just hosted the G20 nations only a few days ago and will host nations for the nuclear summit in 2012.


VICTOR CHA: So, there are many other considerations.

I think, from a U.S. perspective, the idea of sticking very close is to show support for an ally. But you also want to make sure that that ally doesn’t go overboard and doesn’t start something or act in a way that could lead to an escalation of the crisis.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that’s possible?

VICTOR CHA: I mean, I think the Lee Myung-Bak government in South Korea has been very measured. They were measured in terms of the Cheonan. And I think they will be very careful this time.

Having said that, I think the United States and South Korea, when you talk about any potential military response, this is the most militarized border in the entire world. And both militaries — all three militaries are on a hair-trigger response. So, any military reaction, you have to be concerned about the potential for escalation.

JIM LEHRER: Because, if one thing happens, boom, boom, boom, boom. Before you know it…

VICTOR CHA: That’s absolutely right. That’s absolutely right.

JIM LEHRER: And, in a word, you agree with that, Professor Lee, that you could have — something just happens, boom, boom, boom, and you have got it before you know it?

SUNG-YOON LEE: Yes, I do. All states in the regions, including North Korea, have a great interest in not having a general war or even a limited war. South Korea and the United States and other powers in the region, including China and Japan and Russia, have all — over the past 60 years in varying degrees have been propping up Pyongyang for concerns, out of concerns for regime instability and the uncertainty of what may come in the aftermath of the collapse of the political system called the DPRK.


SUNG-YOON LEE: And North Korea knows this. And North Korea has been playing on the proclivities of the regional powers to maintain the status quo, meaning not to seek a regime collapse.

But, over the long term, I think the decline of the DPRK, perhaps the demise of the DPRK, is a near inevitability. And I think it’s time to put real pressure on North Korea’s points of vulnerability. There are several systemic weaknesses that we can exploit.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. OK. Well, we will see what happens. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

SUNG-YOON LEE: Thank you.