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Experts Warn North Korean Rhetoric May Be Serious


North Korea has ratcheted up its rhetoric about the U.S. to a level that has even surprised seasoned observers. Last week, after the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved new sanctions against North Korea, its new young leader called for, quote, "all out action against America." The U.N. sanctions came in response to North Korea's successful long-range missile tests last month.

North Korea is well known for its bluster but some experts warn that the recent statements should not be taken lightly. Victor Cha is one of those experts. He is a professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University and author of "The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Future." He joins us now. Good morning.

VICTOR CHA: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So give us another example of the kind of rhetoric that the new head of North Korea has been using and what it might mean.

CHA: Well, I think the most recent rhetoric has been to explicitly threaten a nuclear test in retaliation for these U.N. sanctions that were levied last week and that this nuclear test would be directed at the United States.

MONTAGNE: Which is rather new. I mean, the particular point of saying it's headed for the U.S.?

CHA: Well, I think both of those things are fairly new. I mean, to explicitly threaten a nuclear test and then to name the United States, this is all coming out of a new leadership we know very little about that has been quite belligerent. I mean, two ballistic missile tests last year and it looks like they're going to most likely start off this new year with a nuclear test.

MONTAGNE: Well, one unusual response to this rhetoric and their promise or their threat to do another nuclear test came from China, which is unusual. Because it is really North Korea's only ally.

CHA: Yes, that's right. And I think even for the Chinese, who generally prize stability over anything else and are willing to countenance a great deal of bad North Korean behavior, I think even for them the rhetoric and the pace of these provocations is becoming a bit unsettling for them as well.

MONTAGNE: And in China, maybe explain a little bit. They basically said they would pull back their own aid to North Korea if they dared do this.

CHA: That's what they said. You know, whether they will do it is always a big question. But, again, I think the leadership in China - the new leadership in China - is concerned that North Korea is really pushing the envelope beyond what they consider to be a stable outcome for Chinese interests. And that's why we see these more explicit threats by the Chinese to start cutting off some aid.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, Kim Jong Un, who is the son and grandson of the great leaders of North Korea - but he was thought initially - he's only been there for a few months - but he was thought initially to maybe actually be a new voice. Maybe, like, liberal is not quite the word but, you know, a little bit more practical. What's going on here, do you think?

CHA: Well, I think there was always that hope whenever you get a new leadership in North Korea. The same sort of hope was there when his father, Kim Jong Il, took over in 1994. But, you know, I think the problem is, is that the ideology of the regime remains the same. It remains very much focused on the military aspects of power.

And while there is a desire to improve the situation economically, they don't want to do that by giving up things like nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. And that's the rub, I think, for the United States and others that want to see opening in North Korea.

MONTAGNE: Well, we only have about 20 seconds left, and a kind of yes or no answer - do you think the rhetoric will get toned down?

CHA: No. Unfortunately, I don't think it's going to get toned down. I think the North Koreans seem pretty serious about moving forward with this test.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. Victor Cha, thanks very much. He's the author of "The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Future." And this is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.