Expert: N. Korean provocations unlikely

As Japan stepped up maritime security patrols and North Korea postponed economic and maritime talks with South Korea because of the war in Iraq, a U.S.-Korea specialist at the East-West Center believes Pyongyang will likely avoid further provocations against the United States in the short-term and instead focus on how to bring the Americans to the negotiating table.

Choong Nam Kim — who served as assistant for political affairs for two South Korean presidents before joining the East-West Center — said the North Koreans are watching the U.S. invasion of Iraq very carefully. Although some believe North Korea may try to further provoke the United States during the war or soon after the campaign ends, Kim is doubtful.

“At the moment North Korean leaders and generals are more concerned about the war than any other country in the world. They probably believe their country could become the next target. Kim Jong Il knows the United States is very strong. They don’t want to anger the United States. They want to sit at the negotiating table as soon as possible.

“North Korea’s next move depends on the development of the war. If the Saddam Hussein regime is toppled quickly, the North Korean position would become more conciliatory toward the United States. If the war drags on, it may re-escalate tension” as anti-war feelings grow in the United States and around the world, Kim said.

Kim said he believes the next few weeks will provide a good opportunity for Washington to “quietly press Beijing and Seoul” to persuade Pyongyang to join multilateral talks, even though the North has demanded unilateral talks with the United States. “The Iraq war has provided a special incentive to resolve the North Korea crisis peacefully.”

He said the North Koreans realize that the well-trained, high-tech U.S. military poses a much more formidable force than during the Korean and Vietnam wars and that Pyongyang would be an easier target than Baghdad to be hit by “a horrible nightmare of cruise missiles and other precision weapons. Missiles could target other buildings in Pyongyang besides nuclear facilities.”

A top United Nations envoy who returned from Pyongyang over the weekend said war between the United States and North Korea was possible but that North Korea wanted to avoid it, according to news reports. Other reports said Japan had stepped up maritime patrols in the Sea of Japan in case of new North Korean provocations, and North Korea postponed talks with South Korea on economic cooperation and maritime security because of what it called Seoul’s heightened military-alert posture during the Iraqi war.

Choong Nam Kim emphasized that North Korea will not give up its nuclear program, a U.S. demand for talks, because it sees nuclear weapons as the only way to ensure the survival of the Kim Jong Il regime.

He does not believe, however, that Pyongyang would strike the United States or Japan because it would spell doom for North Korea, which is diplomatically isolated and suffering an economic collapse. It can no longer rely on China or Russia for military hardware and would not be able to sustain a military campaign for longer than a few weeks. “How could they provoke a war against the superpower?” he asked.

On the other hand, “Seoul is held hostage by the North,” he said. The South Korean capital of 15 million people, including U.S. forces, is only about 30 miles from the DMZ, where North Korea has about 700,000 military personnel, 8,000 artillery systems and 2,000 tanks aimed at the city. Without moving a piece of artillery, the North could keep up a barrage of 500,000 shells an hour for several hours.

“They would retaliate on the South if their nuclear facilities were destroyed by a surgical strike.”

From the East-West Wire. For more information, contact Susan Kreifels at 808-944-7176 or

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