Charles Davis, National Freedom of Information Coalition, Missouri School of Journalism: This week’s hostilities between North and South Korea reached new heights, raising questions about the U.S. and China’s involvement in the conflict. On Monday, South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak changed policy toward North Korea from passive defense to proactive deterrence. North Korea announced plans to pull out of a nonaggression pact with Seoul. Both countries have said they will cut economic ties with each other. The tension started to rise when a South Korean warship was sunk in late March and 46 South Korean sailors were killed. Multi-national investigators declared that North Korea was accountable, but North Korea has denied responsibility. Meanwhile, the U.S. has come out in support of South Korea and will conduct joint anti-submarine exercises with the South Korean military. During high-level talks in Beijing this week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton encouraged Chinese officials to condemn North Korea. China, however, has remained on the fence. To help explain the situation, we have an expert on North Korea, Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times Beijing bureau chief and author of "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea"; Myo-ja Ser, staff writer, JoongAng Daily, Seoul, South Korea; Jon Herskovitz, chief Korea correspondent for Reuters; and Peter Ford, Beijing bureau chief of the Christian Science Monitor. Myo-ja, how likely is it that North Korea sunk the Cheonan? Is that the general consensus view on the streets in Seoul?
Myo-ja Ser, staff writer, JoongAng Daily, Seoul, South Korea: Yes, particularly after two months of investigation involving experts around the world. But there is an election coming up on June 2, so the two political parties have been trying to politicize the issue and cast some doubts on it.
Davis: Could you bring us up to speed on the new statements made by North Korea?
Ser: Two things — North Korea is going to scrap an old pact that provides safeguard measures to South Koreans involved in inter-Korea exchanges. They are also going to cut off ties for the South Korean passage to Kaesong, which is a joint business area in North Korea invested by South Koreans.
Davis: Barbara Demick, you just arrived in Seoul. What were your impressions?
Barbara Demick, Beijing bureau chief, Los Angeles Times: I was expecting South Korea to be more up in arms about Cheonan. I heard Hillary Clinton’s statements that Koreans were very outraged, but my snap judgment was that people were a bit apathetic and maybe angry and scared. I went to a demonstration in front of Seoul City Hall, and there were about 10,000 people demonstrating against North Korea. But most of them were quite elderly veterans of war. In fact, I would say the average age at the demonstration was 70. Many of the younger people I spoke to said they had no appetite for any confrontation with North Korea. Many said they don’t believe that North Korea torpedoed the ship. There is an election coming up here, and the opposition has tried to either cast a shadow of doubt, pushing its own theories, so the view in Seoul is a little different than in the U.S.
Davis: Jon Herskovitz, how big of a threat are we facing here, and is it being overstated somewhat in the American media?
Jon Herskovitz, chief Korea correspondent, Reuters: The threat has increased markedly since the sinking of the ship, but there is also a feeling of complacency because North Korea has always been there. South Korea has stepped up its border patrols, has intensified its naval presence in these disputed waters, and the possibility for fighting has increased greatly. Both North and South Korea seem primed for fights, but if they do come up, they would be small-scale and be limited to skirmishes. The South Korean government has tried very hard to manage the situation and to prevent this from spilling out into some sort of all-out war.
Davis: Meanwhile, China has quite a balancing act of its own. Peter Ford, how would you characterize China’s depiction of the conflict?
Peter Ford, Beijing bureau chief, Christian Science Monitor: They’re sitting on the fence and on their hands. In the biannual Chinese/American conference when the Americans raised the issue, one of the Chinese officials slyly asked whether the U.S. intelligence on this issue was any better than the U.S. intelligence on the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003. I think the government is convinced by the report but don’t want to do anything about it, so they are just trying to put off making decisions. Meanwhile, the Americans are doing their best to push them into making it.
Davis: Do you get the sense in Beijing that economics are really the driving political force here?
Ford: I think this is the heart of the Chinese dilemma. On one hand, you’ve got a historical alliance and a lot of shared history, especially with the military. Beijing is Pyongyang’s closest ally. North Korea modeled itself on revolutionary China. But on the other hand, you’ve got China’s economic interests and its growing trade with South Korea. I think China has not made up its mind yet.
Davis: Barbara, your book on North Korea painted a picture of the average North Korean on the street. What is your sense of what is running through the minds of average North Koreans right now?
Demick: This crisis is a great opportunity for Kim Jong-Il. I was at the North Korean border in March, and the situation is really terrible. People don’t have enough to eat. They had a very cold winter. They’re scraping by for food. Kim Jong-Il is 68 and in very bad health. He is trying to install this 20-something completely unknown son as his successor. This is a perfect opportunity for him to create a distraction from his own domestic weaknesses and get his people into a hardship march during the famine of the 90s that I wrote about. They called it the “march of austerity.” Some have suggested that he directed the attack on the Cheonan to create a crisis — a very North Korean technique. I just say if he didn’t direct the attack, he must be very pleased with it.
Davis: Jon Herskovitz, what about the demographic divide that Barbara saw in the protest there in Seoul? Is there a generational gap when it comes to the outrage against the North?
Herskovitz: Very much so. The younger South Koreans see North Korea not as a brother country but as a foreign country, whereas older South Koreans may remember a time when the two were together. The North Korean language keeps growing more and more different, and the South Koreans see North Korea more as an oddity than their brother on the peninsula. So there is a demographic breakdown in the South between the older and younger generations. You also have very hard anti-Communist groups who will protest North Korea at the drop of a hat and are out on the street every day. You have hard-core left groups that see various conspiracies in which the South is trying to make the North look bad. And you have the centrist group, which isn’t vocal or out on the street and have a much more pragmatic view of the North. So there is a demographic and a political breakdown in the South.
Davis: Peter, the pressure on China to get off the fence will only increase. Do you expect them to continue the balancing act, or do you expect some sort of engagement, particularly with the U.N. now getting involved?
Ford: I don’t think it is likely that the Chinese are going to come out clearly on one side or the other. The best that Americans can hope for is that they will persuade the Chinese to go along with the Security Council.
Davis: Barbara, you mentioned a succession drama going on with Kim Jong-Il’s younger son. What is the sense in South Korea of that succession plan, and how much of a wild card is that?
Demick: Over the past 10 years, there was a Sunshine policy they hoped would lead to a gradual evening out of the enormous income differences between North and South Korea. But at the moment, there is not really a partner for them to negotiate with, and this is quite a dangerous situation because Kim Jong-Il probably has only a few years left to live, his regime is bankrupt, and they don’t have much to lose. This is the classic situation where you could have the last lash of the dragon’s tail. They could do something very provocative out of desperation, whereas South Korea has the 13th or 14th largest economy in the world. They have a lot to lose.
Davis: What is known of Kim Jong-Il’s son? Do we know anything about him?
Demick: Very little. He was born in 1982 or 1983. He may or may not have gone to an international school in Switzerland. I have spoken to some North Koreans, and they said starting late last year, they went to ideological training sessions and were told about this brilliant young general who is young and will have new ideas. One woman told me that Kim Jong-Il served with the regular soldiers and experienced the deprivations of poor diet, lack of food; so he is a man of the people. The regime was supposed to put out portraits sometime this year. Everybody in North Korea has to have a portrait on their wall of Kim Sung-Il, the founder; Kim Jong-Il, his son and current leader; and this third-generation poster was supposed to go up. This hasn’t happened yet, so it could indicate hesitancy on the part of the leadership.
Davis: Jon Herskovitz, how significant is the announcement that the U.S. is going to conduct joint military exercises with the South Koreans?
Herskovitz: It will certainly get the attention of North Korea and is something that is a reassurance for the government in Seoul. In a normal situation, twice a year, the South Koreans have a large-scale military drill. North Korea says that these drills are a prelude for nuclear war and invasion. And these are regular exercises without any incident. But having the U.S. and South Korea together hold these drills is sending a very strong message to North Korea that these two are ready to stand side-by-side and deter anything that may happen.
Davis: Myo-ja, what is your sense of the U.N. Security Council's actions? And are South Koreans anticipating greater U.N. involvement?
Ser: Yes; shortly after the conclusion was announced, the U.S. attorney general made public his condemnation against what North Korea did. There is Secretary Clinton’s visit here, (South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's) meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao tomorrow, and another meeting between Lee and the Japanese Prime Minister (Yukio Hatoyama) over the weekend. We’re expecting the U.N. Security Council to declare tougher sanctions against the North. But because North Korea is already a reclusive country with a closed economy, it is questionable how effective these sanctions would even be.
Davis: Peter Ford, your sense is that sanctions are extremely unlikely. How much of that has to do with the mechanism of the U.N. sanction regime itself, and how much of that has to do with macro-economic pressure?
Ford: China has a veto in the U.N. Security Council, and if they don’t want more sanctions, they can block them. Maybe Americans will want to bring it to a vote to highlight China’s isolation on it if Washington can get Moscow to go along. But it is more likely that they will try subterfuge. I would also be a little skeptical about how much influence and impact these sanctions have. Politically, they have no impact at all. When you look at the details, the sanctions are not throttling North Korea in any serious fashion. It meant, for example, that the U.S. companies could not export 23-inch televisions to North Korea, only 16-inch televisions. This is not the sort of thing that is going to bring Pyongyang to its knees.
Davis: Jon Herskovitz, the irony here is that the greater the sanction, the greater the pressure on North Korea, the more the propaganda victory for its leadership, right?
Herskovitz: North Korea has this military-first ideology where they can justify the sacrifices at home for preventing a hostile world from invading. But the sanctions have taken a bite out of South Korea’s biggest export item which is arms sales. North Korea is still selling arms, but it is much more difficult for them to do this. More than 5 percent of North Korea’s GDP is affected by these sanctions. North Korea has its clients in Iran, in the Middle East, and other parts of the world who really don’t care about the sanction but will keep on buying. But North Korea is facing more interdictions of its ships, closer scrutiny of airplane cargoes, which may or may not be holding North Korean arms. So the sanctions are having their effect on the North Korean economy. And they are also being used by Kim Jong-Il at home to show that he is facing an even more hostile world. If the economic situation becomes more desperate, it is because the world is trying to clamp down on him and stamp out his type of socialism and it is an affront to the dignity of the North Korean state that he has been trying to build. So they hurt him economically but also help him politically.
Davis: Jon, I would imagine the greater the interdictions, the greater the tensions at sea? The greater the risk that things can spiral?
Herskovitz: Very much so. Arms sales aren’t going to impact the escalating military tension between the two Koreas. It just makes it more and more difficult for North Korea to do business. But the more military presence there is along the border, the more likely there will be future conflicts.
Davis: Myo-ja, I would imagine that this is the biggest worry on the streets of Seoul?
Ser: Yes, because the North Koreans’ threats came after the South Korean conducted its first-ever anti-submarine drill in the Yellow Sea where the Cheonan sank. So whenever one side takes measures, the other side takes counter measures and the tensions escalate.
Davis: Well, we know China is expected to make a statement in the coming days on the sinking of the South Korean ship. Meanwhile, South Korea plans to bring the issue to the U.N. Security Council.
Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Liz Lance, Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Tim Wall and Rebecca Wolfson. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.