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North Korea Steps Up Nuclear Activity Ahead Of Obama Visit

Apr 22, 2014

President Obama arrives in Japan on tomorrow amid reports that North Korea might carry out a fourth underground nuclear test to coincide with the president’s trip.

The reports about the possible test come from the South Korean Defense Ministry, which says it has spotted several activities related to a possible nuclear test in Punggye-ri in North Korea.

Jim Walsh, an expert on North Korea and international security, discusses this with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.


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President Obama heads to Asia tomorrow. His first stop is Japan, but he will also visit South Korea, Malaysia and The Philippines. The trip comes amid uncertainties in the region about the president's commitment there, but it also coincides with reports from the South Korean defense ministry that North Korea might carry out another underground nuclear test, possibly while President Obama is in the region.

Jim Walsh is with MIT's Security Studies Program. He joins us in the studio. Jim, welcome back.

JIM WALSH: Good to be with you.

HOBSON: Is it possible that North Korea would actually do a nuclear test while President Obama is there on the peninsula?

WALSH: I think it's possible. I think most experts that have been debating this this past month, because data started showing up a month ago in satellite reconnaissance photos, think it could happen, but that's unlikely. They'd have to really move things along. On Friday, not only will the president be arriving, but also it is a day in the North Korean calendar, the sort of army day.

But, you know, the way I look at this stuff is, it's going to happen. You know, they announced some time ago - at least Kim Jong-un made reference to - the fact that there was going to be tests. And folks have been talking, or North Koreans have been talking about a different kind of test they plan to do in the future.

So whether the future is Friday or the Friday after that or next month, I think it's going to happen.

HOBSON: But what do they have to gain by doing that, especially if it happens while President Obama is there?

WALSH: I hear you on that, and I think we often focus on: Why would North Korea do this, vis-a-vis us? But there are other things going on, too. So there are domestic things. You'll remember when they had one of the highest ranked officials executed a while ago, you know, intrigue in the palace. So sometimes you do stuff because you have a domestic audience, or something there are other players in the region that matter to you more than the United States.

And this cuts both ways, because the last thing China wants is for them to test. So, there are pressures for them, probably internally, to test. And meanwhile China, their biggest, you know, patron is telling them please don't test.

HOBSON: Would the U.S. have to respond if they did carry out a test?

WALSH: You know, I think we're just going to see more of the same, and we've been in this cycle a long time now, where we have provocation, followed by resolutions and naval exercises, military drills, and around and around it goes. So they say they need to show that they're strong in the face of U.S.-Korean military exercises, and then after they do something, we say we have to respond to their provocation, and we've been at this now for a little while.

We talked to the BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Tokyo about this and asked him what the reaction would be there if North Korea does do a nuclear test while President Obama is in the region. Here's what he said.

RUPERT WINGFIELD-HAYES: Well, with a great deal of disquiet from the U.S. government, from the Japanese and from the South Koreans, but it is exactly the sort of display that you would expect from the North Koreans. It would draw a lot of attention to them at a time when the focus of the world is on this region. We are guessing, to a certain extent. There apparently is movement at the site where they do their nuclear tests, but I don't think anybody would be surprised that North Korea would attempt this sort of thing right at this moment.

HOBSON: Jim Walsh, it doesn't seem like any sanctions that have been put on North Korea have done anything to deter them from this kind of behavior.

WALSH: Yeah, well, you saw that U.N. panel report, experts group report came out a little while ago on the sanctions, and essentially arrived at your conclusion, Jeremy. I would say if you step back and look at it from 30,000 feet, it's really an issue of geography. The U.S. is blessed when it comes to geography. Why? We're surrounded by two big oceans and two big, weak neighbors.

The other country that won the lottery here was North Korea, because they are sitting smack dab next to the biggest-growing economy in the world. So if you happen to be right next to it, you know, if North Korea and South Korea switched positions and North Korea was separated with the border from China, well, it would be in a lot worse shape. But it's next to a really, really big, growing, robust economy.

HOBSON: Put this in the context for us of what is going on elsewhere in the world. In Syria, I'm thinking of the red line that the Obama administration put out there about chemical weapons. It was crossed. There wasn't the kind of response that many people would have thought that there would be. And now what's going on in Ukraine with Russia, let's listen here to Senator Bob Corker, the Republican from Tennessee, talking about exactly that, the Russian situation and the situation in Syria.


SENATOR BOB CORKER: The wisest thing that Assad did really was to kill 1,200 people with chemical weapons, because in essence, we said don't embarrass us any more that way. You can go ahead and kill another 60,000 people with barrel bombs and by other means, but don't embarrass us. And I think that's what we're saying to Russia today by the actions that we're not taking: Don't embarrass us, but you can continue the black ops activities. You can continue the other things that you're doing.

HOBSON: Senator Bob Corker, speaking on "Meet the Press." Jim Walsh, what do you make of that?

WALSH: Well, I like Bob Corker, and I have a lot of respect for him as a senator. I think he's, you know, wandering off a little far on this. I'd be curious to see what his recommendation would be. You know, so you don't like this happening. What exactly would you have the U.S. do? Now, with respect to Syria, there have been two big developments this week, one good, one bad.

The U.N. came out and said they've destroyed 80 percent of Assad's chemical weapons. You know, that's pretty big. That's more than we would have gotten through a military strike had we done that back in September, that Labor Day weekend. Now, if you get 80 percent of 500 metric tons of chemical weapons, that still leaves, you know, 100 metric tons.

HOBSON: Twenty percent, yeah.

WALSH: Right, so, obviously, no one wants the civil war to continue, but, you know, if Assad is intent on killing his population, he's going to kill them one way or another. But that doesn't mean it isn't a good thing to get, you know, 400, maybe all of those chemical weapons out of there.

HOBSON: But there's also a report this week about chlorine gas attacks by the Assad regime. That was not one of the chemicals on the list of chemicals. So - but it can still kill people.

WALSH: Absolutely. And, you know, machetes can kill people, and lots of things can kill people. Now, you know, chlorine gas is one of - there are a lot of industrial agents that we would use. We would use chlorine to wash swimming pools or to do different things. Well, you can take those industrial agents, but if you spray people with them, they're deadly, and they're toxic.

But I think we also have to put it in some context, here. Sarin gas, way more toxic and deadly, can kill a lot more people, mustard gas, all the way along. So it's good that we're getting these things out of here. My guess is the first priority is to get the rest of it out, and you're not going to see a big response from the U.S. or from France or from others to this reported use earlier this month.

They're going to probably try to get job one done, which is to get them all out of there or destroyed, and then turn their attention back to Assad.

HOBSON: But Bob Corker's point being even - this is not about chemical weapons. This is about somebody killing his people, and the United States is standing by and letting that happen.

WALSH: Absolutely. And, you know, there are a lot of terrible things that happen all over the world, and there are lots of civil wars. And I think, you know, there's this old joke, you know, among strategists, security strategists, don't get involved in a land war in Asia, and don't get involved in a civil war.

Now, it's horrible. It's absolutely horrible, but what exactly - are we going to put U.S. boots on the ground? What are we going to - what are we going to do that's fundamentally going to change that outcome at some reasonable cost to us - we can't spend everything we have to stop it - and what's our likelihood of success?

HOBSON: What about in Ukraine? Should the United States be getting involved to a larger degree than it is right now?

WALSH: You know, I think the Russians care more about Ukraine than we do. You know, and someone - I sort of wonder, when we're a year out from now, like you'll remember in 2008, they invaded and took part of Georgia. You know, a year - which no one talks about. No one - you know, sort of everyone forgets that. A year from now, is Russia really going to be happy that they've done what they've done?

I mean, essentially, what they'll do is they'll leave Ukraine, the western part of Ukraine - which is going to be intensely anti-Russian, right. And they've taken all the pro-Russian people off the table. Now they're a part of Russia. And you see stories today about Crimea having all sorts of problems. They're disorganized. They don't have a functioning government. If they take, you know, part of Eastern Ukraine, you know, what's going to happen?

You know, already $80 billion has fled Russia. So it's not clear that this is a big thing to the U.S., should be a big thing or that we should pay a high costs for it.

HOBSON: Well, and the question will be: Will Russia change its tune at all if sanctions get bigger than they are from the West, from the United States? Jim Walsh with MIT's Security Studies Program. Jim, thanks, as always.

WALSH: Thank you.

HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.