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Tensions continue to rise on the Korean peninsula after Monday's nuclear test by North Korea. The North Korean military says it will launch military strikes against South Korea if North Korean ships are stopped and searched at sea. The searches are part of a U.S. led operation to stop North Korea from hoarding weapons of mass destruction.
For the latest on the situation and what it means for security in the region, we spoke to Robert Pfaltzgraff, a professor of international politics at Tufts University and president of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis based both in Cambridge, Mass., and Washington.
This latest statement from North Korea promises a "powerful military strike" if vessels are searched or seized in the search for weapons of mass destruction. Do you think that's rhetoric or is it a serious threat from the North?
PROF. ROBERT PFALTZGRAFF: I'm not sure whether it's rhetoric or a serious threat, but we have no option but to halt any efforts on the part of North Korea to export nuclear weapons, to engage in nuclear proliferation. And that's one of the great fears that we have — and should have — from what has been happening in North Korea with regard to nuclear weapons.
What options do you think the U.S. and the United Nations have for dealing with these new threats considering that the North seems unphased by the threats of UN sanctions?
PFALTZGRAFF: Well first of all, we could impose much stricter sanctions than we have — with regard to finances, with regard to food aid — to North Korea. We could also press forward with missile defense. I would use a number of levers that we have against the North. And I would try to get the Chinese, through the idea of a Japanese nuclear capability, to put additional pressure that they're not prepared to do now on North Korea.
It's clear that the U.S. is trying to pressure both China and Russia to take a leading role in dealing with North Korea. Is North Korea likely to listen to China and/or Russia more so than the U.S.?
PFALTZGRAFF: The North Koreans would listen to China just because of the fact that China is so critically important to the very bad North Korean economy. I'm talking here about food that goes from China to North Korea. I'm talking about energy, electricity. There is a strong leverage element that North Korea would experience from a cutback in Chinese assistance to them.
In it's rhetoric in the last couple of days, the North says that it no longer considers itself bound by the armistice that ended the Korean War. What do you make of that?
PFALTZGRAFF: I believe that the North is attempting to put pressure on South Korea with this announcement, and in particular to destabilize the South Korean government. And to, in this case, to make a much stronger against the new government of South Korea — that is, the government of President Lee Myung-bak, who has taken a much stronger stance against North Korea than his predecessors did.
Is this the biggest international test so far of the Obama presidency, and how's he handling it?
PFALTZGRAFF: Well, it remains to be seen how he will handle it. However, it certainly is the greatest test so far. But, how he will handle it is yet to be seen and it doesn't appear so far that he's been handling it very well.
What hasn't he done that he needs to do?
PFALTZGRAFF: Well first of all, he needs to step up the missile defense efforts that have been cut back or are to be cut back under the current defense budget. Secondly, he needs to impose tougher sanctions against North Korea. And thirdly, he needs to indicate to North Korea that the United States is not prepared to go back into six party talks with the North Koreans and to go through the same process that repeatedly has led us to where we are now with North Korea.
And this is something that has been a problem in administrations of both parties — the Bush administration in its last two years and now the Obama administration. That is, rewarding or not punishing the behavior of North Korea.
This program aired on May 27, 2009.
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