Charles Armstrong, PhD., is a member of the steering committee for the National Committee on North Korea (http://www.ncnk.org/). One of the leading observers and scholars in the country on matters concerning the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), he has authored several books on Korea, most notably “The North Korean Revolution: 1945-1950", which was published by Cornell University Press in 2003. He has also written numerous articles and chapters on the DPRK, US-Korean relations, and contemporary Korean affairs.
While working and living in the Republic of Korea (ROK), Armstrong worked closely with organizations and international leaders to resolve DPRK and North-South Korean issues. In addition to this post, he is the Korea Foundation Associate Professor of Korean Studies and Director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University.
Dr. Armstrong frequently serves as a commentator for global news media outlets, including the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). He granted “From The G-Man” an exclusive interview in 2009, “Crisis in North Korea” (http://fromthegman.blogspot.com/2009/06/crisis-in-north-korea.html), and now joins me to discuss the latest developments regarding the intense and volatile standoff between North and South Korea.
G-Man: Thank you for being here, Dr. Armstrong.
Dr. Armstrong: My pleasure, as always.
G-Man: On a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most severe stage, how serious is the situation between North and South Korea and are we on the verge of World War III?
Dr. Armstrong: I hope we’re not close to World War III, but we’re at 7 or 8 for Korean War II, and the first Korean War nearly led to World War III in the 1950s. Even a “limited” war on and around the Korean peninsula could kill millions of people.
G-Man: U.S. warships have been dispatched to the region to engage in military exercises with South Korea, which North Korea regards as a provocation. The North Korean government has threatened to retaliate with a “nuclear response”. Is this typical saber rattling on their part, or is there a real chance North Korea will use nuclear weapons against its enemies?
Dr. Armstrong: North Korea has been talking about its “nuclear deterrent” for the last few years and has held two successful nuclear tests. Pushed into a corner it might very well take the nuclear option. Even without that, it could devastate Seoul with conventional weapons or launch missiles at US military targets in South Korea or Japan. They may be bluffing, but it would not be wise to call them on it.
G-Man: At this point, does the Obama administration know for sure if North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il is still calling the shots?
Dr. Armstrong: Although it seems that Kim is still in charge, since North Korea has not said otherwise, nobody knows for sure. North Korea seems to be in a period of leadership transition but it’s not clear what’s going on inside the ruling circles in Pyongyang.
G-Man: In our first interview, back in June of 2009, you noted the following: “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.” With the two Koreas now threatening war, do you still believe this will be the case if Kim is gravely ill?
Dr. Armstrong: North Korea has not made any of this public, including Kim’s illness, but I would guess that if Kim were to go tomorrow his son would be figurehead leader and the real power would be held by his brother-in-law, who has been rising to prominence for some time. But under current circumstances North Korea wants to show a unified national purpose under the leadership of Kim Jong Il. They believe that the US and South Korea are out to destroy their country, and whether or not this is true, it’s what motivates the North Koreans right now.
G-Man: As you know, the dangerous standoff was set in motion when a torpedo slammed into a South Korean ship, killing 46 sailors. North Korea immediately stated it was not involved in the sinking, but an international team of investigators concluded that North Korea was responsible. Can you elaborate on what countries were involved in the investigation and what evidence they obtained to reach their conclusion?
Dr. Armstrong: The investigation was initiated by South Korea and conducted by a team of Americans, Swedes, Brits and Australians. They concluded that the ship was sunk by a torpedo launched by a North Korean submarine, based on the discovery of the shell of a torpedo with North Korean markings. North Korea refused to accept the evidence and has asked to conduct its own investigation, but was denied. The Chinese have not accepted the evidence either and have refused to blame the North Koreans for the explosion. The Russians have recently suggested, based on their own investigation, that a mine, of which there are plenty in the disputed zone between North and South Korea, likely hit the South Korean ship. Some South Koreans also doubt that the evidence proves North Korean culpability.
G-Man: Currently, where do China and Russia stand regarding this conflict?
Dr. Armstrong: Neither China nor Russia hold North Korea responsible for the explosion on the South Korean ship, and they have criticized the US and South Korea for grossly over-reacting to the incident. Both have asked all sides to calm down and return to dialogue before the situation escalates out of control. China is also concerned about massive naval maneuvers conducted by the U.S. off their coast at the same time that the U.S. is proposing to intervene in the dispute over islands that China claims in the South China Sea. The Chinese suspect that the US is really trying to block Chinese naval expansion and that the Korean incident is partly an excuse to do so.
G-Man: North Korea has indicated that any action taken by the U.S. or its allies will be considered an act of aggression and vowed to respond with military action. This being the case, how fruitful is it to continue to push for sanctions?
Dr. Armstrong: Sanctions by themselves will probably not provoke North Korean military action, but combined with massive military exercises in the vicinity they may provoke a harsh response from North Korea. The real question about sanctions, though, is whether they will cause a change of behavior from North Korea or even bring down the regime, as some in Seoul and Washington apparently hope. Based on past experience, it doesn’t seem likely that sanctions will have such effects. North Korea has lived with pretty strong sanctions for almost 60 years, and the regime is still around and basically unchanged.
G-Man: If North Korea was responsible for murdering the 46 sailors, can you think of any reason why it would risk global condemnation, crippling sanctions and military attacks in the wake of the killings?
Dr. Armstrong: It’s very hard to say why North Korea would do this, if it did. Perhaps they did it out of revenge for earlier clashes in the disputed border area, or Kim Jong Il was trying to demonstrate to his own military how tough he was. Keep in mind that this happened in the context of an escalating war of words between Pyongyang and the hard-line government in Seoul, and the situation between North and South was already quite tense before the incident. Presumably, the North Koreans thought they would get away with it; maybe they believed a “smoking gun” would never be found. But if North Korea did it, we can be sure they will never admit to it.
G-Man: Do you believe the U.S. military is capable of fighting a war in North Korea, and possibly Iran, while being fully engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Dr. Armstrong: The US military is already stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s hard to imagine that they could fight another full-scale war, much less two, at the same time.
G-Man: Finally, if you were one of his key advisors, what advice would you offer to President Obama regarding the potentially explosive situation between North and South Korea?
Dr. Armstrong: End the military exercises, get back to negotiations with the North Koreans, Chinese and Russians and work toward resolving this dispute peacefully before the conflict spirals out of control.