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What Does N. Korea, 'The Impossible State,' Want?


North Korea is the most secretive country in the world. Its pursuit of nuclear weapons is a cause of great concern all over the world, and just this week, the country tested two short-range missiles soon after President Obama left the region after attending a nuclear summit. United States has suspended food aid to that regime in response to North Korea's planned long-range missile test later this year.

Victor Cha was director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council under President Bush. He now teaches at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service and is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's written a new book about North Korea. It's called "The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future." He joins us in our studios this morning.

Thanks very much for being with us, professor.

VICTOR CHA: It's my pleasure.

SIMON: Very good book, by the way.

CHA: Thank you.

SIMON: Glad to read it. North Korea is a country that has starved its own citizens. Does it truly care if food aid is suspended?

CHA: Probably in this instance, it really doesn't. I think in many ways this country has used food as a way to control its population by being the only one that give rations to the society. And so this amount of fund aid is really not a substantial amount for them. And the way the United States wanted to configure it, it was really meant more for the vulnerable populations - children, lactating mothers - not for the general population. So, I guess they don't really feel the pain that much. At least the leadership doesn't.

SIMON: So as leverage, it might be an unsuccessful strategy.

CHA: I think it's clearly proved to be unsuccessful. I think the hope at the time was that it would create an opening to getting back to a broader set of talks on political relations and denuclearization. But it doesn't seem we're headed that path right now.

SIMON: You say in your book that the 45th president of the United States, which would be President Obama or his opponent, will confront a major crisis with North Korea. What kind, and why?

CHA: Well, you know, Scott, I think that there are a confluence of factors that we're seeing in North Korea that we haven't seen before. This includes a new and inexperienced leadership that has taken over after the sudden death of Kim Jong Il, a society that is becoming more increasingly more independent-minded from the government, because it is learning more about markets. It's had to learn more about markets to survive. And then in addition to this, you have a new political leadership that's trying to gain more control. So, the leadership is asking for more control while the society's moving in a different direction. And I think this is eventually going to tear the place apart at some point in the not-too-distant future.

SIMON: What do you hope U.S. leadership and leadership in Japan and other places in the region and around the world understand about North Korea to make a wise set of decisions?

CHA: Well, I think the first thing - and it's a sober lesson - is that after 25 years of U.S. diplomacy, going back to the Reagan administration, trying to get at these nuclear weapons, I think it's pretty clear that we may be able to negotiate a freeze on their nuclear weapons, but we're not going to be able to get them to give up all of their weapons. That's just not in their game plan. So, I think what all of us have to understand is that part of this is a waiting game to see when this regime will eventually collapse of its own weight and that's when you can deal with the nuclear problem. I think more broadly we need to also understand that the human rights problem is a huge problem in North Korea. It has been pretty much neglected, I think, overall in U.S. policy and in the policy of countries around the region and so we need...

SIMON: Because...

CHA: ...more attention.

SIMON: ...we're very anxious to get nuclear weapons.

CHA: Yeah, that's always been our priority, yeah, yeah.

SIMON: I want to ask this very carefully. What does the North Korean leadership want?

CHA: Well, I think they do want relations with the outside world. I mean, they're very secluded so they do want relations with the outside world. But I think they also want to keep their nuclear weapons.

SIMON: Yeah.

CHA: And I think what the United States has always believed is we can give you those relations with the outside world but you have to give up those weapons.

SIMON: And they want to keep the weapons because it's a way of getting a good seat at the table of the world?

CHA: I think it's a way of getting a good seat at the table, it's a way of getting leverage over South Korea, it's a way of establishing their own security, which they believe is very important as a small nation.

SIMON: And their survival as a regime.

CHA: And their survival as a regime, absolutely.

SIMON: Professor Cha, very good to talk to you. Hope to see you again.

CHA: Thanks.

SIMON: Victor Cha, a former member of the National Security Council and now teaches at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. His new book is "The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future." Thanks for coming in, professor.

CHA: Thank you.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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