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Marco Werman: Here’s something that’s definitely real: tensions rising again between the north and the south. Over the past few days, the two Koreas have even exchanged artillery fire. I have David Straub on the line to help explain what’s led up to this. He’s associate director for the Korea Program at Stanford University. David, there’s a backstory here, it seems like a series of events have led to these skirmishes. Can you walk us through what’s been going on in the past month or so?
David Straub: Yes, tensions have been rising in the Korean peninsula for several weeks now. Most notably, on August the 4th a couple of young South Koreans soldiers working at the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, stepped on landmines and it blew off their legs. An investigation showed that it was clearly the work of North Korean soldiers who had snuck into the DMZ on the southern side, the South Korean side, planted the landmines with the intention of maiming soldiers there.
Werman: That was the start. What happened next?
Straub: Well, the South Koreans, after determining that the North Koreans had actually done this, were in kind of a dilemma. They needed to respond militarily or politically, but there aren’t many ways to respond on the Korean peninsula without risking serious danger. So, they wound up issuing stern warnings to the North Koreans again, and this time, because this is only one of a number of things that have happened over the past few years, the South Koreans said, “Well, we’re going to resume our loudspeaker broadcast to the north along the demilitarized zone,” which they haven’t done for 11 years. The North Koreans hate those broadcasts.
Werman: Yeah, they’re really loud and very in their face, I guess. Have you ever heard them?
Straub: I have only heard recordings of them. They are extremely loud and, of course, they focus on criticism of the North Korean regime and its leadership. The North Korean leaders hate this because they have a totalitarian system and a cultive personality. So as a system, they can’t accept having their people hear this kind of criticism coming from the south.
Werman: Yeah, what kind of messages, what kind of criticisms? And who are they actually aimed at?
Straub: Well, my understanding is that they’re aimed primarily at the North Korean soldiers just across the DMZ from the south. But according to some reports, you can hear these broadcasts as far as 12 miles inland, and there are North Korean civilians living there. And primarily the broadcasts offer criticism of the North Korean leaders and of the way they run their country and talk about the democracy in the south and so forth.
Werman: Why provocation now, though?
Straub: The North Korean regime, for the past three or four years, has been fairly unsettled. In December of 2011, the then leader, Kim Jong Il, died suddenly, leaving his very young son, Kim Jong Un, in charge, and he clearly feels insecure in North Korea. That’s evidenced by his execution of his uncle a couple of years ago and a purge of many of North Korea’s top leaders. In addition, I think he uses provocations against the south to try to solidify support at home.
Werman: When these episodes happen, how do the north and south actually talk about it? Are there any channels of communication?
Straub: There appear to be very few channels of direct diplomatic or private communication these days between the two sides. I’m afraid that most of the communication goes on via official statements that are broadcast by the two sides and via their media.
Werman: So I know, David, that the US and South Korea are conducting joint military exercises. The US must be watching all of this pretty closely right now.
Straub: It is, indeed. The US is working very closely with the South Koreans. Fortunately, we are in the middle of our annual computer-simulated military exercise with the South Koreans, but we also have an additional number of American troops there and everybody is looking at this very closely. So, I would be surprised if the North Koreans do, in fact, launch any kind of direct significant frontal attack.
Werman: David Straub, associate director for the Korea Program at Stanford. Thank you.
Straub: Thank you.