North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s escalating threats against the US earned him a prominent spot in this week’s news cycle. Charles Armstrong, Director of Columbia University’s Center for Korean Research, tells Brooke that North Korean threats are not only cyclical - they’re seasonal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On April 23rd the great Cyndi Lauper will join me in WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Space to discuss her career, her activism, her new Broadway musical and how she turned a song of male dominance into an anthem of female empowerment. For tickets, go to onthemedia.org.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone.
JON SCOTT: I’m Jon Scott in for Shepard Smith tonight. North Korea may be planning another missile launch.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s escalating threats against the US earned him a prominent spot in the week’s news cycle. Actually, North Korea started to ratchet up the tension back in mid-February by announcing it had conducted its third nuclear test and then increased the tension in March when some experts believe they launched a series of cyber-attacks on South Korea. But it peaked this week when North Korea declared it was ready for nuclear war. Most news consumers probably felt ambivalent. We may be standing on the brink of the abyss, but haven’t we been here before, in 2011?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Developing news from the Korean Peninsula this morning. North Korea has issued a strong warning in response to joint military drills involving South Korea and the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 2010?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Today, South Korea formally accused North Korea of sinking one of its warships with a torpedo fired from a submarine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And 2009?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: North Korea has launched a long-range rocket, the first such successful launch in its history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You may even remember the weather when those stories broke, the sunny sky, the gentle breeze, the budding bushes. Charles Armstrong, director of Columbia University’s Center for Korean Research says North Korean threats are not only cyclical. They’re seasonal.
CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Yes, there’s a kind of rite of spring aspect to North Korea’s belligerent statements. They almost always coincide with joint military exercises carried out between South Korea and the United States, which are usually in the spring.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What are these military exercises?
CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Well, the exercises are basically preparation for South Korea to defend itself in case there is an invasion from the North, and also this is what particularly vexes the North Koreans, there’s preparation for an attack behind North Korean lines.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why don’t we just stop the military exercises? CHARLES ARMSTRONG: That’s a very good question. One time it was stopped. When Donald Gregg was Ambassador to Seoul in 1992, the exercises were suspended and it seemed to have the effect of calming down the rhetoric from Pyongyang.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We didn’t have speeches about how we would go up in an ocean of flame?
CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Sea of flame, yes that language was not used. There is always colorful language coming from North Korea but the general level was maintained, rather than spiking as it does during these military exercises. They were resumed again in 1993, as was the belligerent and provocative language from North Korea.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Could you give us a rundown of how Kim Jong-un’s personal saber-rattling style compares to his father's?
CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Well, his father rarely spoke in public. In fact, we only really know of one or two speeches that he gave, which were quite short. But Kim Jong-un has really seemed to revel in the public eye as Supreme Leader. We don’t know very much about Kim Jong-un. He’s very young, obviously. It’s not clear exactly how much he is in real control, and it’s hard to say exactly how seriously to take his statements and where they might lead.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And some say that's where the biggest danger lies, in the fact that he is an unknown quantity and that he's changing some of the rules of the game, and no one knows exactly how or why. On Thursday, some unnamed official in the US government told CNN that they had intercepted private communications about the North Korean movement of missiles without announcing it. This is like throwing the old game right out the window.
CHARLES ARMSTRONG: North Korea wants to send the message, Kim Jong-un wants to send the message that just as North Korea is under the threat of American nuclear attack, they’re saying to the US we can hit you too, so we leveled the playing field. That’s the message that North Korea is sending now. That’s something new.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Except North Korea can't hit us, yet.
CHARLES ARMSTRONG: No, so it is, at the moment, a more or less empty threat. The real danger on the Korean Peninsula is that the South Korean government, which is a new administration under Park Geun-hye, the first female president is South Korea, is under a lot of pressure to react forcefully to any provocation from the north. So if something happens, this time South Korea might respond with an attack on the north and that could easily escalate into a much bigger confrontation, which ultimately would draw in the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If these stories about the inflammatory rhetoric from North Korea come out every year at military exercise time, should the media be paying attention to it annually, as it does? Or should they just ignore it?
CHARLES ARMSTRONG: I don’t think ignoring it is a good idea, but perhaps the media isn't really focusing on the real problem, which is not North Korea's rhetoric and language but the situation in and around the Korean Peninsula that enables this, a state of conflict that is held in place by an armistice which is not an end to war, it's just a freezing of the war in place. It's been going on for 60 years. That's the danger of the Korean situation right now, not that Kim Jong-un is crazy - that's another question - but that war, a real war could break out at any time through miscalculation or provocation on any side.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So as we study this annual cycle, if we step back a couple of decades, do we see another cycle, an escalation of rhetorical heat?
CHARLES ARMSTRONG: Yes, not only does the rhetoric escalate, but the capacity that North Korea has to create damage is also escalating. North Korea now has nuclear weapons. They used to only threaten to make nuclear weapons. Now they're threatening to launch long-range missiles, something they have the ability to do now that they didn’t before. Unless there is some kind of a solution to the confrontation on the Korean Peninsula, whether it’s a peace treaty or some sort of normalization, sooner or later something could happen that would take this beyond just a war of words to a real military conflict that would be a disaster.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
CHARLES ARMSTRONG: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Charles Armstrong is the director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University.