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Is North Korea's Warmongering Rhetoric-As-Usual Or Something To Worry About?


It's All Things Considered, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. What are we to make of this week's heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula? The North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, has issued bellicose threats. His troops are reported to be draping their vehicles with camouflage netting; he's cut off the hotline with which North and South Korea communicate; and according to state media in the North, Kim has ordered his missile units to be ready to strike the U.S. and South Korea - all of which has South Koreans worried, evidently more worried that usual.

The U.S. responded with B-2 bombers flying over the South yesterday, as part of planned joint exercises. Well, joining us now to talk about this is Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; that's a Washington think tank. He was deputy head of the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks on North Korea.


VICTOR CHA: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Is - in the North, is the situation just a noisier version of the usual mix of threat, bluster and brinkmanship; or is there real cause for greater concern here?

CHA: Well, I think there is cause for a little bit more concern. It is noisier but at the same time, there have been actions over the past six months, year, that have really ratcheted up the tension on the peninsula. For example, three sets of ballistic missile tests, a third nuclear test - all of these are coming in very rapid succession. And so when you combine that with the intense rhetoric we're hearing from the North, I think it gives one a little bit more concern that this is not simply business as usual.

SIEGEL: Are you concerned that the North Korean-South Korean relationship is a dynamic one that will change the South's view of what should happen; and that they might, indeed, say 60 years is enough of living in this - under this threat?

CHA: You're starting to see that sea change already, after the provocations that occurred in 2010 in the shelling of the island, and in the sinking of a South Korean navy vessel. You have a new president in South Korea, who is only a month old in office; who clearly wants to find some way to engage with North Korea, and de-escalate the situation. But at the same time, she is no softy when it comes to North Korea. Her mother was killed by a North Korean agent who tried to assassinate her father. She also saw the North Koreans attempt to raid the South Korean presidential palace in 1968, when her father held office as president. So she's no softy when it comes to North Korea and is going to respond, I think, to any of these sorts of provocations.

SIEGEL: Well, an agreement was signed just over a week ago, by the U.S. and South Korea - the combined counter-provocation plan. Do you think that would likely serve as a break on South Korea responding militarily to something the North might do, since it calls for a consultation? Or does that mean that the South Koreans might respond, and the U.S. could be dragged into something on the peninsula?

CHA: Well, I think it has two elements of it that are useful. The first is, it conveys and signals to the North that the United States is willing to be engaged in any sort of military action short of all-out war. So I think that's one positive thing. The other positive thing is by tying the United States into some sort of reaction at an early stage, it conveys a deterrent threat to North Korea. But at the same time, it can also help to de-escalate a situation if we are part of it from the very beginning, working with our South Korean partners.

SIEGEL: Victor Cha, a North Korean strike at the U.S. mainland - and there are news photographs in official North Korean media which show, you know, maps which are headlined, you know, "Plan To Strike U.S. Mainland - it sounds absolutely irrational, as those B-2s demonstrated when they flew over the South. Do you regard the North Korean military leadership - and Kim Jong Un, for that matter - as rational players who, no matter what they say, respond to obvious carrots and sticks? Or are they capable of an irrational, belligerent act?

CHA: They're not crazy. They're certainly, very dangerous; and they're certain - really, very unpredictable. So I think, you know, part of this is for a domestic audience. Part of it is bluster; part of it is to, I guess, confirm the capabilities of this young 28-year-old that's running the country. But, you know, they don't have the capacity right now to reach out and strike the United States. They do have the capacity to strike U.S. forces in Korea and Japan. But again, I think we should understand that this is - some of it is bluster, but we have to take it seriously because they're clearly building towards a capability. And there is no convention or treaty right now, or agreement of any sort, that is stopping them from continuing down this path.

SIEGEL: Victor Cha, thank you very much for talking with us.

CHA: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Victor Cha, who is a professor at Georgetown University, also holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.