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Preparing for Threat from North Korea


Late last week, North Korea detonated a nuclear device, which led to a swift condemnation from the United States and the U.N. Security Council. Since then, the tensions between North Korea and the international community have increased.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): Let's turn to a little foreign policy here and also something that very well could involve San Diego. You know, U.S. presidents are often remembered for how they respond to threats or perceived threats from foreign powers. There's FDR unhesitatingly declaring war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and then there was JFK standing up to the Soviet Union with the Cuban missile crisis. Lyndon Johnson, he refused to run for reelection because of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and, of course, George W. Bush, forever linked to the ongoing war in Iraq. And now a new foreign threat looms just as President Obama is getting some experience in the White House. John, how serious is North Korea's nuclear testing to international peace?

JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): I think North Korea's nuclear testing is very serious and I think that many of the scholars and the policy writers and decisions (sic) who sit around and talk about it underestimate what's going on. We saw Bill Clinton, some years ago, try to make a deal with them for food and fuel and the idea if you back off, this is what we'll do. North Korea has a mindset it is going to develop nuclear weapons just about at any cost. It is not concerned about the number of people that are starving in the country. The more people starve to death, the less they have to feed and worry about, and that's basically their attitude. There isn't enough food. China is sitting back playing games with us, pretending to be in support but not putting the kind of pressure that they could put on North Korea. Japan is in tremendous danger because it knows that it can be reached by the two hundred and some missiles that North Korea has, and now we're faced with the possibility of a military Japan, which we have not had since before World War II. And so that's a great danger there. And South Korea, this president has made it very clear that it will stand and defend South Korea. The first act of aggression will be to come south across the 38th Parallel. So we have a major issue going on there, and I think it's not being taken seriously enough. We're hearing discussion about foreign policy, decisions in the U.N., resolutions and strengthening what we do. That saber rattling is good but we found out yesterday that, in addition to this, North Korea's still producing super notes; they're counterfeiting our currency and putting it in circulation. And so I think, as a matter of – the president has been appropriately diplomatic in what he's done but as a matter of strategy and policy, we need to be prepared for the war possibility and we need to deal with them economically as we did before when we cut off their banks. We need to go back and do that, in terms of this financial threat, and take them seriously. We're already going to stop the ships and search them. South Korea's joined that. There's great concern. And I just think we should not let the media downplay this and have us think everything's going to be okay.

PENNER: Okay. Well, if you thought you were going to have a nice, restful, peaceful weekend, maybe John's words have shaken that up a little bit. Bob Kittle, strong words from John. Do you think that there's a danger in escalating the rhetoric too quickly? I mean, President Obama used harsh words such as 'blatant defiance' and 'recklessly challenging the international community.' Is there something dangerous just about using those words?

BOB KITTLE (Editorial Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): No, I think the president has to be clear that the world will not accept a nuclear armed North Korea. However, I've been to Korea, I've been up to the demilitarized zone. I think the news media in particular, some of the cable networks, have inflated the danger here and stirred fears that really are not warranted in the sense of talking about a potential invasion by North Korea of South Korea. I don't think that is in the cards. On paper, North Korea has a large army of over a million men. The truth of the matter is that much of the country is suffering from famine. It is a very hollow military. This is an unpredictable regime but I don't there is a great danger of 1952 or '51 – '50, I guess it was, of another invasion of the south by the north. Frankly, the nuclear program that North Korea is pursuing is not, in my mind, so much a potential military problem. North Korea is using its nuclear program to get attention. It uses it to get, as in the case John cited in the Clinton administration, fuel oil and food. Every time North Korea wants something, it launches a missile or it conducts a test and the whole world sits up and pays attention.

PENNER: Or it arrests two American journalists?

KITTLE: I think that would've happened under any circumstances.

TIM MCCLAIN (Editor, San Diego Metropolitan Magazine): It did…

KITTLE: But the other part of this that is something we can't fully understand is that Kim Jong Il, the dictator of North Korea, had a stroke several months ago. There is potentially a succession struggle going on. He would like his youngest son to be the new beloved ruler of North Korea. His son is only in his twenties. And, you know, some of these actions, these provocative actions, which the world must respond to, could be done as a way to try to influence who the next leader of North Korea is.

PENNER: So, as if we didn't have enough problems with our economic problems, we're still ironing things out in Iraq, and Afghanistan is taking more of our troops, and now we have North Korea. So John seems to think we should take it seriously. Bob Kittle doesn't feel as concerned. Where are you on this? 1-888… (cough) excuse me, …895-5727, 895-KPBS. I get all choked up every time I look at you, Tim McClain. Well, what we have here now is a question about whether North Korea still will honor the alliance that was agreed upon with South Korea, when was it? Back…

WARREN: 1950.

PENNER: 1950. At this point…

KITTLE: '53…

PENNER: Was it '53? Okay.

KITTLE: For the armistice. It…

PENNER: It was an armistice.

KITTLE: It was an armistice and not a peace treaty. Go ahead.

PENNER: Yes, and there's a question about whether they will continue to honor the armistice and that's creating some kind of a difficulty in the international community. Are you concerned about that, Tim?

MCCLAIN: You always have to be concerned about a nation that has demonstrated the capacity and not in, really, the, you know, the most clinically successful ways to, you know, explode weapons of ultimate mass destruction. Matter of fact, China's newspapers have run in the last week, their – the government controlled newspapers, rather scathing front page articles, and the fear that they have voiced is that there will be an accident and that the accident will contaminate a large area of Korea and a large, you know, Korea's border with China. And so they are, you know – I know John would like more out of China and we all – and China should do more but this is the first time that I've been watching this that I've seen China publicly rebuke Korea for this. So I don't think that there's going to be anything materially large over the armistice, you know, but what do you know when you're dealing with, you know, really kind of wild, crazy dictators and a succession going on and – and a very disorganized structure underneath him. You don't know.

PENNER: Let's hear now – Thank you, Tim. Let's hear now from David in La Jolla. Hi, David, you're on with the editors. Please join the conversation.

DAVID (Caller, La Jolla): My question – I love the show, always great topics. North Korea's considered a rogue state by the world community and the U.S.'s intelligence has proven less than reliable in Iraq for weapons of mass destruction. When North Korea fires off a missile, why don't we test our anti-missile defenses and just shoot it down for the fun of it while they're testing their missiles?

PENNER: Well, David, let's hear what John has to say to that. Thank you, and I'm glad you like the show and the topics. We can thank my producer, Hank Crook, for those topics. Thank you, Hank. Go ahead, John.

WARREN: Well, there's still a issue of national sovereignty and the firing of missiles is done over their own territory and their own waters, and we don't have a legal authority to go in. Now when they start pointing them in a different direction, that becomes another issue. But I think that that's part of the problem, that we still have to honor their sovereignty issue.

PENNER: Okay. Bob Kittle.

KITTLE: Well, just let me tell the caller, I would bet my paycheck that the U.S. military learned quite a bit from the last missile launch.


KITTLE: It would be useful in the U.S. anti-missile defense program. It carefully followed the trajectory, the launch, the – how alert were we to the blast, to detecting the blast. I think we detected the blast immediately. We measured the trajectory. The U.S. military could tell the world that this missile broke up in flight when the North Koreans claimed that it put a satellite into orbit, which was not true.

PENNER: Okay. We'll return to the question of how belligerent, how dangerous North Korea is to world peace and also whether we're seeing signs that San Diego is gearing up for more military action around the world. Our number again, 1-888-895-5727.

[ break ]

PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner, and I'm here with Tim McClain of San Diego Metropolitan magazine, from San Diego Voice & Viewpoint, we have John Warren, and from the San Diego Union-Tribune, we have Bob Kittle. And we are talking about North Korea, whether North Korea is making really threatening kinds of gestures in the direction of world peace and, also, what does that mean here in San Diego? We're going to talk about the San Diego connection in a moment but first I'd like to take a call from Marco in Chula Vista. Hi, Marco, you're on with the editors. Please go ahead.

MARCO (Caller, Chula Vista): Good morning, everyone. A question with respect to nuclear weapons proliferation in general, particularly at what point are nuclear weapons just out there, at what point is the nuclear weapons cat out of the bag? We've got potentially North Korea, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, at what point do we say we really just can't stop this?

PENNER: John, nuclear proliferation, it's there.

WARREN: Well, it's there but in the case of Iran and North Korea, it's the grade of nuclear material being produced at this point. They have not reached the point where they can produce the kind of grade that they would need for the long range missiles. That's why North Korea's gearing on theirs being able to mounted on short range, and so it has to have less strength. But I think it's a grade level and when the Atomic Energy Commission has probably set out the standards for what that level is, that's where action has to kick in.

PENNER: But I think Marco raises a really fair question. I mean, is there a fear that North Korea's actions could encourage other countries to go down the same path of using nuclear weapons as leverage against the United States and its allies.

WARREN: Well, I don't think that's the fear. And one of the bigger fears, and it's mentioned in a collateral fashion here, is that once the weapons are developed, then there's a question of if a regime topples the one that's in control, what happens to the weapons then? We saw that in Russia…


WARREN: …in terms of things being – they could be sold on the black market, and we are concerned about containing those weapons and we lose the ability to do that. So that becomes an even greater issue than just the production.

PENNER: Yes, Tim.

MCCLAIN: There are plans in place to launch full-on military attacks on both Iran…


MCCLAIN: …and North Korea if there is an analysis reached, and I'm sure the president is briefed on this, that we believe that they've reached some kind of point where they can, you know, launch a really, truly – a nuclear missile that will work. And so that's what's going to happen, and both of those countries know it. And so they're playing this game. You know, they're really playing a game. It's a very dangerous game to see whether they're going to call our bluff, and they're testing this new president, too. I mean, there's no doubt that that is going on, too. And we have to hope that with diplomacy and talking and talking, we never get to the point where we have to attack either one of those countries because it would, you know, put all the other wars we've had since World War II, you know, to shame.

PENNER: Yes, I read an article by Mikhail Gorbachev that basically said we've got to use politics and diplomacy, anything before we go to the military action. But, Tim, in San Diego, there is a big beefing up of our naval presence here. They're moving huge numbers of ships into San Diego from Texas. Mine sweepers, I think, seven of them, maybe nine of them, and 250 – I can't remember the number but big numbers of sailors and their families coming in. So there's this very large contingent of navy people and navy craft coming into San Diego. Does that have anything to do at all with concerns about the escalation of animosities with North Korea and Iran?

MCCLAIN: I don't think so. I think it has more to do with the concern about China over the coming decades. I think the U.S. government, the military, has concluded that the Pacific is where it's going to get harder to maintain our dominance because the Chinese are relentlessly building up their military capacity and so by having more assets on the west coast – and it was also the base realignment and closing thing…

PENNER: Right.

MCCLAIN: …that brought some of these – this equipment to San Diego, and these men and women. I believe that is more of the action, though I had a conversation with a young marine some months back and he was just almost like casually telling me, oh, yeah, the next place I'm going to go is Iran, you know. That's like, what? You know, I mean…


MCCLAIN: …but that's the mindset of the guy on the ground, that that's the place – a potential battleground for our forces.

PENNER: Okay, well thank you very much, gentlemen, and let's move on to something definitely closer to home.

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