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News From North Korea Careens From Terrifying To Ridiculous


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. In the past few days, the news out of North Korea has careened from the terrifying to the ridiculous. In response to the latest U.N. sanctions, Pyongyang announced an end to all non-aggression pacts with South Korea. This, after threatening a pre-emptive nuclear strike against attackers. But it's not just the ramped-up rhetoric that has people talking. In some of the strangest diplomacy yet, the North's leader, Kim Jong Un, spent some quality time with former basketball star Dennis Rodman. We've asked Victor Cha to sort out the mixed messages coming from the regime. He is a professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He joins us in our studio in Washington. Thanks for being here.

VICTOR CHA: My pleasure, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, can you help us understand this current uptick in the war of words between the north and the south on the Korean peninsula? Is this just par for the course or is there something different about now?

CHA: In one sense, it is par for the course because there has always been very acute competition between the two for decades. In another sense, it's different, and that is that the North Koreans have been doing more and more provocations recently. And in 2010, they basically violated the armistice by sinking a South Korean naval vessel and then shelling an island. And it was that point that the South Korean government and people said we're not taking this anymore, and the next time you do this we're going to strike back. And this time, both the government and the public have said we're not taking this anymore. So, when the north starts saying this like we're ending the armistice and we're threatening to do these things, there's much more of an edge to it in terms of the inter-Korean dynamic because I think everybody's worried about escalation.

MARTIN: So, let's get to this bizarre diplomatic visit by former NBA star Dennis Rodman. He was cozying up with Kim Jong Un. We saw pictures of the two embracing and at the basketball game and having dinner. What is the significance of Rodman's trip, do you think?

CHA: I think the primary significance is to try to understand the new North Korean leadership. And I think Rodman's meeting with him tells us that unpredictability is really the new normal in North Korean relations. We knew quite a bit about the former leader of North Korea and how he operated, but we know very little about the new leader. And his antics in many ways are quite unpredictable - whether it's going to an amusement park, not meeting with the chairman of Google but meeting with Dennis Rodman - it's just a very, very bizarre leadership.

MARTIN: I mean, is this just as simple as Kim Jung Un really likes basketball and he's just a fan of Dennis Rodman or are there people out there like yourself who are reading into this saying, oh, maybe this means he is in some way looking for closer ties to the West?

CHA: Well, he definitely loves basketball, we know that. And I think you're right. I mean, I think he just loves basketball, he loves the Chicago Bulls and he wanted to meet with Rodman. But I think it tells us that he's interested in some of these things and perhaps interested in interacting more with the world. The problem is that the history of the nuclear negotiations shows that he wants all of these things but he doesn't want to give up his nuclear weapons. And 25 years of U.S. diplomacy has been based on the notion that there was a quid pro quo. You can join the West, we can normalize relations, sign the peace treaty but you have to give up the weapons.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, it is my understanding that North Korea's relationship with China has kind of chilled recently. What is the significance of that? I mean, China is North Korea's most staunch ally.

CHA: Yeah. I mean, China is really North Korea's lifeline, especially after South Korea's engagement policy disappeared about six, seven years ago. But at the same time, they're clearly very upset with this third nuclear test by North Korea. But we have to see whether they follow through and enforce the sanctions that are in this resolution to really punish North Korea.

MARTIN: And lastly, you mentioned that the only thing we've really learned about Kim Jong Un over the past couple of days, especially in the wake of the Rodman visit, is how unpredictable he is. How is that helpful at all in trying to build a profile of him?

CHA: Well, I mean, I think it is helpful because it means that we have to be very careful. It also means, I think, that the U.S. government should talk to Rodman. I mean, this is not the sort of person you would imagine being debriefed. But since he is the only American that we know of that has met this 28-year-old North Korean leader for...

MARTIN: And as far as you know, that has not happened or is not planned?

CHA: Well, apparently, the State Department has said that they have no interest. But if the delegation wants to call us that they'd be happy to see them. But, you know, I think we should just go out and find him and interview him. 'Cause he spent a lot of time with this fellow, and any information we can get - how much English he speaks, you know, does he smoke, does he drink - all these sorts of things would be helpful for any profile we're trying to build about him.

MARTIN: Victor Cha. He's the author of "The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Future." He's also a professor at Georgetown University. Professor Cha, thanks so much for coming in.

CHA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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