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As UN Levels New Sanctions, Pyongyang Threatens Pre-emptive Nuclear Attack

March 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The United Nations Security Council imposed new sanctions against North Korea to stop that country from importing materials for its nuclear program. Ray Suarez talks with Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Joseph DeTrani of Intelligence and National Security Alliance.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Hours before a vote on new sanctions, North Korea threatened a nuclear strike against the U.S. today.

Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: It took less than three minutes for the U.N. Security Council to agree on its fourth round of sanctions against North Korea. The vote was unanimous, imposing new financial curbs.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice:

UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR SUSAN RICE, United Nations: Taken together, these sanctions will bite, and bite hard. They increase North Korea’s isolation and raise the cost to North Korea’s leaders of defying the international community.

RAY SUAREZ: The sanctions aim to make it more difficult for North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to finance his nuclear and missile program. In December, the North successfully fired a long-range rocket, saying it was designed to orbit a satellite.

And last month, North Koreans cheered scientists who carried out the country’s third nuclear test. That event directly provoked today’s U.N. action. North Korea’s closest ally, China, even helped draft the sanctions.

CHINESE AMBASSADOR LI BAODONG, United Nations: We want to see full implementation of the resolution. The top priority now is to defuse the tension, bring down the heat.

RAY SUAREZ: Instead, the sounds and images from Pyongyang today were all about defiance. Civilians and members of the military staged a mass rally and state television carried a direct threat against the U.S.

MAN: Since the United States is about to ignite a nuclear war, we will be exercising our right to preemptive nuclear attack against the headquarters of the aggressor in order to protect our supreme interest.

RAY SUAREZ: North Korea also threatened this week to nullify the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953. It cited war games involving U.S. and South Korean forces and said it would have to respond.

But last month, the new president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, issued a warning of her own in her inaugural address.

PRESIDENT PARK GEUN-HYE, South Korea: I will not tolerate any action that threatens the lives of our people and the security of our nation.

RAY SUAREZ: Amid all of this, a moment some called basketball diplomacy. Former Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman visited North Korea last week. He quoted Kim Jong-un as saying, “I don’t want to do war” and asking that President Obama call him.

White House officials denounced the Rodman visit as nothing more than a publicity stunt.

For more on the sanctions and North Korea’s response, I’m joined by Victor Cha, a former National Security Council official, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Joseph DeTrani, formerly the senior adviser and North Korea mission manager in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He’s now president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.

Mr. Cha, what did the Security Council vote to do in these latest sanctions?

VICTOR CHA, Senior Adviser, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, this latest round of sanctions, Ray, aimed at three things.

The first is interdicting of cargo suspect to be of North Korean origin that carry missile parts or things of that nature, a blacklist on both the import of certain items that they could use for their weapons program, as well as individuals. And then the third element has to do with financial sanctions, trying to block — U.N. member states blocking financial transactions by North Korean companies or front companies that have to do with proliferation financing, so a really comprehensive set of sanctions.

RAY SUAREZ: Joseph DeTrani, is it hard to craft sanctions — this is the fourth round of escalating sanctions — when a country is so isolated, so poor, so removed from international commerce?

JOSEPH DETRANI, Intelligence and National Security Alliance: Right. Right.

It’s difficult. Given that you have over 190 countries, and North Korea has found a way to in some ways get around the three resolutions, the initial sanctions that were imposed. I think with this fourth resolution, it’s very powerful. And the — I think the power comes from the unanimity of the international community, saying, enough is enough, and to include China helping with the drafting and so forth.

So I think the consensus is implementation of these four resolutions — and, indeed, if all countries do implement them, as Victor just indicated now, it would have significant impact on the ability to move finances, move money, most of it through illicit means, and also to acquire materials for their nuclear and missile programs, and to proliferate said materials. So I think it’s powerful.

RAY SUAREZ: Including China? A big change — is that the biggest change really in this latest vote?

VICTOR CHA: Well, China has signed on to the previous resolutions, and so they have done again.

And that’s a good political gesture. And they had to negotiate the language of the sanctions with the United States. I think the real question, Ray, is in the follow-through, whether China really enforces the sanctions. In the past, one could argue that they haven’t been as vigilant in enforcing the sanctions as one would like.

In fact, in periods when we have had sanctions on North Korea, China-DPRK bilateral trade actually went up. So we certainly don’t want this to happen again. And so I think it will all be in the follow-through and how China enforces and implements the sanctions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is North Korea feeling more encircled, more vulnerable? Does that perhaps explain the vehemence of the reaction to this latest …

JOSEPH DETRANI: No, I agree.

I think that does explain their vitriolic comments over the last few days, certainly yesterday, talking about preemptive strikes. It’s — those comments that are beyond the pale. I think they do feel under a great deal of pressure, especially with the element of China supporting this resolution and the commitment to implement it, and all countries coming together on it.

So I do — my sense is that North Korea does feel under significant pressure, and they’re lashing out. This is what they have done in the past. And they’re sort of doing — following the same playbook they had in the past with respect to sanctions and resolutions that are imposed on them.

RAY SUAREZ: In the statement, Gen. Kang Pyo Yong, “When we shell Washington, which is the stronghold of evils, will be engulfed in a sea of fire.”

Have they ever declared themselves to be able to even contemplate doing something like that?

VICTOR CHA: Well, it does sound like typical North Korean bluster, because we have heard them say things about engulfing Seoul in a sea of fire, things of that nature.

RAY SUAREZ: Yes, but Seoul is right over the border between the two countries.

VICTOR CHA: Yes.

I mean, I think this time, Ray, the difference is, no, they cannot right now reach the United States with an ICBM that is tipped with a nuclear weapon. Having said that, the latest round of tests in December, the ballistic missiles tests, and then in February the nuclear tests, do appear to demonstrate that they have crossed some significant thresholds in terms of these technologies.

And so my concern is while they may not be able to do this today, they certainly may be able to do it within a few years. And right now, there is nothing stopping them from continuing to move in this direction. So it may not be a threat today, but it is a real threat that we need to be concerned about.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, commonplace in these stories is the reference to China as North Korea’s closest ally. You will see the phrase over and over in stories coming out of that part of the world. Is it also a hindrance, a weight on Beijing, trying to punch its weight in the international arena?

JOSEPH DETRANI: Significant weight on Beijing.

Beijing, now with the new government with the Party Congress in the past, now the People’s Congress that is meeting, and with Xi Jinping taking over as the general secretary, now the president, there are a number of domestic issues. Certainly, we hear about the Senkakus and some territorial issues with the government of Japan. So, China has a full plate.

North Korea, with their most recent nuclear test and their ballistic missile launch and so forth, is just making things more complicated for China. And, of course, China has a security and — relationship with the North Koreans. They’re allied. But this has become a hindrance and become an irritant. And I think China — and as evidenced by this recent resolution that is going — that has just gone through the United Nations, I think China is showing their pique with North Korea’s unacceptable behavior.

RAY SUAREZ: Also home to a new government is Seoul, where there’s a new president in South Korea. Is this sort of a shot across her bow, a test to see how she will react?

VICTOR CHA: I think most certainly it is.

Park Geun-hye, the new South Korean president, was inaugurated Feb. 25th. During her campaign, she talked about trying to build trust with North Korea. And then the first thing the North Koreans do is this nuclear test only days before she steps into office.

So, it is. It’s a real test of her leadership, her policies with regard to North Korea. Our research has shown that the North Koreans do due provocation in response to South Korea elections and inaugurations. Going back to 1992, they have done a provocation after every South Korean inauguration.

So, I think that she’s seen one provocation. She’s likely to see more. And how she responds, I think, will be very important, because her policy direction will, I think, in many ways lead the United States and China as they try to figure out what’s the next step after sanctions in dealing with this country.

RAY SUAREZ: And, quickly, before we go, is it significant that North Korea has basically backed away from the armistice? The two countries, North and South, never really made peace after the Korean War. It’s just a cease-fire. Are they at war again?

JOSEPH DETRANI: Well, it is significant they made this statement. They have made the statement in the past.

But I think it’s significant given the series of events, the nuclear tests — the missile launch, the nuclear test, now these vitriolic statements coming out of Pyongyang and with the resolution going forth. North Korea needs to come back. And this is where China plays a role.

China can bring North Korea back to the table, but not just for talks for the sake of having talks. Bring back — come back to the table to determine if Kim Jong-un, as his father was committed to the six-party process and to denuclearization and the September 2005 joint statement which spoke to denuclearization, Kim Jong-un — Kim Jong-un has never committed to this.

That needs to be determined. And if that can be determined, then we can make — all of us can make that determination do we reconstitute the six-party process and move forward? China can do this and facilitate movement on that side.

RAY SUAREZ: Joseph DeTrani, Victor Cha, good to talk to you both.

JOSEPH DETRANI: Thank you, sir.

VICTOR CHA: Thank you.