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The North Korea Nuclear Crisis

Speakers: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies and Director, Northeast Asia Security Architecture Project, Council on Foreign Relations, and Scott A. Snyder, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Korea Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Senior Associate, The Asia Foundation
Moderator: Paul B. Stares, General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director, Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations
June 3, 2009, Washington D.C.
Council on Foreign Relations


PAUL STARES:  Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations conference call on the North Korean nuclear crisis.  I don't think it's an exaggeration to say this could not be a more topical subject for discussion, given what's been going on in North Korea recently.

For those who don't know me, I'm Paul Stares.  I'm a senior fellow for conflict prevention and director of the Center for Preventive Action here at the Council.  I'm joined by two of the Council's premier experts on Northeast Asia.  We'll first hear from Scott Snyder, who is the adjunct senior fellow in Korean Studies here at the council, as well as director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation.  And we also have Sheila Smith, Dr. Sheila Smith, who is also a senior fellow here at the Council for Japan Studies and who also heads the Japan program here.

The way we've organized the session is that I will ask a few questions to the experts on the line for about 10, 15 minutes and then we will open it up to other members for Q and A.

So Scott, let me start with you.  I understand you're just back literally from South Korea, Seoul.  And could you give us a sense of the atmosphere there?  Are people pretty jittery and concerned about the recent activities of North Korea and the possibility that we may be facing even a clash sometime soon?

SCOTT SNYDER:  I would say that there is a measure of alertness in South Korea about the situation in the North, but that the source of any jitters or emotions right now is not necessarily focused on Pyongyang, but really on the aftermath of the suicide death of the former president, Roh Moo-hyun.  I think that, you know, one of the questions that that may raise going forward, interestingly enough, is going to be how effective can President Lee Myung-bak be in terms of managing his own domestic political context while at the same time dealing with North Korea.

Now, I'll just point to two things here.  I understand that his popularity has dropped back into the teens.  And then secondly, there are some accusations in the South Korean media that Lee Myung-bak is hyping the North Korean threat right now, especially the missile threat, as a way of distracting from domestic issues related to whether or not the prosecution that had been going on for corruption of the former president had been politically motivated.

STARES:  But regardless of those allegations, surely there is pretty clear evidence that -- of the possibility of, you know, a flash -- a flashpoint somewhere, maybe in the West Sea; it's coming into crabbing season.  Is there real concern that we might see a serious escalation of relations between the two?

SNYDER:  Yes, there is a very big focus on the possibility of a confrontation in the West Sea area, both in the media and I think that -- in the government.  The other factor, people in the government were anticipating the arrival of Deputy Secretary Steinberg and his delegation for a set of consultations that I believe began today, Korea time.

STARES:  Now, there's been a lot of speculation about North Korean intentions at this time, and the reasons behind the test of the nuclear device as well as the long-range missile.  We may be seeing another test under -- about to be launched.  What's your assessment of North Korean intentions?  Is it changing?  We originally, I think, interpreted their behavior as being driven essentially as to gain bargaining leverage with the possible resumption of talks, either at the six-party level or bilaterally with the U.S.  Is that still the consensus assessment of North Korean intentions?

SNYDER:  Well, in light of the proactive and unremitting effort on the part of the North Koreans to conduct these tests, increase -- and also the rebuff that some administration efforts have received from the North Koreans, I think that that is probably a minority assessment at this stage.  And there's much more of a focus on the internal reasons, why -- you know, possibly related to domestic politics, why North Korea may be essentially pressing the fast-forward button.

STARES:  You're referring here to speculation about succession under way in North Korea?

SNYDER:  Yes, domestic politics, the question of succession and the extent to which that's preoccupying the North Korean leadership.

And then also another view is that for strategic reasons the North Koreans really want to establish their position as a nuclear weapon state and try to secure recognition of that to the extent possible by essentially going forward and not taking an opportunity to dip their toe in the water and to get a reaction at each stage, but rather just to consolidate.

STARES:  Okay.  I want to come back to you, Scott, at the end just to talk about our policy options, but let me turn now to Sheila.

And Sheila, if you could just give us a sense of the -- sort of the regional reaction and the subplot, if you will, among the key players in Northeast Asia.


STARES:  You've been focusing, obviously, on the Japanese reaction, but if you could start with that and possibly give us the views of the other key players and how people are responding in the region, that would be very useful.

SMITH:  Sure.  Let me start with Japan.  I think everybody on this call knows that it was the 1998 Taepodong test by North Korea that kind of woke Japan up to this idea that it was living in a dangerous neighborhood and it needed to consider its own defense planning differently.  But we -- so we've had these episodes before.  And in the interim, since 1998, through the missile and then nuclear test in 2006 and then to this round here in 2009, I think you've got a significant change in Japan's own military capabilities and desire to be able to react to the North Koreans.

We saw on April 5th on the missile test that the Japanese, South Koreans and the United States deployed Aegis to the sea in between Japan and the Korean Peninsula.  You also saw that the Japanese instituted a new kind of command law that was passed in 2005.  In other words, the prime minister allowed the defense minister to tell the Self-Defense Force -- Air Self-Defense Force commander that he was in charge at the moment that the missile test began.  So you had an experimentation in Japan, I think, of a new command and control kind of procedure.

But basically, I -- my sense is that in Japan there's a new willingness to think about not only diplomacy but also, you know, accelerating its own military capabilities in an attempt to respond to North Korea.

The main regional story, of course, though, is the negotiations with North Korea and the six-party approach that began after the first nuclear test.  I think, you know, the Korean Peninsula's always been central to stability in Northeast Asia.  And so this regional diplomatic approach was very much, I think, embraced by almost everybody in the region as the first and best place to start the negotiations with Pyongyang.

Beijing's role, China's role of course as the host in that process can't be over -- underestimated, I mean.  China saw a real stake here in hosting the negotiations and in playing a very central role in trying to get Pyongyang to the bargaining table.  So I think China's perspective here is key.  I would say -- I am not a China expert, but just from observing -- from 2006 until today, I think you see a much stronger Chinese response to the current missile test and to the nuclear test.  And so I see China being much more proactive or much more forceful in its work with the U.N. Security Council as well as in the region.

STARES:  Could you give us a sense of, you know, there seems to be broad consensus amongst the key players about condemning North Korean behavior, but where do -- where does that consensus end and sort of differences begin, on what issues?  Is it the extent to which we can exert pressure on North Korea?  Is it the kinds of measure that we should take in response?  Can you give us a sense of where the players line up and areas of convergence and divergence?

SMITH:  I think that's been fairly dynamic, Paul, over time.  I think very clearly that China, early on in the six-party process, felt it was counterproductive to put too much pressure on Pyongyang.  And it took a much more indirect kind of position in terms of leverage.  I don't know -- we'll have to wait and see, I think, until the U.N. Security Council can -- completes its conversation this round to see how far that -- the Chinese position has moved.

I think the Japanese have moved from a sort of not mediating role but a less assertive role to a much more hard-line position, if you forgive that language.  I think the Japanese today are much more sanctions-oriented than they are negotiation-oriented.  They seem quite persuaded that Pyongyang can't be negotiated with, and they have not been successful in their attempts to negotiate either bilaterally or in the six-party context.

So those are two extremes I would put it in terms of the six-party experience.

I think today, though, there is clearly some welcoming in Tokyo of the idea that a different kind of negotiating stance is needed.  I do think the Japanese are looking forward to a much stiffer sanctioning regime coming out of the U.N. Security Council.  But they also seem quite welcoming to Deputy Secretary Steinberg's visit and the idea that they needed to re-craft a six-party approach.  So I think there will be -- there will be variations here and we won't know the end point until we get through this next round of talks, both in the region and at the U.N. Security Council.

STARES:  And there was obviously some question mark whether the six-party process will resume at some stage.

SMITH:  That's right.

STARES:  Scott, could you just give us a sort of overview of what our options are at the moment in terms of sanctioning behavior, trying to encourage North Korea to come back to the bargaining table?  What's on -- what can we do at this stage?

SNYDER:  Okay.  Well, let me start by just saying one or two words about the Security Council resolution itself and then try to address the broader question of a U.S. strategy, because I do believe that, you know, the purpose of the Security Council resolution is both to, you know, punish the North Koreans, but I also believe that it's likely that the resolution will wind up having a clause that calls for a return to diplomacy, most likely a call for a return to the six-party talks.  And then, of course, the details of exactly what it's possible to get consensus on in terms of, you know, fashioning a response, a punitive response to the DPRK that also serves to drive them back to the negotiating table is, I think, the core near-term challenge.

I think the administration is, you know, more broadly taking the right approach, in the sense that the core, I think, of what they've done so far is consultation with allies.  We see this going on right now at the deputy secretary level.  And the establishment of a core consensus among the allies, I think, is an important baseline for taking the next step, which is really engaging with China, because I think that everybody recognizes that China's the party that has the leverage.  And I would just note that I believe that President Obama and President Hu Jintao spoke this morning about North Korea, although there hasn't been any report about the substance of that.

And then I think that the other part of it is really focusing on both diplomacy and preparation for contingencies.  And it's harder to get a sense of exactly how far that has gone.  I think there has been some progress in the U.S.-ROK relationship on that.

And then let me just mention two other issues.  One is I think the administration is really focused on trying to find a way to change or shape new parameters for interaction with the North Koreans.  And part of it is figuring out how to use consultation with the other parties in ways that can compel the North Koreans to come back to the table.

And then another issue that I think there's been some ambiguity on the part of the administration in terms of how they've addressed is the relative weight of denuclearization versus nonproliferation.  Last week, we saw several statements emphasizing the critical importance of nonproliferation.  And I think that is true, but at the same time I think that our allies and partners in the region are expecting that the United States should hold the line on insisting that the objective remains denuclearization as well.

STARES:  Okay.  I think this is a good overview before we get into Q and A.  I'm now going to turn it over to the conference operator to organize the questions from those on the line.

OPERATOR:  At this time, we'll open the floor for questions.  If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key followed by the 1 key on your touch tone phone now.  Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received.  If at any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, please press star-2.  Again, to ask a question, please press star-1.  And we will hold a moment just for the questioning queue to fill.

STARES:  And if you would also identify yourself when you ask a question, please.

OPERATOR:  Our first question comes from Mark Buckman.

QUESTIONER:  Yes.  Does anyone really believe that U.N. resolutions or sanctions will have any impact on the North Koreans?

STARES:  Scott, do you want to --

SNYDER:  Yeah, I mean, I would say that the U.N. resolution itself has probably a more symbolic role to play.  Certainly, we know that the first resolution following the nuclear test was never implemented.  And so I think that the real focus here is on trying to get the key parties to sign up to something that is fairly strong in hopes that there would be follow-through, really, probably in a bilateral context.

And here I would just point to the question of, you know, how far will the Chinese go in terms of a willingness to, you know, sign up to the idea that financial sanctions could be used against North Korea, and also how far will the Chinese go in terms of being willing to have a U.N. authorization for boarding of North Korean ships.  I think those are two issues that it is important to discuss, in part because, frankly, I think the Chinese ultimately are going to be more willing to use whatever leverage they have for their own purposes, but putting that on the table in this context, in a way, it also puts a kind of pressure on China to consider those measures more actively.

STARES:  Okay.  Thanks, Mark.  Next question?

OPERATOR:  Thank you for your question.  Our next question comes from Stape Roy of Woodrow Wilson Center.  Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  In the past, the negotiations have essentially centered on creating a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula in exchange for U.S. security assurances to North Korea and a more normal relationship.  Now that North Korea has tested and many people assume that it's not prepared to negotiate away its nuclear weapons, what is there to negotiate?  It seems to me the context for negotiations has completely shifted and no one yet has established a new context in terms of what we are prepared to negotiate with the North, other than giving up what they're not prepared to do.

STARES:  Scott, you want to take that on, as I guess this question is -- another way of asking it, is the possibility of nuclear reversal now out of the question?

SNYDER:  It seems to me that what the administration is attempting to do is to try to shape a context in which the North Koreans find that they have no choice but to come back to the negotiating table.  And that really is going to end up revolving around the question of to what extent is it possible to close ranks with China.  Another way of, you know -- you know, posing this would be, is China willing to make a strategic shift in its view of North Korea?  And then would it be willing to act together with the United States to create conditions under which the denuclearization objective is clear?

Now, I don't know if that would necessarily lead to renewed negotiations or whether it would, you know, ultimately lead to negotiations with the new regime in North Korea.  But it seems to me that that is basically where the focus of the effort is at this -- at this stage.

SMITH:  Can I say something also?

STARES:  Sure, go ahead.

SMITH:  Just to -- just to agree, first of all, with Scott that I think much of what's going on now is to be persuasive enough in Pyongyang that they -- to change the calculus, and that is to get the North Koreans to decide that they really do want to come back to the table.  I think if that happens and if that is successful, there is a conversation ongoing now about what the unified position would be of the other five parties at this stage, given where we are today.

I think there's another, kind of quieter signal being sent.  I think Secretary Gates sent it.  I think it's quietly being mulled over in Tokyo and Seoul both, probably, and that is what do we do on the defense, security side?  Should we not have a return to negotiations?  And as many of you know, the conversation in Japan about long-term, you know, extended deterrence, whether the U.S. commitment to Japan's defense is still viable when confronted by a nuclear North Korea, those kinds of stuff on the defense side I think are also beginning quietly to pick up -- pick up the pace a bit.

SNYDER:  It also may be that some of the assumptions that Stape kind of lays out explain why the focal point seems to have shifted from sending -- you know, from how to get the North Koreans to cooperate to the question of how do we get the Chinese to be more engaged.  And you know, one, I think, dilemma there is that, you know, there's a view that if you want to get the Chinese to act on North Korea, you need to signal a willingness to take military action.  But at the same time, how do you do that, especially in conjunction with allies, without the Chinese feeling that you're trying to manipulate them tactically?

And so I think that's part of what is going on.  And then the other part is really a sounding about whether or not the Chinese might finally have come to a conclusion that they can't live with a nuclear North Korea and, if so, what are the implications.

STARES:  It's certainly a fine line to walk.

Okay, next question?

OPERATOR:  Thank you for your question.  Our next question comes from B.H. Song of Marsh. Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Yes.  I know the North Korea has a 1.2 million military force.  Besides this, do you know, you know, what kind of military capacity North Korea has right now?

STARES:  Need to keep turning to Scott.  I may be able to add something to this, too.

SNYDER:  Okay, well, I mean, yes, we certainly know that there is a figure of 1.2 million soldiers, but, you know, that cuts both ways.  On the one hand, the military is used for a lot of other purposes in North Korea, including agricultural development, et cetera, construction brigades.  On the other hand, if you go to Pyongyang, you know, the whole society, at some level, is militarized.

Certainly, we know that the capacity of their conventional force has degraded compared to what exists in South Korea in the context of the alliance.  Obviously, they've continued to be able to make technological advancements, though, and especially in these asymmetric areas.  That's clearly -- it poses some new challenges.  For instance, just by the fact that North Korea now has the capacity to reach out and touch Japan, it changes the configuration of the regional response in terms of what we could possibly expect from North Korea and what needs to be prepared for.

STARES:  Let me just add that -- to what Scott said.  And I agree with everything that -- now, understanding that some of the readiness of those forces is not particularly high, that the degree to which they've been able to undergo training,given depleted energy, is questionable.  Their equipment is generally old, old Soviet-style equipment.  Their ability to really conduct kind of modern, combined arms operations I think is also questionable.

I think that one part that probably is at a relatively high level of readiness is the special forces.  They've already -- always received preferential treatment, in terms of the caliber of the people going into it, the equipment and so on.  So those forces certainly shouldn't be underestimated.

And as Scott mentioned, there are other elements of their -- of their overall power projection or offensive capability that clearly has improved, which is in terms of the medium-range missiles and their ability to strike targets in Japan and South Korea.

OPERATOR:  Thank you for your question.  Our next question comes from Jeffrey Shafer of Citi.  Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  Scott especially has focused a lot already on China, and I want to kind of push you to do that even more.  I'm wondering, one, do you agree with the premises that China has the capacity, if it should choose to assert it, to in fact constrain North Korean behavior and capabilities to the extent that others involved would reach a requisite level of comfort?  For the South Koreans and Japanese, that's kind of their direct threat.  For the U.S., it also extends to the role that Korea could play as a supporter to other people we're concerned about in the Middle East and elsewhere.

And if China can do that and also if, in fact, it can't be done without China -- which is implicit in most of what's been said so far -- what does it take in order to get China to see this as in their interests?  Can they get there by themselves?  Are there things that we could do that would shape that?

SNYDER:  Okay.  Well, that's actually the central question that I've been trying to focus on.

In terms of China's influence on North Korea, I would just say that I found it very instructive back in 2006, 2007 when I visited Beijing and heard Chinese North Korea specialists internally debating over the prospects for North Korea's economic development.  And they kept on referring to North Korea as a patient that is basically living on a transfusion.  So China is clearly the lifeline for North Korea to be able to maintain its oil, food, et cetera.

What motivated the Chinese, I think, in their response in 2006 was less the fact that the North Koreans conducted a nuclear test than that Japan, in particular, responded to that test with a debate of their own about preemption and a mention of the possibility of nuclear acquisition.  So it seems to me that the Chinese have consistently, in a way, looked past the peninsula to the regional dynamic and also to an examination of what are U.S. intentions on the peninsula.

What would it take to get the Chinese to move forward?  Well, frankly, in some respects, the North Koreans, I think, by engaging in this escalatory behavior have been more effective over the course of the past few months than any efforts by the Bush administration over several years to try to convince the Chinese that the situation in North Korea is destabilizing to their interests.

I think the challenge is that the Chinese so far seem -- at least in terms of the academic debate -- seem to hold on to this false choice between stability and denuclearization.  They seem to think that they can prioritize stability.  And so I'm -- if the Chinese leadership can come to the conclusion that a nuclear North Korea under the current leadership is inherently destabilizing and make their own decision about the implications of that, then I think that could be very positive.

That raises the question of what can we do.  And I'm -- I think that we certainly need to try to influence and shape that choice, but I -- my own inclination at this stage is to expect that how the Chinese decide internally is probably going to be decisive.

OPERATOR:  Thanks for --

STARES:  Scott, in addition -- in addition to the lifeline that China plays to North Korea in terms of energy and food supplies and so on, China is also -- presumably has a lot of information, intelligence on North Korean bank accounts, some of which I think are held in Chinese banks.  And presumably that's another source of leverage that they could exert over North Korea, if necessary.  Is that a fair assessment?

SNYDER:  Yes, absolutely.  I think that the Chinese did learn something from the BDA -- the Banco Delta Asia incident of several years ago about the potential vulnerability of the North.

STARES:  And they have not been -- it's not unprecedented that they have applied economic pressure in the past.  I understand that there may have been some disruption of the energy supplies prior to -- right after the first nuclear test.  I may have got the timing wrong, but they -- I understand that they have tried to signal their displeasure through their supply arrangements.

SNYDER:  Yeah, that's right.  Although that is -- was never confirmed by any official Chinese sources, there was a suggestion that the pipeline got cut off for maintenance purposes at one stage.

And then, of course, the other aspect of this is that, you know, all of the materials -- almost all of the materials that the North Koreans need to be able to continue to build missiles and utilize nuclear technology are most likely coming through China.  And so the question of Chinese strengthened export controls and also, in particular, interdiction of air transport of supplies to North Korea would be critical in terms of addressing some of the core supply lines for North Korean nuclear development.

STARES:  Okay, thank you.

SMITH:  I think there's another side to this, that the Chinese since 2006 have played the central role in the six-party process, but they've also been working very hard to improve their relationship with Japan and their broader regional diplomacy here I think is another context in which to look at this, not necessarily just specific to North Korea.  I think at this stage of the game, it would be very hard for Beijing to step back and say that much of what it has done and much of what it has committed itself to in public forums with the prime minister of Japan or the president of South Korea is not sufficient for it to act now that the region is facing this destabilizing crisis.

And I -- you can see in the press reports that we're reading online as well as General Ma's statement at the Shangri-La Dialogue the other day a much more forthright kind of condemnation on the part of the Chinese of North Korea and its behavior since the second nuclear test.

So there is no juxtaposition, again, at least from what the outside -- what we can see on the outside between what the government officials are saying publicly and what you see in the public commentary in China, which is not -- was not the case in 2006.  So there may be a broader consensus internally that really China's own future in the region and beyond depends on its ability to work collectively to try to curb North Korea's behavior.

STARES:  Okay.  Thank you, Sheila.

Next question?

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from General James McCarthy, retired.  Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  I'd like to ask Sheila Smith about Japan.  Assuming that the North Koreans continue to upset the international community and don't respond to any of what the international community may be successful with, what do you think Japan will do, assuming continued North Korea -- further aggravation, meaning more shots of both missiles and underground testing and that sort of thing?

SMITH:  Right.

QUESTIONER:  What -- as you project Japan's reaction to those things longer term, what do you think they will do?

SMITH:  Well, longer term, this -- I would say, let me give you a very short term first and then I'll work it out to the longer term.

I think attention in Tokyo right now is very focused on the Obama administration.  In other words, it's very focused on how committed the Obama administration is to solving this problem, to acting.  And therefore Secretary Gates's statement that the United States would not tolerate a nuclear North Korea resonated very positively among the Japanese public, but also internally.  I think, again, Deputy Secretary Steinberg's recent visit to Tokyo was very reassuring that there would be -- if a negotiation was returned to in the six-party context, that the negotiating position of the United States would take into account Japan's concerns much more effectively.

But I think if you're -- so if we're looking in the very short term, I think Tokyo's quite visibly focused on the Obama administration and how Washington responds, to see that we're on it, so to speak.

The National Defense Program Outline, which is their national defense -- their national defense planning document is under review this year.  We've already had public statements by the Liberal Democratic Party members of a task force on defense planning, talk about how this recent missile test and nuclear test suggest the need to acquire capabilities for a counterstrike or even a preemptive strike.  Now, in terms of specifics, it's not clear, but missile capability or some type of bomber or long-range striker aircraft has been floated quietly.

I think you're going to watch this unfold as this defense planning exercise unfolds this year.  So we'll watch it.  The ministry of defense has to prepare its plan by September, early October.  And if you start to see counterstrike capability in that plan, I think you can conclude that the North Koreans have had a lot to do with shifting Japan a little more towards a more robust military capability.

The big question, of course, is will Japan go nuclear?  And I think a lot of people talk about that, that a nuclear North Korea -- an acknowledged nuclear North Korea will then result in nuclear proliferation by Japan and South Korea.  I don't think that's where we are anytime soon in terms of the Japanese debate.  I still think you're going to find Tokyo focused on an American response and, again, extended deterrent capability with the Japanese before they go to that nuclear option.  So I don't see that over the short term or even the medium term as where Japan will go.

STARES:  Thank you.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Marc Grossman of the Cohen Group.  Please go ahead, sir.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you, and thank both presenters.

I would like to ask two quick questions, both operational.  One is, I wonder whether in this issue of getting ready for possible, possible military action, the speakers think that South Korea's joining the PSI, the Proliferation Security Initiative, is an important thing, and, second, whether you think, now that Jim Steinberg has been around in the region, whether we need to move toward a time where our special envoy is a full-time operator and not a part-time operator.

STARES:  Good question.  Scott?

SNYDER:  Well, I'm glad to see that our special envoy is with Deputy Secretary Steinberg on his trip.  And I think that one -- you know, in a way, one could argue this both ways, because with the tests and the sense that North Korea is really not interested in a dialogue, it's suggested that the special envoy wouldn't necessarily have that much to do.  But at the same time, you know, this issue of overall coordination -- there certainly is a view and there are a lot of questions in the region about Ambassador Bosworth's availability and a lot of comparison with the envoys in other regions.  And so it really -- you know, it puts the burden of proof on Ambassador Bosworth to show that he is available to be able to manage things.

I mean, the other aspect is it's not yet really been clear to me what "part time" means, because I'm not aware that he's necessarily been missing critical meetings.  I mean, I've seen him in Washington a fair amount, and it seems to me that he's been, you know, active in the region.

The other question about South Korean participation in PSI, I think that it may turn out that whatever the U.N. Security Council ends up coming up with in terms of authorizing actions related to monitoring and boarding of North Korean ships ends up being the key frame for whatever activity might follow on.  I think that it was important for the South Koreans to join the PSI, you know, most specifically because that was exactly what the Roh Moo-hyun administration refused to do after the first nuclear test that the North Koreans undertook.

You know, the other, I think, positive benefit of South Korea deciding to join the PSI is that I think it's helped to raise the consciousness of the Obama administration political people about potential benefits of pursuing PSI.  I mean, if you go to the White House website and search for PSI, the only reference you'll see to it was the fact that Lee Myung-bak and President Obama discussed it when he called last week to inform President Obama that South Korea was ready to join.  And there's also relatively little information on the State Department site about what they're doing.  So maybe this can serve as a catalyst for rejuvenating some of those activities, not focused only on North Korea, but more broadly on the task of promoting a capacity to respond to potential proliferation.

STARES:  And presumably the operational benefits of South Korean participation are pretty considerable too, right, Scott, in terms --

SNYDER:  Yeah, no, I think that -- although -- yes, but I think that through the alliance there's already many opportunities for the South Korean and U.S. navies to engage with each other.  But, you know -- you know, this is -- and South Korea had already been participating in PSI-related activities.  They just hadn't officially joined.  So in that sense, I think that it has more of a political importance than necessarily a specific substantive thing.  It kind of set the stage.

STARES:  Got it.  Okay, next question.  We have about six or seven people people on the line, so if you could just keep your question fairly brief, please.

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Alice Young of Kaye Scholer.  Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Hello.  Hi, Scott.  Delighted that -- as an Asia Foundation trustee, that you're involved with the Council.

SNYDER:  Thank you.

QUESTIONER:  Nothing has been really mentioned about two American journalists who have been held by North Korea.  And they're scheduled to go on trial tonight, actually, U.S. time.  Given that we seem to have so little information on North Korea's motivations for their actions, what do you believe that North Korea's trying to accomplish by holding them?  And given that there's almost no media coverage in the United States, surprisingly, I'm wondering what your view is on whether there is anything that the U.S. government or the U.S. public can do to secure their safety and hopefully their release.

SNYDER:  Yeah, no, this is a very challenging issue.  And you're absolutely right that it has not received that much attention, primarily because I think that the administration has attempted to suggest to the families that a low-profile approach would be the most effective means by which to secure their release.  And that judgment is based on the precedent of past cases in which it has been possible to secure the release of Americans who have been detained in North Korea usually following two or three months.

The problem is that we may be in a different context.  And, in fact, how North Korea handles this particular issue may tell us a little bit more about what is going on domestically in North Korea.  I'm a little bit concerned, given the internal focus on political succession, that the North Korean -- that the North Koreans may not be conducting business as usual, in which case it would be very unfortunate, but it's possible that the journalists could be held there for a longer period of time.

The other thing that I think makes it complicated is the perception that the North Koreans would use the release of the journalists in order to secure the political objective of high-level dialogue directly with the United States.  And, of course, one focus of the administration has been to try to change the North Korean pattern.  And so they're going to be -- I think that generally speaking there's a resistance to jumping into that type of high-level special envoy type diplomacy at this stage.

Certainly, there were indications that Al Gore might go on a humanitarian basis and on an unofficial basis, but it's an interesting question, why that hasn't been sustained.  And that might also tell us a little bit about how the North Koreans seem to be approaching this right now.

STARES:  Thank you.  Next question?

OPERATOR:  Thank you for your question.  Our next question comes from Mitch Wallerstein of Syracuse University.  Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, good afternoon.  I just wanted to come back to the Proliferation Security Initiative matter for one additional second, because of the strong statements that the North made when the Republic of Korea announced that it was going to adhere to the initiative.  I would be interested in your reflection on the risks that exist here if, in fact, perhaps the North were to try to make a test case of actually shipping something that was interdicted, that that became a casus belli.  But what are the likely -- what likely scenario do you see there?

SNYDER:  That's a very interesting question.  My understanding of the Proliferation Security Initiative itself is that it operates within the bounds of international law.  And so, you know, the questions about where such an incident might occur, whether or not the North Koreans were flying a flag -- flying their own flag or whether the shipment was under the flag of a country that has indicated a willingness to allow boarding procedures under the PSI regime -- there's a lot of technical issues that I think would end up shaping, you know, some aspects of the response.  And then, of course, the political ramifications of that are very complicated.

And I think that, you know, one of the challenges in terms of the Security Council resolution and what comes out of it is, you know, how to get a strong resolution that sends a signal to the North Koreans that this type of activity is not going to be tolerated without falling into a situation where it simply continues to escalate.  And, of course, the North Koreans are already, I think, you know, indicating that for them the next step is probably to shoot off another ICBM, most likely in direct response to whatever comes out of the Security Council resolution.

STARES:  Okay.  We have about 10 minutes left.

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Dr. Irene Meister of Irene Meister and Associates.  Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you very much.  I wonder that no one today mentioned at all the Russian position.  After all, they are a player at the U.N. and they're also a player in the region.  And has Steve Bosworth personally said anything?  He is a very skilled diplomat, but I haven't heard anything at all on his side as to whether he expressed any position on the situation.

SNYDER:  Well, Ambassador Bosworth, in advance of the test, in his trip to the region stated on behalf of the administration that if the North Koreans pursued a test that there would be "consequences," quote-unquote.  And he didn't define what consequences meant.


SNYDER:  With regard to the Russians, of course they were the president of the Security Council in May, and we had some very, I think, encouraging statements from Ambassador Churkin with regard to a willingness to cooperate in securing a strong resolution.  And then, of course, Foreign Minister Lavrov took a trip to Pyongyang in early May.  And my understanding is that that visit didn't really go so well.  And so that may also feed into greater Russian willingness to work with the resolution process.

And then I guess the last point is that contextual change in the U.S.-Russian relationship under the Obama administration enhances the prospects for better cooperation on North Korea.

STARES:  I think there's been some signs of that recently in some of the statements that Mr. Medvedev has said in respect to North Korea.

Okay, next question.

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Dan Caldwell of Pepperdine University.  Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Yeah.  Scott, I would appreciate it if you would comment on the succession question and particularly the role that the military is likely to play in that.

SNYDER:  Okay.  And I know that Paul will want to say something, as the author of the council's report on managing succession.

I think that the critical institutional adjustment that has occurred in North Korea, which was really in preparation for a succession process was coming out of the April Supreme People's Assembly meeting with the strengthening of the National Defense Commission and, apparently, although I haven't seen this directly, a constitutional revision that places the defense commission as the central constitutionally responsible governing body in North Korea.  And so that would make the chairman of the defense commission a person who would play an important role.

We also know that Chang Song Taek, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, has emerged as a powerful player in the defense commission.  And also we saw the expansion of the commission to include a number of representatives from various public security bodies within North Korea, many of which are rumored to have ties with Chang Song Taek.

STARES:  I don't have that much to add.  Obviously, the military are a critical player.  One can interpret the current developments as an effort to secure their support for the designated successor, if indeed that is happening, as it seems to be.  They're clearly going to be critical -- play a critical role when Kim Jong Il departs the scene as sort of the single unifying force within the country.  So their role is clearly going to be critical in, I think, some of the developments that Scott mentioned and, in addition to the -- I think a new vice chair was created too, Scott, for the National Defense Commission with one of the -- a long-standing military aide to Kim Jong Il being appointed to that position.

SNYDER:  Yeah, that's right.

STARES:  I think it's a further sign of a sort of strengthening and consolidation of the military role in North Korea.

SNYDER:  Yeah.  The general who was responsible, apparently, for the counterfeiting, interestingly enough.

STARES:  (Laughs.)  Okay.  Five minutes left.  Some more questions, please?

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Gyu Yung Chung (ph) of -- (inaudible) -- North America.  Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, thank you.  This is for Scott.  I have two questions.  Number one, for the U.S. perspective, is it -- do you think it's more advantageous for the U.S. government to have a South Korea that is more engaging towards North Korea, such as the Kim Dae-jung and the Roh Moo-hyun governments, or is it better to have a South Korea that is -- has a more hard-line stance toward it, such as Lee Myung-bak?

My second question is when -- if and when the U.S. actually does sit down eventually with North Korea, what do you think -- given what has transpired, do you think the agenda would be -- do you think it's going to go back to what the agenda was in the existing past six-party talks or do you think we will talk about everything from missiles to the Syrian nuclear reactor and the HEU program?

SNYDER:  Yeah.  Well, the first question is a pretty challenging one.  I would say that what the U.S. is looking for is, you know, a South Korean regime that is active in coordinating with the U.S. and placing the same priority on trying to solve this issue of the nuclear question.  So in some respects, I think that it is the case that the Lee Myung-bak administration has probably been easier for, interestingly enough, the Obama administration to work with.  So we've seen a flip on both sides.

You know, having said that, I think it is -- you know, there are concerns that the South Korean stance -- certainly, there are concerns in South Korea that South Korea's harder stance might at some point become problematic and could become an issue in the U.S.-Korea relationship.  Obviously, that's not so much of an issue at a time when the North Koreans are not engaging, but in the event of engagement, this could be a big challenge.

And then also I think I need to mention that there is a South Korean hostage issue as well, with an individual at Kaesong that the North Koreans have held.  And so another interesting potential challenge would be if the American journalists are released but the South Korean individual continues to be held, would that have political ramifications for the South Korean government?

With regard to the agenda for the U.S., any possible future dialogue, I think that -- I believe that this is a very important question.  I believe that there probably does need to be a different kind of agenda.  The North Koreans have in mind a different kind of agenda that I don't think that we necessarily would want to enter into conversations about them with, but I do think that it is fair to ask whether a new Obama administration should necessarily feel compelled to start with the same issues that were stumbling blocks at the end of the Bush administration or whether under current circumstances it would be better to start with a new approach.  And, of course, it's -- in a way, it's too early to speculate precisely on what that would look like, because a lot of that would probably be determined by the circumstances under which an eventual return to diplomacy was achieved.

STARES:  Okay.  I think we have time for one or maybe two more questions.

OPERATOR:  Okay.  Our next question comes from James Gilmore of Gilmore Global Group.  Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Okay.  Can I be heard?  Am I on?

STARES:  Yes.  Go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  You know, the -- (off mike) -- about --

STARES:  I'm sorry.  We're losing a lot of what you're saying.

QUESTIONER:  Can you hear me now?

SNYDER:  Yeah, that's better.

QUESTIONER:  Okay.  The whole conversation so far has been awfully sanguine about the Chinese as a possible partner with us on constraining the Koreans, but just this morning Kathleen Parker -- I think was the columnist -- speculated that in fact the Koreans in fact may be a stalking horse for the Chinese.  The -- I went to a conference recently in which the Pacific military people are very concerned that the Chinese policy and the development of their aircraft carriers and ships and torpedoes is to push the United States outward from the Pacific Rim, making more vulnerable Japan and Taiwan.  How do we know that the Koreans aren't doing exactly what the -- what the Chinese want them to do, which is to confront the Obama administration, to face them with a challenge and then gauge the reaction without them themselves putting the relationship in any danger?  Maybe that is what is going on here.  What do you all think about that?

STARES:  Sheila, did you want to --

SMITH:  I don't know if I have an answer, but I'll give you a reaction, on my part.  I think if that's really what North Korea's intending to do, it's having the reverse consequences.  I mean, if you look at the response of the Obama administration to the missile test in terms of military integration with allies in the region, it's moving the opposite direction.  In other words, the U.S. isn't backing off in terms of regional deployments or, you know, integration with regional allies in terms of force posture consideration.  So I think you're actually getting the opposite response.

I think the maritime question on the Chinese is an interesting one, and I think the Chinese certainly have been testing.  They've been testing in the waters around Japan; they've been testing us in Okinawa and beyond in the Western Pacific.  So I think that's actually -- that's actually a key concern for our naval planners and for all of us as well.  But I think the North Korean behavior has, in fact, gotten America much more engaged in the short run, anyway, from the April missile test forward.  We are much more in sync with our allies in the region rather than moving away.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

STARES:  Okay.  I think we have one more question possible here, so go ahead.

OPERATOR:  Our last question comes from George Landau, U.S. ambassador.  Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  My last question comes to the heart of the whole thing.  We keep hearing about China would solve it; China could be helpful.  But do we really think that the U.S. and China have the same priorities?  Our priority is the nukes, get rid of the nukes.  The Chinese priority is to maintain the regime at all costs.  So I don't see that those two things will ever mesh.  Sure, the Chinese don't particularly care to see a nuclear power in North Korea, but it's maybe the fifth or sixth priority.  So what can we do?  Because all the Chinese at the end will come back and negotiate new talks and everybody will accept it and the same rug will be sold all over again, as it was in previous administrations.

STARES:  Okay.  Scott?

SNYDER:  Well, you know, my response actually to both of those last questions is not necessarily to have expectations about what China is going to do but simply point out that, you know, this is an important litmus test.  I think it's actually a useful litmus test, from a U.S. perspective, for determining the extent to which China is willing to, in fact, take responsibilities, especially on an issue that frankly should be a greater concern to China, because it has a direct effect on China, than it does on the United States.

And so I think that the way that this plays out is going to be -- you know, will have an influence on how the U.S.-China relationship develops.

STARES:  Okay, I think that's about it.  We could obviously go on for much longer, but time is up.  I want to thank you all for being on the line and obviously to thank my colleagues, Scott and Sheila, for some excellent commentary.

Please be sure to check out the council website on a regular basis.  There's a lot of material there on the unfolding North Korean nuclear crisis, as well as Scott's own website at the Asia Foundation.

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