RAY SUAREZ: The temperature kept rising on the Korean Peninsula today, at least judging from public pronouncements. The communist North declared its missile forces are ready to launch at American targets.
More than 100,000 North Koreans filled Pyongyang’s main square today, shouting “Death to the U.S. imperialists.” The mass rally coincided with a new threat. State television announced North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has decided the time has come to settle accounts with the U.S.
WOMAN: He has signed the plan on technical preparations of strategic rockets, ordering them to be on standby for fire so that they are able to strike at any time the U.S. mainland and its military bases in the Pacific, including Hawaii and Guam and those in South Korea.
RAY SUAREZ: State media also released photographs of Kim and his senior generals during an emergency meeting late last night. They’re seen looking at a map, purportedly showing U.S. cities that might be targeted by North Korean missiles. The White House responded through a spokesman traveling with President Obama today.
He said bellicose rhetoric only deepens North Korea’s isolation. On Thursday, a more forceful demonstration: A pair of B-2 stealth bombers flew 6,500 miles to South Korea and back, as part of ongoing joint military exercises between the two nations.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, addressed the flight during a briefing with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman: Well, the reaction to the B-2 that we’re most concerned about is not necessarily the reaction it might elicit in North Korea, but rather among our Japanese and Korean allies.
You know, those exercises are mostly to assure our allies that they can count on us to be prepared to and to help them deter conflict.
RAY SUAREZ: All of this began with North Korea’s latest nuclear test in February. That prompted the United Nations Security Council to impose its latest round of sanctions against the North. And, in turn, the North began a barrage of threats and other steps, from canceling the armistice that ended the Korean War to cutting off various hot lines to the South.
Still, North Korea’s closest ally, China, called today for restraint.
HONG LEI, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman: Upholding the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula, as well as Northeast Asia, serves the common interests of all parties and it’s also their common responsibility. We hope that relevant parties will work together in pushing for a turnaround of the tense situation.
RAY SUAREZ: And for all the war talk, some economic cooperation has continued between North and South Korea. Workers and vehicles from the South are still being allowed to travel to a shared industrial park that generates millions of dollars for the North.
I’m joined by Joel Wit. During his 15-year career at the State Department, he focused on North Korea. He’s now a visiting scholar at the U.S. Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He also is the founder and co-editor of 38 North, a Web site devoted to North Korea analysis. Sung-Yoon Lee is an assistant professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
Joel Wit, are we closer to war today than we were even just a week ago, a real shooting war in Northeast Asia?
JOEL WIT, Johns Hopkins University: I think this is an extremely serious situation.
And I would say that we are one step away from a second Korean War. And I say that because, in this kind of tense situation, the danger of miscalculation or accidental conflict is very high. And so this is a very dangerous situation. And we need to be very careful.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Lee, do agree? Are we really in more jeopardy than we were just a few weeks ago?
SUNG-YOON LEE, Tufts University: Well, we have seen a crescendo of bluster barrage.
I don’t think we are on the brink of war, because we know the North Korean regime harbors no suicidal impulses. I don’t necessarily want to paint the North Korean regime as all-knowing, omnipotent, brilliant military strategists. So, there is always the danger of miscalculation, yes.
But we have seen North Korea resort to periodic, deadly, but always limited, controlled attacks against the South and the United States forces in South Korea over the past 60 years. And I think the North Korean regime views this period, 2013, as a particularly appeasement-prone time.
And, hence, it’s in North Korea’s interest to raise the stakes, paint Washington and Seoul especially into a corner, with a view towards receiving more economic concessions in the future.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, having said that, when any country, North Korea or any country on the planet makes threats of the kind that were made in the past 24 hours, does the United States have to take them seriously?
SUNG-YOON LEE: This is North Korea’s preferred strategy of graduated escalation.
It’s psychological warfare. And the U.S. and the ROK, the Republic of Korea, the former name for South Korea, have also been engaging in some psychological warfare of their own. We should take the North Korean threat seriously because there’s a high likelihood that North Korea will once again resort to a deadly attack against South Korea.
North Korea has shown a proclivity to launch such attacks and provocative acts on a holiday, major holiday. So perhaps even this Easter Sunday is an opportune time for another provocation in North Korean calculation.
RAY SUAREZ: Joel Wit, the targeting maps are said to show Honolulu, Washington D.C., Los Angeles. Do we have a very good idea of what North Korea is capable of and what it’s not?
JOEL WIT: Yes, I think we have an excellent idea.
And we have that because we have observed their missile tests. And we know how far those missiles can go, even if they work. And the fact is, they haven’t really worked very well. So they can’t really reach the continental United States.
Secondly, I want to return to this point about whether we’re close to a war or not. And I would say that the problem here is — and the professor has even predicted when a provocation might happen. The problem is that, if North Korea launches a provocation, the United States and South Korea, unlike in the past, are likely to respond.
And North Korea is not going to roll over and play dead, contrary to what a number of conservatives think.
RAY SUAREZ: But do you agree with the professor’s conclusion that the country that’s in real jeopardy is not the United States from these threats, but South Korea?
JOEL WIT: Absolutely.
South Korea is in great jeopardy here. And as a close ally of the United States, that’s very important to us. And we also have to remember we have 28,000 troops on the peninsula and are committed to South Korea’s defense. So if there is another Korean war, it’s going to involve thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of American troops.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, nations around the world have toolboxes, various mixtures of threats, persuasions, inducement that is part of how diplomacy gets carried on. Are the rules different for dealing with North Korea than almost any other country on Earth?
SUNG-YOON LEE: Well, in the case of North Korea, when you consider seeking better relations with other states and the international community at large, better relations for North Korea means what we have right now, creating a near crisis situation with a view towards returning to negotiations.
And over the past 20 years of nuclear diplomacy, that has always meant returning to talks with big blandishments, bigger rewards in tow. So, yes, we have dealt with North Korea in a way that has not been a spectacular success. It’s time to put some real stick in that proverbial carrot-and-stick approach. And I would say it has been all blandishments and concessions so far.
RAY SUAREZ: Joel Wit?
JOEL WIT: Well, you know, I have experience actually working with North Koreans. I spent 15 years in the State Department working with them.
And I can say that it’s not a record of failure. In fact, the agreement we reached in 1994 stopped North Korea from building as many as 100 nuclear weapons by 2000. So that agreement worked. There have been other agreements that haven’t worked so well. It’s been a very mixed record.
And I agree with the professor that we need to get tough with the North Koreans. But getting tough, in and of itself, is not a policy. You need to use diplomacy too to find escape routes for both parties.
RAY SUAREZ: But when you use diplomacy, do any of the standard tools of a diplomat, when dealing with another country, work with this country?
JOEL WIT: They do work.
I was part of an agreement, as I said, in 1994 that worked very well for eight years. Most people don’t know that in the late 2000s, there was another agreement with North Korea, a moratorium on its long-range missile tests that lasted seven years. It worked very well.
So the record is not an unblemished record of failure. It’s a record of mixed success and mixed failures. And so that means we still need to continue to try to work on a diplomatic track of this.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, quickly, before we go, when statements like the kind that have come out of Pyongyang in the last couple of days are issued, is that paranoia as gesture, or is there a real belief among the leading cadre there that, in fact, the United States does want to take over, steamroll, immolate this country?
SUNG-YOON LEE: It’s posturing.
I don’t think the North Korean regime believes that the U.S. is on the verge of attacking North Korea. That is not in the best interest of the United States. We tend to take a patronizing view of the North Korean regime because they are so bizarre and unusual in so many ways.
But they are quite rational, careful. And self-preservation is of the utmost priority for the regime. I don’t have any experience working in government or dealing with North Korea. But what I do know is that the Clinton administration paid North Korea almost $200 million worth of food aid for the empty privilege of inspecting an empty cave in the aftermath of North Korea firing a long-range missile over Japan on Aug. 31st, 1998.
The Bush administration has similar failed record in dealing with North Korea. It removed North Korea from the state-sponsored terrorism list in October of 2008, resumed food aid, negotiated with North Korea again. North Korea blew up the tired, old, out-of-date cooling tower in Yongbyon at the main facility and continued to enrich uranium.
RAY SUAREZ: Very quickly, I mean, that record is an actual record of things that really happened.
JOEL WIT: You know, I disagree with that characterization.
And I go back to the fact that, when I was in the U.S. government looking at intelligence estimates in the early 1990s, we were looking at a program that was enormous. And by the Bush administration, we had turned that off, and the North Koreans had moved to develop another kind of nuclear weapon.
RAY SUAREZ: Joel Wit, Professor Lee, gentlemen, thank you both.
SUNG-YOON LEE: Thank you.
JOEL WIT: Thank you.