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North Korea scraps peace agreement with South
Jim Middleton speaks with Dr Chung Min Lee, a former adviser to South Korean President Park Geun-hye during her election campaign, about North Korea's declaration that the ceasefire agreement between the two Koreas is null and void.

It's no surprise that North Korea escalated its hostile rhetoric as South Korea began a new round of joint military exercises with the United States.

The north is threatening to wipe out parts of the south, in addition to its announcement that it had unilaterally scrapped the armistice agreement that has helped maintain an uneasy peace since the end of the Korean War.

Chung Min Lee is the dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul

He was a foreign affairs adviser to South Korean president Park Geun-hye during her election campaign, and until recently was a member of her transition team.
JIM MIDDLETON: Chung Min Lee, welcome to the program.


JIM MIDDLETON: Just how likely is it that Pyongyang will use the exercises as a pretext for some form of retaliatory military action?

DR CHUNG MIN LEE: Well I think they're using the key resolve exercise, which began you know on the 11th and which goes to the 21st and this is an issue which is really not new. In other words, Pyongyang can find all sorts of excuses to launch provocations on South Korea, and this basically is one provocation which they feel they can use. And I believe that they will do so for either a political or some type of a light military provocation, but of course nobody really knows for sure what is going on in the minds of Kim Jong-un and his leadership in Pyongyang today.

JIM MIDDLETON: Just how significant or is it not that Pyongyang has declared the ceasefire agreement null and void, again, and also shut down at least some of the hot lines between North and South Korea?

DR CHUNG MIN LEE: That's a very good point, because obviously they're taking their markers step by step. Previously, from about 10, 15 years ago, they have said the same thing over and over again. We will not abide by the armistice agreement. But today they made it very clear that legally speaking the armistice agreement no longer exists. But of course, the UN Security Council rebutted them and said there's no way that North Korea can unilaterally withdraw from the armistice agreement. So that's a minor point.

As you also recall, the North Koreans have lambasted the South Koreans for the exercise for a number of other issues. And they're saying there would no longer be any normal relations between the new government of Park Geun-hye and of course Kim Jong-un. They're using this as a protection and they'll take political other or types of action.

As far as South Korea is concerned, the armistice remains in place. And if they don't want to talk to us, we'll find other avenues of communication.

JIM MIDDLETON: Here's something I do find curious. You have close connections to the new president of South Korea. During the election campaign she promised a more moderate stance towards Pyongyang than her predecessor, and yet her election has been followed by more intense provocation from the North. That does seem counterintuitive.

DR CHUNG MIN LEE: You're absolutely right, because all the signals that Madame Park, at that time as candidate, sent over to Pyongyang was quite positive. But you recall last December they launched a long-range missile. They test fired of course the third nuclear test this year. And so that was the welcome that Pyongyang had for the new administration here in South Korea, which convinces me deep down inside Kim Jong-un really has no desire to have a major political breakthrough with the South Korean government.

What they're looking for is an excuse to get more aid, particularly cash in kind, which the new government is not going to provide to the North Koreans. So this is a ploy as far as I'm concerned, but the president has said through her unification minister just yesterday, if North Korea wants dialogue and cooperation, the door is always open, even as they're threatening South Korea today.

JIM MIDDLETON: But isn't conducting a nuclear test the one thing that would antagonise all the other players and simply prevent the resumption of aid either in cash or kind?

DR CHUNG MIN LEE: You're absolutely right. And I think all of your viewers in Australia should also know this point, namely, China is the biggest benefactor of North Korea. They provide 70 per cent of fuel and food to North Korea. I think if you look at the Xi Jinping, the new president and leader of China today, the North Korean issue is now one of his biggest foreign policy headaches. And so the Chinese really have to make a concerted effort to make that North Korea makes the right choice. And thus far Beijing has supported, for example, the newest round of sanctions imposed on North Korea by the UN.

So North Korea has gone against China, it has gone against the four major powers around the Korean peninsula and of course the international community. It has bitten the hand that feeds it.

JIM MIDDLETON: It does seem that by the by, the new sanctions will not work unless China treats them seriously. Do you believe that Beijing will impose these sanctions rigorously with some rigour?

DR CHUNG MIN LEE: I think the Chinese will try to follow the spirit of the sanctions, but whether they'll take unilateral steps that remains to be seen.

The Chinese are extremely careful when it comes to North Korea. On the one hand, North Korea is one of their closest allies, they don't want to basically push North Korea on in into the corner. But on the other hand they realise that if they coddle North Korea too much, the international community will no longer respect the PRC (People's Republic of China) for the great powers that it is. China basically stuck between a rock and a hard place.

In the longer term, the most important sanctions that would hurt North Korea is finding out those secret bank accounts in China and elsewhere that's held by the North Korean regime. If the Chinese are able to go down that route that, will really hurt the Pyongyang government.

JIM MIDDLETON: Do you think they will?

DR CHUNG MIN LEE: At some point in time if that is the only leverage the Chinese have, they will of course use other means first, but that final option that, that final super sanction, as it were, is not going to be considered for quite some time. But as I told you, the president of China, Mr Xi Jinping is going to realise that the same old business as usual model when it comes to North Korea is no longer working in the interests of China's longer term foreign policy and economic interests here in the region.

JIM MIDDLETON: I do notice that there has been commentary in China that Beijing should not join the US camp and make North Korea China's enemy. On the other hand, an academic at the Communist Central Party School has written that China should consider abandoning North Korea. Is there something of a debate going on within the hierarchy in Beijing about how to handle North Korea, do you think?

DR CHUNG MIN LEE: That's a really brilliant question. And I think the answer is: on the outside, from the outside looking in, there is debate going on within the academia in China, policy specialists and so forth, but the debate within the realms of government and the party that's something we don't know. But there are nuances, there are ad hoc comments that really did not appear as early say two or three years ago.

In other words, there are signals that the party is becoming very frustrated with the steps North Korea has taken. For example, you know, the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung's grandson also said that North Korea should no longer go down the path of nuclear weaponry. Imagine the political symbolism of Mao's grandson telling the Chinese press that's what North Korea should do.

So there are signals the Chinese are send together outside world but that signal should not be construed a far flung debate within the halls of Chinese power.

JIM MIDDLETON: Chung Min Lee, thank you very much.

DR CHUNG MIN LEE: Thank you.
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