About the same time that Secretary of State John Kerry was landing in Seoul in an effort to defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula, two members of Congress—one Democrat and one Republican, who declined to be identified so that they could speak more freely—were raising warnings about North Korea’s recent bellicose actions and addressing key concerns with a small group of reporters. Among them:
Does North Korea have the ability to put a nuke on a ballistic missile? The members echoed an intelligence estimate showing that North Korea has made strides in ballistic-missile technology and miniaturization of nuclear weapons that could allow it to threaten its neighbors soon, if not now. The assessment came from the Defense Intelligence Agency and was revealed on Thursday. The members seemed to indicate this was a view shared throughout the Obama administration. “There is a growing body of analytical product that says if they’re not there, they’re getting there," said the GOP member, adding that getting the weapon light enough and coming up with a reliable system of detonation is the hardest part for North Korea—or any aspiring power—to achieve as it seeks the capacity to fire medium and long-range missiles equipped with nuclear weapons.
What is Kim Jong Un up to? The Democratic member echoed the familiar point that Kim Jong Un is untested, but he offered hints of a complex family situation that may help explain why Pyongyang has been so provocative. Kim Jong Un is “a young leader who is immature and is probably being controlled by relatives and he is attempting to not only show that he’s a leader throughout the world but to show his people that he’s a leader," the Democratic member said. "You have to look at the people advising him, an uncle and an aunt,” the Democratic member said, without elaborating on the aforementioned kin. The Republican added, “If I were China, I’d be talking to that group of hard-liners. [China] could have tremendous influence with them”
What about South Korea? Both members said they believed South Korea probably couldn't resist responding militarily to any attack from the North. “This time they’re not going to stand by like they did last time and do nothing,” the Republican member said, referring to the North’s sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and its attack on a remote South Korean island. This makes the situation even more dangerous and explains, in part, why Kerry is eager to "ramp down" tensions.
Can China help? Both members emphasized that it was in China’s interest to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula, lest it face a refugee problem or a war that would result in the end of the North Korean regime and a unified Korea under the South’s control and backed by the United States. But they said that China has yet to step up and take an active role in defusing tensions—at least as far as they could see. One of the most helpful things that China could do would be to halt the black market on the Chinese-North Korean border, they said, because of its effect on the Pyongyang elite, which lives lavishly while the larger populace faces abject poverty and even starvation. The Republican member noted that Kim Jong Un’s father had “an on-again, off-again relationship with China, but the big concern here is that the son doesn't know when he’s gone too far.”
Is Obama doing a good job? The Republican member said the administration had done a “great job” in its military and diplomatic response to North Korea’s bellicose statements and action. Those moves include flying B-2 stealth bombers to the Peninsula and moving antiballistic missile technology to the Pacific.
This article appears in the April 15, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.