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The Ramifications Of Using A Chemical Weapon In Kim Jong Nam's Assassination


A backchannel meeting between the United States and North Korea scheduled for March in New York City has been canceled after the U.S. withdrew the visa for North Korea's envoy. This follows the assassination of the half-brother of North Korea's leader, apparently by a lethal nerve gas. We are joined now by Victor Cha of Georgetown University.

Thanks very much for being with us.

VICTOR CHA: It's my pleasure.

SIMON: According to The Wall Street Journal, you were supposed to be part of those talks. Can you confirm that?

CHA: Well, there were supposed to be what are called track II talks that were going to take place sometime next month. But those are not going to happen now, I think, largely because of this - the finding that it was this VX nerve agent that was used in this assassination.

SIMON: VX, that's a chemical banned in most countries but in - not in North Korea. So presumably, this can be traced to North Korea.

CHA: Yes. North Korea's one of just a handful of countries that has not signed onto the CWC, the Chemical Weapons Convention. And they have a large stockpile of VX and other chemical weapons that they have as a part of their military hardware.

SIMON: So you can confirm for us, Professor Cha, that there were supposed to be talks between the Trump administration and North Korea. You were going to be in them. But there won't be talks now.

CHA: Well, I wouldn't say they were talks between the North Koreans and the Trump administration...

SIMON: The United States of America.

CHA: Right. Track II is largely academics and experts on the U.S. side, some former U.S. government officials from different administrations. On the North Korean side, reportedly, the head of their delegation would have been a foreign ministry official who is dual-hatted as a think tank person. So that person would have been coming, presumably, in a track - what we call 1.5 capacity.

SIMON: Yeah. Professor, what's there to talk about if North Korea wants nuclear weapons and the U.S. and much of the world don't want them to?

CHA: It's a really good question. I think the - part of the idea is to be able, at least try to get back to some sort of dialogue. We're in a cycle now of North Korean missile tests, this assassination attempt. And on the side of the rest of the world we're in a cycle of sanctioning and U.S.-ROK, U.S.-South Korean military exercises coming up next month. So when all those things are happening, I think most people want at least some sort of dialogue channel open. Otherwise things could escalate pretty quickly. And I think that's mainly the purpose of trying to keep a dialogue channel open.

SIMON: Yeah. But is there anything the world realistically can offer North Korea if they are really intent on getting nuclear weapons and chemical weapons?

CHA: Yeah. You know, it's a great question. I think that the core of the problem is that they say that they pursue these weapons out of insecurity. So the logical thing is can the world provide them some sort of security? And in past agreements that I have participated in, we provided them security guarantees and offered to negotiate a peace treaty with them. The problem is I think the security - insecurity that they feel is generated by the regime itself. You know, these sorts of totalitarian regimes never feel secure. And that's the core problem.

SIMON: Because there's mass starvation. There's mass poverty. There's mass oppression.

CHA: Right. And that they - all those things, and that they don't rule by the consent of the legitimacy of the people. And that's the basic problem.

SIMON: Yeah. China has a role in this?

CHA: Yes. China is both part of the solution, in terms of putting more pressure on North Korea, but they're also part of the problem because they still consider North Korea to be an ally. And they don't want to put so much pressure on the regime that they risk collapsing it. About 85 percent of North Korea's external trade is with China. So if they feel like they put too much pressure on, they could completely destabilize the regime. And that worries them because they don't want a collapsing Korean Peninsula on their border.

SIMON: Victor Cha is director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Thanks so much for being back with us, professor.

CHA: Sure, it's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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