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To defuse tensions, North and South Korea hold talks amid military standoff

North and South Korea entered into last-minute talks on Saturday for the first time in nearly a year to try to defuse mounting tensions that have pushed the two rivals closer to military confrontation. Jean Lee, a fellow at the Wilson Center and former Associated Press bureau chief in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, joins John Larson, via Skype from Seoul, South Korea, to discuss.

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  • JOHN LARSON, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:

    Joining me now via Skype from Seoul,South Korea, is Jean Lee. Jean is a fellow at the Wilson Center, which conducts independent research on global issues.

    Lee is the former Associated Press bureau chief in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.

    Jean, thank you so much for joining us. You've just returned from the border area, correct?

  • JEAN LEE, ASSOCIATED PRESS:

    I have. I was up there earlier today. I made a little day trip up to the city of Paju, which is right on the border on the South Korean side.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    We heard tensions have been very high this week. What can you tell us about today?

  • JEAN LEE:

    I have a feeling that it look a lot more tense from where you're sitting than it did for me in Paju. I can tell you any time I asked people in Paju if they were worried they just laughed at the question.

    So, you know, South Koreans are used to this kind of tension. They've been dealing with this for decades and to a certain degree, life goes on as usual. There is absolutely no sense of panic in the town of Paju.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    And to what extent do you think this is saber-rattling by the different leaders of the two countries? Obviously, the North Korean leader not much is known about the person's ability to control the military in the south. They've been criticized for being too soft.

    Is this sort of an opportunity for both of them to look tough?

  • JEAN LEE:

    Certainly. I think you've got that right. With the North Koreans, these kinds provocations are always a way, a good chance to remind the South Koreans and to remind the world that the Korean War remains unresolved.

    I should remind you that the two sides agreed to a cease-fire in 1953, but they did not sign a peace treaty so the Korean Peninsula remains in a technical state of war and it's certainly a reason why the U.S. military has more than 28,000 troops on South Korean soil.

    Now, North Korea may look at this as a reason to provoke but there's nothing like the threat of an outside force to bring out patriotism, and perhaps what he wants to show his people is that he can defend them from this threat from South Korea and the United States.

    On the other hand, he may want to show his people as well that he's a statesman, that he can send his aides into the DMZ and come back with some sort of significant agreement with the South Koreans.

    So I think that it will be interesting to see how it pans out. I'm not so sure that the tensions are quite over yet.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Jean, for the past four or five years, certainly, this shoving match seems to take place about this type of year every year. Why is that?

  • JEAN LEE:

    The South Korean and the U.S. military hold military exercises this time of year and this they call defensive exercises but North Korea treats it as a rehearsal for invasion.

    So it does tend to rile them up. So, it's not surprising that this kind of tension is happening this time of year.

    There's one other thing that is going on. North Korea is gearing up for a major anniversary, the 70th anniversary of the Workers Party of Korea. That happens in October.

    And so, that is also an occasion to try to bring the people together. So they may be looking for reasons to kind of draw the people together.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Jean Lee from the Wilson Center. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • JEAN LEE:

    Thank you.

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