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The Koreas: Escalation and War?

The temperature is rising on the Korean peninsula. There’s lots of diplomacy going on, but could this result in armed conflict?

South Korean activists burn a North Korean flag with a picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during a rally in South Korea, May 25, 2010. (AP)

A South Korean warship went down, with 46 dead. A North Korean torpedo was apparently the cause. 

All that happened in March. And now, the incident’s aftermath is coming to a head. 

Tensions are escalating. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been in Beijing and Seoul. South Korea has cut off trade with the North. North Korea has cut off all communication with the South, and threatened an artillery barrage. 

War seems unthinkable, but trouble does not. And the tale of the torpedo is lighting up new “big power” issues between the U.S. and China. 

This Hour, On Point: a warship down, and the standoff in Korea.


John Pomfret joins us from Beijing. He is diplomatic and Asian affairs correspondent for the Washington Post. He’s also author of “Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China.”

Amb. Chung Min Lee joins us from Seoul, South Korea. He is Ambassador for International Security Affairs and Global Issues in the South Korean government, and he’s dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University.

David Kang joins us from Los Angeles. He is director of the Korean Studies Institute and professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California. He’s the author of “China Rising: Peace, Power, and Order in East Asia” and co-author of “Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies.”

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  • Michael

    It still seems odd that,

    If the North sunk that ship they would not admit it, it seems there is no reason to lie about it, It also seems odd that at the same time this happen and was being discussed the base in Okinawa was in dispute of closing or being moved to the outskirts of Okinawa.

    The local hate the U.S. there and have a deep disdain for them and the New P.M. when elected one of his goals was to close it.

  • Michael

    Also last week in the news i heard that South Korea was still praticing the sunshine policy towards the North, but during and after the elections in South Korea it was said that the current President has been cutting down on such a policy and was and is far more aggressive towards the North and did not agree with the Previous administration sunshine polices.

    Can you guest talk about this as well? I believe in the previous reporting this was missing.

  • Ishmael

    Possible linkage with gold prices?? Gold is up but Korean economy is down, perhaps due to this skirmish. If nothing else, Kim JI is able to mess up the South’s economy and beyond, ripple effects spreading.
    Most of what Kim JI does internationally seems to be simply for attention. He likes the spotlight.

    Consider: N Korea is, from the Chinese view, a huge, thick border between S Korea and China. N Korea keeps the US off of China’s border. That’s why China wants to keep N Korea going. That and China doesn’t want to admit it made a huge mistake in supporting Kim IS, Kim JI’s father, and in a minor note China doesn’t want to see another “communist” country fall (even though NK is anything but communist).
    All the talk about the significance of an “influx of refugees” when the North implodes is a load of hogwash.

  • jeffe

    Michael why would North Korea admit to an act of war?
    They have a history of doing things like this to get something from the west. To create a crisis and then back down in return for something. Only this time this may not happen.

  • Gary

    North Korea is a failed nation in search of resources. They consistently tempt the US, Japan, or the South with provocative bait to keep the state knitted together on a war footing.

    Their intent is to take the assets of the South by war, which their failed state cannot earn by deed or will.

    Some country may take the bait at some point (I hope it isn’t the U.S.) and start world war 3, but our involvement depends on whether our corporate war machine needs another infusion of borrowed cash.

    Hmmm.. will China let us borrow money from them to wage war on North Korea, or will they just threaten the US with economic destruction to permit the North’s actions in the South without any US involvement?

    Kinda like the British in Egypt and the nationalization of the Suez Canal.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Ishmael’s idea of NK as a buffer serving China’s defense is interesting. Well, the guest is saying the same. I heard last night I think on the Newshour that China does ten times as much business with SK than NK. They need the revenues and trade with SK. So?

  • Ellen Dibble

    Gary, I’d like to see a model letter you send to your representatives in Congress on the subject of tax-and-spend. Our military needing an infusion of borrowed money. Ooh-la-la, not exactly LOL. I think that “model letter” might be the same sort of thing that got sent around in NK, telling the troops that they need to stir things up in order to activate patriotism (and sacrifice).

  • Kyle

    What is the possibility of success of an air-strike on the artillery and nukes that have been mentioned earlier. What is North Koreas detection capability like? I assume if we sent some stealth bombers in there we could do some damage before they get to begin firing.

  • ric

    is kicking North Korea out of the World Cup on the table? Seems altogether appropriate to me.

  • John

    Why do we let dictators hide assets in Swiss banks? Sanctions against the banks and the nations with laws permitting their banks to do this too.

  • jay w

    one most important aspect of why china is not intervening strongly, is that the flood of refugees from north korea will create huge problem for chinese government. the regional instability would theaten chinese stability.

  • Ellen Dibble

    John, I thought I heard Kim JI had his billions of assets (to hold onto his “faithful” retinue) in Macao. Not Switzerland. I heard mention of financial methods of squeezing his regime. I suppose those assets could be frozen, and good-bye dictator.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I’ve heard that about China suffering the influx from a caved-in North Korea for over a decade, and I’m beginning to think that’s a red herring put out by the diplomatic community to cover something up. Today one of the guests was saying no, that’s not such a big issue. They are talking about the huge cost of bring NK on board with one of the functioning market economies, just as West Germany had to struggle to take on board the “weak sister” East Germany in the early 1990s.
    But I think China would pour resources into a freer NK, wanting to build up more of a trading partner, wanting to build up an ally. And I think SK would pour money in too. Then the people would not go into exile.

  • brad turner

    In a reunified Korea how are the governments merged who gives up power the North or South?. Your program seems to assume that the South. System would predominate.

  • buddhaclown

    I agree Ellen. Many of the arguments analysts are using for why China wants to keep the DPRK afloat seem a bit dated . . . and you can almost hear the light bulbs popping in their heads as they begin to realize the unthinkable truth. Even while they express the tired old arguments of how China wants a military buffer, or is afraid of refugees, or needs North Korea to provide them with diplomatic leverage; the truth is — unthinkable as it may have been even a few years ago — is that China has nothing to gain from the continued existence of the DPRK, and everything to gain from their collapse.

    1) The collapse of the DPRK is good for China economically — not only in the long term due to having a stronger trading partner in Korea, a stronger economic partner on their border, and a stronger Asia in general (which they will lead) — but it is potentially a gold mine for China in the short term if they can secure contracts for most reconstruction development in North Korea (easily procured from South Korea given China’s massive bargaining leverage in this situation).

    2) The collapse of the DPRK makes the US presence in Korea all the more moot, assures stronger cultural ties between China and Korea, and secures China’s soft power in the region (while weakening the US’s). As long as the DPRK exists, and China is seen as their ally, China will be viewed with suspicion, the US presence will be justified, and China’s influence in the region limited.

    3) Holding onto an alliance with the DPRK weakens China’s moral and international standing. As China desires to become a world super power it understands that it must also lead as a moral force. But North Korea is so clearly evil to most of the world, even to the Chinese, that serving as their ally drastically weakens China’s moral credibility.

    4) The more time passes, the more North Korea becomes a military threat to China. If their nuclear capability becomes more sophisticated and power is transferred over to Kim’s son, whose relationship with China is a question mark, the DPRK could very well turn into China’s worst nightmare. Particularly since North Korea is disconnected from the world community and economy. Every day China, on the other hand, becomes more connected to the world community and economy. The chances of war between China and other major economic powers is next to none, but a rogue state like North Korea could easily end up doing something insane. And even if not directly against China, a nuclear blast anywhere in the region could cripple China’s economy.

    The list goes on, but it seems silly to me the way many analysts are focusing on petty issues like China being afraid of refugees. China is a big country with huge ambitions, and it is because of that that North Korea is in deep trouble, in my opinion.

  • Janet

    That does seem logical to kick NK out of the World Cup.

  • Ishmael

    As I pointed out above (not having listened to the program), “All the talk about the significance of an “influx of refugees” when the North implodes is a load of hogwash.” It would have to be handled delicately though after the mess when Germany reunified.

    Kicking NK out of the world cup is a bad idea. One thing the world needs is to **keep NK engaged**– sports happens to be one of the venues in which “enemy” nation-states can still meet and interact. Removing NK from the WC would be a slap to the good citizens of NK, and would only provide more propaganda ammunition to the “Dear Leader” and his sadist friends.

  • david

    America is burning the candle at both ends. We are tied to the European Union financially and to Korea, Japan and who knows who else to protect. We are about one disaster away from having to much on our plate.
    US National debt hit 13 Trillion, if anyone cares.
    US Unfunded Liabilities is at 108 Trillion.
    IMF Warns U.S. Debt Nears 100 Percent of GDP by 2015.
    Folks! we are in trouble if this keeps going on.

  • wavre

    NK is saying they didn’t do it!
    What make us so certain that they are lying? Creating fake agression has been in our arsenal of tricks for the longest time…
    I don’t get what could have been their motivation? and how can it be beneficial to them?

    somebody help me understand, please.

  • Michael

    In regards to jeffe,

    Again it does not make sense for N Korea to not admit it since,

    1. they could say the ship was in there waters
    2. Somehow the ship fired at them
    3. No reason to lie about it cause the U.S. is not going to do anything about it
    4 RIA had a good piece on this today about during the USSR days when a SK airliner was shot down in USSR airspace and the world condemn it yet years later it turn out to actually be spying on the USSR and delaying information to the U.S. yet by that time the USSR was gone so it didn’t matter much.


    But again i do recall Japan trying to boot the U.S. off its Okinawa base there and Clinton trying to come up with any reason she could to keep it there.

  • mao

    Chinese see themselves as superior to S. Korea–very envious. i hear it in their subtle views when they speak of them. Chinese see themselves as the new power in the east and have historically been ethnocentric–nobody is as good as china. They are prejudice and racist toward all their neighbors.

  • joshua

    Despite Chinese ethnocentrism, I skeptical that it was N.Korea. The US and the western powers have a history of fraudulent attacks used as a pretense to war and sanctions.

  • joshua

    “i am skeptical.” –my English is getting worse over here.

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