Assessing North Korea's Threats

By Smith, Craig | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 13, 2009 | Go to article overview

Assessing North Korea's Threats


Smith, Craig, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Bruce Klingner first butted heads with North Korea when he was named in 1993 as chief of the CIA's Korea Branch, which provided analytic reports on military developments during the nuclear crisis of 1993-1994. From 1996-2001, he was deputy division chief for Korea in the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence, where he was responsible for analyzing political, military, economic and leadership issues for the president and other senior policymakers.

The senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation, Klingner holds a third-degree black belt in tae kwon do and a first-degree black belt in hapkido and teuk kong moo sool.

We talked by phone Monday as the Obama administration pushed for the release of two female American journalists, who were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in North Korea.

Q: You testified in February before the Asian subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that there was reason to be hopeful of a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear problem. Are you still optimistic?

A: No. And I think I'm more concerned about what may happen in 2009 than I have been for a number of years. What I've noticed is a growing, very significant mood change in Washington since, say, early January. In January there was a sort of widespread expectation that (President) Obama would implement a dramatically different foreign policy toward North Korea than (President) Bush. That it would lead to a significant improvement in bilateral relations and that 2009 may be the breakthrough year in achieving real progress. ... There was also these very high expectations that even if the policy wasn't different, simply having the change in U.S. leadership would have North Korea become more accommodating and adopt a more outreaching or softer policy towards the U.S. ... We've clearly seen that has not been the case since January.

Q: In fact, it's almost rapid-fire escalation.

A: Exactly. And the rapid fire is very important because it shows a significant change in North Korea objectives and strategy from the past. Previously when it engaged in provocative behavior there was a very long lead time before it actually implemented it. And it was as if, "I'm warning you that I'm going to do a provocation but I am willing to be talked out of it if offered a benefit. You know, I'm going to walk across the room and break Mom's vase. I'm walking very slowly, which gives you plenty of time to offer me a cookie."

And then even when they actually did the provocative act, then they would allow several months of calm for everyone to absorb and get used to this new status quo.

Since January they've been going through the provocation so quickly that there's no chance for diplomacy, there's no opportunity to offer benefits or concessions or offer attention or negotiations. It's a different ballgame.

Q: Kim Jong Il's health has been a concern ..

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