News / Asia

South Korea Sees North's Threats at Unprecedented Levels

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, April 2, 2013.South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, April 2, 2013.
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South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, April 2, 2013.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, April 2, 2013.
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— South Korea says it will never accept rival North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. But there appears to be no international consensus on how to prevent that.

Speaking Tuesday in Seoul, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se characterized Pyongyang's recent belligerent threats as more diverse, frequent and intense than previously seen.

He told a forum organized by the JoongAng newspaper and the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) North Korea is engaged in an unprecedented level of “psychological warfare.”

U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korea's President Park Geun-hye depart a joint news conference at the White House in Washington, May 7, 2013.U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korea's President Park Geun-hye depart a joint news conference at the White House in Washington, May 7, 2013.
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U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korea's President Park Geun-hye depart a joint news conference at the White House in Washington, May 7, 2013.
U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korea's President Park Geun-hye depart a joint news conference at the White House in Washington, May 7, 2013.
But he added that, despite this, President Park Geun-hye will continue the process of trust-building, which should neither be interpreted as appeasement nor intended to undermine the North Korean leadership.

The foreign minister also cautions that there are limits to what the South will accept.

"To safeguard peace we'll never allow a nuclear-armed North Korea and [will] make sure there is a corresponding price for North Korea's provocations," he said.

Speaking earlier to the same group, former U.S. senator Richard Lugar described the North Korean threat as “global in nature” and not one that should “be defined merely by the range of its missiles.”

The retired chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee warns that the Obama administration's policy of “strategic patience” towards Pyongyang cannot continue to be applied indefinitely.

"If it is, strategic patience becomes little more than a policy justification for avoiding the problem and the potential political consequences of making a mistake," he said. "The Obama administration should be sober about what can be accomplished in the short run, but it must be willing to consider a wider range of strategies, even if they carry some risk."

The former senator suggests that responsible leaders take fresh measures to constrain the illicit activities of North Korean trading companies functioning as what he calls “conduits for nuclear proliferation and the dissemination of weapons technology.”

Michael Green, former senior director of Asia on the U.S. National Security Council, is pessimistic further sanctions will fundamentally change the mind of North Korea's current leader, Kim Jong Un, because the essence of the Pyongyang government, as he puts it, is a hybrid Stalinist theocracy and a criminal enterprise.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visits the Turf Institute of the Bioengineering Branch in Pyongyang, May 6, 2013. (KCNA)North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visits the Turf Institute of the Bioengineering Branch in Pyongyang, May 6, 2013. (KCNA)
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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visits the Turf Institute of the Bioengineering Branch in Pyongyang, May 6, 2013. (KCNA)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visits the Turf Institute of the Bioengineering Branch in Pyongyang, May 6, 2013. (KCNA)
"But with the emphasis on the theocracy being the main source of legitimacy for Kim Jong Un. For precisely that reason it, in my view, could collapse at any time. That makes it, in the long run, quite vulnerable," he said.

Green's CSIS colleague, Victor Cha, also a former Asian policy director at the National Security Council, says preparations must be made for instability in North Korea. Cha contends Pyongyang's decision-makers have "boxed themselves into a corner from which they cannot escape."

"The best scenario is that they continue to rattle the cages, but they don't do anything that might kill people or hurt people. But I'm not so certain that they'll stay in that corner forever and simply shout harmlessly and not do anything that's provocative," he said.

Another former U.S. official told the same gathering that Pyongyang must be given a stark choice. Richard Armitage, who served as U.S. deputy secretary of state from 2001 until 2005, suggests telling North Korea it has to choose between its weapons of mass destruction or regime change.

North Korea is believed to have a small arsenal of nuclear weapons and is developing ballistic missiles that might deliver such bombs a long distance.

It recently vowed a nuclear attack on the United States - a threat which most analysts do not consider viable.

The heightened bellicose rhetoric came amid the North's latest underground nuclear and long-range missile tests, actions banned under United Nations Security Council sanctions.

Since Saturday, North Korea has fired six short-range projectiles into the sea off its east coast. Both Seoul and Washington say the latest firings do not appear to violate Pyongyang's international obligations.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

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