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North Korea’s Rhetoric Rises Over Planned Rocket Launch

North Korea has said it plans to launch a satellite in April, which some believe is a guise to test launch a long-range missile.

NewsHour deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense Dan Sagalyn reports on what is motivating North Korean behavior in this Reporter’s Podcast.

DAN SAGALYN, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: Over the past few weeks North Korea’s rhetoric has become increasingly belligerent, and their actions more hostile. Last week the secretive country told the United Nations it plans to launch a communications satellite next month. That was an unprecedented disclosure but seen by some analysts as trying to fend off international worries that the launch is really a test of a long-range missile.

North Korea also announced it had put its armed forces in full combat alert in response to the start of annual military exercises by the United States and South Korea. They also cut off a military hot line with the South, shut down their border and stranded hundreds of South Koreans working in an industrial zone in the North Korean border city of Kaesong.

And in recent days, the North said it could not guarantee the safety of South Korean civilian aircraft flying near its airspace as it readied its missile. That forced several airliners to change their routes.

To Balbina Hwang, North Korea’s behavior fits a pattern. She was a special advisor to the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs during the last two years of the Bush administration.

BALBINA HWANG: North Korea’s bargaining position is relatively weak. We know this and one of the few bargaining advantages they have is to raise the stakes, to raise the tension, and to get the attention of the region as well as the United States. Frankly, I find this absolutely not surprising, totally predictable, although certainly by raising the tenor of aggressiveness, and so on belligerent behavior, it certainly does lend to an air of instability. But on the other hand I think much of it may be over blown in a sense that this is not new. North Korea has done this numerous times in the past.

DAN SAGALYN: According to Hwang, by preparing to launch a missile, the North Koreans are trying to get economic and political concessions from America and South Korea. Current negotiations over the North’s nuclear program between the U.S. and the North are stalemated over verification issues.

BALBINA HWANG: What they’re trying to do is signal to the international community that we are going to do this, and your job is to stop us from doing it, and by the way, what will you give us for us stopping this behavior.

DAN SAGALYN: But Selig Harrison, who frequently travels to North Korea and was last there in January, says North Korea is reacting to what they see as hostility from South Korea. Technically, both countries are still at war because they never signed a peace treaty to end the Korean War during the 1950s.

With the inauguration in February 2008 of a new, more conservative president in South Korea, food shipments to the North were ended and a harder line was adopted.

SELIG HARRISON: The new president of South Korea, President Lee Myung-bak has repudiated the position taken by the two previous presidents of South Korea, which was that North Korea and South Korea under two summit agreements were going to move toward a confederation and through gradual improvement in relations. He came to office and said they were too soft on North Korea and he said we were not bound by the 2000 and 2007 summits reached by Kim Dae-jung and his successor.

So North Korea has been in a great swivet over that. They feel that the two summit declarations were a policy of coexistence in which South Korea repudiated the idea of absorbing or trying to bring about the collapse of North Korea and absorbing it, and that Lee Myung-bak has opened up the possibility that South Korea really wants to destabilize North Korea. And so whatever we may think of that perception, that is the perception of the North based on my trip there in January. So they’re very spooked when the United States and South Korea have military exercises against this background.

DAN SAGALYN: But former Bush administration official Balbina Hwang disagrees.

BALBINA HWANG: I frankly don’t agree with that view. First, I don’t think that Lee Myung-bak is particularly hard-line. But second, I think that it is a mistake to argue that Lee Myung-bak has caused this behavior. There is no doubt it’s a handy excuse for North Korean to claim that’s the cause.

DAN SAGALYN: Balbina Hwang thinks the North is trying to get the attention of the new president in the White House.

BALBINA HWANG: North Korea I think very much needs to test the Obama administration. I think that North Koreans were frankly naively hopeful that they could get a very good deal if the Democrats came into office. And I think what they’re finding is that they aren’t so sure about the answer anymore. And it’s unclear to me if President Obama will be any more friendly toward North Korea then President Bush ended up being toward the end of his administration.

DAN SAGALYN: Han Park is another long-time Korea watcher. He says the North’s behavior is driven by a number of factors, including a severe food shortage crisis, and diplomatic isolation. Park says the North Koreans are afraid the Obama administration’s policies will be as tough as those of President George W. Bush. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Asia last month only reinforced the North’s suspicions.

HAN PARK: They are sort of desperate. The economic situation and their diplomatic situation. The Obama administration has not embraced them. And they are cornered in a way. They’re very, very emotional, and they like to show that they have the military capability to deter any kind of aggression.

And I’m in contact with the North Koreans. They’re assuming that the Obama administration policy toward them is not changing. And if anything, Hillary’s Clinton’s trip to Seoul and Asia in general made them even more concerned.

DAN SAGALYN: An area of concern to North Korea is Secretary Clinton’s expression of sympathy for Japanese families who had loved ones abducted by the North Koreans during the 1970s and ’80s. She told reporters that “the abductee issue is an issue of grave concern. It is such a human tragedy.” And that “it’s part of the six-party talks. It is not just a concern of Japan.”

During the Bush administration, the six-party talks focused on getting North Korea to give up its nuclear program in exchange for economic aid and better diplomatic relations. The Japanese abductee issue was not given a high priority. The six parties include both Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States.

Han Park says Secretary of State Clinton’s remarks in Asia angered North Korea.

HAN PARK: The six-party talks is actually designed to alleviate the nuclear crisis. And Hillary Clinton told the Japanese prime minister that the abduction issue would be part of the six-party agenda which certainly North Korea insisted that they will not accept.

DAN SAGALYN: According to Selig Harrison, another factor behind North Korea’s behavior is the rising power and influence of the military. The North’s leader, Kim Jung-Il, had a stroke this past August, Harrison says, and has had to give up day to day control of the government.

SELIG HARRISON: I think that Kim Jung-Il’s stroke last summer has led to a change in the internal balance of forces in North Korea. There are hard-liners and there are pragmatists who want to normalize with the United States and then there’s Kim Jung-Il who wants to stay in power and has been basically supporting internal economic reform and normal relations with the outside world. But he copes with a very strong group of hard-liners in the armed forces, and they’ve became stronger since he’s had to go to apparently a much less active daily schedule.

DAN SAGALYN: The North said it would launch its missile sometime between April 4th and 8th.

For former Bush administration official Balbina Hwang, this is an ominous sign. She says even though some previous North Korean missile tests have failed in the past.

BALBINA HWANG: Remember that the point of testing is to learn from the tests, and so frankly failed tests or unsuccessful tests are frankly for scientific purposes just as important and in fact provide even greater lessons for those that are doing the research and development. So I am actually quite worried that this will provide some very useful information for North Korea to continue to develop its missile programs. It does signal that North Korea does continue and has full intention to develop higher level and higher grades of missiles.

DAN SAGALYN: However, Han Park says rather than give North Korea a new offensive capability, the missile test is only likely to give that country’s leaders greater confidence in their ability to respond to an attack on them.

HAN PARK: Assuming it’s a successful launch, then it may boost their deterrence capability. That’s exactly what they will think. Then they are now for the second time demonstrating — second time meaning launching long-range missiles to cover the entire Japan, for example. And this one, if it were to be successful perhaps it may reach some portions of America. And they tested nuclear bombs — I don’t think their bombs are small enough to be carried on a missile. Domestically, at least they can boost their nationalist sentiment.

DAN SAGALYN: The Obama administration is still formulating a policy toward North Korea. In the meantime, the president picked last month a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Stephen Bosworth, to be his special representative for North Korea policy.

For the Online NewsHour, this is Dan Sagalyn.

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