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N. Korea's Neighbors React to Nuke Crisis

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Japan today and will later travel to China and South Korea. She's trying to cement support for U.N. sanctions against North Korea. It's a delicate task, as North Korea's neighbors are wary of actions that could destabilize that country.

Here to talk about Rice's diplomatic task is Don Oberdorfer, who chairs the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Welcome to the program.

Mr. DON OBERDORFER (Johns Hopkins University): Well, I'm glad to be here.

BRAND: How can Secretary Rice make sure that the sanctions against North Korea will actually have teeth if both China and South Korea are reluctant to fully implement them?

Mr. OBERDORFER: Well, of course she can't really make sure. But she can try. And what she's trying to do is to assure them that we're not asking them to go beyond what they really are willing to do or that they're going to take China especially, and South Korea, beyond where they want to go in terms of making clear to North Korea that there's a price for exploding nuclear devices.

BRAND: Well, will North Korea then feel that price?

Mr. OBERDORFER: Well, you know, it's a real good question as to what North Korea will feel. My guess is that they have been fully prepared for an international reaction. They certainly must know that if they explode a nuclear device there's going to be a very large international reaction.

They probably are calculating that the reaction will be rather short-lived and that they will ride it out, much as India rode out the reaction against its nuclear explosion in 1974 and as Pakistan did when Pakistan exploded a nuclear device.

Now, the American officials keep saying it's not going to be like that. We're not going to forgive North Korea as we forgave India and Pakistan. But it remains to be seen whether the world is going to forget about this after a few days and go on to other things.

BRAND: But what if North Korea tests another nuclear bomb, as South Korea and Japan have indicated they may be about to do?

Mr. OBERDORFER: Well, that will just increase the international concern about this, if they do so.

BRAND: But would that change - would that change the equation? Would that change the position of China and South Korea?

Mr. OBERDORFER: I doubt it. I don't think so. I think the first one was a real shock to South Korea and perhaps to China, though not its top officials. The South Koreans, while they're cognizant of what's been going on in North Korea, really didn't want to think about the possibility that their colleagues to the north would have nuclear weapons.

And so I think they tried to evade that in their own minds. But now they can't evade it anymore. So there's going to be a big reaction, I think. It may not come immediately in South Korea, and China as well.

BRAND: On MORNING EDITION today, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who is Rice's point man on Asia, said, I can't believe they - he meant the North Koreans - want more of these face-to-face negotiations, meaning he doesn't think that they do want direct talks with the U.S.

Is that true? They don't want to talk directly with the United States?

Mr. OBERDORFER: No, I think they do want to talk directly to the United States. But I think they must know now that it's going to be difficult for a while, because of the U.S. attitude toward their nuclear device, which is not surprising.

This has the potential for destabilizing a good deal of northeastern Asia for bringing about a nuclear arms race involving South Korea and conceivably Japan, which is one of the things that Secretary Rice is doing, to try to reassure them that the United States stands by you, you still have a nuclear umbrella. No one's going to threaten you with nuclear weapons, so please don't feel that you need to have nuclear weapons of your own.

BRAND: Don Oberdorfer chairs the U.S. Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Thank you very much.

Mr. OBERDORFER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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