N. Korea To Boycott Nuclear Talks, Restart Weapons Plant

Evan Feigenbaum
Senior Fellow for East, Central, and South Asia, Council on Foreign Relations
Tuesday, April 14, 2009; 2:30 PM

Evan Feigenbaum, senior fellow for East, Central and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, was online Tuesday, April 14, at 2:30 p.m. ET to discuss the harsh warning from N. Korea and possible repercussions in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

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Evan Feigenbaum: Hi, Evan Feigenbaum here from the Council on Foreign Relations. I'm looking forward to our discussion about North Korea.

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Vero Beach, Fla.: North Korea's purpose in negotiating with its neighbors and the U.S. usually seems to be to obtain generous gifts (tribute, really). If that's the case, is there any reason for the U.S. to continue playing the dupe in this game?

Evan Feigenbaum: You're right that extracting concessions from the United States and others has been very much a part of North Korea's approach to negotiations over its nuclear program. The question several US administrations have asked is whether there are ANY incentives that will help to produce a change in North Korea's behavior. There's a lot of debate about this issue: some argue that North Korea will respond to incentives; others are skeptical. But the general consensus across the political spectrum is that a mix of real pressure and incentives is probably the most likely way to produce results. The problem is that those best positioned to bring pressure, such as China, have been reluctant to apply their leverage. As for the incentives, it's a terrible idea to reward North Korea's bad behavior. But successive administrations have told North Korea that they would be prepared to respond to good behavior. That means offering something, but giving it to North Korea only as part of a process in which it abandons it nuclear and missile programs.

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Alexandria, Va.: Did any country congratulate North Korea on their successful satellite launch?

Evan Feigenbaum: Not that I'm aware of. The main international response was a statement by the President of the UN Security Council that did quite the opposite. The United States, Japan, and South Korea would have preferred a legally binding resolution with sanctions on North Korea, but China and Russia resisted. The compromise was this non-binding statement. By the way, the launch was not "successful" since the third stage of the rocket failed, although some reports suggest it flew further than the United States and Japan initially thought.

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Downingtown, Pa.: Is the reluctance of China and Russia fully to support cooperative action against North Korea's weapons program a matter of their short-term interests (e. g, fearing sanctions which would cause a needy, dysfunctional neighbor going from bad to worse)? Or do they somehow regard it in their long-term interests (e. g., saddling the U. S. with another first-class problem area, forcing it to spread its military resources even more thinly)? I'm inclined to suspect the latter, especially in Russia's case -- maybe a bargaining chip against aggressive expansion of NATO.

Evan Feigenbaum: This is a great question but I think the answer has more to do with their own interests than with an effort to "saddle" the United States with a nuclear North Korea. China surely doesn't want a nuclear North Korea, but it also doesn't want to impose sanctions. Both countries support cooperative action, but mainly through diplomacy. They haven't really enforced sanctions that were imposed in 2006 (with their agreement) after North Korea's nuclear test through UN Security Council resolution 1718. China argues that sanctions won't work, North Korea will just dig in, and Chinese analysts sometimes say that they fear instability in North Korea as much, if not more, than a nuclear North Korea. The United States is likely to continue pushing both China and Russia or enforce existing sanctions, and, in China's case, to bring pressure on North Korea. China has a lot of tangible leverage -- energy, trade, remittances. But you're right that it's reluctant to use it.

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Juneau, Alaska: Hi Evan -- Can you take a step back from the events of the day/week and address some potential future for NK?

Back when I lived in SK, it was all reunification all the time. But I think over time SK has realized that reunification would be an enormous economic undertaking (I used to tell my students that reunification would mean taking half of what they had and giving it to NK).

If you have ever been to NK, you know that the country is a living anachronism. There are few cars, no bikes, little public transpo, not a restaurant to be found. It is nothing like SK. What can possibly happen to this country?

Evan Feigenbaum: All Koreans dream of reunification -- division has been a national trauma. It divided families. It split communities. It created decades of animosity. But you're right that many South Koreans looks at the German experience and have concluded that they wouldn't want reunification anytime soon. It would be a huge undertaking for the South, and North Korean refugees who have arrived in the south have not, in fact, assimilated very easily, in part because their experience in North Korea was so different. Actually, in the 1960s, South and North Korea were at about the same level economically. But the South has become one of the world's most dynamic economies, a thriving democracy, and an innovative society. The North has fallen into an economic and political abyss. It's just an incredible tragedy that North Korea's regime has denied its people the opportunity for a better life. What most South Koreans hope for, I think, is a transformation of the regime's behavior, greater openness in North Korea, and eventual reunification based on that. The problem is that North Korea hasn't really moved in that direction, despite aid and engagement by South Korea's government, industry, and people.

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Reston, Va.: Has consideration been given to the possibility that North Korea wants to use its rocket to launch an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the United States? An EMP attack would consist of a nuclear explosion over 100 miles above the United States. This explosion would generate an intense pulse that would burn out much of our electronic infrastructure.

Evan Feigenbaum: Sorry, I don't know about North Korea and EMP capabilities. North Korea does, of course, have longstanding efforts to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. And North Korea's rocket launch was connected to efforts to develop its Taepodong long-range missile.

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New York, N.Y.: Other than flexing their muscles and trying to show other countries they also have some military strength, why would North Korea want to send these missiles? For a nation that can barely feed all its people, what sense is there is spending these resources on missiles and upsetting their neighbors when they have nothing to gain but some sort of prestige from it?

Evan Feigenbaum: This is a point that has been repeatedly made to the North Koreans about their nuclear weapons and missile programs. As Colin Powell once put it, "you can't eat plutonium" and, goodness knows, the North Korean people have suffered enormous deprivation. But several issues probably explain the launch: First, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, has been sick, and there is a lot of political fluidity in Pyongyang. North Korea has previously used actions like this to make propaganda points for the regime inside the country. "Successfully" launching a rocket enables the regime to claim great scientific prowess. That's exactly what the regime is now doing. Second, North Korea has long wanted to develop ballistic missile technology, so this test may well be connected to development of its Taepodong long-range missile -- many rocket and missile technologies are similar. The United States has previously tried to negotiate away North Korea's missile program but without success.

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Falls Church, Va.: Can you address the issue of Kim Jong-Il's health? There has been recent footage of him, and rumors that he has been ill in recent months. Despite being re-elected by an unsurprisingly large margin, do you have any insights as to whether his grip on power is the same and how his health is affecting the government structure? Are they more likely to react out of fear/aggression if he has less of a grip on day-to-day operations?

Evan Feigenbaum: That's a key question. The recent pictures of Kim demonstrated that he's still in charge, but he looked quite frail. There are constant reports of political jockeying over who will succeed Kim. But the North Korean elite isn't very big, and the Kim family is very much at the center of a network of elite families who have kept the regime in power for decades, and probably will continue trying to do so. The point of the pictures, of course, was to convey to North Koreans (and the world) that Kim remains in charge. And most analysts believe that the recent rocket test was at least partially connected to internal politics since it provided a basis for the regime's propagandists to claim technological "success" in Kim's name.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: If China fears instability within North Korea, from where might this instability arise? Are there any serious organization opposition factions to the present leadership? If so, how much of a potential threat are they?

Evan Feigenbaum: There is not an organized opposition inside the country, although there are sporadic reports of dissent and, as in any country, there must be different views within the elite and among North Korea's millions. We know from North Korean refugees and defectors that there is plenty of discontent in North Korea. But there's nothing to suggest that this discontent is going to produce a revolution from within. Remember that in the mid-1990s, North Korea was in pretty dire straits: famine, economic decline, death of its founding leader, international pressure over its nuclear program. But the regime survived. And that's sobering, at least to me, since reports today suggest that North Korea may have some economic advantages it didn't have back then, including remittances back to North Korea from North Koreans who have fled or moved abroad. Aid and trade with China, South Korea, and other countries also keeps the regime in power. As to what China fears, they appear to fear several things: a wholesale collapse of the North Korean state, refugee flows, and so on.

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Anonymous: I don't know if you can read Korean, but what do the signs say in the photograph that accompanies this discussion?

Evan Feigenbaum: Sorry, I read Chinese but not Korean! I do notice the English sign in the picture that says "no PSI." This is a reference to the Proliferation Security Initiative, a US effort started during the Bush Administration to stop trafficking in weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, including through interdiction. South Korea had resisted joining the initiative because previous governments in Seoul worried this would antagonize the North. But the government of President Lee Myung-bak has reportedly decided to join PSI as part of its response to North Korea's rocket test. I think this is good news, but the protestor holding that sign in Seoul clearly doesn't agree.

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Washington, D.C.: How do you explain N. Korea's attitude of "not backing down" to the rest of the world in developing their nuclear capability? What engenders mistrust of the North Koreans?

Evan Feigenbaum: This is a very complicated question. Some have called North Korea a "guerilla" state and the regime has sought to build its legitimacy on several pillars, including Korean nationalism, self-reliance, and deep-seated mistrust of external powers, especially Japan. Quite a few North Koreans have now had considerable interaction with the world. But all of the above is deeply embedded in the regime, and the regime has sought to instill it in the North Korean public. Korea has had a very difficult history: after colonization came war and national division; after national division came more of the horrors of war and enormous pain for the Korean people. Families remain divided. Cities, north and south, were shattered in the Korean war. That's partly why there's such an enormous yearning among the Korean people for reconciliation and, ultimately, for unity. But it's also why the North Korean regime has so successfully played on history to portray the regime as the "true" Korean nationalists, standing against "hostile" external forces, including Japan and the United States. But, then, whether or not North Korea "trusts" us isn't the issue anymore, and their track record doesn't suggest why we should trust them either, which is precisely why verification became so important in discussions of their nuclear weapons program. North Korea has made commitments to us and to the other parties in the Six Party Talks. They have obligations. They haven't fulfilled them.

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Washington, D.C.: Aside from just having nuclear capabilities; what is the U.S. most concerned about with N. Korea?

Evan Feigenbaum: So many issues ... but these include human rights, their missile programs, and their conventional weapons capabilities.

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Evan Feigenbaum: Thanks everyone for participating. I've enjoyed chatting. North Korea is going to pose very important challenges to the United States and its allies. I look forward to participating again.

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Fuming at the U.N. Security Council for condemning its recent missile launch, North Korea said Tuesday it will restart its plutonium factory, junk all its disarmament agreements and "never participate" again in six-country nuclear negotiations.

In an e-mail interview with washingtonpost.com, Feigenbaum said, "The North Korean statement is a serious challenge to the United States and its partners in East Asia. But it's also a very blatant attempt to create a rift between the other five parties to the Six Party Talks. The United States wasn't able to muster Chinese or Russian support for a tough UN Security Council resolution, much less sanctions, so the North will continue to try to play China off against the United States and its allies -- first, by upping the ante for a return to negotiations and, second, by raising the price for any future agreement."

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