April 11, 2013

Zhiqun Zhu, MacArthur Chair of East Asian Politics at Bucknell University.

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By Matt Hughes

LEWISBURG, Pa. — As North Korea and the United States edge closer to conflict, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations Zhiqun Zhu is keeping close tabs on the developing situation. Zhu, the MacArthur Chair of East Asian Politics at Bucknell, discusses his interpretation of Kim Jong Un's regime and its goals in escalating the conflict.

Question: When did the most recent round of aggression by North Korea begin?

Answer: This latest round began in December last year, when North Korea launched its three-stage rocket. After that the United States and other countries were talking about sanctions against North Korea. But before those sanctions were introduced in February, North Korea conducted a nuclear test, for the third time, and this time around the United States sought the help of China, and the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution condemning North Korea and introducing new sanctions. So I think to a large extent North Korea's latest sabre-rattling is a response to the new sanctions introduced by the United Nations.

Q: What does North Korea hope to accomplish by this sabre-rattling?

A: What they really want is attention and direct talks with the United States. I don't think it's their intention to stage a war or attack America, because they know it's going to be suicidal for them. Their real intention is to reach out to the United States, hoping that the United States will respond. They want a peace treaty with the United States and diplomatic recognition from the United States.

Q: How close to armed conflict is the Korean peninsula?

A: It's very dangerous right now, actually. North Korea has become more belligerent than before, and the United States is also getting more prepared, launching its new missile defense program and dispatching more ships and fighter jets to the region. In addition, North Korea has cancelled the 1953 armistice and declared that it is in a state of war with South Korea. So the situation is really very tense — very dangerous. If there is any miscalculation on either side, a real conflict may break out.

But while I'm getting concerned, I also have confidence that the United States, China, South Korea and, to a lesser extent, Russia and Japan, have the political will and wisdom to work together to control the situation. I suspect that between North Korea and the United States, you never know, maybe privately they are already talking to each other, and I'm pretty sure Chinese and North Korean officials are talking to each other, so diplomacy is likely already taking place. North Korea is a nation that needs to save face, and I do not believe it will step back without getting something in return.

Q: What role can China play in de-escalating the conflict?

A: China can play a sort of in-between role, but China also has its own dilemma. It is unrealistic to rely solely on China in this situation. If China puts a lot of pressure on North Korea, the Kim regime may collapse, which may lead to a huge number of North Korean refugees crossing into China. That will create tremendous political, economic, social and humanitarian challenges for China. I think if we try to alleviate  some of China's concerns, maybe China will be more willing to help. In this a stable and a strong relationship between the United States and China is critical. If the United States and China are not on good terms, China will be less willing to cooperate; less willing to help the United States to deal with the North Korea problem.

Q: Is the United States taking this threat as seriously as it should?

A: I think the United States has done enough to prepare for the worst scenario by sending more warships and troops over there and by building new missile programs, but these are the military dimensions. I don't think it's a good idea simply not to talk to North Korea and adopt the ostrich policy, pretending that North Korea doesn't exist. No matter how much you dislike North Korea's young leader Kim Jong Un, you still need to talk to the regime directly, otherwise the problem will persist and North Korea will continue to provoke the United States and South Korea. They may even start a low-level conflict which will easily escalate into a larger scale war, so it's advisable for the United States to do more than military preparedness.

Q: How has North Korea changed since Kim Jong Un took power?

A: Not much. He initially appeared to be a little bit different from his father in terms of leadership style. He would bring his wife along to attend public events, he appeared to be a more people-friendly leader and even allowed people to hug him, embrace him, and he also introduced limited changes in the capital. For example, now you can use cell phones, and women can wear pants instead of skirts. But these are not real political or economic reforms.

So in terms of whether he is a reformer, I highly doubt it. He appears to be the same type of dictator as his father and grandfather, the difference is he is very young and he has not taken full control of the political system, and maybe he is still heavily influenced by the military and the people around him, and this latest round of sabre-rattling may well be manipulation by the military generals who want North Korea's policy called Songun, or military-first, to continue. So I think much of what is happening now is really for domestic consumption, and in that sense he is no different from his father or grandfather. 

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