Is there reason to worry now? Bob again speaks with David Kang to find out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Last month on this program, we heard that despite the alarming headlines about confrontation with North Korea, it was much ado about the usual empty threats.
PROFESSOR DAVID KANG: And you know what, once we get past all the rhetoric, both sides believe each other, which is why we haven't started a war. Deterrence rests on some pretty horrific consequences, but the fact is deterrence has worked for almost 70 years now.
BOB GARFIELD: That was David Kang, director of the University of Southern California’s Korean Studies Institute. He did talk us down but the intervening four weeks haven’t been too reassuring. Our self-proclaimed non-interventionist president has fired missiles at Syria and dropped the mother of all bombs on Afghanistan. Both President Trump and Kim Jong-un are notoriously erratic and the rhetoric is only growing more bellicose. Here’s Vice President Pence.
VICE PRESIDENT PENCE: We will defeat any attack and we will meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective response. The era of strategic patience is over.
BOB GARFIELD: And then this.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A new propaganda video from North Korea shows a US aircraft carrier being blown up. Is it hinting at something US military planners actually need to worry about?
BOB GARFIELD: A North Korean military parade featured videos of missiles engulfing the United States in a giant fireball of – doom! Uh, Professor Kang, you sure? Nuthin’ to see here, right?
PROF. DAVID KANG: Absolutely. Any American president who thinks about striking North Korea first has to ask one question: Will North Korea respond? Every American president, and this one, as well, I am quite sure, is going to conclude that yes, they will.
BOB GARFIELD: So it’s kind of like the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine on a slightly smaller scale. We’re not envisioning, necessarily, World War III but hundreds of thousands or millions of deaths that nobody wants to be responsible for.
PROF. DAVID KANG: That's why the deterrence has worked. It's not bluster, which means something insincere or just fake. This is signaling by both sides, and both sides believe each other.
BOB GARFIELD: But what about Trump? We know how erratic he is. Should we not worry that he won’t do something irretrievably stupid?
PROF. DAVID KANG: [LAUGHS] I'm no psychologist but I will say that of what I see of the Trump administration, I don't see an inability to calculate costs and benefits.
BOB GARFIELD: Even if we never talk about any kind of nuclear attack, there are those megatons of conventional artillery aimed right at Seoul, where I think there are 20 million people. A cornered rat - North Korean regime - can kill 20 million people in an hour.
PROF. DAVID KANG: Absolutely, which is why we don't preempt them. The equation on the Korean peninsula is so stark. There are 28,000 American troops stationed in South Korea that are directly vulnerable to North Korean attack today. Kim Jong-un can't hit the United States but he can hit those 28,000 troops and literally millions of Koreans, so the costs and the risks are glaringly obvious. And everything I can see about President Trump and his senior advisers are that they understand these risks. It is not like Syria or Afghanistan, where they can't hit us back.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you’ve said that South Koreans aren't nearly as alarmed about this situation and haven't been whipped into a similar kind of media-fueled frenzy. Why?
PROF. DAVID KANG: South Koreans live with this every day. They have much better knowledge of what's actually going on on the peninsula. If you’re under the age of 64, [LAUGHS] you have grown up with this your entire life. The North Korean military parades occur on an annual basis. American and South Korean military exercises occur on an annual basis. They see this all the time. That doesn't mean it's not horrifically dangerous but, in some ways, it's less dangerous than it was.
One thing that's different from when I was growing up in the 1980s is that the conventional threat of North Korean military invasion over the border is much less than it was 30 years ago. As North Korea has grown poorer, their military is no longer the kind of fighting force that it used to be. They don't have the spare parts, they don't have the equipment and the training. So it’s huge and it’s dangerous, but the South has become so much more powerful and so much richer than North Korea that that threat has largely diminished.
BOB GARFIELD: In some stories, we’re kind of lulled into complacency by the “boy who cried wolf” syndrome. Yet, the North Korea story seems to get us freshly panicked every single time, What explains that?
PROF. DAVID KANG: This isn’t the boy that cried wolf, this is the Chicken Little syndrome (The sky is falling!). I think in some ways it’s because North Korea does not help itself, in terms of being understood. It is a dictatorial regime that spouts old outdated Cold War Communist rhetoric. They look strange. It’s hard to understand, unless you really know what’s going on.
I think the second reason is that in the United States we don't tend to pay attention until the media talks about an aircraft carrier and a potential preemptive strike, and so we can’t put it in context the same way that in South Korea they can. We don't watch the other, let's call it, 11 months a year, when it's essentially business as usual. If you live in Korea or if you watch it all the time, like me, you have 11 months of business as usual and then you have a cycle where there are some provocations and the US and North Korea beat their chests and shake their fists. Then we go back to the other part of the cycle.
BOB GARFIELD: Dave, once again, thank you.
PROF. DAVID KANG: My pleasure, anytime.
BOB GARFIELD: Dave Kang is a professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California and the director of USC's Korean Studies Institute.