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U.S., N. Korea, China Set for Nuke Talks (Post, April 21)
North Korea Section
South Korea Section
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North Korea Talks
With Victor Cha
D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Asian Studies and Government, Georgetown University

Tuesday, April 22, 2003; 10 a.m. ET

The United States, North Korea and China will hold three days of talks starting Wednesday in Beijing to discuss North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Last October North Korea withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has taken steps to begin production of plutonium-based nuclear weapons.

Victor D. Cha, Ph.D., chair of the Asian Studies and Government at the School of Foreign Service in Georgetown University, was online Tuesday, April 22 at 10 a.m. ET to discuss the outlook of the talks.

Cha holds the D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Asian Studies and Government in the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is co-author of a forthcoming book, "Nuclear North Korea? A Debate on Strategies of Engagement" and the author of "Alignment Despite Antagonism: The United States-Korea-Japan Security Triangle" (Stanford University Press). He has been a guest analyst for various media including CNN, MSNBC, BBC, National Public Radio, New York Times, and The Washington Post. He serves on the editorial board of Asian Security (Stanford University Press) and Korean Journal of International Relations. He is a regular columnist for CSIS Comparative Connections, Joongang Ilbo-International Herald Tribune (English edition) and Japan Times.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.



Victor Cha, Ph.D.: Good Morning. I will try to get to as many questions as I can in the next hour. Thanks all for logging into this session.


Piscataway, N.J.: Who might be the possible successor to Kim Jung Il?

Victor Cha, Ph.D.: It's a good question. If history teaches us anything, it is likely that a successor to Kim Jong Il would be someone else within the family. Having said that, Kim Jong Il still has a few years left in him. His sons (including the one that was caught trying to get into Japan's Disneyland on a fake visa) are still young and even more inexperienced than he.


Chapel Hill, N.C.: Many South Koreans seem to be unhappy that only the U.S., PRC, and DPRK as direct participants in the Beijing talks since the ROK must depend on the U.S. to represents its interests, but ROK policy for months has been to call for bilateral talks. How many of the South Korean critics of the current talks setup were complaining about the ROK's policy before, or has it only now dawned on them that South Korea would be shut out under anything besides broad multilateral negotiations?

Also, how likely is the Roh government to abandon the policy of giving North Korea aid with no strings attached, i.e. giving North Korea carrots no matter what it does?

Victor Cha, Ph.D.: The South Korean position under the new Roh government has been for Seoul to play a major role in dealing with the NK nuclear question. The current setup is in this sense far from ideal. But I believe that the South Koreans realize that this is just the beginning of talks and that no agreement can be reached in the end without their integral support. Moreover, Roh is a pragmatist and as he said himself, "it's the outcome more than the form of the talks that matter."


Boston, Mass.: Dr. Cha, thank you very much for being with us this morning. A new book entitled "World in Chaos" by Harvard professor, Dr. Philip H. Warner postulates that North Korea will not attack if American troops are pulled out of the DMZ. What are your thoughts on this?

Victor Cha, Ph.D.: That certainly may be the case, but I would not bet the entire farm on that proposition. US forces have played a critical deterrent role on the peninsula and this should never be discounted since North Korea does remain one of the most opaque countries in the world. In addition, there are some who argue that reformists in North Korea actually want US forces to remain on the peninsula but in a more neutral role between the two Koreas. From a US-South Korea alliance perspective, this is a difficult one to swallow. But more important, the real threat to the US in a post 9-11 environment is not the overt threat of a DPRK attack (as this is deterred), but the potential for fissile material from NK being transferred to others around the world that might want to do harm to the US.


Toronto, Canada: In order to assure the Korean pennenusla remains nuclear free, don't you think the North Korean nuclear facility should be taken out "Israeli style" immediatly? What other choice is there?

Victor Cha, Ph.D.: This is a tough one. I do not think that the United States or South Korea should rule out the use of force. Keeping that option on the table as a last resort, if anything, helps to strengthen one's diplomatic hand. If a preemptive strike were to be carried out, though, the costs of such an attack would have to be carefully weighed against the benefits. These costs (if the North were to retaliate) could mean casualties as high as one million (including tens of thousands of American servicemen and expats) and industrial damages as high as one trillion US dollars.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Who's going to be the lead American at the tripartite summit on North Korea? Is he a Powellian or a Rumsfeldian -- does he speak softly and believe in quiet diplomacy or is his approach best captured by "shock and awe?" Are the Americans going into this conference with their eyes wide open or is this going to be Clinton/Carter redux: another case of the Asian warrior catching the tiger asleep? Thanks much.

Victor Cha, Ph.D.: The head of the US delegation is Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, James Kelly. Mr. Kelly is an old Asia hand, very experienced, and an extremely bright and level-headed diplomat. I do not believe we are going into these meetings with any "rose-colored" glasses about NK intentions. As to the internal policy debate on Korea in the US government, there is no denying there may be differences, but I believe the bottom line is the same: the North must pull back from its nuclear violations first, before anything resembling engagement is possible. The differences primarily rest in how willing one is to fudge on the definition of "pull back."


New York, NY: Dr, Cha,

It is my understanding that you pointed out in a recent forum meeting hosted by Washington Post and Korea's Joongang Ilbo Paper that North Korea is not merely using nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip, but rather as a material military force to deter possible future unilateral attacks against its regime.

A few days before the Three-way meeting in Beijing, Pyong Yang made a statement appearing to validate your opinion. Pyong Yang talked about "a lesson from Iraq" which convinced them to possess powerful military force to deter future attacks. Wendy Sherman, a counsel to the Clinton Administration also pointed out a few days ago that if this is in fact what North Korean regime is thinking, then that is really not a good sign.

If the North's nuclear program is indeed not a bargaining chip, then what should be the united stance of U.S., South Korea, and Japan should be in light of the fact that the North will never give up their nuclear ambition? And will there even be a united stance of these three nations considering the liberal view of North Korea shared by many members of the new South Korea's Roh admistration?

Victor Cha, Ph.D.: I attended the Washington Post-Joongang Ilbo meeting but did not say anything so I am not certain what comment of mine you are referring to. It seems to me that North Korean intentions are to have it both ways: they want a security guarantee and help from the US and outside world (the latter is implicit, not explicit), but they also want to retain their nuclear capabilities. This is not acceptable, I believe to most countries in the region, including the United States and South Korea. If this is the unfortunate situation that we face, then the next step would have to be some form of coercive diplomacy, the first step of which would be multilateral air-tight consensus on the position that the North cannot have both -- if it wants aid, regime survival, etc., then it must give up its WMD capabilities. I believe people underestimate how forceful such a message could be if it were truly a united one. North Korea is a master at playing one country off another (they practiced this during the cold war between China and the Soviet Union). If they do not have this option, then they may look for a face-saving solution. For the Roh government, their liberal views on North Korea will eventually have to be laced with a bit more realism. As the new ROK ambassador to the United States said last week, now the new leaders are "in the kitchen" and learning how everything works.


New York, N.Y.: As Korean-American, I am extremely concerned that North Korea appears to be somewhat succeeding in its efforts to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea. It is even more concerning that lots of South Koreans appear to be buying into the propaganda campaign by the North Korean regime.

What is your view on the future of the U.S.-ROK alliance? Henry Kissinger always worried about marginalizing ROK by engaging in direct negotitions with North Korea. Do you think that the current U.S. administration has the same concerns despite the recent anti-American sentiments seen apparnent in ROK?

Victor Cha, Ph.D.: Yes it does appear as though the alliance is in a bit of trouble these days. But I believe that alliances by nature will have these sorts of problems (e.g, Germany and France). And I believe that these problems can eventually be sorted out. The key however is for both governments to focus on alliance maintenance as a priority. I think the upcoming summit in May between Bush and Roh will be critical in this regard.


Gullsgate Minn.: Victor Cha:Bush, Powell, "My Goodness" Rumsfeld appear to be sending out mixed messages on 'what to do' with North Korea. Regime change on demand will only escalate and antagonize-- and China adds another dangerous intervention in the picture--please give your wise evaluation of this situation. Bully-on--the-globe is a strange way for this nation to handle nuclear war threats even as we have failed to stop our own nuclear stockpile 'sufficiently'? Or have we gone so far in policing the world that we can not turn back and negotiate anymore? Earth Day today, is a joke if all plans lead to destruction of the same?

Victor Cha, Ph.D.: As I stated earlied in the hour, I know that differences exist in the policy preferences but the bottom line is the same: the NKs have to nuke disarm first before anything resembling engagement is possible. This is the most important principle.


Vienna, Va.: Prior to the axis of evil comment, I had the impression that N Korea and S Korea were in the process of integrating their societies. I had read that some N Koreans commuted to work in S Korea regularly.

There were even unification movements in both countries. It seems to me that this positive atmosphere could have been used to generate localized cooperation to address U.S. and Global concerns regarding the unregulated growth of WMD.

The reckless talk and mindless policy directives that drove us into Afghanistan (now moving quickly into total anarchy) and Iraq (now moving quickly into total anarchy) is being applied to the Korean peninsula. Have we reached a point where the Chinese just sit back and laugh at us?

Victor Cha, Ph.D.: The June 2000 summit was a watershed event for Koreans as the two leaders met for the first time in the history of the two countries. There is no direct communication, let alone commuting, between the two countries, but there have been infrastructure projects. WIth regard to the Chinese, I believe they have as much at stake in a resolution of this issue as the United States, and that they are playing a more proactive role in this regard


Auburn, N.Y.: Attacking Iraq and Afghanistan has not made much difference in my own life, being in a small, remote, non-target of a location I'm not scared of terrorists, never felt any threat from those countries in any way. I'm saddened by the destruction we have caused, but otherwise am unimpressed by the US reaction to world problems.

Now we're gearing up to take on more countries - Syria, North Korea, Iran, Cuba.

Is there a reason we can't be content to focus on "the homeland" and our own defenses here? Why do you think this administration hates the rest of the world so much? They spend a lot of effort trying to get all of us to hate, too.

It seems sad and dysfunctional, sort of like watching an empire crash and burn before our very eyes.

Victor Cha, Ph.D.: I think the administration would argue that the actions they are taking in such faraway places is ultimately for the purpose of preserving homeland security. Nevertheless, there is no denying that these are historic moments in terms of changes in the way the United States has pursued its national security. And there are bound to be very vigorous debates about the nature of these changes. As this relates to North Korea, that debate would turn on how severe a threat NK fissile material on the open market poses for homeland security.


Wheaton, Md.: These talks with North Korea have been held before and the U.S. was betrayed. The only way to effectively disarm North Korea is to do it the same way we are disarming Iraq.

Victor Cha, Ph.D.: A military campaign of the sorts undertaken in Iraq would likely not be what would be prosecuted in North Korea if things ever got to that point. The geography of the country and the balance of forces would mean a much more high-intensity conflict with casualties well into the tens of thousands, if not millions (remember we only lost a little over 100 soldiers in Iraq).


Piscataway, N.J.: How good is North Korea's intelligence service? Do they have a vast network in South Korea, Japan and in the United States?

Victor Cha, Ph.D.: Not very good. They have not high-tech intelligence gathering forms and rely largely on humint (human intelligence). There have been cases of these spies being caught or pursued in South Korea and Japan. I know of no such cases in the United States


Stockton, Calif.: Why would such a small country (Korea) want other very powerful and wealthy countries to watch and spend their money for spying, possible invasion and ultimately possible assisanation? They are giving us an excuse to neutralize there potential to threaten the world while putting others on notice. How far will the coalition of threatened countries need to go in order to convince Kim Jung Il to stop his continual threat of peaceful countries?

Victor Cha, Ph.D.: South Korea is not as small a country as we think. Yes it is small in size (about the size of Indiana). But its economy is ranked about the 12th largest in the world and it is the most wired country in Asia. The real question is how much the South Koreans are willing to "de-link" from the proliferation problem and allow the United States to handle it. I do not believe that such delinking is a workable formula either for US or ROK interests, and I would suspect that the South Koreans will play a more active role.


Victor Cha, Ph.D.: I will get to as many of the remaining questions that I can, but I wanted to let the audience know that for more information about North Korea and US policy, I have a forthcoming co-authored book, NUCLEAR NORTH KOREA: A DEBATE ON ENGAGEMENT STRATEGIES (Columbia University Press, autumn 2003), that deals with many of these issues in greater depth.


Piscataway, N.J.: How many nuclear warheads do you think North Korea may have? Also how many kilotons do you think each warhead might be?

Victor Cha, Ph.D.: The official estimate is that they may have enough plutonium for 1-2 weapons. we don;t know whether they have weaponized them


Victor Cha, Ph.D.: Thanks for all the questions! This was enjoyable and I hope you all have a great day. The Korea issue will be around for a while, so let's all hope for the best.


washingtonpost.com:

That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.


© Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company