Beneath the Rhetoric, Why North Korean Nuclear Threats Actually Pose a Problem for the US

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: As we mentioned earlier, it's often hard to take the dramatic threats from Pyongyang seriously, even if they do present a challenge for the US government. David Straub is an associate director of Korean Studies at Stanford University. He thinks North Korea suffers from an image issue of its own making.

David Straub: North Korea's leadership conducts itself in a way that is frankly ridiculous in many respects. They make threats that are extremely bombastic while everyone knows that North Korea is a failed state with a tiny economy.

Werman: The United States government though presumably takes it seriously. I mean they're not laughing at these videos and these poems that we hear from the North Korean government.

Straub: Yes, of course the US government is taking is seriously and they should. We have two basic problems: one is the longer term threat of North Korea continuing its nuclear and missile programs development, the other one is the immediate threat that North Korea may again conduct a conventional attack on South Korea as it did twice in 2010.

Werman: We must go back to George W. Bush, who lumped North Korea together with Iran and Iraq as the axis of evil. Compare North Korea with Iran right now. We know the Iraq story.

Straub: North Korea is far more advanced in the nuclear sphere than Iran is. North Korea has already tested three nuclear devices, while Iran has not even developed uranium enrichment to a level to make nuclear devices.

Werman: So what's the disconnect? This country gets very concerned it seems when Iran kind of saber rattles, but we chuckle when North Korea does it.

Straub: Well, we chuckle at North Korea's rhetoric, the problem is that North Korea threatens our South Korean allies and moreover, China is protecting power in effect for North Korea.

Werman: So what is Iran doing in such a way if it's not advances as North Korea. I mean why did they get a reputation for being such a threat right now?

Straub: Well, the focus has been until recently somewhat off North Korea because there's not been a whole lot we can do to immediately get North Korea to stop what it's been doing. On the other hand, we're still hoping that we can stop Iran from continuing with its nuclear programs. Moreover, there's a great deal of concern in the United States about Iran because of the threat that the country could pose to Israel.

Werman: You know, we spoke last week with Korea, Jeffrey Bader, who said a line that has stuck with me, and that is that North Korea is basically engaging in an international game of extortion, an international extortion racket. Let me blunt here, I mean is that game being played by North Korea playing the crazy card? I mean is that what gets people both chuckling and also taking them seriously at the same time?

Straub: Well, North Korea is trying to make us fearful, not only of their capabilities, but also of their intentions. Of course, that's done in many places by many leaders. When Richard Nixon tried to make the Soviets that he was a little off balance, but you know, I think that misses the fundamental factors at work here. North Koreans are not crazy. They have a bizarre system that makes them act in bizarre ways, but they actually have strategic aims. Their immediate aim is to bolster their regime at home, and their long term aim is to gain hegemony on the Korean peninsula over South Korea. And one of the reasons they have developed nuclear weapons is they want to intimidate the United States into eventually accepting North Korea's nuclear weapons and eventually have the US leave the Korean peninsula.

Werman: And so from your experience and what you've seen, do you think it's going to work?

Straub: Absolutely not, it's totally delusional. And I think they're engaging in wishful thinking, some degree of desperation and perhaps from their perspective, nuclear weapons are a kind of a silver bullet that will solve all of these problems that they don't otherwise see a solution to.

Werman: David Straub, associate director of Korean Studies at Stanford, thanks so much for your time.

Straub: Thank you.