North Korea's rising tensions: Wikinews interviews Scott Snyder and Dr Robert Kelly

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Thursday, April 4, 2013

In recent days, North Korea has been issuing threats of war to neighbouring South Korea and the United States. There has been an increase in tensions as well as the decision to close off the Kaesong Industrial Park to South Korean workers.

Wikinews interviewed Dr. Robert Kelly of Pusan National University (PNU) in South Korea, who specialises in security and diplomacy, about the recent threats; and Scott Snyder, a North Korean specialist from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in the United States.

((Wikinews)) What is your job role?

Dr. Robert Kelly: I am a Professor of International Relations at PNU.
Scott Snyder: I am a senior fellow for Korea Studies and director of the program for U.S.–Korea policy at CFR.

((WN)) North Korea has issued many threats to South Korea, how likely do you think it is that they will carry out these threats?

RK: Very unlikely. North Korea would lose a war if one began, and if they use nuclear weapons, they will lose all sympathy in global opinion and China will abandon them. The point of these threats is to shake-down SK [South Korea] and its new president for aid, not to start a war.

File:Scott Snyder.jpg

File photo of Scott Snyder.
Image: Council of Foreign Relations.
(Image missing from Commons: image; log)
SS: North Korea's threats have a variety of purposes. Some are defensive and are primarily meant to deter other countries from taking aggressive stances in the face of North Korea's own weakness; some are designed tactically to set up for negotiations; some are expressions of intent or aspiration that are beyond the capability of North Korea to implement without facing severe consequences, and some are very specific threats that North Korea will attempt to implement as part of a guerrilla strategy so as to avoid escalation and take advantage of the element of surprise. NK [North Korean] threats should be taken seriously, but evaluated carefully to determine circumstances under which they might actually be carried out.

((WN)) How do people in South Korea feel about North Korea's nuclear weapon's programme?

RK: They do not like it of course, but they worry far less about it than outsiders would expect. South Koreans have been living under this shadow for many years. The North has made many threats in the past. So NK is like the boy who cried wolf. No one expects them to launch a weapon.
SS: Increasingly unsettled and concerned, especially about the possibility of being subject to nuclear blackmail. At the same time, this circumstance thus far has had negligible impact on South Koreans' daily lives.

((WN)) Are South Korean citizens carrying on their day to day lives as normal?

RK: Yes, they are. This is not like the Cuban Missile Crisis when people were emptying the store shelves and building bunkers in their basements. My students are coming and going like normal. Indeed, South Koreans' composure is very impressive.
SS: Yes.

((WN)) Is North Korea becoming further isolated in the world?

RK: Yes, it is. Threatening nuclear war is a genuine escalation that would alienate any state. Importantly though, NK is already fairly isolated. And because China, its main aid supplier, does not cut it off, further isolation has few practical impacts.
SS: North Korea is increasingly politically isolated but it is comparatively more economically and informationally connected than it was a decade ago.

((WN)) Is the South Korean military well-prepared to deal with any conflicts with the North Korean military?

RK: Yes. The ROKA [Republic of Korea Army, of South Korea] is a modern, well-trained, well-groomed force with substantial technical and organization superiority over the KPA [Korean People's Army, of North Korea]. To date, the South Koreans have not responded to Northern provocation in order to avoid escalation, not because they are incapable. SK conventional superiority is augmented further by US assistance.
SS: South Korea will decisively win most direct conventional engagements with the North, but is vulnerable in selected theaters where North Korea perceives a lack of readiness or a tactical advantage.

((WN)) Is the closure of Kaesong by North Korea, evidence of further escalating tensions between the two nations?

RK: Yes and no. It is important, because it is a source of hard currency for the North, so its closure suggests that the North is willing to carry genuine costs over this feud. On the other hand, the SK media identified the closure of Kaesong early as a marker of NK seriousness, saying very openly that if NK did not close the facility, they did not really mean what they were saying. In other words, NK was, I think, goaded into closing Kaesong in the war of words, not as a part of any larger strategic plan.
SS: Thus far, it is a symbolic evidence of potential for escalating tensions, but has not yet resulted in material changes. Let's see how the situation plays out over the next couple of days. Kaesong will only become vulnerable when operations halt and when financial transfers connected to failure of operations become operative.

((WN)) North Korea has moved one of its missiles that carries a large range missile to its East Coast, is this a serious move?

RK: I don't think it's as serious a move as the media has made it out to be. First of all they just moved one [missile]. Second of all, it's not clear that North Korea actually has nuclear warheads that are small enough to actually put on top of missiles; they tell us this but nuclear weapons are actually pretty heavy, which is why nuclear missiles are frequently quite large, so moving the weapon there doesn't necessarily mean it's pointed at the United States or Tokyo which I suppose would be the likely targets. It's not clear that it's necessarily a nuclear missile and it's not being fueled or anything so far as I know so again it's sort of more of the same... bluffing...sort of talking around the issue and sort of saying things that don't actually have genuine consequences so my sense is it's more of a war of words.

((WN)) There's a lot of talk about Kim Jong-un being an inexperienced leader — do you think he knows where the 'brink' lies?

RK: That's actually a really good question. No, I don't, which is why we're having this whole conversation. Kim's father, Kim the second [Kim Jong-il], was actually very good about this, "good" in quotations I suppose. He knew really well how to play this game, he knew really well how to play the South, particularly for aid, rice, assistance, fuel, things like that. The new guy — he's only been in there for a year-and-a-half, right, 14, 15 months — he didn't go through the grooming institutions of the regime, he didn't go through the military or the party. And he certainly has no military training, it's not like he went to some military institute — he went to some boarding school in Switzerland, or something like that. So it's not at all clear that this guy knows, sort of how this is done. I have a feeling myself that he's being egged on by the generals at home, and the generals are really doing this because they do not want the military's position to be lowered in the new order. Under the previous Kim, under the second Kim [Kim-Jong-il], the military was raised in the constitution to a very high level of importance, they were sort of the primary pillar of the government, this is called the 'Military First' policy. I think people now worry that the new Kim — in order to re-start the economy might downgrade the role of the military, and I think that is where all this is coming from. I don't think they want a war.

((WN)) All of these threats, do you think they are just a way of getting more economic aid from the United Nations?

RK: I wouldn't say the United Nations [UN] because the UN role in this is actually pretty minimal. It is true that there are some UN specialized agencies that operate in North Korea — the World Food Programme I believe is the big one because North Korea constantly has food problems — and there are western NGOs, and aid groups, charities and stuff like that, also operate in North Korea. I've actually been to North Korea and I've seen these charities operate. I've actually met some of the people who actually live there and do this stuff. But they're actually pretty small, right? I mean, the North Koreans are pretty worried about Westerners running around in North Korea making trouble and saying things and this and that. Any kind of foreign penetration in North Korea is very, very limited. I think the real issue is actually North Korea's neighbors, specifically Japan, China, the United States and South Korea. Russia's really sort of a bit player in this drama. And that's what they really want, the North Koreans now are very dependent on only the Chinese. They used to be able to play the Chinese off the South Koreans off the Japanese off the Americans and extract aid and concessions from each of those. In the last ten years or so it has become harder to do that — particularly Japan, the United States and South Korea have closed ranks and don't really deal individually with North Korea anymore. This has pushed North Korea to China. North Korea doesn't like being dependent on just one player. And so I think that's what this is an effort to shake up, [...] a very difficult game for the North were they an economic colony of China.


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