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Week of 5.29.09

Our Response to N. Korea

The North Korean nuclear crisis deepened this week after the reclusive country conducted an underground nuclear test, reportedly restarted its main nuclear reactor and threatened its neighbors in the South.

David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California, answers NOW's questions on the latest in the North Korean nuclear standoff.

NOW: What's behind North Korea's decision to test a nuclear device?

David Kang (DK): The series of provocative North Korean acts over the past few months were most likely conducted as much for internal, domestic reasons, as they were intended to send a message to the Obama administration. Kim Jong-il's poor health over the past year has almost certainly intensified the internal maneuvering over who will be his successor, and North Korean elites are almost surely engaged in "palace politics" as they attempt to position themselves for power and to protect their interests in the future. That Kim Jong-il has not yet anointed a successor implies that none of his possible successors has built enough factional support to become the clear choice.

The logical results of this leadership instability is both far less long-term planning and strategic vision, as well as an incentive for nationalistic and assertive acts, as various factions attempt to prove their loyalty to the Kim family and the North Korean regime.

NOW: Is North Korea a serious threat to our security?

DK: North Korea is a serious indirect threat to our security: The regime could sell its nuclear or missile technology to terrorist groups, and certainly any instability in Northeast Asia has a direct effect on the U.S., because of our deep economic and diplomatic ties to the region.

NOW: How close are they to having the capability to launch a nuclear weapon?

"North Korea is at least five or ten years away from having the demonstrated capability to actually launch a missile attack at the U.S."
DK: Most analysts believe that North Korea is at least five or ten years away from having the demonstrated capability to actually launch a missile attack at the U.S. Their long-range missile has still not successfully been tested; and it is yet an entire other step to put a nuclear warhead on a missile and have it actually be deliverable. This takes years of planning and a fair amount of testing; North Korea is only in the beginning stages of having a deliverable nuclear weapon.

NOW: How do you think the Obama administration should respond to Pyongyang's actions?

DK: The U.S. should reaffirm its alliances with South Korea and Japan; it should realize that Chinese efforts, while central to any resolution, will be aimed as much at avoiding collapse in North Korea as they will be aimed at pressuring North Korea for change. Indeed, few countries wish to risk military action to change the North Korean regime or even to exert excessive economic pressure, because the potential costs in terms of lives and economic damage from a North Korean collapse are staggering. Yet no country is willing to simply live with a nuclear North Korea, either. As a result, the Obama administration is left with a modest range of policy options, including mild economic sanctions, rhetorical pressure, and perhaps some form of quiet diplomacy.

NOW: What do you think of America's response to the nuclear standoff so far?

"The U.S. administration has responded properly by under-reacting rather than over-reacting."
DK: The U.S. administration has responded properly by under-reacting rather than over-reacting. Too much bellicose rhetoric from the U.S. would only benefit hardliners in Pyongyang, who use those actions to justify their actions. The unfortunate reality is that the range of policy options available to the Obama administration and other governments in the region is quite narrow to begin with.

It's important to remember that the Obama administration is still in the process of confirming key policymakers for Northeast Asia—Kurt Campbell has still not been confirmed, and the U.S. just recently announced its ambassador to Japan. Yet even while it is still formulating its team and its overall policy to the region, the Obama administration has shown restraint and poise.

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