In recent weeks, North Korea has launched short-range missiles and detonated a nuclear device underground. These acts have caused tensions to mount between the United States and a country that President George W. Bush claimed was part of the “Axis of Evil”. World leaders, military officials and the general public observe the situation with great interest and concern, and many are wondering if North Korea’s defiance will lead to all-out war.
Charles K. Armstrong is the Korea Foundation Associate Professor of Korean Studies - in the Social Sciences in the Department of History - and Director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University. A specialist in the modern history of Korea and East Asia, Professor Armstrong has authored several critically acclaimed books and appeared on numerous cable news networks as a commentator. He graciously consented to an interview to discuss the crisis and what can be done to prevent it from escalating.
G-Man: The situation with North Korea has intensified, and they’ve vowed to use military force against the U.S. and South Korea if threatened. North Korea has “flexed” on the U.S. and its allies in the past, but they seem to be taking it to another level entirely this time. Why do they continue to brazenly challenge the world and what should be done to prevent them from flexing in the future?
Professor Armstrong: We’ve seen this movie before at least twice: first in 1993-4, when for the first time suspicions about North Korea’s nuclear program brought the US and North Korea to the brink of war. This was followed by an agreement that froze their plutonium-reprocessing program (which is what they’ve used to make bombs) for about eight years, until the agreement fell apart during the first Bush administration in 2002-3. Then, North Korea’s missile launches and first nuclear test in 2006 led to UN sanctions, which North Korea attacked as a virtual declaration of war. But war didn’t break out, and soon the US, North Korea and the other members of the Six-Party Talks (South Korea, Russia and Japan) returned to negotiations and made considerable progress on a new denuclearization deal. Now the Six-Party process itself has all but collapsed, and North Korea is once again talking about war. But the speed and extent of this flexing is unprecedented: a second nuclear test, followed by a half-dozen short-range missile tests, and threats of a long-range test.
North Korea is good at these attention-getting provocations and unfortunately the lesson of the last fifteen years that they seem to have learned, is that launching missiles and testing nuclear weapons are the only ways to get the US to take them seriously. The Obama administration, which of course has other crises to deal with, hadn’t paid much attention to North Korea. Now, thanks to Kim Jong Il, they have to pay attention. I don’t think North Korea really wants war; they’re not suicidal. They see the US as a mortal threat and nuclear weapons as a good way of defending themselves until they reach an agreement with the US that guarantees them some sort of security. Reaching such an agreement will be very difficult now, but we came close in the past and maybe, when the missiles have stopped flying and everyone has calmed down, we can return to negotiations that will end the state of conflict between the US and North Korea – a conflict which, by the way, has continued for almost 60 years, since the Korean War broke out in 1950. Diplomacy may not sound very appealing right now, but the alternatives are either ineffective or unthinkable. There is really is no military option because of the catastrophic consequences that would result, especially now that North Korea has nuclear weapons. Nor have sanctions been very successful in the past, both because North Korea is already about as isolated as a country can get and because China is unlikely to agree to truly punitive sanctions. So sitting down and talking with Pyongyang, at the highest levels possible, is the best way out the current crisis.
G-Man: For those who may not be familiar with the tensions that exist between North and South Korea, could you briefly explain why North Korea continues to act as an aggressor to its neighbor?
Professor Armstrong: North Korea doesn’t see itself as an aggressor. It acted with unequivocal aggression against South Korea just once, when North Korea invaded the South in June 1950, triggering the Korean War. The war brought in the US (leading a United Nations force) which in turn evoked the intervention of “People’s Volunteer” soldiers of the newly communist China. But this invasion came after a very tumultuous period following the end of World War II, when Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule only to find itself divided into Soviet and American occupation zones. By September 1948, there were two states on the Korean peninsula, one in the North and one in the South, and each refused to recognize the other as legitimate. The war ended in 1953 with Korea still divided, and Seoul and Pyongyang have been fighting a localized “cold war” ever since, with the US as South Korea’s main supporter.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and other communist states in 1989-91, North Korea found itself almost completely isolated with only China remaining as an ally. On top of that, its economy went into a tailspin, culminating in a famine in the late 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people. But the leadership dug in its heels and refused to give in to outside pressure to change, although North Korea embarked on some limited economic reforms in the early 2000s. We must not forget that North Korea is a country on a constant war footing. It feels virtually surrounded by hostile powers: the US, South Korea (especially under the current more hard-line President), and Japan are all sworn enemies as far as North Korea is concerned. Russia is not much of friend, and North Korea doesn’t trust China either. To some extent this is self-reinforcing paranoia, but that’s the way the regime sees the world. Remember, the Korean War fighting ended in an armistice, a cease-fire. Technically the war never ended, and the US and North Korea remain at war to this day. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave North Korea even more reason to distrust the US and develop its own nuclear deterrent. So, what looks like aggression to the outside world, North Koreans justify as self-defense. Getting them out of such a mindset will not be easy.
G-Man: At this point, who is primarily responsible for creating this dire situation: Kim Jong-il, leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or others within the government who want to chart a different course for North Korea?
Professor Armstrong: As far as we know Kim Jong-il is still in charge. One theory is that he’s flexing his military might in order to prove his toughness to his own military, as he prepares for a new leader to follow him. Kim apparently had a stroke last summer and has been looking frail since he re-emerged in public a few months ago. It has recently been reported that he is preparing his youngest son (aged 25) to succeed him, just as Kim’s father starting grooming him for leadership when he was in his late 20s and 30s. It may also be that different groups and individuals within the leadership are trying to impress Kim Jong Il with their militant patriotism. What’s clear is that any trends toward openness and reform that we saw in past years have been sidelined by a newly robust military-first politics.
G-Man: Is Kim Jong-il a maverick, a madman or both?
Professor Armstrong: I wouldn’t call Kim mad, although his way of thinking is not like that of most other leaders in the world. His whole country might be viewed as maverick, given the current world system. When Kim first started running the country under his father’s tutelage in the 1980s and 1990s, some people thought he might be a reformer, others that he was an unstable lunatic. He turned out be neither: his problem was that, as a good filial son, he carried on his father’s legacy and led the country as if nothing had changed. But the world has changed a lot since the elder Kim died in 1994, and the more North Korea stays the same, the stranger and more out-of-step it looks.
G-Man: Would sanctions actually work, or are they useless at this point?
Professor Armstrong: As I briefly noted earlier, sanctions are not likely to have much effect, unless they were extreme enough to lead the regime to collapse, but China would be unlikely to support such strong sanctions. The last thing China wants is a destabilized or collapse North Korea. Some people have called for “smart sanctions” that would target members of the North Korean elite, but I doubt freezing Swiss bank accounts or denying Kim his shipments of cognac will change North Korea’s behavior. Finally there’s the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) that South Korea recently signed onto. This would allow foreign authorities to interdict and board North Korean ships on the high seas, which North Korea says would be considered acts of war. It probably isn’t smart to test them on this.
G-Man: Russia has indicated it will not support sanctions against North Korea. With North Korea threatening to launch nuclear attacks, why would Russia be reluctant to join the growing list of countries calling for strict sanctions?
Professor Armstrong: It’s very unlikely Russia would be a target of such attacks. Russia’s position is similar to China’s: they still have some leverage over the North, which is also useful for their relations with the US. So long as all-out war can be avoided, the status quo is preferable to destabilizing pressure on the Pyongyang.
G-Man: News reports indicate that Kim Jong-il is gravely ill. If he were to die in the next six months, would the situation change for the better or get worse with his successor?
Professor Armstrong: Bad as things are, they could be worse: an anarchic North Korea with loose nukes, a truly crazy man at the helm, or any of a number of nightmare scenarios. But I don’t think North Korea will fall apart even if Kim were to die tomorrow. In the near term a post-Kim North Korea will probably be much like the one we have today, perhaps run by a collective leadership rather than one Dear Leader.
G-Man: As previously stated, North Korea has ‘shown their ass’ in the past, but when they were dealing with President George W. Bush or President Clinton, they always managed to come to their senses and the situation was defused. This time, they’re not only showing their ass, they’re practically giving the U.S. and its allies ‘the finger’. The situation has gotten so bad that the U.S and South Korean military have been placed on high alert. Most journalists won’t ask this question, but The G-Man will. Give it to me straight, Professor Armstrong. Do you think the North Korean government’s belligerence, particularly toward the U.S., has anything to do with the fact that a black man is seated in the Oval Office?
Professor Armstrong: Racism should never be underestimated, but North Korea’s official media is equally vicious toward American presidents whatever their color. They probably hoped to get a better deal with Obama after Bush (more like they had at the end of the Clinton years), but as their own media said, “change” didn’t happen. North Koreans have shown themselves to be equal opportunity America-bashers.
G-Man: Do you think North Korea will blink, so to speak, or are we on the verge of World War III?
Professor Armstrong: I hope, and believe, that cooler heads will prevail. Korean War II wouldn’t be World War III, but it would be devastating for Northeast Asia. And the last thing the US needs is another regional war.
To review footage of Professor Armstrong explaining the crisis and the impact Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could have on it, please visit the link below.
Photo courtesy of Columbia University