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Discerning Reality From Rhetoric in North Korea’s Threats

April 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Is the latest rhetoric from North Korea brinkmanship or does it reflect the communist state's ability to mount an attack? Judy Woodruff talks to two former Korea intelligence analysts -- Robert Carlin of Stanford University and Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation -- about North Korea's military ability and strategy.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Two former Korea intelligence analysts weigh in now. Robert Carlin had a 31-year career at the CIA and State Department. He was involved in U.S.-North Korea negotiations and traveled to North Korea 25 times. He’s now a visiting fellow at Stanford University. And Bruce Klingner spent 20 years at the CIA, where he served as the deputy chief for Korea. He’s now a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Gentlemen, welcome to the NewsHour.

Bruce Klingner, to you first.

How would you describe the state of relations right now between the North and the South and the U.S.?

BRUCE KLINGNER, Former CIA Intelligence Analyst: They’re very strained.

We have had five years of very strained relations under the previous president, Lee Myung-Bak, as he did not continue the unconditional provision of benefits to North Korea that his two predecessors had done. North Korea reacted very strongly, increased the rhetoric, increased the threats during his administration. And we have seen no change in the threat level since the new North Korean leader came and the new South Korean president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Carlin, have strained?

ROBERT CARLIN, Former CIA and State Department Intelligence Analyst: I think the rhetoric is at a high level.

I would hope that the events over the past couple of days in North Korea would provide an opportunity for us to lower the temperature a little bit. We had some pretty important developments in terms of policy and personnel from the North Koreans over the last two days. I think we should step back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are you referring to?

ROBERT CARLIN: I’m referring to the lower profile that the military now has in the top-level leadership in North Korea.

I’m referring to something that the North Koreans — they don’t use this term, but I will. It’s the nuclear dividend. It’s the ability now that they have nuclear weapons, they say, to divert more money for their civilian economy. And the question is, is there an opening there? Does that provides some element of stability in this situation that we can use?

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean because they feel more secure about their nuclear capability, they then have the space to expand in the economic front?

ROBERT CARLIN: Yes. Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what about that, Bruce Klingner? How do you — does that make sense?

BRUCE KLINGNER: We can always be hopeful.

We have been hoping for 20 years that North Korea will implement economic reform. I remember 20 years ago, State Department predicted Kim Jong Il was a bold economic reformer and we were on the cusp of widespread economic reform. That hasn’t happened. It hasn’t happened under the new leader.

The important New Year’s Day editorial and the speech by him really was just a continuation of exhortations for a planned economy to build a socialist paradise. So, we haven’t seen indications yet of economic reform. But more importantly, we have seen no indications of political change or moderation of their foreign policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see concrete, Robert Carlin, examples of where the North may be heading in a reformist direction with regard to their economy or their politics?

ROBERT CARLIN: I hate to use the word reform because it stirs up all sorts of impressions, different impressions in people’s minds.

The question is, is it — is there going to be change in their economic policies? Kim Jong-un indicated a year ago that he was going to begin town that path. He used the term they weren’t going to have to tighten their belts anymore.

I think that he’s continued that in his latest policy statements, and the new prime minister that he appointed strongly suggests that they’re going to push ahead with that policy. It’s not going to unfold in isolation, however.

It’s going to depend on how the outside world reacts to it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This appointment of the new premier who was the premier before, what’s the — do you see significance there?

BRUCE KLINGNER: I think we need to look at North Korean actions. We have had times where we thought an official was a reformer in the past, and it didn’t lead to change in their economic policy. They have had sort of minor steps forward and then they retract from that.

But we can debate, as we have for 20 years, whether North Korea will implement reform. But I think we have to look, more importantly, that another country implemented Chinese-style economic reform, China. And that didn’t lead to the predicted political reforms, nor a moderation in their foreign and security policies.

So far, I mean, we have the announcement of this premier, and yet in the same meeting, they affirm that they will never give up their nuclear weapons, they’re not negotiable. And they continue the threats against South Korea and the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Carlin, if you see the possibility of an opening or a moderation somehow, why then all this bellicose rhetoric from the North?

ROBERT CARLIN: The bellicose rhetoric is largely propaganda.

And propaganda is, by its nature, rough, tough, bellicose, mean, ugly. And we shouldn’t get carried away paying too much attention to the propaganda. I mean, Bruce just made the point, we have got to look at what they do, not just what they say.

And so it’s sort of the clock starts now. The new premier comes into office. What are the policies that they’re going to pick up on? What are the interactions with the Chinese going to be from now on? What are the new proposals they are going to come up with towards South Korea? And I suspect there will be some.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meantime, Bruce Klingner, the U.S. publicizing the fact that there are these joint military exercises with the South, the F-22s. They’re positioning this — I guess it’s a — what is it? A sea-based radar platform closer to the North, a guided-missile destroyer that we mentioned earlier.

If the situation — if the U.S. thinks what the North is doing is what it’s always — what it’s done before, as we heard the White House say today, why are the Americans doing this?

BRUCE KLINGNER: Really, we’re sending a signal to both Koreas. We’re sending a signal to North Korea that we will defend our South Korean ally. We have the capabilities to do so and we have the resolve to do so.

We’re also sending the same message to Seoul, which has begun the question U.S. capabilities and resolve, particularly after the sequestration cuts and the previous cuts to the defense budget. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter was in the area to try to reassure our allies. But the cuts do impact our capabilities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And does sending those sets of reassuring signals make sense at this point?

ROBERT CARLIN: We’re right in the middle of a pretty bad situation.

And if every — if our allies think, after all of these years, they need more reassurance from us, then by all means we should give it to them. But we have to be careful not to be provocative about it towards the North Koreans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last question to both of you. What is the North capable of doing?

ROBERT CARLIN: They’re capable of unleashing incredible destruction on South Korea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The region?

ROBERT CARLIN: Right. True.

BRUCE KLINGNER: They have conventional forces. They have certainly used those in two acts of war in 2010. They have conducted acts of terror. They have a growing missile capability, a growing nuclear capability.

Certainly, the Obama administration has taken it seriously, because they reversed their previous policy to cut missile defense interceptors in Alaska. Now they have put them back into the budget from what they cut them four years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But so far from the North, it’s just talk so far, and the exercises?

BRUCE KLINGNER: It’s talk until it happens. We thought it was just talk before they sank a South Korean ship in South Korean waters. We thought it was just talk until they shelled a civilian island.

So, it’s always trying to discern the bluster from the threats. And that’s very difficult with North Korea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We will leave it there.

Bruce Klingner, Robert Carlin, we thank you both.

ROBERT CARLIN: Thank you.