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3 Questions: Jim Walsh on the Korean standoff

An MIT international security expert discusses the escalating tensions between North Korea and South Korea, and the possibility of repairing relations.

The always-tense relations between North Korea and South Korea hit a low this week. The South Koreans and their president, Lee Myung-bak, have increasingly come to the conclusion that the sinking of one of their warships in March, which killed 46 sailors, was caused by a North Korean torpedo. Lee has promised to reduce trade ties between the countries while North Korea has threatened that any military retaliation will lead to “all-out war.” Making the situation more problematic, the United States and other countries still hope to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. MIT News asked Jim Walsh, a research associate with the Security Studies Program, to comment on the situation. An expert on nuclear proliferation, Walsh has in the past conducted talks with officials in North Korea about security matters and closely follows events in the region.

Q. Why has the situation between North Korea and South Korea deteriorated so rapidly?

A. There are two answers. The more narrow answer regards the sinking of the South Korean naval ship in late March. There was some feeling at the time this was caused by an old mine left over from World War Two. It seemed unlikely the North Koreans would have attacked this ship, and they denied attacking it. But after a multinational investigation, there was a report issued this month concluding the ship was sunk by a torpedo. So that’s an act of aggression, an affirmative act of war. And naturally the South Korean government felt compelled to respond, and the United States, its long-time ally, felt compelled to support South Korea.

Now you might ask why North Korea did this in the first place. And here we’re getting to the famously large field of speculation about North Korean motives. There are several possibilities. It may have been an individual decision made by an individual commander of a submarine. Or it may have been the military acting independently. Or perhaps it was something to do, somehow, with internal problems in North Korea regarding their succession process. The bottom line is that North Korea is opaque enough and relations are complex enough that it’s very hard to know for sure why they would want to do this. It’s usually good to bet on the idea that there’s something internal that’s driving the North Koreans.

Q. President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea seems to have a very different attitude toward North Korea than the earlier president Kim Dae-Jung, who helped initiate the “sunshine policy” of more open relations. How has this change in South Korea affected the countries’ relationship?

A. Lee came to power as someone running against the sunshine policy, so yet another theory is that the North Koreans are doing this to embarrass Lee and to weaken him politically. But it’s not clear that’s going to be the result here. Lee was the first president to come to power in some years saying his goal was not to increase exchange with the North Koreans, but a lot of this was rhetorical, because he left a lot of policies in place. And if you look at this most recent statement this week about the incident, he said they would cut back all the trade and exchange they could, except the aid to the women and infants. But that wouldn’t apply to the Kaesong development park [an industrial zone in North Korea where South Korean firms have plants], and that’s about half the trade between the two countries. So Lee came in with a different style and strategy toward the North Koreans, but it has not been night and day.

Q. What do you think is going to happen, and what would you like to see happen?

A. What one hopes would happen is that the South makes clear its anger at the sinking of the ship, but that we resume the process of dealing with the ongoing issues on the Korean Peninsula. The ship sinking was awful, it’s a provocative act, but we need to keep our eye on the ball here, and in this case the ball is trying to denuclearize North Korea and bring some stability to the peninsula. I’m hoping that each side can still address the ongoing, deeply dangerous security issues that will not improve unless there’s some sort of dialogue with the North. There’s no getting around it: If we want North Korea to get rid of its nuclear arsenal, to reduce the prospects of war, we’re going to have to talk to the North Koreans — even if it’s unpleasant to do so.

Another scenario is that the leaders lose control of this tit-for-tat and it spins off in a direction no one wants to go. And sometimes the North Koreans provoke a crisis on the eve of a positive development — that is a negotiating style they have. But it’s hard to see how this crisis will open a door for progress in the relationship at the moment.

Right now a positive move probably means resumption of talks on some topic, like a cultural issue or prisoner swap. I think the most likely scenario is that we muddle along and everything gets pushed off six months. Then the question is: Who benefits from the passage of time? Some argue it benefits the North Koreans because they’ll hold onto their nuclear arms longer, and that becomes a fact on the ground everyone accepts. But you could also argue that because North Korea has deep economic problems, deep succession problems, time is not on their side. In any case, the most likely outcome is that we’ll be in a period of uncomfortable stasis.

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