Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 7/7/2006 [Archive]

What's Up With North Korea

North Korea

What's up with North Korea?

North Korea stirred up big-time diplomatic trouble in northeast Asia Wednesday by test-firing seven missiles into the Sea of Japan. The missiles didn't hit anyone, and the most sophisticated weapon, the long-range Taepodong-2 that could reach U.S. territory, fizzled and broke apart less than a minute after launch.

But North Korea -- a backward, highly unpleasant communist dictatorship with a nuclear weapons program that is run by Kim Jong Il -- has earned the condemnation of almost every country in the world. With Japan calling for U.N. sanctions to punish North Korea, and North Korea threatening to test more missiles, I called Charles E. Morrison on Wednesday. Morrison is president of the Hawaii-based East-West Center (, an education and research center established by Congress in 1960 to focus on the Asia Pacific region:

Q: What's your take on what Mr. Kim Jong Il is up to with his missile firings?

A: I think there are at least two dynamics. One is that there are a lot of people in the military and scientific community in North Korea who have invested a great deal in developing missile and nuclear programs and they continue to want to have those programs go forward. Secondly, and clearly, I think it is an effort to get the United States' attention.

Q: Does the United States have anything really to worry about militarily from North Korea?

A: The thing we would be most worried about is not actually nuclear weapons that North Korea itself would launch. We're mainly worried about three things:

One is if North Korea were to sell fissile material to terrorists groups.

Secondly, there's the issue of the impact that its nuclear weapons program has on other countries around North Korea, particularly Japan, which is non-nuclear, and South Korea, Taiwan and so forth. You don't want a proliferation dynamic in that region.

The third thing is, at some point North Korea is going to disappear. Quite possibly that will be sudden, the way the Romanian former dictator (Nicolae) Ceausescu disappeared. If so, and you have nuclear material there, then you have a potential 'loose nukes' problem, which again gets back to the terrorism issue. These are probably more serious medium and longer-range concerns than North Korea's current military capability.

Q: What about China? It's sort of acting as North Korea's patron, isn't it?

A: China is keeping North Korea alive. China doesn't do too much for it. It is in some ways exploiting the situation for the economic and political benefit of China. But China really doesn't want North Korea to misbehave in a way that it increases tensions in the region, either. So China tries to keep some lid on North Korea, but at the same time China doesn't want the North Korean regime to collapse.

Q: What should U.S. policy be toward North Korea?

A: I think we shouldn't get overly exercised about North Korea. In some ways when we overreact to North Korea, it actually gives them what they want and gives them a certain legitimacy that they would not otherwise have. I support the approach of trying to work with China, Japan, South Korea and Russia in containing the problem.

Generally, I also feel that the strongest way we have to affect these regimes is through contacts that we and others have with them, which basically undermines them. Basically it is a family regime. It is not even a traditional Marxist regime. But as people get more out into the world, as they get more information and contact, it can't remain quite in the same isolated, controlled state that it has been.

I feel we should continue to try to promote those kinds of contacts even while we do react strongly to any activities that are destabilizing -- and I regard both the nuclear weapons program and the long-range delivery system as destabilizing.

Q: Just how miserable is life in North Korea for the average citizen?

A: I was there only once and that was 16 years ago, so I am not a knowledgeable observer, and it was absolutely miserable then. But every recent observer that I know -- and these are mainly South Koreans who have been to the parts of North Korea that matter -- are shocked by how miserable the conditions are now.

Q: Is Kim Jong Il totally nuts or is he crazy like a fox?

A: Kim Jong Il by all our accounts is a sharp guy who browses the Internet, loves actresses. But what I don't think anyone knows really is the dynamics of political power in North Korea. At the time Kim Jong Il succeeded his father, there were a lot of questions about whether he was really in charge.But he's also not so young, and so the question is who succeeds him. As I said, this is a family regime and so it's like a king -- you pick the best person in the country.

Q: In the medium or long run, what do you think will happen with North Korea?

A: What I think is more likely than not is a collapse of the regime. I just have no idea if that would be next year, five years or 25 years from now. It is a regime that is incapable of incremental change. What could trigger a collapse is an assassination. It could be a power struggle after Kim Jong Il dies. Or, the most unlikely trigger is public protest. North Korea has been through so much you would have thought if there had been any potential for public protest it would have happened already. More likely I think it would be a struggle among power brokers in the north itself.

The other possibility -- and the one that the South Koreans and the Chinese fervently hope will happen -- would be a more incremental change. ... I think that is less likely to happen, but that certainly would be a more desirable way to have change in North Korea.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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