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Options On North Korea May Be Limited

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. North Korea fired two short-range missiles today after yesterday's underground nuclear test. That test was North Korea's first since 2006. The question now is what to do about it. Many nations, including the U.S., want to use the U.N. Security Council to impose new economic sanctions against North Korea.

As NPR's Mike Shuster reports, there are doubts that new sanctions will work.

MIKE SHUSTER: The U.N. Security Council was working today privately to produce a resolution that will almost certainly call for some new sanctions against North Korea. All the members of the Security Council were in line yesterday with the sentiments of the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice.

Ambassador SUSAN RICE (U.S. Representative, United Nations): The U.S. thinks that this is a grave violation of international law, and a threat to regional and international peace and security.

SHUSTER: But exactly what can be done about North Korea's nuclear test is a far more difficult question to answer. The government of North Korea has been operating under a variety of economic sanctions since the end of the Korean War. When North Korea first tested a nuclear weapon in 2006, the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions, but they were never fully implemented.

The likelihood is that any new sanctions won't change much, and that had the U.N. ambassador from Japan, Yukio Takasu, frustrated because given its geographical proximity, Japan feels most threatened by North Korea's nuclear and missile tests.

Ambassador YUKIO TAKASU (Japan Representative, United Nations): What's their meaning of Security Council passing the resolution, and then acting in this way and letting it go? I think there should be very clear consequence to that.

SHUSTER: But real consequences for North Korea are dubious.

Mr. JOEL WIT (North Korea Expert, U.S. Korea Institute of Johns Hopkins University): None of these sanctions are really going to have the effect that we want them to have, and that is to make North Korea reverse course.

SHUSTER: Joel Wit is an expert on North Korea at the U.S.-Korea Institute of Johns Hopkins University, and a former negotiator with North Korea during the Clinton administration.

Mr. WIT: The bottom line here is yes, we do need to put into effect sanctions, but we also need to understand that sanctions, the effect of sanctions on North Korea will be quite limited, and we need to continue to look for opportunities to get back to negotiation.

SHUSTER: The negotiating mechanism that has been at work for years is known as the Six-Party Talks, involving China, Japan, South Korea and Russia as well as the U.S. and North Korea. These talks have seen some achievements, including an agreement on North Korea's part two years ago to dismantle much of its nuclear weapons facilities at Yangbian.

But after the U.N. Security Council criticized North Korea for its long-range rocket launch in early April, Pyongyang said it would no longer participate in the Six-Party Talks. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that the Six-Party process will one day be revived with North Korea's participation, but many Korea experts have reluctantly come to the conclusion that those talks will not persuade North Korea to give up nuclear weapons.

The Obama administration, much like the Bush administration before it, is also hoping that China may have the leverage with North Korea to stop its nuclear program. China released a statement after Monday's nuclear test expressing its resolute opposition to North Korea's action.

But Beijing is unlikely to go much beyond that, says David Straub, a former State Department expert on North Korea, now at Stanford University.

Mr. DAVID STRAUB (Associate Director of Korean Studies Program, Stanford University): Their basic interest is maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula first. Second, they want to maintain the North Korean regime as a buffer between the U.S. ally, South Korea, and China. And only third do they want to try to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.

SHUSTER: Straub says this is a long-term problem for the Obama administration to manage. That will inevitably involve negotiations. Most experts believe North Korea will return to the negotiating table at some point and in some form. Whether it's the Six-Party process or bilateral talks with the United States, there will be almost certainly an opportunity to bargain with North Korea again - but with little prospect that anything will persuade Pyongyang to give up the nuclear weapons it has acquired.

Mike Shuster, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mike Shuster
Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.

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